Policy blog

Marac - making it work for real

I needed my Idva to literally negotiate with all these people [at Marac] on my behalf… grab them by the scruff of the neck and make them understand the situation, which she did.


It was with great interest that I read an article in yesterday’s Guardian, which asked: “Domestic violence: are Maracs making a difference to victims' lives?”.

So, let me be upfront. SafeLives has been championing the Marac/Idva response for the last ten years. The approach works because victims get the 1:1 support they need, in the knowledge that local agencies are pooling resources and working together to help them live in safety. It also means professionals can get a thorough, multi-agency response to the domestic abuse cases they’re most worried about. While Marac is not a magic wand, it’s still the only national platform we have which offers this kind of targeted support.

The Guardian piece reflects on the findings of a recent study of a Marac in the north of England. We’re told that it’s an area which sees a high volume of cases. This is no surprise – in the last five years, the number of cases being heard each year at Maracs in the UK has shot up from 45,581 to 78,144. That’s a staggering rise of over 70%.

Marac works to cut the risk faced by families living with domestic abuse, and ensure their individual needs are met. In a time of ever-dwindling resources, the implication of managing more referrals is a real concern.

But here at SafeLives, we know the approach is worth it. Done properly, Maracs and Idvas make women and children safe. So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little rattled when the article calls for “evidence that the time, effort and commitment of Marac attendees makes a difference”. Our research shows that the abuse stops for more than 6 in 10 victims supported by an Idva and a Marac. 71% say they feel safer. And more than two-thirds say their quality of life has improved since they got help.

But what our research proves is that this response only works for victims when it’s properly supported and resourced. The Marac is a model – it’s not a miracle. This goes for Idvas too. A Marac without Idva support is like a ship without a sail, and to see them in isolation shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the high-risk approach. A single Marac meeting gives the chance to share valuable information and create an action plan which makes families living with abuse safer. But it would never be enough without the continuous support offered to the victim by the Idva – before, during and beyond Marac.

Idvas are highly adept advocates and experts in domestic abuse, and are there to be the voice of the victim. This means they hold the Marac to account, and make sure the wishes of the women they support are acted on so they can be safe. But when the number of Idvas is just half what’s actually needed, it stands to reason that those that are in post are seeing twice as many cases as they can manage.

It’s easy to see how Marac has become a victim of its own success. Agencies can see it as “just another meeting” and, even when attendance is good, caseloads can still be high. In spite of this, the vast majority of victims referred to Marac are very high-risk. And to me this just emphasises the need for the framework to exist – without Maracs and Idvas, many of these families would receive no help at all.

As the saying goes, domestic abuse is everyone’s business. Marac practitioners tell us that, when agencies see the difference the Marac has made to the life of a family, they get why it’s worthwhile. And it’s this commitment and understanding that keeps families safe. We know because victims tell us so.

I received so much support because of the Marac. Without it, I’d still be in a violent relationship now.



Domestic violence: the most serious child safeguarding concern

Not our words – but those of the police inspectorate. Today they published their inspection of the police response to child protection – and in the inspector’s own strong words:

The police service must reassess their approach to child protection - or risk failing a new generation of children. […] The response to reports of offences against children - ranging from online grooming to domestic abuse - was inadequate.

Their report tells a story that’s all too familiar to professionals working with victims and families. Police officers responding to domestic abuse who don’t check that the children in the home are okay. Children not being considered victims and not given the chance to tell their own story, in a separate room from their parents.

Here at SafeLives, we’re passionate about taking a whole-family approach to ending domestic violence – one which supports every member of the family to make sure the abuse stops. The reason for this is simple: we know from our research that 2 in 3 children who live with domestic abuse are directly harmed themselves – and in the vast majority of cases, the perpetrator is the same.

There are some positives in the report. Child protection agencies now better understand how domestic abuse in the home contributes to an increased level of risk for the child. Most police forces also now have a system for assessing danger to the child in domestic violence cases.

But the report also highlights serious areas for improvement. Of the estimated 1.8 million children living with domestic abuse, only a small number are actually known to the police or child protection agencies – something we’ve highlighted before. From our data we know that just 50% of children living with high-risk domestic abuse are known to children’s services.

Perhaps most worryingly, the report notes that even where they take action to help an adult victim, the police and other agencies don’t always follow up to make sure a child living with domestic abuse is safe. It is crucial that forces get this right – our data shows that the police are twice as likely as any other service to be in contact with children living domestic abuse.

The report has several recommendations for police forces on how they can get better at keeping children safe – and it’s great that the first of these argues for better staff awareness of the effect of domestic abuse on children. It also calls for agencies to work more closely together to get better at keeping children safe, and for better recording of children’s views and concerns.

Acknowledging the link between ending domestic abuse and protecting children is only the first step – but it’s an important one. Still too often the impact of domestic abuse on children is not appreciated, even where agencies (rightly) try to help the adult victim.

But identifying victims and referring them for help isn’t enough when there just aren’t enough good services out there for children who’ve lived with domestic abuse – and even fewer where that help links to the support available for their parent.

The next step is to make sure every child and every adult victim gets the right help as quickly as possible, no matter where they live or who they are ask for help. Only then will victims and their children be able to get safe and stay safe in the long term.

By Tom.Ash

Crossing borders - risk and information sharing on the continent

I recently spent a few days in Murcia, southern Spain. I'd been invited to talk about the UK model of responding to high-risk domestic violence and abuse and to compare that with ”Proyecto Core”, a series of EU-funded projects in the region.

There was lots to celebrate about the level of international co-ordination and co-operation achieved in the years this project has been running. The Spanish regions involved are working hard to implement a network of dedicated, professional advisors who can co-ordinate the support that a victim needs when they seek help. The Idva model is in its infancy here but is being embraced with enthusiasm by support services and other champions of improvement.

The audience of around 150 people was also keen to talk about 'co-ordination tables', the local approximation of Marac. I was asked about how a victim is represented, how the level of information sharing is determined and kept safe, and how co-ordination tables could work for areas with small, geographically spread populations. There was a presentation by the Guardia Civil talking about risk assessment in a way that felt familiar and reasonably well developed.

I was disappointed to find, then, that international co-ordination still has its limits. A support worker in the audience asked me about a survivor who was in her refuge. This British woman has successfully escaped a viciously abusive relationship with a man in the UK. He has tracked her down, and is now harassing her in Spain. The Spanish police wanted to help, but had asked for evidence of previous abuse so they could act. The hold up? Health officials in the UK were unwilling to release the women's medical records to her. Her own medical records!

Speaking to people afterwards I found out that this struggle to access (your own) personal data once out of the country is far from exceptional. Leave aside the madness of being refused your own data and consider how arbitrary it is to draw a boundary line at Folkestone or Stockport or any other end point of the British Isles. A flight between Spain and the UK can be bought for less than £80, and the internet has no borders. Recent EU legislation has recognised just that and Europol was explicitly designed to help police forces across Europe co-operate. Support for victims and the tackling of perpetrators should live up to these ideals.

I was encouraged by lots of what I saw and heard in Spain but as ever, there's a lot more to do.

No return to first-come-first-served for victims of domestic abuse

Anyone who’s worked with victims knows the situation. She’s sat in front of you, uncertain, nervous. You’re talking because she called the police last night after a violent incident with her ex. In the cold light of day, she’s not sure what to do – or even if it was right to call for help.

You give her plenty of time and space, working through her life story – but the questions you’re asking are hard. “Has he ever tried to strangle you?” “Has he threatened your kids?” “Do you feel safe?”  From her answers it’s clear she’s in significant danger. 

Getting help for domestic violence used to be a matter of first-come-first-served. But now, conversations like this happen all the time, across the country. The questions come from a tool called the Dash (the domestic abuse, stalking and honour-based violence risk checklist). It means we can spot victims who are at high risk of murder or serious harm – and get them the right help, fast.

Every police force uses the Dash (or something like it). Most domestic abuse specialists do too. And so do thousands of other professionals – housing officers, social workers, GPs, nurses, A&E staff and many more. It’s given workers who aren’t domestic abuse specialists the confidence to know what to do if they spot abuse. Now, 40% of referrals to multi-agency meetings (Maracs) for victims at high risk come from agencies other than the police – which is positive, given that many women don’t want to involve the police.    

And that’s helping us find more and more victims. Over the last year, the number of cases of high-risk domestic abuse that we know about have gone up 18%. That’s around 8,400 additional victims that we can now help, rather than them being hidden.   

It’s one of the best-kept secrets in the social sector: the evolution of a new evidence-based model, now implemented nationwide, that transformed how we deal with victims of domestic abuse. So it’s sad to see continued misunderstanding of the risk-led approach.

Some suggest that risk assessment is primarily about rationing. And it’s true that the UK does not yet have a system that finds every victim fast and get her the right help straightaway. We have just 50% of the specialist Idva numbers we need across England and Wales, and there are few extra resources to help the 8,400 extra high-risk victims who have come forward in the last year. Victims at medium or low risk still often don’t get much help. But that’s an argument for spending the money we have better and arguing for more – not abandoning the best universal tool we have to identify abuse.

We’d never claim that everyone uses the Dash in the same way. An Idva (domestic abuse specialist) will use it in an in-depth conversation, whereas a frontline housing officer may use it to make sure that someone she’s concerned about gets help from a specialist fast. And that’s fine. But there are still some who regard the Dash as red tape or just a tickbox exercise. We do need to reinforce how to use it properly – and we’re pleased that police forces are taking this more seriously since the 2014 HMIC inspection.

At its heart, a risk-led approach is the way to get the right help to each victim. The vast majority of high-risk victims experience physical injuries, strangulation, rape, stalking or extreme controlling behaviour like threats to harm children. Every domestic violence professional would choose to help these victims first – rather than asking them to wait their turn in a queue.

So that’s what a risk-based approach is: it’s about understanding the situation of that victim and her children – and then responding in a tailored way to them. Meeting their needs and reducing the risks they face. Not applying a one-size-fits-all intervention regardless of their circumstances.

SafeLives will continue to promote a risk-led approach to dealing with domestic abuse – one that evolves to meet more victims’ needs as we find out more about what works. And in the long run, we have to turn the UK’s approach on its head: rather than reacting to abuse by just helping the victim, we have to get involved to stop the perpetrator abusing her too. So that’s the next challenge: let’s start putting as much effort into making perpetrators stop as we do into helping victims escape.

In praise of curiosity

I’ve been out and about in the last few weeks. From the metropolitan hubs of Scotland to the south coast of England, I have been meeting independent domestic violence advisors (Idvas), their Scottish equivalents (Idaas), and service managers. I wanted to find out what was working, what people were finding difficult, and how we at SafeLives can help. Dozens of patient people have heard me ask “absent a big bag of cash, what would make things better?”. I've been surprised by the answer on several occasions. 

One of the things Idvas do brilliantly is bang the table. They know the risks faced by a victim and they will not let go of an issue until it has been resolved. They hold others to account, constantly insisting they do better. When I asked what would make things better, I expected to hear a litany of complaints about statutory agencies. It's certainly true that some of the comments I heard about statutory services made me worried and angry. But I also heard a lot about changes needed in our own sector. 

What impressed me the most about the people I met was how much appetite they had for new information, and for change. Not just change to the criminal justice system, or a culture that still allows domestic violence to happen, but change within our sector. They wanted to know what was new in other parts of the country, how other services were innovating to make a difference, and how traditional models could be adapted to keep up with the pace of change in the world. Doing a role that requires them to challenge other organisations, they also wanted to challenge their own, and keep improving.

We recently ran a training course for service managers. And here’s what some of the learners said:

The training has taken me on a journey of self-discovery, not all of which has been easy to accept. It has given me a real focus again and renewed my enthusiasm, and for that I am grateful.

I have learned a lot about the running of a company, issues with staff, case management, tendering. Most of all I bring out of this training improved knowledge of my own capabilities and possibilities.

I was bowled over by their willingness to question their own style, behaviour and performance - as one person says, it's not a particularly easy or comfortable thing to do. How fabulous that we have people so proud of their jobs, so committed to their work, that they're this determined to keep learning and keep doing better. 

So if you’re feeling inspired, why not have a look at our training offer?