Managing cases with complex needs at Marac

Counter-allegations in domestic abuse cases can be complex. Luke Martin writes about how understanding power dynamics is crucial for identifying primary victims.

One of the more common challenges for those coming in to contact with domestic abuse is counter-allegations, where both parties allege that the other is abusive. For those less experienced in working with domestic abuse it can be easy to fall in to the trap of believing this is so, and that they are ‘both as bad as each other’.

Johnson (2004) speaks of several different typologies of domestic abuse, including bi-directional abuse. After publishing he was approached by several academics evidencing that if professionals dedicated time and had a good understanding of the dynamics of abuse they would almost always identify a primary victim and primary perpetrator and that in fact bi-directional violence was at the least very rare if it exists at all.

So why do counter-allegations throw us so much? Often because it is purely one person’s word against another. As curious humans we like evidence. We might automatically look to the physical evidence of injury. The difficulty of this arises when our victim might use violent resistance (Johnson). A victim might retaliate with violence because they might feel it is their only option. They might also use violence to instigate a violent attack, understanding their own cycle of abuse and wanting to trigger an incident rather than spending hours or days feeling like they are walking on egg shells waiting for an incident. This may cause difficulty when a perpetrator doesn’t retaliate, but instead reports the use of violence to the Police.  Police would generally stick to a Positive Action Policy enforcing the primary victim to be arrested as the perpetrator in this offence. We are aware that victims frequently don’t report their experiences of abuse to the Police so this may be the first time the Police become aware of this couple. This feeds into a power and control dynamic where the primary perpetrator might use withdrawing their statement to control the victim or continue to abuse.

We commonly see professionals identify bi-directional violence in cases that might be identified as complex needs, where we see substance misuse and/or poor mental health. Again, it is important that we understand that a victim under the influence of substances or struggling with their mental health may have lower inhibitions when using retaliatory violence or abuse. This could then lead to an incident escalating and becoming more violent than it may have been previously, increasing the risk to our primary victim.

Bi-directional violence is also often misidentified in cases of same-sex domestic abuse. Again, this stems from professionals not being able to identify who does what to whom. When we speak of domestic abuse we talk of a power imbalance and the perpetrator taking control from the victim. However, we commonly associate this with male abusers and a female victim, which research tells us is the most common form. This then challenges our perception when we have two men or two women in a relationship and one is using abusive behaviour. Some professionals make the assumption that the more ‘masculine’ or ‘butch’ must be the perpetrator, and the more ‘effeminate’ be the victim as this fits with our societal perception of gender norms and abuse. The challenges we might see here are, again, victims who might use some form of violent resistance and professionals feeling they don’t necessarily have the skill set to identify a primary perpetrator.

In cases of counter-allegations we look for fear, our victim is more likely to express some fear of their partner or fear of consequences and might report feeling like they are walking on eggshells. We might also look at who might take responsibility for incidents; victims might justify their partner’s abuse or take responsibility for antagonising or not having done what is expected of them. Perpetrators might tell a professional that they have used abusive behaviour but might justify their use. We also look for the level of detail someone might give us; perpetrators are more likely to be vague whereas victims might give us a great amount of detail, if they are not in a state of shock. Where physical violence has been used we might look for injuries that are in line with the description of the incident given. When looking at coercive and controlling behaviour we might explore what somebody’s day normally looks like, or what happens when there is an argument? How is it resolved?

Although it can be challenging for us as professionals when presented with counter-allegations, with the appropriate understanding and training we can identify the power dynamic and our primary victim. By doing this we can increase safety and manage risk. Always start from the point that the abuse is never equal and oppositional, even if that is how it is presented to you in the first instance.

About Luke

Luke Martin is a consultant primarily focusing on working with male and LGBT victims of domestic abuse. Luke worked as an Independent Domestic and Sexual Violence Advisor (Idsva) for eight years. He has also worked extensively for and with Respect, including on the national helpline for male victims of abuse, The Men’s Advice Line. Luke currently trains on SafeLives’ Idva accreditation course, DA Matters (a change programme for police responders) and Respect’s ‘Working with Male Victims’ training programme. Luke has consulted for organisations such as SurvivorsUK, the national male rape and sexual violence service and worked on campaigns such as the Home Office’s ‘This is Abuse’ campaign.

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