Policy blog

A cup of tea with: Diana Barran, SafeLives CEO

Ruth Davies is the Communications Officer at SafeLives. In this series she'll interview a different team member every month - over a nice cup of tea.

Ruth: So, could you tell me a little bit about how you came to found CRARG [the first incarnation of SafeLives] and what your motivations and approach were at that time?

Diana: Years ago I was working for New Philanthropy Capital, a charity that advises donors and grant makers on which charities to give their money to. On one occasion I asked some of the children’s charities we’d given to: “If we hadn’t given you this grant, who should have got it instead?” My criteria were that it should be the biggest human problem that was the hardest to raise money for – and all three of them said domestic abuse.

So what was the next step?

I went and visited a whole range of different domestic abuse charities, big and small as well as spending time with the police, children’s services and domestic abuse coordinators. I’m a believer that when you’re coming to something from the outside you can see it very clearly – whereas when you’ve been involved with something for a long time it can become overly nuanced and complicated.

I was very struck that the overwhelming focus at that time was on safeguarding women and children by taking them from their homes and giving them shelter in a refuge. I knew that if I’d been in that situation there was no way I could go into a refuge with my three teenage boys, so I thought ‘what do we do about those women who can’t go into refuge?’ It was clear that refuge played a vital role but that women needed more choices and options.

At SafeLives we always work with what we call the ‘best friend rule’; if your best friend was experiencing domestic abuse, what would you want for her? We decided that it’s a single person to talk to – which is the Idva – and that they should be an advocate for you with all the different statutory agencies – via a Marac. The third principle was that in a world without enough money, you have to start with the victims at highest risk of serious harm or murder. We wanted to make the case that it was a human, practical and cost-effective approach – that should be available wherever you are in the country. For the first ten years we focussed almost entirely on rolling out that model.

At what point did you realise that your approach was working?

When we did our first Idva training course, it was in a tiny room – the learners had to crawl under the desks to get to their seats – and I’d dragged the course materials across London in two wheelie suitcases to avoid paying for a taxi! Before the first course was over we’d had enquiries about running a second course. We then had a massive waiting list for about the next five years. It became clear that we’d tapped into a real unmet need for recognition in the sector. The last day of the first course was very emotional, it felt like a real landmark moment.

How do those early years relate to the strategy now?

From the beginning what’s always worked for us is the combination of practice, data and the voices of victims and survivors. What we do has changed, but how we do it is the same – I think we’re at our best when those three things work together. For example the Cry For Health report. That came out of the practitioners and the researchers sitting down together, looking at our Safety in Numbers report and saying “We’ve got a few referrals from hospitals, and they seem to be very different kinds of people to the other referrals. We need to look at this some more.”

What excites you the most about where we are now?

I think our vision of the whole family response is incredibly exciting. I think we’re at the most creative phase that I can remember since those early years. We focussed for a long time on implementation and now we’re in a real creative phase again. I also think it’s so exciting to be working in partnerships – almost everything we’re doing is in partnership, and I think we’re going to learn so much, and hopefully share some things too. The other thing which makes me smile, is that we’ve got some amazing people. If you look at the quality of people we’re bringing into the organisation at the moment, as well as those who have been with us for years, I sometimes have to touch wood to believe it’s all real! So I think it’s the combination of creativity, partnership and people that makes this moment so exciting.

Finally, what keeps you going? What makes you feel confident that we’re on the right track?

If you look at who is working alongside us to deliver our big projects, we seem to have the confidence of some incredibly thoughtful and experienced funders, really busy other charities who are already doing a huge amount of great work, and amazing sector professionals. When I walked out of the Cry for Health launch, I felt a real sense that we were part of a movement. Being part of something bigger feels very positive. I also think that our commitment to being very brave in the way that we work with our survivor Pioneers, and the trust they place in us, is extremely powerful. My amazing colleagues have such brilliant human instincts around how we work boldly but respectfully with people who have been through immense trauma. The relationship we have with our Pioneers just makes me grin from ear to ear. 

Speaking the same language to reach the same goal

When Standing Together recently published the Domestic Homicide Review (DHR) Case Analysis – it was clear that there are huge failings in agencies identifying risk successfully, and a lack of understanding of control and coercion. Such findings are common, but no less depressing and urgent because of how many times we read them. We want to make things better, working with agencies, charities, and survivors to make sure we have the best tools to provide a quality, tailored response that saves lives.

No profession is perfect; there is no organisation immune to the fact that people are fallible. But when those organisations support survivors of domestic abuse – that variation in quality can have life-threatening implications.

The Dash was developed in order to go some way to counter this. To provide a useful and uniform tool that could help everybody to identify risk – whatever their background or expertise.

It means that we speak the same language. If we believe in a multi-agency, holistic response to domestic abuse – and we do – it is a lot more effective if each agency not only has a common goal, but a common understanding of how to get there. If a police officer talks about whether a woman is pregnant, if a midwife asks whether the perpetrator has used an object or weapon in the home, we are successfully working outside of our silos. We are creating an understanding that reflects the complex nature of abuse, not our own professional agendas.

The Dash is not the answer to everything; it does not replace professional judgement or empathy. On its own, it does not change behaviour and culture. We know it takes more that that; we are staunch believers in high quality training to create change, such as our programme with the College of Policing: DA Matters.

Disclosure of domestic abuse is not predictable. It cannot be summarised with tidy flow charts and linear decision making. Survivors disclose in all manner of ways to a huge range of people. Creating a tool available to everyone means that all professionals can easily and quickly identify risk in challenging and changing circumstances.

The Dash makes the links for professionals between overt criminal and coercive behaviours, suicide, substance misuse, separation, child contact, pregnancy and fear.  Of course it is not a magic wand. It will not stop people from taking short cuts, or give them the confidence to ask sensitive questions. It’s guidance; it prompts risk thinking and provides consistency.

The Standing Together report reminds us that we have so much more to do so before we all have the same understanding of risk. A common tool is surely an essential part of making that a reality.

Why we still need specific provision to keep women and girls safe

In May this year, the Big Lottery Fund awarded £45 million to services for ‘Women and Girls’. Within this, they made a grant of £5.75m to a partnership between SafeLives and Women’s Aid. Both organisations are committed to making the lives of women safer, independent, and equal. 

I use the word ‘women’ deliberately. This money came from the Big Lottery’s ‘Women and Girls’ initiative and therefore the project will focus on how to make women and girls safe. This specific provision is welcomed by us; it is also something that causes controversy and concern in some quarters. 

Every day, we receive messages asking ‘what about men?’ We thought today (International Day to Eliminate Violence against Women) was the perfect day to be open, to be vocal, and to explain our approach. 

This is not about discrimination. It’s about the evidence. The facts speak, very plainly, for themselves. We know 95% of victims at the highest risk of murder or serious harm are women. Women are 52% of the UK’s population and are dying at a rate of two a week, far more if you include suicide linked to abuse as well as murder.  

These aren’t details. This isn’t historic. It’s now and it’s significant, and we have so far to go before it is made better. We believe that this means we must continue to protect and provide services for women, to reduce the imminent risk to them, to make them safe from the terrifying ordeal of abuse and to help them recover and move on. 

We know male victims exist. Recognising their needs in no way prevents the need for specific provision and funds for women.  

We welcome the Lottery’s commitment to women; as we welcome the Government’s continued commitment to making specific provision, in its strategies and funding arrangements. 

All violence, fear and control in a relationship is wrong. And we can say that while still believing in specific provision for women. Denying or minimising the lived experience of hundreds of thousands of women is not the way to make progress. 

We support campaigns that encourage men to be part of the solution, such as the White Ribbon Campaign. We work closely with organisations that specialise in supporting male victims, such as Respect. And we believe perpetrators must receive specialist intervention to change and be challenged, such as the Drive Partnership between SafeLives, Respect and Social Finance. All family members need appropriate support if domestic abuse is to end. 

We passionately believe in a world where women and girls are free from abuse. A world in which women don’t go home scared at the end of the day. We don’t want to keep reading domestic homicide reviews which tell us yet another story of a preventable death. So we will not bow out of the debate.  Domestic abuse is gendered. And for that reason, we welcome specific provision for women and girls. We are determined that this Big Lottery ‘Women and Girls’ grant will bring us closer towards a reality of our joint goal: to see women and girls free from fear.  

Big Lottery Logo



Cry for Health

Today, we publish our research ‘A Cry for Health’ – a rallying cry to every hospital in England and Wales to have specialist domestic abuse support onsite.

This is a recommendation after years of research. Women and children living with abuse have been waiting for much much longer.

Domestic abuse is a public health epidemic and health must be part of the solution. We must meet victims where they are.  We know four of five victims do not call the police. We have to go to them: where they feel supported, where they feel safe and free from stigma.

We must have Independent Domestic Violence Advisors (Idvas) in hospitals across the country.

Our research shows very starkly that domestic abuse victims in hospital experience multiple vulnerabilities. The levels of physical and sexual abuse as well as coercive and controlling behaviour are frankly shocking. Two thirds of victims in hospital disclose serious mental health issues, including half with PTSD and nearly half have self-harmed or attempted suicide. We also found that half of the victims who disclose in hospital are still with their partner.

By failing to ask the question in hospital – they are being discharged back into the arms of the perpetrator who put them there. Only to inevitably return weeks later. This cycle of abuse could be stopped - if we have had specialist professionals to ask the question and provide support, right then, right there.

And of course many of these victims have children – children who are growing up in households that are filled with fear. Everything we know about the development of children’s brains tells us that these are exactly the children who need our help. And their mothers are just women who understandably do not want to call the police. It only takes each of us to think for just one second how hard that must be, and how long we might all wait before calling the police on a family member. On the father of our children. We mustn’t wait until victims call the police because they are scared for their lives. We must find ways to ask them first.  And Idvas in hospitals could help us do just that.

More broadly, our research shows that this is also an issue for staff working in hospitals. Our best estimate is that over 50,000 NHS employees (44,000 women and 6,000 men) are victims of domestic abuse. We need help in hospitals for staff as well as patients. With domestic abuse – there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’. Only us.

Sometimes our enthusiasm and passion for the cause can blur our judgement about what is possible. But I cannot think of another time where I have felt more personally excited about the potential for change. We have absolute focus that this is a common sense vision that can be achieved. There is nothing simple about addressing domestic abuse, but improving support in hospitals for victims at their most vulnerable seems like a pretty good step in the right direction.

And we think it will cost just £100,000 per hospital to unlock the capacity of the clinical staff and for specialist domestic abuse professionals to be onsite. When we know that domestic abuse costs the NHS £1.76 billion – that is put into perspective. 

There is a book by Roddy Doyle, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, and I would like to just include a short extract from Paula – the heroine of the story who represents so many thousands of heroines up and down the country.

In this extract, Paula is in A&E after another assault from her husband Charlo. She puts it better than I can.

Someone once told me that we never remember pain.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone.  A nurse.  She told me just before the doctor put my arm back in its socket.  She was being nice.  She’d seen me before.
I fell down the stairs again, I told her.  Sorry.
No questions asked. What about the burns on my hand? The missing hair?  The teeth?  I waited to be asked.  Ask me.  Ask me.  I’d tell her.  I’d tell them everything….Ask me about it.
In the hospital.
Please ask me.
In the clinic.
Ask me, ask me, ask me….
I would get worked up waiting.  I believed it was a matter of luck.  Maybe this time.  A nurse would look at me and know.  A doctor would look past his nose. He’d ask the question. He’d ask the right question and I’d answer and it would be over.  One question.  One question.  I’d answer.

I’d tell them everything if they asked.”

For more information on our research, see our A Cry For Health section and join the conversation on Twitter at #CryForHealth




Disrupting the silence

This week it is our staff conference - a time for us to get together and plan for the year ahead. It is crucial for us to always think about we can put the voice of victims and survivors at the heart of everything we do. Our Chief Executive, Diana, reflects on the power of people speaking out.

I was struck last week by the courage of several victims of gender-based violence to speak out publicly, and just how important it is that everyone hears their voices – not just those of us who work in the sector. Whether it is the extraordinary letter from the victim of rape at Stanford to Brock Turner, the rapist, or the emotional words from Barry Steenkamp about his murdered daughter – they all put in stark relief the impact of gender-based violence and how we must never ever lose sight of this. 

And the wonderful Rachel Williams, who spoke so powerfully on Radio London last week about her experiences. Brave survivors of rape and sexual abuse have spoken out publicly via the Clear Lines Festival, led by Winnie Li and Nina Burrowes.  A blog post from the Womanity Foundation highlighted the work of GlobalGirl Media, which is bringing women’s experiences to life through video. Increasingly, social media too is giving us all a glimpse of this reality. 

Lots of good and important stuff is happening out there and we are listening hard. At SafeLives, we describe ourselves as expert-led. We must remind ourselves that the real experts are those who have lived it, experienced it, and know first-hand the fear and trauma of abuse and assault. And that is why is the victims, survivors, and their friends and family that truly lead our work –  helping us understand how we can work together to make things better.

People think abuse happens behind ‘closed doors’, well -  not if these women have anything to do with it. These voices couldn't be further from the victim-blaming, judgemental narratives that we read every day. 

I applaud their courage and hope that the world starts listening to these and many many others. As the Womanity Foundation's blog put it, we all need to ‘disrupt the silence’.