Policy blog

Interview: Zoë Billingham, HMIC

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time. 

‘The overall police response to victims of domestic abuse is not good enough': this was the conclusion drawn from the review of police forces in England and Wales by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) earlier this year. In a special interview for eNews, HMIC Inspector Zoë Billingham reflects on the implications of the review, and offers tips to police and practitioners on working together to tackle coercive control.

What key findings did the inspection make?

That the police response to victims of domestic abuse is just not good enough. Forces told us that domestic abuse was a priority on paper, but we found that this just isn't being put into practice. What was most disappointing is the way in which victims of domestic abuse are being failed with respect to even the most basic elements of policing. Too often domestic abuse is seen as the 'poor relation' in comparison to other types of crime.

What impact have HMIC's recommendations had so far?

We were really determined that any report we wrote didn't just sit on the shelf, but that it led to a real difference being made. We'll be continuing to work with the Home Secretary, the police and with women's voluntary organisations to make sure that the recommendations happen.

What findings and recommendations did you make around coercive control in particular?

We identified that, while police are aware of the definition of domestic abuse, they're generally poor at being able to identify coercion and threatening, controlling behaviour on the frontline. We also found very limited examples of frontline response officers having been trained effectively in domestic abuse.

To combat this, we've recommended that the College of Policing conducts a thorough and fundamental review to ensure its training reflects the fact that domestic abuse – including coercive control – is core policing business and is relevant to all officers and staff. Forces have a tendency to use online e-learning packages as a cheap and easy way of training staff, but we know from our inspection that it's not a good way to learn. It's absolutely vital that police officers have the time and space to think and reflect on such an important issue, and a classroom setting is essential to this. The voluntary sector has a massive role to play in this too.

You talk about domestic abuse being the ‘poor relation' in comparison to other crimes. How can forces go about changing this organisational culture?

We're asking Chief Constables and senior officers to review how they, as individuals and as leaders, give priority to domestic abuse. This includes looking carefully at the force's own culture and values, and its performance management framework. For instance - are officers that are really good at understanding victims rewarded through the selection and promotion processes? What sorts of messages do senior leaders send to their force about the importance of tackling domestic abuse? And so on.

What other advice can you give to senior officers to help them make changes within their force, particularly in relation to coercive control?

The advice I would offer would be:

  1. Take on board the recommendations we've outlined in the report, and act on them. When you put together your action plan, make sure it's realistic – work with partners, victims and charities to develop it, and look at how you can move training away from e-learning to something that includes proper input from victims.

  2. The College of Policing is pulling together a range of evidence about what works in identifying and tackling domestic abuse, and identifying coercion and control. This will feed into updating the Authorised Professional Practice and training programmes for policing at a national level, and be delivered to staff through education at a local level. As soon as that's available make sure that you're aware of it.

  3. Lead by example and show that domestic abuse is a priority for you. Attend the training with frontline officers, talk about the issue on your blog and social media, and raise it with the public at roadshows and local groups.

What about frontline officers? What advice would you give to them?

The best thing you can do when you go into a domestic abuse incident is:

  1. Make sure you've got all the available information. Things like a history of incidents at the property will help give you an idea of the nature of the relationship and who is likely to be the victim.

  2. Separate the parties immediately and listen carefully to what each has to tell you. Never jump to conclusions or make assumptions about the victim or their lifestyle. Be aware not just of what they are saying but how they are saying it, and observe whether they seem to be holding back. If the victim is being uncooperative, consider why this might be - it's possible they are simply terrified.

  3. Ask questions that will help you to ascertain whether this is a relationship which is controlling and abusive - remember that there doesn't have to be visible injuries in order for you to act.

  4. Above all, take your time. Doing the best you can to understand the relationship in front of you will help you to identify what support the victim needs, and what police action is required in order to protect them.

Finally, what can domestic abuse practitioners do to support the police?

They have an invaluable role to play. In some areas, we're even seeing IDVAs accompanying police to incidents. In the report, we're extremely clear about the important role IDVAs play because we just couldn't conceive the overall response to victims being where it is without them. IDVAs give such extraordinary levels of support - often across all risk levels.

During the review, we found so many benefits in forces where IDVAs are co-located either in police stations, or working in the specialist domestic abuse or protecting vulnerable people units. It's not just the support the IDVAs provide to the victims that's important, it's the knowledge and understanding that IDVAs bring into an organisation, a police force.


Coercive control: “Why we want the law to change”

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between  August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time.

Diana Barran, Polly Neate and Laura Richards explain why they're backing proposals to criminalise coercive control.

It's an issue that's been widely publicised over recent months: whether the law, as it stands, adequately protects victims of domestic abuse. Last month (21st August), following a high profile campaign by Women's AidPaladin and the Sara Charlton Charitable Foundation, the Home Secretary opened a consultation to establish whether a specific offence capturing patterns of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships should be introduced.

To reflect patterns of abuse 

According to Laura Richards, Chief Executive and Founder of Paladin, current legislation falls short because it is too selective. She explains that the laws used to prosecute domestic abuse at the moment – such as assault, rape, kidnapping and murder – do not describe its essence. “It misses the fact that domestic abuse is about fear, coercive control and continuing acts.” It is these non-physical manifestations of power and control – which Laura likens to brainwashing – that are not recognised in law, despite often being the worst part for victims. “We need an offence that reflects the reality of domestic abuse in all its guises,” she emphasises.

For Laura, the recent reforms to the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 – in which she was also heavily involved in the campaign for – offer a useful starting point when considering ways of modernising the current law to include a pattern of abusive behaviour. “Stalking laws criminalise a course of conduct, target patterns and address a broad range of harm, but they can't be used for ongoing relationships.” Like the stalking law before it, Laura hopes that criminalising this form of abuse will have a similar impact. “It would send a strong message that abusive and coercively controlling behaviour within a relationship is unacceptable and will not be tolerated."

To improve the police response 

It seems likely, then, that any change in legislation will require a genuine change in attitudes to domestic abuse in order to have the desired effect. The police, in particular, have come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent months in relation to this. The 2013 review of forces in England and Wales by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), whose findings were published in March, concluded that domestic abuse is rarely seen as a serious crime. It also identified that frontline officers lack a proper understanding of the issue – particularly around coercive control.

Polly Neate, Chief Executive of Women's Aid, is more than aware of how this outlook translates into practice. “The main reason victims don't come forward is because they get such a poor response when they do,” she reflects. “The police just don't have the ability to act when the harm is mainly psychological, and they don't have the ability to criminalise or arrest anyone for a pattern of behaviour.”

Like Laura, Polly hopes a change in the law will be the wake-up call the criminal justice system needs to address the longstanding culture surrounding domestic abuse. She describes the lack of understanding among police as “profound”, but is a firm believer that improving the police response will be the first step towards increasing reporting rates. “If the consultation does lead to a change in the law, it needs to be accompanied by some significant awareness raising activity.” Training will also be essential. This is something which, at the moment, Polly believes not enough police forces – or indeed any other agencies – are investing properly in. “However, there is an opportunity in the concerted response to the HMIC Inquiry," she adds, "and if the law is changed this will need to inform that response.”

But Polly is clear that the police are just a part of the overall response, as many victims will only approach them when they feel safe to do so. If we want victims to disclose earlier, Polly says, we need to think about who that is likely to be to, and ensure there are clear referral routes in place. “We need to think much more widely than we do now to identify where that early identification can best happen,” she emphasises.

As a springboard for wider change 

CAADA's research indicates that less than a fifth (17%) of victims who experience no physical abuse will make a report to the police. "Victims call the police in a crisis,” Diana Barran, Chief Executive, explains. “Those who are worn down day after day by emotional abuse just won't make contact.”

And there are other victims too: the impact on children of growing up in a home where coercive control is present is well documented. Perpetrators may even cause them to become implicit in the abuse. “Children are often the biggest victims in abusive relationships,” Diana continues. “Our only concern would be that criminalising this type of behaviour won't necessarily help them.” However, since a non-molestation order can be used as proof of domestic abuse to access legal aid in applications for orders under the Children Act, this route will ensure more children living with these forms of abuse can access protection.

For CAADA, it's crucial that a non-criminal justice route is offered to allow victims to address their situation in a way that works for them. “This approach would have the advantage - particularly in cases where couples have not separated - of avoiding the immediate criminalisation of the perpetrator, and taking the opportunity to offer practical remedies for this type of behaviour,” Diana says. “We are also concerned that the definition of the behaviours that are criminalised is tightly drawn. We don't want a situation either where every unhappy relationship is criminalised or where the legislation can be used by perpetrators against their victims.”

With around 80% of IDVA clients experiencing coercive control, it's clear that this is not an issue that will be resolved overnight. Like stalking before it, any change in the law will take time to embed. But combined with a package of awareness raising, training and the right leadership from police and other public agencies, the legislation looks to be a good foundation for better supporting victims.

By Tom.Ash

“We have to look beyond violence to the pattern of domination and control”

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between November and December 2013 and reflected our views at the time.

Physical abuse is rarely the full picture, says expert on coercive control, Professor Evan Stark. Speaking at a special event held by CAADA and Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Event (AAFDA) in October, Professor Stark reflected on the need to ‘reframe' domestic abuse to place greater emphasis on the dynamics of power and control present in the majority of abusive relationships. Coercive control was added to the cross-government definition of domestic abuse earlier this year.

Discussing his research on the issue, Professor Stark – an author, academic and forensic social worker – explained: “We were coming to understand what women have been telling us for years: namely that the violence wasn't the worst part… What was significant about the violence women were experiencing was not its severity, but its frequency and its duration, and the cumulative effect that frequent violence extended over a significant period of time had on its victims.”


Lasting damage

High risk domestic abuse is often underpinned by coercive control: in CAADA's 2012 report, A place of greater safety, 79% of victims experienced jealous and controlling behaviour, with three quarters experiencing multiple types of abuse. Jo Morrish, CAADA's Learning and Quality Service Manager, says: “While immediate physical risk must always be prioritised, it's clear that extreme levels of coercion and control are also directly associated with the risk of homicide or serious harm. Indeed, a number of homicide cases have been characterised mainly by the extent of coercion, rather than previous physical violence.

"We believe that emotional abuse is what causes lasting psychological damage for victims of domestic abuse. The impact on their self-esteem and self-worth also makes them vulnerable to entering into other abusive relationships in future. We have always argued that practitioners should recognise the significance of coercion and control and welcomed the change in the definition of domestic abuse to include this.”




By Tom.Ash

80% of victims experience coercive and controlling behaviours

This content originally appeared in our newsletter between August and September 2014 and reflected our views at the time. 

Around 80% of IDVA clients experience coercive and controlling behaviour*, new research from CAADA's Insights service has shown. The research also confirmed that the severity of coercive control correlated with the severity of risk: some 66% of high risk cases analysed were found to be experiencing severe levels of controlling behaviours, compared with 21% or lower for non-high risk cases.

Victims experiencing coercive control** in isolation from other types of abuse were also shown to be more likely to under-report to police. Of 3,000 cases suffering exclusively from coercive control, only 17% made a report to the police - less than half the level of those also experiencing physical abuse.

Diana Barran, CAADA's Chief Executive, says: "Our data underlines two crucial points. Firstly, IDVAs are rightly recognising the risk associated with coercion and control, and not just focusing on physical violence when assessing risk. Secondly, it shows that victims typically only call the police in a crisis.

"While we don't anticipate that changing the law will alter this significantly, we do hope that the focus on patterns of behaviour rather than just single incidents will encourage the police to identify these - both in relation to physical violence and coercive control - when victims do come forward. Sadly, criminalising coercive control will not make a difference to the impact on children who again are the hidden victims of this behaviour. But we do hope it will also raise awareness of the issue, giving more victims the courage to come forward and access specialist support - for themselves and their family."

* Jealous and controlling behaviour, as defined as ‘high' on the Severity of Abuse Grid. 
** Cases where no physical abuse was reported.

By Tom.Ash