Practice blog

Why Scotland should be proud of its Idaas

The memory of my first day as an independent domestic abuse advocate (Idaa) is a vivid one. Feelings of excitement and nerves mixed anxiously with the knowledge that this was an opportunity to make a difference in the lives of those experiencing domestic abuse.

I quickly learned that in order to be an effective Idaa I’d have to operate in an ever-changing landscape of risk, safety planning and multi-agency working. On a daily basis I would be faced with accounts of the very worst examples of human behaviour. So there’s no denying it’s an intense job, but with the challenge comes the reward of building and sustaining trusting relationships with victims – giving them space to feel safe enough to tell their story (often for the first time) and knowing that after a disclosure, you have the capability to increase a client’s safety and sense of wellbeing.  

But seeing a client make a decision they didn’t feel capable of previously, understanding for the first time that they are not responsible for the abuse they’ve experienced, and witnessing their children start to thrive – these are the things which make being an Idaa a true privilege.

Creating change

With the role being so specialised and unique, it makes sense that there’s a specific qualification and accreditation for it. In the past two years, Scottish Women’s Aid, Community Safety Glasgow’s ASSIST and SafeLives have been bringing together Idaas from different organisations across Scotland to provide just that – a qualification which solidifies existing skills and knowledge with up-to-date research and a model of best practice.

I had the pleasure last month of taking part in an event hosted by Scottish Government to celebrate the achievements of this fantastic Idaa training and mark the start of 16 days of action. And celebrate we did, with informative and at times emotive accounts of the challenges which were overcome to design the training, how it was delivered and the impact it’s had on practice. It was also very reassuring to hear the Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Michael Matheson’s commitment to addressing domestic abuse and his praise for the Idaa training. I was very lucky to be able to grab ten minutes at the end of the day to share the scope of the Marac development programme in Scotland with so many familiar and friendly faces in the audience.

175 trained Idaas is a fantastic achievement within itself, but the training has also created a powerful hub of individuals. They’re facilitators of change, equipped with the skills and knowledge to effectively support victims and highlight the challenges in doing so within their own organisations, thus improving service delivery.

The role of Maracs

I’m very keen to find ways to facilitate and develop this network of Marac professionals across Scotland in my role as Marac development officer, to find a way to tap into the ongoing buzz about the Idaa role and their importance at Marac.

It’s a big undertaking to represent a client at a multi-agency risk assessment conference – an intense and fast-paced meeting where risk is identified and mitigated through safe information sharing and effective action planning.

Idaas are a vital part of the process, as Maracs will only be effective when they include the voice of the victim. The Idaa has a unique opportunity to make agencies aware of the client’s fears about abuse, the impact it’s having and what their expectations are. An Idaa will also ensure that victim safety remains the focus of the meeting, and they’ll provide feedback and continue to coordinate the safety plan after the meeting.

What next?

When I think back to my time as an Idaa, I’m reminded that the stories I heard and the experiences of the clients that I supported have a huge impact on the decisions I make now as a Marac development officer. I’m also reminded of a client who once told me that the risk assessment and Marac referral were great, but the best thing was that I was ‘on her side’ which made her daily challenges a little easier.

As a Marac development officer, I have an opportunity to not only influence the performance of Maracs across Scotland, but also to make sure I’m on the side of the Idaa, supporting them in their role at Marac and ensuring they have access to a wider network of colleagues who, just like them, are navigating risk, safety planning and multi-agency working, and making a real difference in the lives of those experiencing domestic abuse.  

Find out more

Do you attend Marac in Scotland? Get in touch to find out how SafeLives’ Marac development programme can help you or visit the SafeLives knowledge hub for more info.

We’re also delighted to announce that, from 2016, SafeLives will be running specialist training specifically for service managers working in Scotland. Find out more and apply today.

Are you ready for the coercive control law?

“He used to hide either  5, 6 or 7 marked pound coins around the house - only he knew how many - and if I hadn’t got the right amount in my hand when he came home from work then he knew I hadn’t done enough  thorough cleaning and I would suffer.”

“It wasn’t just that I was walking on eggshells … I was making too much noise doing so.”

“He used to make me parade around the house naked in front of the children.  They saw my bruises, he wanted them to see what he had done.  I was so embarrassed and so was my teenage son.”

“Quite simply I lost the ability to choose.”

Coercive control comes in many guises. The new law making the coercive control of another in an intimate or family relationship illegal is due to come into force shortly. An important question we should all be asking is “am I ready as a professional to recognise the offence and support someone experiencing it?”

You’ll need to be familiar with the legislation if you want to support your client in reporting the matter to the police. The legislation has sections covering who can be a victim and who can be an offender. It covers how those people may be related and what their living circumstances are. It states what coercive and controlling behaviour looks like and the effects it has to have had to be an offence. It gives defences to the offence and states which type of indictment the offender must be convicted via to receive the maximum punishment of 5 years imprisonment.

Also, how will you find out if this offence is occurring in a household?

  • Firstly it will be important to look and listen. Listen and look out for signs of a generalised sense of fear. A generalised sense of fear comes from feeling like everything one does and every decision one makes will have a negative outcome and likely violent or abusive repercussions. This disables victims from making everyday choices and completing everyday tasks and creates doubt in their ability to do almost anything well or even adequately.
  • Secondly look out for manipulation by the perpetrator of the victim, children, bystanders and professionals alike. The perpetrator may pose as the victim, they may accuse the victim of substance misuse or of having mental health issues.
  • Thirdly look for patterns of behaviour which seem to erode a victim’s personality, dignity, autonomy and character. Look for unusual signs between the victim and their perpetrator - signs which, though subtle, cause the victim to act immediately and appear anxious and fearful. This might be a look, a gesture or in fact anything which may be unnoticed by others but will be a sign for the victim and/or children to obey.
  • Lastly ask the right question. Asking “what happened?” is unlikely to unlock the victim enough to tell you about the coercive control they are suffering. Events such as enforced prostitution or walking around the home backwards, eating from a dog’s bowl, punishing a child on behalf of the perpetrator (these are all real narratives from victims) will not be disclosed by asking a “what happened” question. It’s important to ask lifestyle questions such as “what’s life like for  you?”, “tell me what’s the first thing you think about when you wake up in the morning?” and “tell me about what you do in this relationship that you would not normally choose to do but are too scared not to?” These will illicit lifestyle answers which will help you uncover abuse like coercive control.

It’s really important not to show judgement in your reactions to a victim’s disclosures. It can be extremely difficult and frightening for victims of this kind of abuse to say out loud what’s going on at home. To admit that the first thing they think about when they wake up is how scared they are that having sex with other men at their partner’s insistence will leave them with sexual health problems. Or to describe their anxiety about how to tell the other mums in the playgrounds that they can’t stop and chat as they’re being timed when out of the house - and that they’re being forced to hold the stopwatch themselves. All of this is so hard to talk about.

We will at last be able to hold perpetrators of coercive and controlling behaviour accountable for their actions. So come on, let’s be ready when the law comes into force. 

Women and children are still dying - I can't walk away from that

Ceri, an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor, shares her story.

Today, we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I commend any campaign to raise awareness of domestic violence, but for me - this is my every day.

I work as an 'Idva'. I expect you haven't come across this term before (you pronounce it like it's spelt). It means Independent domestic violence advisor - which is a fancy way of saying I help victims of domestic abuse.

When someone seeks help, there are a huge number of services they might need. Housing, civil and criminal courts, the police, benefits advice, probation services, parenting programmes, mental health support workers, substance misuse workers, refuges, children and young people's services, their GP - I could go on. Imagine, finding the courage to finally leave, feeling vulnerable and afraid, nervous about what the future might hold - and you have to try and navigate that lot.

So that's where we Idvas come in. I was trained by the national charity SafeLives to navigate all these different services for my clients, to understand domestic abuse and how it might influence emotions and decisions.

I'll quickly run you through a normal day 'at the office'. I start work at about 8am: reading about new referrals (from the police, social services, and charities), liaising with other professionals and checking on the events of my current clients. At the moment, I have about 45 cases (twice as many as recommended) so there is a lot to get through.

I might get to my first client by 9.30am or so, if they're a new referral I will be with them for about two hours. I carry out a risk-assessment, and from there establish their needs. We create a tailored safety and support plan. Every plan is unique - they might need the security of their home addressed, they may need to leave or move home, they may need to talk to their GP, they may have to go to court.

Whatever is needed we work it out together, carefully planning small steps to freedom.

I could then see up to another three cases that day. I work in a rural area so cover about 400 miles a week. Finding time for paperwork and training can be tough, but it's essential I stay up to date with the latest procedure or piece of legislation.

With many of my cases now being ineligible for legal aid, we've been given guidance in 'DIY injunctions' for family courts. The thing about lack of legal aid is that the perpetrator can also self-represent - meaning the shocking situation of a victim being cross-examined by the perpetrator can occur. I can leave you to your own conclusions about what that might mean for a victim's safety or well-being.

I would love more time with my clients. I would love more training in how to meet their needs and therefore reduce the risk to them. Victims of domestic abuse are as complex and diverse as the rest of us - and the more I can understand individual needs, the more I can tailor their support and increase our chances of getting them safe.

We all know a victim of domestic abuse, because it doesn't just happen to one sort of person. And the more we allow that misconception to stick, the more people will remain hidden from view. People don't realise they're living with domestic abuse because they might not have a black eye - but they are being emotionally abused, financially controlled, bullied and coerced. They live in fear of their partner's reaction - and yet they are also fearful of the consequences of telling someone. Will he/she be arrested? Will their child be taken away? Will they bring shame on the family? Nothing is simple.

And of course many victims do have the physical scars to show for it. Each year there are 100,000 victims at high-risk of being seriously injured or killed in the UK. And those are the ones we know about. And that is why I do the job - women and children are still dying. And I can't walk away from that.

I have worked in many roles supporting families, and the one thing that came up time and time again was violence and abuse in intimate relationships. It has such impact on the entire family. I used to think the only way to make children safe was to work with the parents - now I know the only way is to work with the whole household; that might also meaning advising the perpetrator to get help from specialist groups to address their behaviour.

It is about challenging what is unacceptable behaviour and informing, teaching and supporting positive ways forward. If I was PM, I'd have healthy relationships in the curriculum, because we have to help children understand how to treat one another. Children grow into adults, and continue to live with the cycle of abuse.

Some days - I think I could just go and have a 'normal' job. They say you can't be an Idva forever, you'll burn out, it's just too emotionally and physically exhausting. I'm still going strong after six years. I stay because of the clients: they've lived without choices or freedom for months, years, sometimes decades. Our training means we can start to give our clients options.

My job is to show our clients we're working for them, not against them. For many, it's hard for them to get their head around that - they've haven't had anyone on their side for so long.

This blog also features on the Huffington Post as part of their coverage for the UN's International Day for the Elimation of Violence Against Women.

Why review regularly? Domestic abuse and good case management

As an assessor on the Leading Lights programme, I visit services all around the country to see how they work. It’s a real privilege to be welcomed into organisations, to speak to staff, and to look in detail at the work they do every day to help clients stay safe and recover from abuse. Everywhere I go I see innovative ideas, meet dedicated staff and read about the experiences of clients and the intensive support they receive.

A key area that we assess as part of Leading Lights is the use of risk assessment, and it is in this area that I have recently started to notice patterns in how services implement the risk-led model. At SafeLives we talk a lot about this risk-led response, but how should you use it in practice?

Worth the hassle?

The Leading Lights standard asks you to assess risk with the client during the intake process using an evidence-based tool (This might be the SafeLives Dash or Acpo Dash, Merit etc). We then recommend that you review risk every 6-8 weeks, as well as when circumstances change and at closure. Some services also use the severity of abuse grid to provide context to the risk score, but we recommend that this is in addition to the full Dash, not instead of it.

I do get feedback from front line workers questioning whether it’s always worth reviewing the risk formally. They highlight the fact that - due to historical risk factors - the review Dash may not show a reduction in risk even though all safety planning options have been put in place. Some also feel that completing a full review of the Dash is not helpful for the client and that clients themselves are resistant to it.

So, why do we recommend a full review is completed with the client?

  • New risks can be identified and fed into the support & safety plan e.g. access to weapons, recent incidents, recent separation, pregnancy etc.
  • To identify where risk has reduced and help with case management
  • To provide evidence of defensible decision making in terms of scaling down support or case closure.
  • It creates a dialogue with the client and helps them to understand the risk posed to them by the perpetrator.
  • It will undoubtedly bring up other information that may otherwise be missed if those questions are not asked directly.

In cases where the service has tried to review the Dash but couldn’t contact the client or they declined, it should record this clearly on the case file and keep trying to make contact - but I have found that clients very rarely decline to answer the questions. Workers I have interviewed also say that a full review of the risk assessment empowers the client and allows them to feel in control of the risk they face. Where it can be shown that risk has reduced, it also helps them to see how far they have come on their journey.

Your client's safety - and yours

So what about those cases that some argue will always remain high-risk due to the static risk factors? Where the review still shows that the case is high-risk, even though all safety measures have been put in place?

In these cases, it is still important to have that information – and this is where the severity of abuse grid can help to provide context to the score. In cases where a client is ready for a longer term service but their risk assessment still shows they are high-risk, you can still refer them on. But you need to make clear on your case file the reasons for referral and tell the other agency what has been put in place to reduce the risk.

Sometimes workers tell me that they are constantly assessing risk on a daily basis and there is no need to formally review it. But if it is all in your head and not on your file, it is unsafe for you and unsafe for your client. We have to lead by example – if we want our midwives and police officers to be asking and acting, it is important that we are also comfortable to ask the questions.

It is worth noting that workers who feel most comfortable repeating the Dash have usually developed their own ways of conducting the assessment that are also comfortable for the client. For some the tool forms part of a wider conversation, whereas others find the direct approach works best for them – the appropriate technique to use will vary from client to client.

The final thing to remember in terms of risk assessment is that the checklist forms part of a whole risk-led response. What I love to see when I open a file is regular formal review of risk cross referenced in clear case notes, backed up by regular and robust case management with a supervisor and support plans that are SMART and kept up to date as the case progresses. Those three things a happy Leading Lights assessor makes.

Blink and you’ll miss it: innovative ways to help victims disclose abuse and seek help

One quality an effective independent domestic violence advisor (Idva) needs is the ability to think creatively about the support they offer their clients. They need to offer victims a range of opportunities to take that crucial first step towards help, and towards building a safer future that’s both sustainable and full of hope.

There have been a number of news stories recently about different initiatives to encourage victims to speak out – some more successful than others.  It got us thinking about the best examples we’ve seen and we’ve listed them below, in no particular order. Whether big or small, these are all inspiring.

But first, a disclaimer. What might be the ideal way to reach out to one client could be totally unsuitable for another.  A responsibility comes with identifying victims and, as the expert, it’s up to you to determine which approach is best. The victim’s safety is paramount and any potential risks should be considered at all times.

The Red Light app

A member of the SafeLives team here described this as “the best I’ve seen”. Vodaphone has developed an app for smartphones in Turkey which, when shaken, sends an SOS to three trusted contacts. But the app only works if kept secret, so the app’s developers hid information about it in the most ingenious ways. They chose places where the average man would never look – in female toilets, lingerie labels and deep inside video tutorials for hair and make-up.

While ideal for young people, clearly this is an app that plays on gender stereotypes and wouldn’t be suitable for those in LGBT relationships, nor those who don’t own a smartphone. But the ingenious methods the developers used to communicate the app – even changing their approach after 10 months to prevent it becoming too widely known – are truly inspiring and we think earns the app a place on the list.

Business cards

Having an inconspicuous way of giving people your service’s contact details is essential. Something as innocuous as a (fake) business card is less likely to raise the suspicions of the perpetrator.

This works best when services think carefully about the client group they support. The cards need to be believable – what type of organisation is a perpetrator least likely to call? This might be different for older clients, for those who identify as LGBT, or for men in abusive relationships. The benefit of business cards is that they’re relatively inexpensive to print, but you could also provide contact details on pens, membership cards, or even lip balm. A member of the team (who shall remain anonymous) said they used to print Avon calling cards! Not sure how Avon would feel about this though…


Similarly, we’ve seen lots of examples of services creating ‘barcode’ stickers. These replace the usual jumble of numbers with the phone number for their helpline. Clients can then stick the barcode to any item they might normally keep in their handbag – make up, a book,  hairbrush, a bottle of water – and discreetly retrieve it whenever they need to get in touch. Unlike a business card, this would also be accessible to clients for who don’t speak English as their first language.


If a picture’s worth a thousand words, it’s no wonder the world’s gone mad for emoji. In a recent survey by TalkTalk Mobile, 72% of 18-25 year olds said they found it easier to express their feelings in emoji symbols than text.

Earlier this year, a Swedish children’s charity launched a set of ‘abused emoji’ to help children and young people living with domestic abuse to seek help. With emoji being such a huge part of the way young people communicate, the app’s creators believe the icons could offer a first step to talking about their problems.

So that’s our top 4 examples of innovative ways of reaching out to victims and encouraging them to take their first brave step towards help. Perhaps you know of others?  We’d love to hear about them.