Practice blog

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.

Why Citizens Advice is asking everyone to ‘Talk about abuse’

Rachel Burr, Campaigns Officer at Citizens Advice, shares details of the charity’s latest campaign to get the nation to open up about domestic abuse.

I don’t need to tell you the stats. But it’s pretty shocking to think that, according to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, last year one in every fifteen women, and one in every 33 men experienced domestic abuse at the hands of their partner or former partner. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Specialist services do some amazing work, but sadly most victims never get specialist help. We know victims are more likely to talk to friends and family than the police or specialist services. Friends and family may be able to support victims where others might not be able to, but at the moment they don’t always feel confident in doing so.

That’s why, today, Citizens Advice launches the ‘Talk about abuse’ campaign.

We want to empower everyone to recognise abuse, to talk about it safely and to enable victims to make the right decisions for themselves. We’ll be directing friends and family members to our online guidance, which has been written with help from specialists such as SafeLives, and gives people tips on how to start a conversation, while signposting to further support.

We’re launching the campaign with an event in parliament, where we’re delighted to have Diana Barran, Chief Executive of SafeLives, speaking. We’ll also be kicking off an online Twitter chat about the signs of domestic abuse, at 1pm. Follow @CABaction and #talkaboutabuse to take part.

Get involved

The success of this campaign depends on getting the message out as widely as possible. We want to start thousands of conversations in our communities, to get the country talking about domestic abuse.

You can get involved by publicising the campaign on social media, putting posters and leaflets in as many locations as possible, and by letting clients and colleagues know about our online guidance.

For more information, contact

Why it’s good to be selfish: self-care tips for Idvas

Are you struggling to switch off? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

As a trainer and assessor for SafeLives, I get to meet Idvas from all over the UK. Whilst there are many local issues that affect practice, there are some things I hear over and over – no matter where I go.

One Idva I spoke to recently summed it up nicely. “I’ve been an Idva for 4 years and I love this job,” she explained. “But it’s hard and it feels like it’s getting harder. Other services are being cut, so referrals are shooting up. Resources are short and long-term contracts are few and far between. There’s no real feeling of security.”

On top of all this, Idvas hear about the abuse and trauma experienced by others, day after day. They see the aftermath of the very worst of human behaviour. So it’s no wonder they find it hard to leave their work stresses at the office.

Often, Idvas will describe themselves as being ‘burnt out’.

Whilst this may well be the case, sometimes what they‘re experiencing is something called vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma results from repeated exposure to the trauma of others. It impacts on our physical and mental health and alters our view of the world. We stop feeling safe.

If you’ve ever been on a plane, you’ll remember the cabin crew giving you a safety demonstration before take-off (or perhaps you were browsing the duty-free catalogue at that point?). Anyway, they talk about oxygen masks coming down from the ceiling and remind everyone to put on their own mask before helping others with theirs. We often use this analogy during training when talking about self-care. Sometimes we need a reminder that, in order to give others the best support possible, we first have to take care of ourselves.

Of course services have a responsibility to look after their staff – in our Idva training we make recommendations about the support Idvas need to manage the impact their work has on their wellbeing. But is there anything else you can do to look after yourself and minimise the impact of vicarious trauma?

Here are my top tips, based on conversations with Idvas and other professionals.

Some of them might seem basic and some might just sound like wishful thinking. But start with one and then build on it, and you’ll see how quickly new habits can develop.

  1. Have clear boundaries. Be clear where your role begin and ends. Ensure that clients and other professionals understand the limitations of your support. Idvas are not an emergency service.
  2. Take lunch breaks and if possible, get away from your desk. Even a walk round the block will give your eyes a rest from that computer screen and give you space to breathe.
  3. Book (and take!) your annual leave and any time owing. Having regular breaks from work in your diary will ensure that you maintain work/life balance and don’t get burnt out.
  4. Get some exercise. I know this is predictable, but exercise boosts endorphins and allows our brains and bodies to deal with stress and anxiety much better. You don’t have to take up triathlons (unless you want to), a walk at lunchtime or at the end of the day is a great start.
  5. Eat well. It is tempting to reach for your comfort food of choice when things get stressful, but unfortunately we tend to crave things that do not give our bodies what they need and often send our blood sugar levels all over the place (I am looking at you, chocolate doughnut). Try to keep a balance and give yourself the right fuel to get through the day feeling good.
  6. Ask for help. If you are struggling with something, tell someone. You are not a superhero. Make use of supervision opportunities, formal or informal. It might be hard to prioritise this when you have a to-do list as long as your arm, but busy times are when you need it most.
  7. Do things you enjoy. Whatever they may be. Reading, baking, running, knitting, dancing to the radio, hula hooping, or watching kittens on the internet. Anything that quiets your mind and lowers your blood pressure. If it involves exercise of some sort, then that’s two birds with one stone!
  8. Relax. Yes, I know it’s not always that simple. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness can all help you remember how to switch off. There are some great apps for getting started. Patchouli oil optional.
  9. Get enough sleep. If you work on numbers 4 and 8, hopefully this one will be easier.
  10. Block time out for admin. It will help keep your head clear for your next client.
  11. Look out for each other. Peer support is really important. Be aware if one of the team is having a hard time. Targets and cuts can all too often force us to focus on the negatives. Build a culture of recognising and celebrating achievements too, the big and the small.

So those are my suggestions. I know it sounds like a lot and you are really busy but if you only change one thing, here’s what you should do: take time for you. Because you are important. And in order to be able to support others, we have to look after ourselves first.


Supporting B&ME victims – what the data shows

Last month saw the first national Day of Memory to commemorate victims of “honour”-based violence and abuse. Karma Nirvana, the charity behind the event, reports that at least 12 women a year are known to have been killed as a result of “honour”-based violence in the UK, although the true number is thought to be much higher.

Whilst B&ME women are disproportionately impacted by specific forms of violence against women and girls – such as forced marriage and “honour”-based violence – their experiences of violence are often intersecting and overlapping (Thiara, 2012). In other words, a B&ME woman could experience “honour”-based violence in the context of domestic abuse. Despite being just as likely to experience abuse as any other ethnic group, research shows that the level of disclosure for Black and minority ethnic (B&ME) victims of domestic abuse is far lower than that of the general population (Walby & Allen, 2004). From our own national dataset of 42,000 cases, we know that victims from B&ME communities typically suffer abuse for 1.5 times longer before getting help than those who identify as White, British or Irish.  

I started looking more closely at the data to see why this might be. A third of B&ME clients are at risk of “honour”-based violence, and they’re three times more likely to be abused by multiple perpetrators. A quarter of B&ME victims say that they need the aid of an interpreter to communicate effectively. And 1 in 5 has no recourse to public funds. This combination of more limited access to legal and other services, language barriers, abuse from extended family members and the wider community, and simply not knowing your rights means it’s no surprise that many B&ME victims feel unable to speak out about the abuse they’re experiencing.

Telling someone you’re being abused by an intimate partner or family member is an incredibly tough step to take. But the more I read, the more I realised how much this is compounded for B&ME women. I spoke to Mollin Delve, service manager at the Phoebe Centre in Ipswich – one of the specialist B&ME services using our Insights data analysis and outcome measurement service. She explained the problems her clients face: “Being from a migrant B&ME background means that the majority of our clients don’t have secure legal status in this country and are dependent on others, particularly the perpetrator, for their stay in the UK.”

It can also mean they lack knowledge about UK systems and laws. “This adds to the abusers’ control over them. Victims are often enslaved in their homes, as a result of an inability to voice their experiences. They don’t always speak English and are not allowed to learn or make friends. Many have no entitlement to public funds unless an advocate (like ourselves) helps them to access support,” Mollin reflected.

Specialist services like the Phoebe Centre, which are led and delivered by B&ME women, are essential for advocating on behalf of B&ME victims of abuse to get the support they need. But understanding the unique challenges these women face is essential if we’re ever to increase the number getting help – and this is something we all have a responsibility for, particularly as specialist  services have been drastically reduced in the past 10 years.

Some useful resources for working with B&ME clients

For more information about domestic violence and B&ME victims, including support and training options, visit Imkaan’s website.

The Home Office has published “Three steps to escaping domestic violence” – a leaflet aimed specifically at women in Black and minority ethnic communities. The leaflet is available in 12 languages and can be downloaded from the website.

Did you know that the Dash risk checklist is available to download in 13 community languages? You can also find tips and advice on supporting young people at risk of forced marriage in our forced marriage practice briefing.

Thank you to the Big Lottery Fund for its continued support of Insights – helping services understand how to better support families in their local area.

Why go back to the dark ages? – Life before Dash and Marac

Last month, SafeLives ran a series of seminars for Maracs – celebrating the hard work of professionals up and down the country, and taking time to think about what’s next. During the London event, I had the pleasure of seeing lots of old colleagues from my time at Advance and Standing Together Against Domestic Violence. It’s been more than a decade since we worked together, and I couldn’t help but cast my mind back to what life as an Idva was like back then – before the Dash risk checklist, and before Marac.

Before Marac

And it was hard! Back then, instead of Marac, we had an operations group with the police and some other key agencies, like health and probation. We’d meet once a month and would bring the cases that we were “most worried about”. But there was no common understanding of risk. So you can imagine the heated discussions as we tried to convey why we were so concerned, and encourage our partners to share information and act.

In spite of this, the meetings were a success in many ways. They helped us develop the relationships that are so vital to a co-ordinated community response. And they paved the way for the development of some of the early Maracs in England and Wales. But they didn’t do enough to manage the risk (“worry” or “concern” as we called it then) that families were facing.

Before the Dash risk checklist

As an Idva service, we used to think – there has to be a better way. We started looking at the common features of the 20 cases we were most worried about. What we found was no surprise – escalating violence, extreme control and coercion, weapons being used, substance misuse and sexual abuse. Pregnancy and having children were factors too, as well as threats to harm them. Armed with this evidence, we could finally begin to show the operations group exactly why we were so worried about a case.

But our system was still a million miles from the robust and evidence-based approach to risk assessment that we have today. A couple of years later, I was lucky enough to be involved in the pilot of the early versions of the Dash risk checklist. It was staggering to see the change. Having this tool gave us the power (yes, power) to require agencies to act to reduce risk and improve safety. The professionals we’d struggled to engage in the past were finally sitting up and taking notice.

The road ahead

These days, as manager of SafeLives’ Marac development programme, I’m more than aware of how Marac has, to some extent, become a victim of its own success. Some areas have done such a thorough job of training professionals on risk and how to refer to Marac that they’re seeing more cases than they can manage. The number of cases being heard nationally went up by 13,000 in the last year, and it’s not uncommon for some Maracs to hear upwards of 40 cases every fortnight. Often, they simply don’t have the resources or the capacity to cope.

Over the coming months, Cardiff University’s Dr Amanda Robinson is collaborating with the What Works Centre for Crime Reduction to evaluate the Dash risk checklist and its use by the police. But if we’re to tackle the issues Maracs are facing, we need to spend time thinking not just about risk identification, but about risk thresholds too.

We’ve already begun to develop the SafeLives knowledge hub  – a single port of call for any professional looking for the best advice about how to respond to a domestic abuse, and how to run an effective multi-agency response, including forums like Marac and Mash. We’re also working with local areas to develop and pilot a One Front Door approach – ensuring families can be identified and referred to the right support more quickly, reducing the burden on Maracs. Like many of the interventions we use today, this is something that will take time to get right. But, as I know from my own experience, if it’s worth doing something, it’s worth doing properly.

I would never want go back to a time when the Dash didn’t exist. Back to a “first come, first served” system, or to case management discussions which just talked about “worry” and “concern”. This tool has unlocked the multi-agency response, and means we can make lasting change for the highest risk victims of domestic abuse and their families. It’s just one of the many steps to developing a stronger response to domestic abuse – so that one day, every family will get safe and stay safe.