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‘I just want us to be a nice family’

What does good look like in terms of the response to domestic abuse, so prevalent in people’s minds during Covid, and so prevalent behind closed doors all across the UK, before during and after Covid?  What does it look like if you’re a survivor, but no one has asked you? If you hold local budgets, juggling multiple decisions and limited funding?  If you’re a frontline practitioner, trying to battle gaps and issues in the system for your clients?  

We’ve been working with colleagues in Norfolk and West Sussex over the last five years to explore these huge and pressing questions. Our ambitious partnership saw survivors, five specialist domestic abuse organisations from around the country, and commissioners, work together to develop a new way of working. The interventions in these Beacon sites were designed by adult survivors of domestic abuse and expert practitioners, and planned with a ‘whole family’ approach in mind. Together we created innovative, tailored interventions which recognise that to make sustainable change, we need to acknowledge and respond to family members as they are, deeply interconnected with one another, with intertwining situations and needs.   

Now we’re out the other side of our pilots, we’re more sure than ever that it pays to be ambitious and to keep striving to move things forward, even if it brings with it a lot of challenges.  

Putting survivors at the heart of it all, works. If survivors of abuse – adults and children - are part of developing the solutions and guiding the response, outcomes will be better.  

‘I just felt that I was being listened to and what I was saying was being acted on, so it was very much sort of led by me’. (Adult survivor, Beacon site)  

And it’s got to be about the whole family. Families need and want integrated responses which work together in synergy, especially welcoming a flexible service which looks at adults and children at the same time.  

‘They’re all singing off the same sheet. They are all working with you as a team, and I think that is amazing’. (Adult survivor, Beacon site). 

This pilot work, our ‘Beacon sites’, has set a high bar, in terms of the impact it’s had on individual survivors and families. The interventions point the way to new thinking and approaches. We’ve been able to support over 1000 people directly, of whom 76% reported a cessation of physical abuse, 85% felt safer and 82% felt their wellbeing had improved.  

‘They just need a constant, you know. To have that extra person, just to go, phew, I know that [my daughter’s] safe with this person, she can talk to them about whatever and they can build a relationship…’  (Adult survivor, Beacon site). 

80% of children involved with the Engage intervention in our Beacon sites, which works with adults who do not want to separate, reported a reduction in abuse. 91% said their wellbeing had improved.  

‘I do get angry, but I’m a little bit better. Yes, I’m a little bit better. It’s more whenever like somebody calls me names. Back in my old school I’d normally punch them.’ (Child survivor, Beacon site). 

We’ve seen leadership from commissioners – despite all the inevitable challenges of restructures, inspections, and disruption to local statutory bodies - and huge creativity and resilience from the voluntary sector – who faced disruption from short term funding, and pressures on staffing and morale, even before Covid presented new obstacles.   

We didn’t reach all families. Though service users tracked the demographics of our pilot sites, we know there’s more to do to test the interventions to make sure the response can work for everyone, whatever someone's characteristics and geography.  

We also didn’t reach all the public sector bodies we hoped to. Health bodies were still almost entirely absent from many of our conversations about individual and family safety and wellbeing, and this must change. We hope that as local areas undertake needs assessments to prepare for the switch from CCG structures to Integrated Care Systems, they will look in detail at how domestic abuse is the cause of deep health inequalities. Four out of five domestic abuse victims never go to the police and one child in every classroom will have lived with domestic abuse since they were born. The GP surgery, health visitor and maternity check-ups, nursery, classroom and A&E, are so often the places where people first disclose an issue within the family, and where there’s an opportunity to spot and do something about safety and wellbeing concerns.  

We have, however, driven substantial change. Idvas providing quality service and expert response for people identified at medium risk of harm have helped people get safe and stay safe. Engage has allowed for flexible, sensitive work through which couples who don’t necessarily intend to separate can still work towards increased levels of safety, with accountability and responsibility in the right place with the abusive individual, and children supported. Children have received specific and age-appropriate interventions and adult victims with complex needs have had support to improve long term safety and wellbeing. And step down and recovery work has helped those who are stepping down from other services to move on from the trauma and impact of abuse.   

‘We set up a WhatsApp group, and you know, there was a lot of texting support, and still now, you know, we’re texting, and sort of, how are things going?’ Survivor 11, West Sussex.  

Most survivors reported feeling confident and optimistic about their own and their children’s prospects for the future and considered their initial goals met. Mothers reported more confident parenting, understandings of the impact of domestic abuse for their children and enhanced family communication and relationships, though some still had concerns about child contact. 

Online support elements were in place from the start but adapted as the project went on, responding to feedback from survivors and in response to Covid. Adding the flexibility of online options but retaining in-person provision for those who prefer it, is crucial for the future of effective service provision which flexes to the needs of the individual survivor.    

Our core principles remained the same throughout. Client involvement should be first and foremost. We need to be working together across agencies, public and voluntary. Good quality responses will use a robust understanding of risk, and work from a position of understanding trauma and building from someone’s strengths, not highlight their weaknesses. Effective service providers will understand the nature of domestic abuse as highly gendered, and how this creates behaviours by the person using abuse, and impacts on adult and child victims. Great practitioners will be flexible, reliable and accessible, always open to improving their practice and changing methods that work more in the interests of an organisation than a client.   

Each of us lives as part of a family – whatever form it takes. And at its simplest, the best practice response to domestic abuse will support an individual survivor to define what a ‘nice family’ means to them, and to work towards their goal. Whole family responses will focus the need to change on the perpetrator who is causing the harm, while bolstering the safety, wellbeing and confidence of children and adults who have been harmed by them. Though this is a simple ambition to express, we have a long way to go. Current structures and funding models need to be changed. Frontline practitioners need more space and sustainable funding to develop and evolve their work. Survivor voices need to be heard all the way through from service design to local commissioning decisions and quality assurance and monitoring. 

These changes can be hard to contemplate when budgets are tight, and caseloads are high. However, the results from the UCLan evaluation and our own research show it's worth it.    

‘I’m a completely different person now, you know. I’m sort of really positive, confident, I’ve started my own business.’ Survivor 13, West Sussex.