Policy blog

My life as an Idva

Charlotte* is an Idva – a specialist domestic violence worker – who has spent the past three years working with people who are at high- risk of injury or murder from their current or ex-partner. We spoke to her about the highs and lows of being an Idva and how the role has changed her life.

Let’s start with the obvious question - why did you become an Idva?

It was a complete accident, but a wonderful one. Becoming an Idva was something I hadn’t planned. When I applied I didn’t have any frontline experience – I was working in a women’s organisation in London. I’ve always identified as a feminist and wanted to work in a sector with women’s rights at its core.

I got a call from a friend working in the organisation about a job she thought I’d be really good at. So I contacted the CEO and she agreed to interview me. I didn’t know what to expect, but it was an amazing opportunity – I now appreciate how difficult it is to get your foot in the door.

How did the work play out to start with then?

I felt as though I had been thrown in at the deep end. When I came in, I took over a full caseload straight away. I did some shadowing of my colleagues to see how they were doing it. I had high expectations of myself in the first six months, so I really challenged myself around what I could do.

At the very start I thought “there’s no way I can do this” – I was dealing with really hard subject matter, working with agencies that weren’t necessarily aware of the risk of domestic abuse. But I loved it and found that I was actually good at that hard stuff.

Have you been on a SafeLives Idva course?

Yes, I completed the course last year and it was great. I had an incredibly diverse and busy caseload – I had lots of clients, attended two Maracs covering two very different areas, and I had several very challenging and complex cases involving substance misuse. The course really helped me to think about all of that. It reaffirmed a lot of the knowledge I already had and taught me new things at the same time.

Do you have a case that you’re particularly proud of?

Can I use two examples? I worked with one very high-risk case recently - a woman who was seeing a substance misuse worker, but she’d never had support with her domestic violence situation. We built a relationship and she eventually started disclosing the abuse to me. It wasn’t exactly your standard case, but I was proud to have been able to reach out to her and work alongside other agencies so that she could get help.

Another case I’m proud of involved high-risk domestic abuse and stalking. We worked hard with the Crown Prosecution Service on the restraining order and the client was a lot safer as a result.

Is there a case where you wish someone had done something sooner?

Probably all of them! The most challenging cases are the ones where you can see there were routes in for different agencies to help, but they didn’t respond so the client felt disengaged.

 What are the other challenges you’ve experienced – personal and professional?

There is the feeling that I can never do enough for my clients, which increases with a high caseload. I am very lucky that my service has quite a strict cap on caseloads. But even so some days I used to open three or four referrals and keep cases open for longer than I perhaps should in order to keep supporting the client. That meant at some points I had huge numbers of clients and I wanted to do as much as possible for all of them, which was incredibly emotionally draining. It took me a very long time to realise how to deal with that. It’s easy to reflect back now and be rational about what were reasonable expectations, but at the time I was very emotionally tied up in my work.

It doesn’t happen any longer, because I have good clinical supervision and support from within my team. However, during my first year I did allow the casework to really drain me, which really affected me outside of work. Now of course I’m much better at managing my caseload, talking to my manager and taking time out for myself when I need it.

Do you have any techniques or strategies for coping with the strains of your work?

I make sure to do plenty outside of work, like running, playing games and talking about things other than trauma. In this line of work a lot of people want to talk to me about it, so it’s important to place boundaries around that. Friends and family ask because they’re concerned about me, but I’d rather chat about other topics.

And if I start thinking about work when I’m at home, I visualise closing my diary and locking it in a drawer.

Is the work rewarding, despite the stress?

Incredibly so. My team is amazing. The work has pushed me to recognise parts of my character that I would never have known about. What’s kept me going has been my emotional journey alongside the job I’ve been doing.

The clients I help have strength beyond measure, and being able to add my voice to theirs is an incredible privilege.

Looking back, what would you recommend to those involved with setting policy?

Spend more time with people who work on the frontline. I know that at SafeLives you do that and it forms the core of your research and policy work. Local authorities and certainly commissioners should listen to services. Politicians don’t fully recognise the work that’s being done around domestic abuse and the social value it adds. They have to understand the need to address perpetrators’ behaviour. They need to consider the dynamics of the society we live in, but that won’t happen until the political system honours and values the work that people on the ground do.

Specialist workers like Charlotte are lifelines for victims of domestic abuse. That’s why at SafeLives we’ve trained more than 1,800 Idvas in the past ten years – but we still have only half the capacity we need nationally to make ending domestic abuse a reality. If you want to find out more about the work that Idvas do, you can read more here.

If you’re an Idva or frontline worker and would like to share your story with us, get in touch – email info@safelives.org.uk or drop us a line on Twitter or Facebook.


By Tom.Ash

Give me shelter, the Sun, and refuges

When the Sun publishes pictures of women, your natural reaction may be to wince. But this Monday’s front page made a stark – and upsetting - change. To mark the launch of their campaign against domestic abuse, the Sun filled their front page with pictures of the women who’ve been killed by their partners in the past year.

It made the point better than words ever could. Every type of woman looked out at us from that front page. Every one killed before her time because we all failed to protect her from her husband, boyfriend, partner or ex.

We at SafeLives are clear: domestic violence is too big a problem to only be talked about in right-on journals. We need the Sun – and we’re glad they’ve joined the fight to end domestic abuse.

But what was interesting was how narrow the campaign was. It wasn’t a grand narrative about what we all have to do to end domestic abuse: it was a carefully targeted plea to the government to fund refuges – and, audaciously, to reopen those which have closed.

As a campaigner, I applaud the focus. Tell one story, make it human, reach out to unexpected allies, and show how change can happen. The domestic violence sector’s hero (heroine?) narrative is refuges - brilliant women facing institutional opposition from the police and the state in the 1970s to provide a desperately needed safe space for victims and their children. It resonates with people – which is why we keep telling it.  

But as a policy wonk, I’m concerned. While we only tell a story about refuge, about leaving your home to escape abuse, we perpetuate the attitude that “she should just leave”. Maybe she should. But why don’t we say “HE SHOULD JUST STOP ABUSING HER”?

Why should women have to lose their homes? Why should they have to uproot their children from school and disrupt their everyday life?  Why should they have to leave their tenancies and mortgages, their possessions and furniture?

While we have domestic abuse, we will always need safe places in an emergency for women at very high risk of murder or serious injury. But going into a refuge isn’t always right for every woman – women with children, women with complex needs and women who are in work all sometimes find that refuges aren’t the right place for them.

So, those of us who work to end domestic abuse should talk about the other choices women have too.

One of those choices is to get help in the community from a trained, professional Idva. She can help women get an injunction or domestic violence protection order to keep the abuser away. She can help the victim get a move to a safer property or make her current home more secure. She can get help from the police to make sure that the address is monitored, and get all the right agencies at Marac to play their role in helping the family get safe.

In 60% of cases where a victim has got help from an Idva and from a Marac, the abuse stops. That’s pretty incredible – but it’s one of the best-kept secrets in UK social policy.

Across the country, we only have 50% of the Idvas that we need to help every woman at high-risk of murder or serious harm. We’d like to see the Sun paying tribute to their work to keep victims safe, and campaigning for more funding for all domestic abuse services – in the community, and residential too.

And if we’re serious about stopping abuse – rather than just helping the victims – we have to get serious about intervening with perpetrators. Otherwise we’ll stay in the same cycle of picking up the pieces.  

Stopping domestic abuse really is everyone’s business – and it’s good to have the Sun on-board.

Domestic abuse in India and the UK – more similarities than differences

Last night I watched India’s Daughter, Leslee Udwin’s film about the gang-rape of Jyoti Singh, a 23 year old student from Delhi. In December 2012 she was travelling home by bus after watching a film with a male friend. She was so brutally attacked that she died of her injuries two weeks later. Four men were sentenced to death for their part in her murder.

Before I joined SafeLives, I spent several months working in Delhi for a charity battling sexual and domestic violence. India’s Daughter made me catch my breath for many reasons. The situation in India is different to here, but not as different as we might like to think.

Abuse in the home

All of Joyti’s rapists grew up with consistent violence in their family homes. Thanks to research by academics like Eamon McCrory and Emma Howarth, we know more than ever about the impact of living with domestic abuse on children’s development. This is echoed in our own research. And earlier this year we called for all statutory agencies to improve their understanding of abuse to find affected families as soon as possible. We need to create the system where we get it right first time, for every family member.

A culture of blame

One of the men who raped Joyti, Mukesh Singh, is interviewed in the film. Speaking from prison, he expresses bewilderment that he has been treated so harshly. He shakes his head: “Everybody does it. If I have to be punished, why aren’t they punished?” A 2014 survey reported that over 70% of Indian men believe hitting their wife was acceptable if she didn’t look after the children to their satisfaction.

We might feign shock at these statements, but we have no grounds to be complacent. In the UK, only a small proportion of those who have committed violent acts against their partner or ex-partner will ever go to prison. And those who do are not likely to serve long sentences. Criminal justice is only one measure of punishment but, when it comes to domestic abuse, we’re short on alternatives. While victims need to be identified and get the right help sooner, it’s also time we focus on challenging the perpetrators to change their behaviour. 

The role of police

In Jyoti Singh’s case, the police quickly identified and arrested the perpetrators, but this isn’t the experience of most Delhiites. Many women in Delhi refuse point blank to go to the police who often share in and perpetuate the outdated prejudices about a woman’s place and her responsibility to modesty.

We have come a long, long way in the UK. I’ve seen first-hand the commitment of many police officers to improve their response to what, in previous years, might have been dismissed as ‘just a domestic’. I’m proud that SafeLives has worked with the College of Policing and Women’s Aid to create a new training package for frontline police officers to strengthen their understanding of abuse. I was delighted to read recently about joint patrols by local police officers and domestic abuse workers. And I hope that as we help HMIC do their re-inspection of forces this year, we’ll see the marked improvement called for in their 2013 report Everyone’s Business.

The discussion about sexual and domestic violence in India caught fire after Jyoti Singh died. But I know from my own time in Delhi that there’s a danger that words like rape, abuse and violence are used so often that they lose their meaning. In the UK, the statistic of 2 women a week dying at the hands of a partner or ex-partner is so well-worn that it barely raises an eyebrow. That’s why we shouldn’t be complacent. We need to constantly find new ways to show the grinding reality of lives dominated by fear of verbal, physical and emotional attack.

India’s Daughter is currently banned by the Indian government. It’s shameful that a government could rush to ban a film while having no national strategy to tackle the problem it exposes. After the death of Jyoti, men and women across India took to the streets, calling for equality and campaigning for women’s rights. This energy and well-directed anger of Indians who refuse to accept the current situation should inspire us all. There’s still a long way to go before families in the UK – and abroad – can live in safety. But more change can come, we can all do better.

Whose truth is it anyway?

We often wonder how those with a history of domestic abuse view the results of their behaviour – not least the damage they cause to both their partners and their children. This weekend, millions of people will watch the fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao. Mayweather of course pled guilty to abusing his partner and mother of three of his children. As a result, he does not get to see his children as much as he might like. But what should we make of Mayweather’s version of the ‘truth’ when asked for how he feels about this?  His answer: “You know how women are sometimes”.  Hmm, no mention of his part in this…

Mayweather has a long and protracted history of perpetrating domestic abuse, with convictions reaching back as far as 2001. Just last year he made claims that “there are a lot worse things that go on in other people’s households”, adding that there’d never been any photographic evidence of bruises and bumps he’d caused. But we know that the truth of domestic abuse is often hidden behind closed doors.

Only yesterday, the Independent Police Complaints Commission published a report into the death of Hollie Gazzard, a hairdresser from Gloucester. She was brutally murdered by her ex-partner in front of horrified customers and colleagues at the salon where she worked.

Hollie and hundreds of other women who died at the hands of current or ex-partners will never be able to tell their truth. They’ll never be able to share the fear of living with abuse, how it affected their children and how they were hoping that someone would notice and ask the question.

It’s this truth – the horrendous reality of domestic abuse – that drives us to make sure all families live in safety.

We think that there are three truths that victims of abuse would want Floyd to hear.

The first truth is that all too often we miss opportunities to spot abuse and stop it: in the year before they get the help they need, most victims will have five contacts with public services and it will take almost three years before they get help. For professionals, it’s about knowing how to start the conversation. It’s knowing what to do if a victim or child tells them things aren’t right at home. But to help families become safe, we first need to find them.

The second truth is that victims of domestic abuse need to work with a skilled, trusted professional who can help them address the risk they face and meet their needs. Properly trained and well-resourced specialist domestic violence workers – Idvas – make all the difference. More than 60% of those helped by an Idva and Marac report that the abuse stops.

The third truth is that we need to resource these services properly. But the reality is that, despite ever-increasing caseloads, we still only have half the Idva capacity we need. No matter how good and dedicated the Idva, that level of work will impact on how well they are able to do their job.  Look at our Facebook page if you want to see powerful examples of how they are trying to meet the needs of their clients with ever rising caseloads.

If we create a model response to domestic abuse in every area, all families will get safe more quickly, and stay safe in the long-term. It’s a huge challenge, but one we’ve thought long and hard about. And our new strategy sets out how we begin to achieve this.

This is our truth to ending domestic abuse. What’s yours?

Oh and Floyd, if you are reading this, think again.


Inspired by some Idvas – and irritated by the manifestos

Last week, I spent two days in the north-west, talking to domestic abuse specialists, police officers and expert support staff, and council officers.

I visited two police forces, observed a Marac meeting, had lunch with city council officers and tea with one of our Leading Lights Idva services. The common theme amongst this diverse group of professionals, all dedicated to stopping domestic abuse? The sheer demand for their help – and the struggle they were having meeting it.

Take the Idva service. They were one of the first Idva services to set up – and are consistently one of the best in the country. The job of an Idva is to stop murders and serious harm – and they do. We will never know how many victims are safe today because of the Idvas in that town over the past eight years.

Talking to the Idvas, I heard stories of huge creativity and ingenuity in finding ways to help victims and their children get safe. The beauty of an Idva intervention is that it’s 1-2-1, tailored to the needs of a particular victim and her children – not one size fits all. And working with all the right agencies at a Marac, the Idva can make sure each victim gets the right help that makes her safe – and helps her stay safe in the long-term.

But what made me furious was hearing how many victims each Idva was having to support. They were each carrying caseloads that, if continued over the year, will see them work with nearly 300 victims each. No matter how good the Idva (and these were good), that level of work will impact on how well they do their job. SafeLives recommends a safe caseload of just 60-70 victims per Idva per year.

And that picture is the same all over the country. Over the last year, visible cases of high-risk domestic abuse have gone up 18%. That’s around 8,400 additional victims that services across the country need to help. Idva services don’t turn women away, or run waiting lists to manage demand. Instead, they stretch themselves ever more thinly to give a service to every victim they can – which leads to shorter interventions. And there are no Idva services which have seen anything like an 18% increase in capacity to help victims – indeed most have seen a decrease.

So I’ve been thinking about that team of brilliant but overworked Idvas this week as the parties launched their election manifestos. Happily, all the main parties standing in England talked about domestic abuse – a real step forward. But it’s a missed opportunity that the funding pledges in the Labour, Lib Dem and Conservative manifestos are only for refuge – when we need to fund a range of effective services for victims, whether they need rehousing or not.

Idva services, and their friends and champions, need to make sure that politicians, funders and commissioners hear from us over the next five years. We need to convince them about the impact community services make. After all, more than 60% of victims supported by an Idva and Marac report no further violence at case closure, making this intervention the most effective currently operating in the UK.

So that’s the next challenge for us at SafeLives. Whoever forms the next government, we will tell them from day one that they need to invest in and promote effective, risk-led Idva services alongside housing for victims of domestic abuse. It’s our job to sort the funding and the politics, to make sure that everyday our brilliant Idva colleagues can help more victims get safe and stay safe.