29th May 2015
Charlotte* is an Idva – a specialist domestic violence worker – who has spent the past three years working with people who are at high- risk of injury or murder from their current or ex-partner. We spoke to her about the highs and lows of being an Idva and how the role has changed her life.
Let’s start with the obvious question - why did you become an Idva?
It was a complete accident, but a wonderful one. Becoming an Idva was something I hadn’t planned. When I applied I didn’t have any frontline experience – I was working in a women’s organisation in London. I’ve always identified as a feminist and wanted to work in a sector with women’s rights at its core.
I got a call from a friend working in the organisation about a job she thought I’d be really good at. So I contacted the CEO and she agreed to interview me. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was an amazing opportunity – I now appreciate how difficult it is to get your foot in the door.
How did the work play out to start with then?
I felt as though I had been thrown in at the deep end. When I came in, I took over a full caseload straight away. I did some shadowing of my colleagues to see how they were doing it. I had high expectations of myself in the first six months, so I really challenged myself around what I could do.
At the very start I thought “there’s no way I can do this” – I was dealing with really hard subject matter, working with agencies that weren’t necessarily aware of the risk of domestic abuse. But I loved it and found that I was actually good at that hard stuff.
Have you been on a SafeLives Idva course?
Yes, I completed the course last year and it was great. I had an incredibly diverse and busy caseload – I had lots of clients, attended two Maracs covering two very different areas, and I had several very challenging and complex cases involving substance misuse. The course really helped me to think about all of that. It reaffirmed a lot of the knowledge I already had and taught me new things at the same time.
Do you have a case that you’re particularly proud of?
Can I use two examples? I worked with one very high-risk case recently - a woman who was seeing a substance misuse worker, but she’d never had support with her domestic violence situation. We built a relationship and she eventually started disclosing the abuse to me. It wasn’t exactly your standard case, but I was proud to have been able to reach out to her and work alongside other agencies so that she could get help.
Another case I’m proud of involved high-risk domestic abuse and stalking. We worked hard with the Crown Prosecution Service on the restraining order and the client was a lot safer as a result.
Is there a case where you wish someone had done something sooner?
Probably all of them! The most challenging cases are the ones where you can see there were routes in for different agencies to help, but they didn’t respond so the client felt disengaged.
What are the other challenges you’ve experienced – personal and professional?
There is the feeling that I can never do enough for my clients, which increases with a high caseload. I am very lucky that my service has quite a strict cap on caseloads. But even so some days I used to open three or four referrals and keep cases open for longer than I perhaps should in order to keep supporting the client. That meant at some points I had huge numbers of clients and I wanted to do as much as possible for all of them, which was incredibly emotionally draining. It took me a very long time to realise how to deal with that. It’s easy to reflect back now and be rational about what were reasonable expectations, but at the time I was very emotionally tied up in my work.
It doesn’t happen any longer, because I have good clinical supervision and support from within my team. However, during my first year I did allow the casework to really drain me, which really affected me outside of work. Now of course I’m much better at managing my caseload, talking to my manager and taking time out for myself when I need it.
Do you have any techniques or strategies for coping with the strains of your work?
I make sure to do plenty outside of work, like running, playing games and talking about things other than trauma. In this line of work a lot of people want to talk to me about it, so it’s important to place boundaries around that. Friends and family ask because they’re concerned about me, but I’d rather chat about other topics.
And if I start thinking about work when I’m at home, I visualise closing my diary and locking it in a drawer.
Is the work rewarding, despite the stress?
Incredibly so. My team is amazing. The work has pushed me to recognise parts of my character that I would never have known about. What’s kept me going has been my emotional journey alongside the job I’ve been doing.
The clients I help have strength beyond measure, and being able to add my voice to theirs is an incredible privilege.
Looking back, what would you recommend to those involved with setting policy?
Spend more time with people who work on the frontline. I know that at SafeLives you do that and it forms the core of your research and policy work. Local authorities and certainly commissioners should listen to services. Politicians don’t fully recognise the work that’s being done around domestic abuse and the social value it adds. They have to understand the need to address perpetrators’ behaviour. They need to consider the dynamics of the society we live in, but that won’t happen until the political system honours and values the work that people on the ground do.
Specialist workers like Charlotte are lifelines for victims of domestic abuse. That’s why at SafeLives we’ve trained more than 1,800 Idvas in the past ten years – but we still have only half the capacity we need nationally to make ending domestic abuse a reality. If you want to find out more about the work that Idvas do, you can read more here.