Anyone who’s worked with victims knows the situation. She’s sat in front of you, uncertain, nervous. You’re talking because she called the police last night after a violent incident with her ex. In the cold light of day, she’s not sure what to do – or even if it was right to call for help.
You give her plenty of time and space, working through her life story – but the questions you’re asking are hard. “Has he ever tried to strangle you?” “Has he threatened your kids?” “Do you feel safe?” From her answers it’s clear she’s in significant danger.
Getting help for domestic violence used to be a matter of first-come-first-served. But now, conversations like this happen all the time, across the country. The questions come from a tool called the Dash (the domestic abuse, stalking and honour-based violence risk checklist). It means we can spot victims who are at high risk of murder or serious harm – and get them the right help, fast.
Every police force uses the Dash (or something like it). Most domestic abuse specialists do too. And so do thousands of other professionals – housing officers, social workers, GPs, nurses, A&E staff and many more. It’s given workers who aren’t domestic abuse specialists the confidence to know what to do if they spot abuse. Now, 40% of referrals to multi-agency meetings (Maracs) for victims at high risk come from agencies other than the police – which is positive, given that many women don’t want to involve the police.
And that’s helping us find more and more victims. Over the last year, the number of cases of high-risk domestic abuse that we know about have gone up 18%. That’s around 8,400 additional victims that we can now help, rather than them being hidden.
It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the social sector: the evolution of a new evidence-based model, now implemented nationwide, that transformed how we deal with victims of domestic abuse. So it’s sad to see continued misunderstanding of the risk-led approach.
Some suggest that risk assessment is primarily about rationing. And it’s true that the UK does not yet have a system that finds every victim fast and get her the right help straightaway. We have just 50% of the specialist Idva numbers we need across England and Wales, and there are few extra resources to help the 8,400 extra high-risk victims who have come forward in the last year. Victims at medium or low risk still often don’t get much help. But that’s an argument for spending the money we have better and arguing for more – not abandoning the best universal tool we have to identify abuse.
We’d never claim that everyone uses the Dash in the same way. An Idva (domestic abuse specialist) will use it in an in-depth conversation, whereas a frontline housing officer may use it to make sure that someone she’s concerned about gets help from a specialist fast. And that’s fine. But there are still some who regard the Dash as red tape or just a tickbox exercise. We do need to reinforce how to use it properly – and we’re pleased that police forces are taking this more seriously since the 2014 HMIC inspection.
At its heart, a risk-led approach is the way to get the right help to each victim. The vast majority of high-risk victims experience physical injuries, strangulation, rape, stalking or extreme controlling behaviour like threats to harm children. Every domestic violence professional would choose to help these victims first – rather than asking them to wait their turn in a queue.
So that’s what a risk-based approach is: it’s about understanding the situation of that victim and her children – and then responding in a tailored way to them. Meeting their needs and reducing the risks they face. Not applying a one-size-fits-all intervention regardless of their circumstances.
SafeLives will continue to promote a risk-led approach to dealing with domestic abuse – one that evolves to meet more victims’ needs as we find out more about what works. And in the long run, we have to turn the UK’s approach on its head: rather than reacting to abuse by just helping the victim, we have to get involved to stop the perpetrator abusing her too. So that’s the next challenge: let’s start putting as much effort into making perpetrators stop as we do into helping victims escape.