Practice blog

It's our right to be safe at any age. How can we make it easier for older victims to get help?

Monsura Mahmud is a Domestic Abuse Prevention Adviser for the Silver Project, a specialist service for women aged 55 and over affected by domestic and sexual abuse. The project is run by Leading Lights-accredited Solace Women’s Aid and provides one-to-one support, as well as training professionals who come into contact with older victims.

In many ways, the impact of living with domestic abuse is the same for all victims – regardless of age. Everyone worries about not being believed, or having to live with the stigma of abuse. They worry about what will happen to them financially, if the abuse will get worse or what might happen to the perpetrator if they do speak out.

But for older victims, this fear can be exacerbated by a number of other factors. As professionals, being aware of these barriers allows us to better understand their fears and, as a result, take a more flexible and creative approach to support.

Older victims might not recognise what’s happening as abuse

It goes without saying that there is no ‘typical’ victim of abuse. But it’s normally younger women or families who are portrayed in leaflets, posters and campaigns. This is matched by a wider lack of services and resources which take into account the unique needs of older victims.

“I’m not sure whether I knew I was experiencing abuse. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish… it’s a very large word. There is financial, mental, verbal, economic and so much more. Some is invisible to the eye. Some has happened and some is still going on. It’s not always physical.”

They may be reluctant to talk about it

Generational attitudes towards relationships mean some older victims might accept the abuse as “the way it’s always been”. Older women may be from a time where it was not socially acceptable to talk about problems in their relationships; where women’s roles were confined to the home and divorce or separation were taboo.

This reluctance to talk about abuse can be exacerbated by victim-blaming among some professionals, which can be even more prevalent when a victim has lived with the abuse for a very long time. Too often, professionals make excuses for the abuser instead (“It can’t be that bad if she’s stayed with him that long”).

They don’t know about the help that’s available….

Services open and close so frequently, and the support that’s out there varies from one area to the next. If older people don’t have access to the internet or the skills to use modern technology, how will they know where to get help?

…Or have been let down in the past

If the abuse has been going on for a number of years, it’s likely that victims will have attempted to get help in the past. But if at every turn they fail to get the support they need, many may simply give up.

It took some time for me to access support. I started out by searching on the internet and I called several numbers. I was very isolated. It took a lot of persistence but eventually I found the Silver Project.

They may have health or mobility needs

Older women are statistically more likely than younger women to have health problems, reduced mobility or other disabilities which means their situation makes them more vulnerable to harm. This could also mean a loss of ability to communicate clearly if they’ve suffered a stroke, heart attack, have hearing loss or have experienced other chronic disorders. It could also mean they’re more isolated – both physically and socially.

Too often, professionals don’t consider domestic violence as an issue for older victims, and therefore don’t ask about it. They may assume that injuries, confusion, depression etc are the results of age-related conditions.

Another common barrier among those victims with health or mobility needs is that the perpetrator of the abuse is also their carer. This can lead them to become further isolated from friends, family and support. This is especially the case for victims who have depended on the perpetrator for much of their lives. They may also make threats to put the victim into a care home if they tell anyone about the abuse.

Family and friends aren’t supportive

Some adult children will be supportive of their parent and encourage them to leave or seek help. But others can create barriers by expecting women to stay, continuing to assume the carer role to an elderly father. The responsibility they place on themselves to be the carer of the abusive partner or child can also be too much.

They think it’s too late

We know that older victims are much more likely to live with abuse for prolonged periods of time. The thought of having to give up the home they’ve lived in for many years, leaving behind pets and treasured possessions, can be too much. After a lifetime of contributing to the family business, homes or other assets, many fear they will be left with nothing. And, too often, life can get in the way – the death of family or friends, birth of grandchildren, retirement, moving house – and victims can feel the time isn’t right to seek help.

Most of our lives have been settled, we would hope – working, raising a family, and so on… There is more emotion involved as you have a long history. There is just so much more at stake.

Find out more

In her next blog, Monsura examines some of the additional risk factors facing older victims and offers tips on how professionals can best support them.

Throughout July and August, we're focusing on domestic abuse as it affects older people. Join our free webinars, listen to our new podcast and more on the Spotlight webpage.

Marac peer review: my experience

This year, SafeLives launched a new peer review process to help local Maracs share expertise and get independent feedback on how they’re doing.

Thien Nguyen Phan, part of the Marac coordination team at Standing Together Against Domestic Violence, shares her experience as a peer reviewer.

In October 2015, SafeLives approached the team at Standing Together to pilot the new peer review process. Needless to say, we were thrilled!

We also agreed to trial the new Marac review tool – which replaces Marac self-assessment – so we could see the full benefits of the peer and Marac review processes together. One of the highlights of the ‘old’ self-assessment process was having our Marac Development Officer, Natalie Blagrove, visit us and impart her wealth of everything Marac, but the new Marac review tool looked decidedly attractive: interactive, user-friendly and quick.

What most motivated us to take part in the peer review pilot was the opportunity to get together with fellow Coordinators and experience first-hand how their Maracs work. We were really looking forward to seeing what we could learn from one another and the prospect of developing something useful for us all to use.

Getting started

Briony Redman, Standing Together’s Marac Data and Quality Assurance Officer, led on our participation in the pilot. From the first meeting with SafeLives on 6 November, things moved fast. Two of our Maracs, Haringey and Westminster, received observation visits from independent peer reviewers before going on to complete the online Marac review questionnaire. Meanwhile, Standing Together observed Camden and Wandsworth Maracs as peer reviewers. All reviews, peer review feedback reports and evaluation forms were submitted to SafeLives a month later.

The whole pilot was very well-organised from the start by SafeLives, who ensured everyone was linked in with one another as effectively as possible, and that we all had access to the right tools and resources.

As a peer reviewer, I found the guidance well-explained, supportive, and easy to use. The observation tool had been designed so I could carry out my review case-by-case with plenty of space to record notes. This meant that I had everything I needed when it came to writing up my observation report and could give Camden Marac specific examples of what they were doing well, as well as suggesting particular areas for development.

Combining the peer review and Marac review processes

Both the observation report and the Marac review tools are structured around the 10 Principles of an Effective Marac. This means that the feedback the Marac receives through the peer review process can be easily incorporated into the Marac review too.

At my home Marac, we shared the observation report with our representatives before we began the Marac review. It gave everyone an extra perspective on the things we were doing well and the areas that needed improvement, and meant we were extra prepared when it came to the full review.

A new point of view

I was with Camden Marac for less than a morning but learned so much from the observation. I had so many burning questions that I wish I could have spent more time there. There was so much to appreciate, so much to absorb!

But the biggest highlight of the peer review process has been seeing another Marac at work – hearing the different actions being offered, finding out about invaluable local resources and picking up some great tips.

And there was something more. Being a peer reviewer helped me realise how far the Marac process has come in the last decade.  Seeing all those Marac representatives coming together, not always with the perfect information, not always with the perfect action plan, but with such an unmistakeable desire to talk to one another and work together, helped me realise how much has been accomplished, despite all the challenges that remain.

As I completed my observation report, principle by principle, point by point, I realised that no matter how different each Marac may look on the surface, our ambitions are always the same: to make victims safer. Our resources may differ, but we share the same struggles. Our practices may vary, but we share the same principles. It’s hard to think how different things might have been without the support and tools that SafeLives has offered. But all we’ve achieved would’ve been impossible without the dedicated and hardworking Marac professionals who made it happen – and I’m delighted that being a peer reviewer gave me the opportunity to see them at work.

SafeLives is inviting all Maracs to take part in the new peer review scheme. And if you’re due to complete a self-assessment you can also find out more about the Marac review process – or even combine the two. To find out more, go to safelives.org.uk/review.

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What happens when a victim moves areas? Top tips for stress-free Marac transfers

As part of the team behind SafeLives’ Knowledge Hub, it’s my job to answer some of the tricky questions professionals working with victims of domestic abuse face. Recently, a few areas have been in touch about Marac-to-Marac transfers, and how to share information when it becomes known that a Marac victim has moved.

Victims and their children living with high-risk abuse can fall through the gaps when they move areas, so it’s crucial we all play our part in keeping them as safe as possible.

When we know that a victim has moved out of a Marac area it’s essential that we let the new area know and support the victim’s future risk management by supplying any relevant information – such as previous minutes and action plans. It’s also really important that Marac reps speak to their counterparts in the old area.

Receiving a case

Coordinator
If you receive a transfer from another area, you should request information such as previous minutes and action plans if they are missing.  Ensure it’s made clear on the agenda where the case has been transferred from.

Chair
Check Marac representatives are liaising with their counterparts in other areas. Where gaps or issues are identified, follow local protocol to address or escalate as appropriate.

Idva
Liaise with the previous Idva and ensure an appropriate handover happens as early as possible, clarifying the current situation and risks.

Marac representatives
Liaise with your counterpart in the old area. Gather any information they might have and, where relevant, share it at the meeting.

Transferring a case

Coordinator
If you are transferring a case to another area, follow SafeLives' recommended practice - send all the relevant information you have, including previous minutes and action plans.

Chair
Ensure that the case is discussed in line with SafeLives recommended practice and transferred as appropriate.

Idva
Identify and liaise with Idva in the new area, hand the case over and ensure the new Idva is aware of the current situation and risks.

Marac representatives
Liaise with your counterpart in the new area, share all relevant information with them so that the case can be appropriately discussed at their meeting.

I’ve been at many a Marac where a transferred case cannot be fully discussed because no-one has made contact with their agency’s counterparts. I can’t stress how important this is. We are doing a disservice to victims if we are not able to share information, identify risks and action plan appropriately.

For more comprehensive guidance, take a look at our Marac-to-Marac flowchart. We’ve also prepared some answers to frequently asked questions about the Marac transfer process. And to make it really straightforward, there’s even a Marac transfer form for the referring area to use.

Whatever your role, our team of experts is here to offer help and advice on all aspects of the response to domestic abuse. We can also work with you to develop multi-agency approaches like Marac and Mash, offer advice on commissioning domestic abuse services, and support you to deliver local scrutiny panels focused on improving outcomes for families affected by domestic abuse.

To find out more and get in touch, go to safelives.org.uk/knowledgehub.

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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.