Policy blog

How women like Emma are helping others to speak out

What do a 26-year-old Irish woman, a 46-year-old mother from central Somerset, and a woman from Trowbridge have in common? They all made the choice to come forward and speak out about the abuse they’ve been living with – some for over 20 years.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve seen some very powerful testimony – both on social media and using traditional channels – from women who looked for a platform to tell their story. Emma Murphy from Dublin shared a video of herself, with a black eye, explaining how her ex-partner punched her in the face. She thought long and hard before posting the video, but she hopes it will inspire other women around the world to realise that "violence is not the answer". A woman from central Somerset is still too scared to be named as she outlines the horrors of living for 23 years with her abusive husband. She left the relationship thanks to the support from her friend and now decided to tell her story, after another friend, Lisa Winn, was stabbed to death in Glastonbury. And Sonia Saxby has waived her anonymity as she shares graphic pictures of her face after a beating.

So why did these women choose to speak up? They all name similar reasons: to raise awareness, to help others detect signs of domestic abuse before it’s too late, and to inspire those living with abuse to speak out by showing them that they can be safe and build a better life for themselves.

And they are not alone. Right now, 100,000 people in England and Wales are at risk of being seriously harmed or murdered by their partner. And they’re not the only ones at risk – 130,000 children live with this abuse too. Emma Murphy, Sonia Saxby, the unnamed woman from Somerset – they all tell a story that is, sadly, all too familiar for anyone working in the sector. All too often women don’t recognise what is happening to them as domestic abuse. The abuse gets worse. And the children growing up with this kind of harm continue to live with its damaging effects.

In this sector so many of us try to empower women and give them a voice. And here they speak about their experiences so openly, so honestly, of their own accord. Clearly, each of these women made a balanced decision and did what they felt was right and safe for them. We know that there are thousands of other families who are unable to speak up, for whom it’s not safe to so do, who would put themselves at risk by doing so. And that makes the testimony even more powerful – it's the voice of all victims – both visible and hidden.

What we hear endlessly, even from those experiencing severe levels of abuse, is that so many women just don’t see themselves as being in an abusive relationship. Often, sadly sometimes when it’s too late, we hear friends and families saying “I wish I had recognised the signs, I wish I had helped”. Our research shows that 85% of victims sought help five times on average from professionals in the year before they got effective help to stop the abuse*. Each contact represents a chance for us to help the victim disclose and get support – a chance that was missed, leaving the family to live with abuse for longer. By speaking out, women like Emma and Sonia make the issue of domestic abuse impossible to ignore.



*In the year before they got effective help:

  • Four in five high-risk victims (78%) and two-thirds of medium-risk victims (62%) reported the abuse to the police

  • Nearly a quarter of high-risk victims (23%) and one in ten medium-risk victims went to an accident and emergency department because of their injuries. In the most extreme cases, victims reported that they attended A&E 15 times.

When did the conversation change?

When I was in my early and mid-teens I talked to my friends about boyfriends. A lot. Spurred on by it all being new and exciting (plus occasional doses of Archers and lemonade, Salt 'N'Pepa and More magazine) we talked about preferences, kissing styles, what he said, what I said, his clothes, his phonecalls, positions, how/what he smoked, whether he acted differently around his mates...

I realised when I read this article about a woman isolated from friends and family by her abusive partner that it's a long time since I've had a conversation like that. I can't pinpoint exactly when it happened. But as relationships got more serious and a sense of loyalty and privacy developed, the conversations changed.

I also realised this is, not exclusively, but particularly true of my friends who have children. Somewhere along the way, I or they or both of us started seeing them more in the context of parenting than their relationship(s). It hasn't been a conscious decision, but I realise when I reflect on it that I'd be more hesitant asking about their relationship. To intrude on a family seems somehow more invasive than gossiping about being a couple.

I love my friends, and though we spend less time together now than when we were teenagers or in our early 20s, we're still close. So it surprises me to realise there are some topics we've tucked away off limits – apart from plenty of affectionate jokes about who does or doesn't cook, watch too many rubbish films or spend enough time sharing the personal admin. Maybe we collectively worry that to talk more openly and honestly would expose doubts or concerns. After all, weren't we all taught about "happy ever after", in which that's not really allowed?

Maybe it's just me. Either way, I've resolved to change it. I would want a friend to tell me if something was wrong, so I resolve not to propagate the myth that everything is fixed at that moment we stare into someone's eyes and commit to having a baby (or even a sofa) together.

Marac - making it work for real

I needed my Idva to literally negotiate with all these people [at Marac] on my behalf… grab them by the scruff of the neck and make them understand the situation, which she did.


It was with great interest that I read an article in yesterday’s Guardian, which asked: “Domestic violence: are Maracs making a difference to victims' lives?”.

So, let me be upfront. SafeLives has been championing the Marac/Idva response for the last ten years. The approach works because victims get the 1:1 support they need, in the knowledge that local agencies are pooling resources and working together to help them live in safety. It also means professionals can get a thorough, multi-agency response to the domestic abuse cases they’re most worried about. While Marac is not a magic wand, it’s still the only national platform we have which offers this kind of targeted support.

The Guardian piece reflects on the findings of a recent study of a Marac in the north of England. We’re told that it’s an area which sees a high volume of cases. This is no surprise – in the last five years, the number of cases being heard each year at Maracs in the UK has shot up from 45,581 to 78,144. That’s a staggering rise of over 70%.

Marac works to cut the risk faced by families living with domestic abuse, and ensure their individual needs are met. In a time of ever-dwindling resources, the implication of managing more referrals is a real concern.

But here at SafeLives, we know the approach is worth it. Done properly, Maracs and Idvas make women and children safe. So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little rattled when the article calls for “evidence that the time, effort and commitment of Marac attendees makes a difference”. Our research shows that the abuse stops for more than 6 in 10 victims supported by an Idva and a Marac. 71% say they feel safer. And more than two-thirds say their quality of life has improved since they got help.

But what our research proves is that this response only works for victims when it’s properly supported and resourced. The Marac is a model – it’s not a miracle. This goes for Idvas too. A Marac without Idva support is like a ship without a sail, and to see them in isolation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the high-risk approach. A single Marac meeting gives the chance to share valuable information and create an action plan which makes families living with abuse safer. But it would never be enough without the continuous support offered to the victim by the Idva – before, during and beyond Marac.

Idvas are highly adept advocates and experts in domestic abuse, and are there to be the voice of the victim. This means they hold the Marac to account, and make sure the wishes of the women they support are acted on so they can be safe. But when the number of Idvas is just half what’s actually needed, it stands to reason that those that are in post are seeing twice as many cases as they can manage.

It’s easy to see how Marac has become a victim of its own success. Agencies can see it as “just another meeting” and, even when attendance is good, caseloads can still be high. In spite of this, the vast majority of victims referred to Marac are very high-risk. And to me this just emphasises the need for the framework to exist – without Maracs and Idvas, many of these families would receive no help at all.

As the saying goes, domestic abuse is everyone’s business. Marac practitioners tell us that, when agencies see the difference the Marac has made to the life of a family, they get why it’s worthwhile. And it’s this commitment and understanding that keeps families safe. We know because victims tell us so.

I received so much support because of the Marac. Without it, I’d still be in a violent relationship now.



Domestic violence: the most serious child safeguarding concern

Not our words – but those of the police inspectorate. Today they published their inspection of the police response to child protection – and in the inspector’s own strong words:

The police service must reassess their approach to child protection - or risk failing a new generation of children. […] The response to reports of offences against children - ranging from online grooming to domestic abuse - was inadequate.

Their report tells a story that’s all too familiar to professionals working with victims and families. Police officers responding to domestic abuse who don’t check that the children in the home are okay. Children not being considered victims and not given the chance to tell their own story, in a separate room from their parents.

Here at SafeLives, we’re passionate about taking a whole-family approach to ending domestic violence – one which supports every member of the family to make sure the abuse stops. The reason for this is simple: we know from our research that 2 in 3 children who live with domestic abuse are directly harmed themselves – and in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator is the same.

There are some positives in the report. Child protection agencies now better understand how domestic abuse in the home contributes to an increased level of risk for the child. Most police forces also now have a system for assessing danger to the child in domestic violence cases.

But the report also highlights serious areas for improvement. Of the estimated 1.8 million children living with domestic abuse, only a small number are actually known to the police or child protection agencies – something we’ve highlighted before. From our data we know that just 50% of children living with high-risk domestic abuse are known to children’s services.

Perhaps most worryingly, the report notes that even where they take action to help an adult victim, the police and other agencies don’t always follow up to make sure a child living with domestic abuse is safe. It is crucial that forces get this right – our data shows that the police are twice as likely as any other service to be in contact with children living domestic abuse.

The report has several recommendations for police forces on how they can get better at keeping children safe – and it’s great that the first of these argues for better staff awareness of the effect of domestic abuse on children. It also calls for agencies to work more closely together to get better at keeping children safe, and for better recording of children’s views and concerns.

Acknowledging the link between ending domestic abuse and protecting children is only the first step – but it’s an important one. Still too often the impact of domestic abuse on children is not appreciated, even where agencies (rightly) try to help the adult victim.

But identifying victims and referring them for help isn’t enough when there just aren’t enough good services out there for children who’ve lived with domestic abuse – and even fewer where that help links to the support available for their parent.

The next step is to make sure every child and every adult victim gets the right help as quickly as possible, no matter where they live or who they are ask for help. Only then will victims and their children be able to get safe and stay safe in the long term.

By Tom.Ash

Crossing borders - risk and information sharing on the continent

I recently spent a few days in Murcia, southern Spain. I'd been invited to talk about the UK model of responding to high-risk domestic violence and abuse and to compare that with ”Proyecto Core”, a series of EU-funded projects in the region.

There was lots to celebrate about the level of international co-ordination and co-operation achieved in the years this project has been running. The Spanish regions involved are working hard to implement a network of dedicated, professional advisors who can co-ordinate the support that a victim needs when they seek help. The Idva model is in its infancy here but is being embraced with enthusiasm by support services and other champions of improvement.

The audience of around 150 people was also keen to talk about 'co-ordination tables', the local approximation of Marac. I was asked about how a victim is represented, how the level of information sharing is determined and kept safe, and how co-ordination tables could work for areas with small, geographically spread populations. There was a presentation by the Guardia Civil talking about risk assessment in a way that felt familiar and reasonably well developed.

I was disappointed to find, then, that international co-ordination still has its limits. A support worker in the audience asked me about a survivor who was in her refuge. This British woman has successfully escaped a viciously abusive relationship with a man in the UK. He has tracked her down, and is now harassing her in Spain. The Spanish police wanted to help, but had asked for evidence of previous abuse so they could act. The hold up? Health officials in the UK were unwilling to release the women's medical records to her. Her own medical records!

Speaking to people afterwards I found out that this struggle to access (your own) personal data once out of the country is far from exceptional. Leave aside the madness of being refused your own data and consider how arbitrary it is to draw a boundary line at Folkestone or Stockport or any other end point of the British Isles. A flight between Spain and the UK can be bought for less than £80, and the internet has no borders. Recent EU legislation has recognised just that and Europol was explicitly designed to help police forces across Europe co-operate. Support for victims and the tackling of perpetrators should live up to these ideals.

I was encouraged by lots of what I saw and heard in Spain but as ever, there's a lot more to do.