Practice blog

A whole family, whole picture approach

Jo is Director of Quality and Innovation at SafeLives. Within this role she is responsible for designing and piloting exciting new and effective interventions to end domestic abuse, providing expert advice on activities, policy messages and practice. She works with national and local commissioners, funders, policy makers and partners to make this happen. Jo was previously was Director of Professional Development at SafeLives, has been senior consultant at the NSPCC in Cardiff and previously worked for the police for ten years in the public protection unit and at the Women's Safety Unit. 

A Whole Family, Whole Picture Approach  

Just like children’s safeguarding, domestic abuse is everyone’s problem, and every agency has a role to play in supporting the whole family.  Frequently, however, the response to parents is so separated from the response to their children, that we’re not joining up and looking at the impact of domestic abuse on the whole family.  The child protection and domestic abuse response can become separated from each other, with assessments of children and parents made without the active involvement of domestic abuse practitioners and vice versa. This often means no one is seeing the bigger picture and interventions can be unsafe, ineffective and unsustainable.  

We know that family members and their vulnerabilities interconnect; people do not operate in silos, but this is not reflected in the way we work.   Often, we support one person, one concern at a time.  We refer to one agency for mental health support, another for domestic abuse support, another for substance use support. Practitioners are working in a silo and in doing so there is a duplication of effort, strained resources, practitioners giving disjointed or contradictory messages to families, and uncoordinated interventions.  We are missing opportunities to help people at an early stage and lives are being put at risk.   In a nutshell, we are safeguarding adults and children in a way that suits us not them.  

Seeing the whole family  

Children and young people need the right support, at the right time, to keep them safe and help them rebuild and recover. If this doesn’t happen, the consequences can be long-term and devastating.  A decision of ‘No Further Action’ is not an appropriate response for families where there is domestic abuse. We should consider which universal or non-statutory services can be provide a little support, even for those families who don’t meet the threshold for children's social care intervention. It costs more in the long run, both financially and in resources, when supportive actions are not implemented at the earliest opportunity, but the cost is greatest for the families we aim to help. We have not heard from children and young people with lived experience that say- don’t worry it sorts itself out in the end. “No Further Action” rarely ends in happily ever after does it? 

For every person being abused, there is someone else responsible for that abuse: the perpetrator.  Yet perpetrators of domestic abuse are too often invisible within safeguarding action plans.  Child protection approaches focus on scrutinising the survivor’s ability to protect, rather than managing the risk that the perpetrator poses.   Children’s social care teams often struggle to engage with perpetrators in meaningful ways and have very little access to appropriate interventions, reducing opportunities to address abusive behaviour before it escalates.  If we really want to work with the whole family, we need to work with the person responsible for the harm. We can help them to challenge these behaviours and where possible, support them to change. How many family agreements where domestic abuse is evident do you see the perpetrators signature? 

Practitioners are exhausted by seeing the revolving door of families being re-referred into domestic abuse services, being bounced around services and offered only short-term sticking plaster solutions. What does that feel like for our families? 

One Front Door 

One Front Door aims to support vulnerable adults and children to get a swift and effective response.  It is our vision for a transformation of local systems, processes and responses. 

The One Front Door (OFD) project aims to integrate pathways into child safeguarding and domestic abuse services by organisations working together to identify and safeguard vulnerable families at the earliest opportunity.  Pilots have been developed in seven sites across England to trial this approach and support agencies to develop processes including referrals and consent, risk assessment, information sharing, collaborative working and information systems. 

In the OFD model,a multi-agency specialist team will identify the needs and risks to all family members at the same time, facilitating early intervention and pre-emptive action. In this way, a team of co-located expert practitioners from a range of agencies will work collaboratively to assess risk in all its guises, whenever there is a safeguarding concern raised about any family member.  By pooling expertise and sharing information at the earliest opportunity, we enable professionals to get the most comprehensive picture of risk for each family member, avoiding those cases of ‘No Further Action’ where risk had been assessed for a single person and single criterion. Using this method, we can identify links between people who pose significant risk and those who are vulnerable. This is key to identifying potentially dangerous situations for children and young people, such as child sexual exploitation, gangs and organised crime. 

In our pilot sites, multi-agency teams use a whole family assessment system which enables them to quickly identify what level of information sharing is crucial and lawful.  Information is not just shared within hours of the referral being made; it’s used meaningfully. By collaborating, practitioners from different disciplines can understand different presentations of risk and need, and what that means for the entire family. Then, a plan of next steps can be created within 24 hours. 

Unlike a MASH, OFD sees key agencies coming together from the moment the referral comes in. Multiple experts work together and are equally responsible for the decision making. This means we are reducing the risk of families falling through the gaps. We’re not reliant on one particular agency’s perspective, but rather sharing the responsibility and making the most of the expertise each partner can offer. We don’t expect children's social workers to be experts in everything; One Front Door helps experts to contribute to safeguarding straight away, so Childrens social care can do their job well, safe in the knowledge that they have experts in mental health, substance misuse, criminal justice and domestic abuse on their side. 

One Front Door is underpinned by six principles which are required to meet the needs of families experiencing domestic abuse: 

A transformation of systems, processes and responses      

Better support for children and young people who live in fear  

Creating long term change, not short-term fixes  

Disrupting those that abuse; perpetrators challenged and held to account.  

Engaging the ‘whole family’ means more opportunity to make people safe, sooner.   

Families do not operate in silos, and neither must we   

 We are in the final stages of our evaluation of One Front Door. In one site, the number of contacts that were not closed with a ‘no further action’ outcome increased by 25%. This is a 25% increase in the number of families accessing support at the earliest opportunity. Families who would otherwise come back through the revolving door with a worsened situation, with children experiencing being scared at home again and again and again. Would this be good enough for your best friends' children? 

Read the One Front Door report.

We are currently looking for funding opportunities to continue to build OFD as an effective whole family response. For more information, please email OFD@safelives.org.uk 

Visit our Spotlight page for more blogs, podcasts, guidance and survivor stories over the coming weeks


Three ways to make sure families are safe and seen

Vicky was a victim of domestic abuse, coercive and controlling behaviour, threats to share sexualised images and stalking.  She had known her perpetrator for 10 years prior to  their relationship. They moved in together and within months Vicky found out she was pregnant.  His behaviour towards her changed quickly and Vicky found herself isolated, scared and unable to make decisions without permission from her partner. Vicky eventually left, but was stalked for a year after separation and until the day he was arrested. Vicky’s ex-partner was charged and convicted of stalking and was subsequently sentenced to custody. Vicky also went through the family court process which led to an Order being made that ensured her child was to have no contact with their father. Shortly after this, Vicky was introduced to SafeLives and became a Pioneer, helping to drive our work. Vicky also works with victims of similar offences. 

In this blog Vicky shares her experience of being involved with children’s social care and what three things she thinks children’s social care can do to make sure all victims within the family are seen and safe.   

My first social worker told me to maintain contact between my daughter and my ex-partner.  He said that from what he could tell my ex-partner was professional, articulate and presented as low risk as he hadn’t physically harmed me or my daughter.  He told me that it would be in my child’s best interest to maintain contact with her father.  He didn’t ask me what I thought was in her best interests or if I thought there was any risk to my daughter.  

My ex-partner kept making malicious reports and calls to my social worker.  He would claim our daughter was being abused by my new partner, say that I had taught her to swear and accuse us of many other things. A further five malicious calls later, my social worker said to me ‘look, you have two choices. Keep allowing your daughter to see her dad as if you do, and we will keep turning up when he calls. Or you can stop all contact and go through family court’.  

I felt he had put the decision in my hands at the worst time and without considering that stopping contact would escalate the risk from my ex-partner towards us. It was around the time the criminal process had just started and my ex-partner was angry. Stopping contact would make him angrier and give him another reason to threaten me or turn up to my home. I was scared to be the one to do thisIn some of the final times he saw my daughter he taught her to call me a slut and sent me a video of it. He also bruised her legs and accused my new partner of doing this. This all led social services to stop my daughter having contact with my partner.  This left me feeling isolated, at-risk and scared.  

Due to the contact the social worker had had with my ex-partner he was called as a witness in the criminal court case.  It was at this point my social worker was changed due to conflict of interest within the criminal case. At court my old social worker apologised to me. He said that he didn’t have the training to see the danger myself and my daughter were in.  

I was given a new social worker who understood it all.  She understood the physical risk but also the psychological risk to my daughter.  Eventually, a family court issued an order that meant my daughter never had to see her father again. The new social worker had had appropriate training, she understood the manipulative tactics perpetrators can use and how they can use services to abuse their victims. It only took one person to listen and believe how the psychological abuse and coercive control were impacting our lives, to make the right decision and protect us.  

The three things that children’s social care can do to make sure children and the non-abusive parent are safe and seen are: 

  1. Understand the psychological impact not just the physical risks. 

  1. Understand how perpetrators can manipulate the system and professionals within it to further control and abuse  

  1. Know what will make victims safer and not put them at further risk.   


Visit our Spotlight page for more blogs, podcasts, guidance and survivor stories over the coming weeks


Survivors' experience with children’s social care

Rachel Williams is a survivor and violence against women and children activist. Rachel lived with domestic abuse from the age of 21 to 39.  Her abuser attempted to kill Rachel and then committed suicide.  Several weeks later their son, Jack, also committed suicide.  Rachel is now a published author (The Devil at Home), SafeLives Pioneer, ambassador for Welsh Women’s Aid and devotes her time to supporting other victims and survivors.  We asked Rachel and other survivors who follow her online what their experience was like with children’s social care and how they should be supporting families experiencing domestic abuse.

Rachel’s Story

Jack went to stay with her ex-partners family straight after the shooting. The last time she saw him was the day of the shooting. At first he went to stay with them out of sympathy for his Dad’s death but it ended up being a toxic environment for him.  They were blaming Rachel for what had happened.  There was a criminal investigation going on surrounding the shooting and Rachel did not feel Jack’s mental and emotional well-being was being cared for.  Rachel rang children’s social care to ask them for help.  They said because he was 16 years old he could choose where he lived and they would not intervene. They did not assess Jacks mental and emotional wellbeing, how his current environment was impacting him or how it had been affected by living in a home where there had been domestic abuse. Jack was in counselling at the time and Rachel knew his current living arrangements were undoing all the progress he was making. Six weeks later Jack took his own life. 

Specialist knowledge and training

Many of Rachel’s followers also share stories of children’s social care not recognising the impact and trauma that is created by the emotional and mental abuse children experience. Many of them agree that their number one ask would be for social workers to receive regular training on domestic abuse.  This could do so much to increase the skill and knowledge social workers have to support families.  Rachel said “we can all become complacent in our jobs but when you work with vulnerable victims of domestic abuse it could be a matter of life or death.”  Training on domestic abuse is so important but what others also asked for was that this led to specialist social workers who could deal with the complex nature of domestic abuse. 

Survivors recognise that social workers have large workloads and are dealing with supporting families going through horrific experiences.  However, when faced with supporting families who have experienced emotional and psychological harm, they feel that this is down-graded and deprioritised.  One of Rachel’s followers described this as the ‘acid rain effect.’  Training social workers in recognising this abuse, listening and believing their experience and understanding the impact will improve social work assessments and interactions with these families.

Solutions and support for all family members

Many of Rachel’s followers talked about the fear of having their children removed from them.  One survivor1 told us that the “fear of social services was the main single source of stress and at times... In many ways, the institutions that were supposed to help me were the most dangerous since they had more power to take my daughter away from me than my abusive husband”. 

They want social workers to understand that to protect children the non-abusive parent has to be supported and offered real solutions that will make them safer.  Our national Insights briefing also told us that the response to family’s needs to be much more holistic with the perpetrator being held to account. 

One of Rachel’s followers said “We had a fab social worker and her manager was amazing. They did all they could but they were so restricted in what they could actually offer.”  Survivors often talk about being asked to leave the abusive relationship and go to a place of safety.  Often this isn’t what families who have experienced domestic abuse want to do.  Children don’t want to leave their homes, their toys, their school and friends and this ends up being a big reason why survivors stay.  Some survivors talked about social workers only wanting to be involved when things were high risk and by then concerns were so great that the only solution available to families is to leave the abuse or face your children being removed. 

As we know from Rachel’s experience often older children are not seen as in need of protection or intervention.  From our own research we know that domestic abuse has a devastating impact whatever their age.  Families were more likely to be known to Children’s Services if they have children under the age of 5 years old and more likely to be subject to a child protection plan2. One young person in the children's insights data3 report said: 

“I wasn’t offered any help at the time but I’ve had nightmares about what I saw and heard.  I think because mum and dad weren’t together anymore, and mum was getting help, they thought I didn’t need any.”  Adam, 15

Safe and seen

All of the survivors who Rachel was in touch with talked about the need for children’s social care to ask and to listen to survivors and their children.  Know what victims need and don’t assume.  Rachel wants to see a time where survivors seek and embrace help from children’s social care and not run from them.   


Rachel Williams tweets at @Dontlookback198 and can be found on Facebook.

Find out about more about resources and support that SafeLives can offer Social Workers.

Visit our Spotlight page for more blogs, podcasts, guidance and survivor stories over the coming weeks

[1] Unpublished survivor survey, SafeLives 2017

[2] 65% v 55% National Insights Briefing

[3] Children's Insights National Dataset 2014-2017


Responding to domestic abuse: resources for Children's services

Jenny Smith is the Marac Development Lead for SafeLives in Scotland and Jenn Douglas is the Engagement Lead for SafeLives in Scotland. In this blog they explain why Social Workers are vital in responding to domestic abuse, and outline some of the resources that SafeLives have produced to support their crucial work.  

Resources for Children’s Services.  

Responding effectively to Domestic Abuse (DA) requires a holistic, co-ordinated multi-agency, and whole family approach. Children and Families Social Workers play a crucial part in that response, but as our current Spotlight series has highlighted, a lack of resources, training and understanding of the dynamics of DA and Coercive and Controlling Behaviours (CCB) and how these impact victims and their children, can often be a barrier to effective intervention.  

With 64% of people accessing Idva services having children, and 40% of those families being known to Children’s Services it’s notable that only 3.2% of Marac (Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference) referrals and 3.4% of Idva service referrals come from Children’s Social Care. Social Workers are often in a good position to respond to the whole family, recognising that the safety of the adult victim and their children is linked to the pattern of behaviour of the perpetrator, and holding them to account.  

At the heart of multi-agency work for families affected by DA and CCB is the understanding that no single agency or individual can see the complete picture, but all have insights that are crucial to their safety. Ensuring that the victim is supported throughout, and their needs are represented at the Marac, is crucial to managing risk, improving and maintaining safety and reducing repeat victimisation. A shared understanding of risk is crucial to ensure effective collaborative working; Social Workers cannot be expected to respond to DA victims and their children alone. 

SafeLives have developed a range of resources to support effective Multi-Agency interventions for victims of DA and their children, particularly within the Marac setting, all available for free on the SafeLives website. The Marac Representatives Toolkit is a great starting point for anyone attending Marac, outlining common questions and potential actions to increase the safety of the adult victim and their children. The Safeguarding Children multi-agency guidance is potentially another valuable resource for Social Workers involved in Marac and other multi-agency forums.  

The SafeLives Community Platform was developed as a space for professionals in the DA sector to share articles, read and write blogs, and discuss ideas and issues around best practice. The Community also contains webinars and e-learning packages for Marac, and is a great space for Social Workers to connect with the rest of the DA sector, both on a local and national level, to enhance multi agency responses to DA.  

Effective responses to DA and CCB will inevitably involve a collaborative, multi-agency approach to the whole family. Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something, and in order to do that we need to ensure all partners in our multi-agency forums are suitably supported and up-skilled in the issues facing victims of DA and their children.  

For help with identifying specific resources please contact the Knowledge Hub on knowledgehub@safelives.org.uk  

Visit our Spotlight page for more blogs, podcasts, guidance and survivor stories over the coming weeks

Different Planets

Collette Eaton-Harris is a Senior Knowledge Hub Advisor for SafeLives.  Collette previously worked with women age 14-25 experiencing domestic abuse and since joining SafeLives she has helped developed our YPVA training course.  In this blog, she reflects on Marianne Hester’s Three Planet Model and its relevance to frontline practitioners.  

Some years ago I came across Marianne Hester’s Three Planet Model which describes how the response to a family experiencing domestic abuse differs greatly depending on whether you work in domestic abuse, children’s social care or within the family court system. Each sector is in effect its own planet.  Each has its own way of framing the problem, its own culture, its own language. Even to the extent that who is held responsible for ending or resolving the abuse differs. Hester described how, bouncing between these planets, are women and children who find inconsistency and contradictions; just the type of environment in which perpetrators can hide and abuse. 

The theory made a lot of sense to me as someone in frontline practice.  I reflected upon the ways in which the culture of my planet, the domestic abuse planet, contributed to missed opportunities to work closely with social workers.  How meaningful collaboration and improved outcomes for families could have been achieved if both planets moved closer together and understood each better.  

I remember a social worker challenging me on why I had not made a safeguarding referral for a child whose mother I was supporting.  There were indicators of serious neglect in the home, which never having been to her home, I had not seen. ‘You’re a domestic abuse worker, you’re working in her home aren’t you?’.  I realised that this particular social worker, and I suspect many more, didn’t understand the role of a domestic abuse outreach worker, and as consequence had an inaccurate idea of the type of support women were getting.  I realised the social worker was applying a ‘neglect lens’ and had not considered that there may be a relationship between the abuse mum was experiencing and the state of the house.   

I realised that meeting women once a week, for an hour, in a public space, or speaking with them over the phone, restricted what I knew.  I needed to talk to them more holistically, and I needed to explore how the domestic abuse was impacting on their parenting.  I could also be proactively explaining to social workers what the support I could offer looked like; not assuming they’d know. 

Attendance at child protection case conferences is another good example of where I could see my own planet’s culture needed to shift.  For many years the accepted default was that domestic abuse workers would not attend.  And if we did, we went as emotional support to women, but not to contribute and certainly not to vote.  Of course, there will be occasions where having a domestic abuse worker present in a meeting with a perpetrator is unsafe.  And even when attending, there are many ways of managing what is shared to prevent increasing risk. But a culture of a blanket non-attendance was problematic.  

In a multi-agency meeting focused on domestic abuse, a key voice, the domestic abuse specialist, was absent.  And when we attended only as an emotional support, our power was greatly reduced.  Social workers did challenge this; ‘how can we really understand what’s going on unless you’re there to tell us?’. Over time I saw changes, we were encouraged to engage more with ICPCs.  And when there were concerns that risk might be increased by our presence, there were some sensible solutions such as split meetings, sensitive information shared in a restricted way or managers attending on our behalf to protect our anonymity.  

Sometimes I knew that a mother really didn’t want me to vote for her children to be put on a plan and I knew that I needed to. I had to think very hard about how I explained my decisions, how I maintained the relationship with her and how to face up to my urge to avoid challenging conversations with the mothers I supported. It was never pleasant, never easy. 

However, I always felt that attending had been beneficial to that mother, not least because it enabled me to challenge the uncomfortable intensity in which mothers were scrutinised whilst the abuser seemed largely invisible and almost irrelevant to social services.  

I remember one meeting where the social worker was scrutinising the mother’s attendance on our group work programme for survivors.  She questioned her non-attendance at 3 sessions, (due to child care and public transport). Yet we skipped over any scrutinising of what he (the perpetrator) had been asked to do. I queried this, to which the perpetrator responded ‘you can’t ask me because it’s counselling and it’s private’.  I had to push for scrutiny of his counselling attendance and encourage checks to ensure the counsellor was appropriately qualified and understood the dynamics of domestic abuse.  After all, this was no more than had been expected of mum who wasn’t responsible for the violence.  I could see how adept he was at manipulating professionals and being at the meeting gave me a good opportunity to challenge it.  

Significantly, many social workers qualify with no more than a couple of hours ‘training’ on domestic abuse.  Given that child protection professionals estimate domestic abuse to be a feature in over 90% of the families they work with, this cannot be ok. We cannot expect practitioners to work confidently and skilfully when we’re not equipping them appropriately. No wonder it can feel like we’re on different planets.  So what’s the solution?  Training is not an entire solution, but immersive, intensive training of social workers supported by systemic changes to the culture they work in is a really good place to start.  And at a more micro individual level, inviting someone to sit on your planet for a while and shadow your work is an achievable step in the right direction we can all make.    

Visit our Spotlight page for more blogs, podcasts, guidance and survivor stories over the coming weeks

Hester, M. (2011) The Three Planet Model: Towards an Understanding of Contradictions in Approaches to Women and Children's Safety in Contexts of Domestic Violence, The British Journal of Social Work Child and Family Social Work, 41, 837–853