Policy blog

Getting it right first time – the grim reality

When I worked in the City no one ever talked to me about domestic abuse.  Now, a week does not go by that a friend does not ring me for advice about how to find help for their daughter, sister or close friend.  Most recently I was called by a friend who wants to help an elderly neighbour who, having finally divorced her abusive husband, is now suffering violence and abuse from her grown-up son.  My friend asked if I could find a local support service that she could speak to. Easy I thought.

Not so easy. I rang the service provider we had trained but they have lost the contract to a housing provider. They gave me the number for their floating support service. I rang but the number had changed. So armed with the new number I rang again. This time I got an answer phone telling me that they were only open from 10am to 2pm. Not to be defeated, I rang again the next day to find that they couldn’t help me and referred me to yet another organisation.

The next call found me talking to someone who wanted to give me immigration advice. I explained that I was looking for a domestic abuse support service and they offered to give me the number of a firm of family law solicitors. Not so easy at all. Five phone calls and I was no further forward. My internet searches yielded one service that was open from…10am to 2pm, one day a week.  

The good news is that I finally found a proper domestic violence service – thanks to a referral from one of our Leading Lights accredited services – and I am hoping that they will be able to help.  

So, five calls later it just reminded me that there are huge hurdles in getting help – even when a 70 year old woman who has lived with domestic abuse for over 40 years finally gets to a point where she has no choice but to speak out.  What does it feel like to all those women who don’t have a friend to help navigate the system?  For those women who will never call the police?

One year on from the inspector’s report, are police forces still failing victims of domestic abuse?

Today marks one year on from the landmark report by HMIC into domestic abuse.

It found that the police response to domestic abuse was not good enough. It found failings in core police business – like collecting evidence at the scene. It found that officers didn’t have the knowledge and skills to work with victims of abuse. And it showed that despite domestic abuse being linked to 8% of crimes, in reality police forces did not see it as a priority.

At the time, SafeLives (then Caada) said that the report was "a damning indictment of the leadership in the police" on domestic abuse. Our chief executive wrote:

“The failings that the inspector has identified are in the basic elements of the police response. One would assume that there would be a consistent approach to arrests when a crime is committed. Apparently not. Or gathering evidence. Or showing empathy to victims. Or correctly identifying the level of risk a victim faces. Or defining a repeat incident. The list goes on.”

Sadly, we weren’t shocked. Whilst we knew of good practice in some areas, we also knew that too often the response to victims was dismissive or disbelieving, or that the officers didn’t take action to make sure the victim didn’t suffer more abuse.

It was refreshing to see such a clear challenge held up to police forces to improve their response.

So, one year on: where are we now? In short: there has been some progress, but change is taking time, and isn’t anywhere near as fast or as urgent as we would like.

Some big changes are happening. SafeLives seconded one of our team to the College of Policing to write their new training programme on domestic abuse. “Domestic Abuse Matters – 25 days of Action” is a programme, not a single event, designed to reach a critical mass of first responders in every force, supported by in-house coaches. It is not just about training, but about driving culture change, and will be co-delivered by domestic abuse charities. And it focuses on coercive control – the key pattern of domestic abuse that often gets missed. The first pilot is about to take place in Hertfordshire – and will be evaluated to see whether the attitude change does take root.

HMIC also paid tribute to the brilliant work of Idvas on the ground, saying that PCCs “should take note of the strong value placed on the role of Idvas by the victims, police and other criminal justice agencies.” And we’ve been glad to see the number of Idvas all over the country continuing to rise – even though we still only have 50% of those we need.

Other changes are slower. Inspecting the police response to domestic abuse in isolation doesn’t show the whole picture. Domestic abuse touches the whole family – and other agencies such as children’s services, housing, health, substance misuse and mental health are also responsible for helping stop domestic abuse. This is why HMIC recommended a multi-agency inspection on domestic abuse – including the police and other local agencies. Agencies not prioritising domestic abuse and not working together are failing victims and children – and the learning from a joint inspection would be crucial. But the idea appears bogged down in inter-departmental discussions

Overall, we are still looking for the big change we need – and that means that police leaders have to make sure that their policies and priorities translate to the front line: every call, every time, for every victim and every perpetrator. Some forces still have a long way to go.

Here at SafeLives, we’ve worked with forces who want the challenge of an external partner to help them get better. We’ve run independent scrutiny panels for forces, and worked with PCCs to commission better services for victims. And we’re always here to help and challenge any force that really wants to get better at responding to domestic abuse.

The HMIC report was crystal clear about what needs to change. One year on, the pace of that change is not fast enough.     

Helping the Telegraph with some domestic abuse stats

When I tell my friends that I work for SafeLives, their reaction is often one of surprise. They don’t go so far as to say “But you’re a man” or “Isn’t domestic violence a women’s issue?” but you can sometimes see the question in their eyes.

I work for a domestic abuse charity because, even though the majority of victims are female, it is not just a ‘women’s issue’. As the slogan goes, stopping domestic violence is everyone’s business. That includes all forms of violence and abuse – physical, sexual, psychological, and financial too. It’s therefore disheartening to see Neil Lyndon playing down the prevalence of female homicide and rape in the Telegraph today.

It’s true that the stats around violence against women and girls are extraordinary. To turn Carl Sagan’s famous paradigm on its head, they are the extraordinary evidence that back up extraordinary claims. That’s why organisations like the UN, the UK’s Office for National Statistics, and yes, even SafeLives, spend time and resources getting their data right – even though we know that many victims are understandably worried about telling others about their experiences.

So you would expect Neil to provide some extraordinary counter-evidence to give substance to his extraordinary counter-claims. No such luck. Neil’s argument boils down to two main points:

  1. He doesn’t know any women who have been murdered or raped
  2. Britain’s annual sexual assault rates are low, which means the UN stats are wrong

Let’s start with that first point. Neil suggests that because he’s never known a woman who’s been murdered, it can’t be a leading cause of global premature female deaths. I am glad you do not know anyone who has been murdered, Neil – but hundreds of families in the UK aren’t that lucky, and still feel the loss of a loved one every day.

The point is this: anecdotes don’t mean anything by themselves. Neil also applies this anecdotal approach to sexual violence, arguing that he’s only ever met two women claiming to have been sexually assaulted. In his own words:

Both of them were disbelieved by their own women friends who reckoned the soi-disant victims were making up stories that couldn't be verified to dramatise their lives.

Neil, I’m not surprised more women haven’t told you or others in your social circle about sexual assaults they’ve experienced, if this is the reaction they can expect.

The second point in Neil’s argument  is so flawed that I can see why he had to include the anecdotes.

Neil’s concern is with the UN’s claim that one third of women worldwide experience sexual violence during their lifetime. He argues that 2.5% of women in Britain are recorded as being victims of sexual assault in the past 12 months and - because the experience of British women must be representative of one-third of the world’s population - that would mean every woman in the other two-thirds of the world had been sexually assaulted, which couldn’t be true.

Let’s allow Neil’s claim that Britain could be representative of one third of the world (even though the Europe, North America and the Australian continents only make up 20% of the global population).  Let’s ignore the fact that the 2.5% figure is a conservative estimate, given the problem of under-reporting. Neil has still missed a key point: the UN stat is measured over women’s lifetimes, not just the past 12 months.

 If 2.5% of women are sexually assaulted each year, the number who have been assaulted at some point in their lives will be far higher. In the UK, 20% of women aged 16-59 have been victims of some kind of sexual assault in their lifetimes. Given higher rates of sexual assault abroad and the use of rape as a weapon of war in conflict zones, the one-in-three stat is clearly plausible.

In short, Neil’s suggestion that the UN stat is “a claim which disintegrates in your hands like wet tissue paper the moment you subject it to scrutiny” is laughable.

But we’re dismayed that this denial of the widespread reality of abuse – and lack of empathy for victims – is still published on a mainstream newspaper website. Accurate statistics about domestic abuse, and violence against women more widely, are hard to come by, and sometimes harder to understand.

But measuring and understanding domestic abuse is something SafeLives is expert at. So Neil, the next time you would like to write a piece on domestic abuse in the UK, give us a call and we’ll help you out. Or you could just visit our brand new stats pages, for the latest numbers from the UK’s largest database of domestic abuse cases.  

Maybe then you’ll write a piece that’ll help victims speak up, and get help – rather than one that tells them they should be disbelieved.

By Tom.Ash

Counting Idvas – and why their numbers are rising

It’s been a good week for funding news for domestic violence services. We’ve just heard that SafeLives’ funding from the Home Office to support Maracs and train Idvas will continue – as will the Home Office’s funding direct to local areas to support Marac co-ordinators and Idva services, and the national helplines. And the Department for Communities and Local Government has just confirmed which local councils have won a share of the £10m they previously announced for housing support for domestic abuse victims.  

All of this is, though, set against a national picture where the funding available to help victims of domestic abuse isn’t close to meeting the need. It’s often split across multiple funders and not spent according to a joined-up strategy. And in recent years, many specialist services have even seen their funding cut.

The current picture of support

It can be difficult to know the exact picture of what’s out there to support victims, so, in late 2014 SafeLives decided to run our first annual survey of Idvas in England and Wales.

Over the last ten years, Idvas have transformed the landscape of domestic abuse services. Before, victims at high risk of murder or serious harm often had little choice but to go to a refuge, regardless of whether they needed to move home to become safe – and if that wasn’t the right option for them, there was little else.

Idvas are different: they work with the victim to understand the risk she faces, and help her create a plan to become safe. It’s a personal connection between the worker and the victim: each situation is different, and the Idva can work 1-2-1 with the victim to come up with a plan that works for her, manages the risk posed by the perpetrator and meets the victim’s needs.

Maybe she wants to take out a court order to stop the perpetrator returning, or needs help with mental health or practical problems like money. Maybe she’s worried about her kids and wants to get help for them too. Often the emotional support of an Idva is vital in helping the victim regain her confidence. And crucially, rather than working separately from the system, through the Marac the Idva is linked in to all the other agencies that need to help the victim become safe and stay safe – the police, housing, the council, local health services and others.

All this means that the victim gets a great service – and one that gives her the best chance of getting safe. Victims tell us they value the support from a dedicated expert who focuses on them. And nearly two-thirds of those helped by an Idva and Marac report that the abuse stops: it’s the most effective intervention for domestic abuse victims in the UK currently.

What the Idva survey told us

Over the past decade, the number of Idvas has been steadily rising. Here at SafeLives, we set up the role in its current incarnation, working with a group of brilliant small charities to pilot and refine it. And we train and support the UK’s Idva workforce: our externally-validated training is the original and the best. There are SafeLives-trained Idvas all over the UK, working every day to cut the risk victims face and make them safe.

The survey in 2014 was our first chance to really understand where Idvas were working, and with whom. We only asked about those working with high-risk victims, and we excluded those who weren’t working as Idvas, like outreach workers.   

Here’s what we found:

  • There are just under 500 Idvas working with high-risk victims across England and Wales
  • 930 Idvas are needed to support all high-risk victims in England and Wales (on SafeLives’ estimate). So we have just half the Idva capacity we need.
  • 80% of Idvas work in voluntary agencies, with the rest being employed by the public sector
  • Many Idvas are working with caseloads vastly higher than SafeLives recommends – this means they can’t always offer full wraparound support
  • 20 police force areas have less than half the required Idva capacity to support high-risk victims – and five have less than a quarter.

How many Idvas are there in each police force?

Our next steps

Over the past couple of months, we’ve written to the police and crime commissioner for each area to ask them about their plans to increase Idva capacity. Lots have responded positively, noting how valued the Idva services are by victims locally. And we’ve seen some areas really step up to the challenge: last week, the Mayor’s office for policing and crime announced funding for 40 new Idva posts in London. And in January, local partners in Essex funded an increase to 24 Idvas working with high-risk victims across the county.

The challenge now is to make sure the number of Idvas keeps going up, so that every area has enough to make sure that victims get the right help. And they need to be working alongside a great Marac, where every agency takes responsibility for making victims safe. We need every Idva to be SafeLives-qualified, and work as part of a great service which is big enough to be resilient and knows the impact it is making.

And here at SafeLives, we need to work out whether the Idva model can adapt to support other victims. We found that there are already 150 Idvas who work with medium- or standard-risk victims as part or all of their caseload. We know Idvas work for high-risk victims – and it’s obviously right to prioritise victims at the highest risk of murder or harm. But can the model work for medium-risk victims? How are those victims different, and how do we cut the risk to them? There’s some work for us to do on this – watch this space!

Here at SafeLives, we’re proud of the work that Idvas all over the country do – and we’ll always champion and support them. Or, as one Idva told us:

“We know how much we mean to victims – so often we hear ‘Thank god for the Idvas’ and ‘I’m not sure what I would have done without you.’”


How Mariella will advise a victim of domestic abuse in 2025…

Reading my Sunday paper this weekend, I came across Mariella Frostrup’s advice column. It’s classic agony aunt stuff – every week a reader writes in with their personal dilemma, and every week Mariella dispenses well-informed, compassionate advice.

This week’s column was, on the face of it, pretty typical. It was from a woman whose husband is abusing her, and she’s afraid to leave. It sounds like a bad situation. Mariella was on good form: she reassured the woman that lots of women experience domestic abuse, and gave her the best available advice that’s currently out there: call the national domestic violence helpline (0808 2000 247), and consider leaving your home and going to a refuge.

But the column gave me pause. Is that still the best advice that we can give a victim of domestic abuse?

Here at SafeLives, we think that the current best advice is just not good enough. There need to be better options for victims – and their children too. That’s what our new strategy is all about.

We hope that in five or ten years’ time, Mariella can write back to a similar victim* as follows:

“You need expert help. The good news is nowadays, in 2025, it’s not hard to get.

Tell your GP or the teacher at your children’s school, or call the police, and they’ll link you and your whole family into a great system of support in your local area. Or just google “domestic violence” and the name of your town, and the local phone number will pop up.  

A specialist will call you straightaway, and work out if you’re in immediate danger. If you are, the police will act to make sure you and the children are safe. Either they will arrest him, or they will issue a notice to make him leave your home. That’ll give you some breathing space – and you’ll know he can’t come near you or contact you.

You’ll probably be offered a meeting with an Idva – a specialist domestic violence worker - a day or two later. She’ll do a proper risk assessment, to work out how bad things are, and together you’ll make a plan to help you and the children become safe. Only the highest-risk victims used to get help from an Idva – but the feedback from the women they supported was so good that there are now enough of them across the country to help everyone who needs them.  

Your Idva will help you work out your feelings, and what you do next. And she’ll help you with practical issues too – making your home more safe and secure, or dealing with any money worries or any wider needs or concerns you have. If you want to, she’ll help you get a court order to stop your husband coming near you or the kids in the longer term.

She’ll also make sure your children get some help too – after all, they’ve been living with fear. Most areas now have great services for children who’ve seen domestic abuse – like those offered in schools by Place2Be.

You probably won’t need to leave your home, or move the kids to another school. But if you do need to move, you’ll only be in a refuge or emergency placement for a short time while the Idva and local council find you something more permanent.

All of the agencies that you need to help you will co-ordinate with each other behind the scenes. So you won’t have to tell your story over and over – and if anything happens, the police will know the situation and will get to you fast.

Once you’re safe from further abuse, your Idva will link you up to some ongoing support – maybe a course to help you understand your husband’s behaviour, or a chance to talk to other women who’ve been through similar experiences.   

And at the same time, your husband will get some help to change his behaviour. It used to be the case back in 2015 that only a few domestic abusers could get a place on a course. Now, things are different: he’ll work with a specialist who’ll hold him accountable, help him change and work to keep you and the kids safe. It won’t be easy for him, but the early results are really promising. At long last, as a society we are expecting the abuser to take responsibility – not just picking up the pieces afterwards.

Taking action for the safety of your family will be the toughest thing that’s ever been required of you. It’s an enormous challenge, but one you must rise to. I assure you that once you do find your own feet you’ll wonder why you lingered so long.”

One day, we hope Mariella will be able to write a response like that. But it’s up to us to make it happen. That’s what SafeLives and our partners are going to do – nothing more and nothing less than revolutionising the whole response to domestic abuse. If you want to be part of it, get in touch.

*We obviously don’t know the circumstances of the woman whose story featured in the Guardian, so we are responding to an outline only. If you’re experiencing domestic abuse right now, call 999 and get help – or call the national domestic violence helpline on 0808 2000 247 to talk through your options.