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Six tips to support LGBT+ parents who have experienced Domestic Abuse

Millie Fry is a specialist LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Caseworker and Idva at Galop, and has also worked on the National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline. She has worked for many years in advice and advocacy, including within mental health roles and the domestic and sexual violence sectors, and has been a specialist LGBT+ practitioner for three years. Millie is passionate about empowerment within oppressed or traumatised communities and they aim to continue this work.

Six tips to support LGBT+ parents who have experienced Domestic Abuse

There is a historic pervading attitude that LGBT+ people are not seen as parents. This isn’t a fair representation, especially as same sex partners are increasingly adopting and fostering children in Britain. Same sex partners can also have biological children, either together or from previous heterosexual relationships which now make up a new family unit. It can often be challenging for domestic violence and abuse (DV/A) workers to support LGBT+ clients, and those with children can pose further complexity or need. Read below for some ways to support LGBT+ parents who have been through DVA, some of the barriers facing LGBT+ parents, and what abuse in these cases can look like.

1. Understand that families come in all shapes and sizes, including ‘rainbow families’

When assessing victims/survivors, asking non-judgemental questions about their families in the same way we would ask heterosexual clients will go a long way to developing an understanding of the dynamics of abuse for the family in question. 

Remember that LGBT+ people may not approach DV/A services as they worry that they will not be supported or welcome. A rainbow family may also have experienced other forms of gatekeeping or prejudice (from police, schools, local authorities, other charities or community family services) so have already faced isolation and barriers to getting support, and potentially are at increased risk due to this. On top of this, perpetrators can take advantage by threatening to ‘out’ a victim/ survivor or threatening to take their children away by ‘outing’ them to services. Encouraging a help-seeker and making it obvious that your service not only recognises them but has the knowledge and tools to effectively provide support, can dramatically empower a family to receive the services they need.

When it comes to specific DV/A work with LGBT+ families, support workers should complete their risk assessment as normal; if in the case of unclear dynamics, situational couple violence or Violent Resistance from the victim/survivor, a detailed assessment can help identify clearly the primary victim/survivor and primary perpetrator. This is crucial for any meaningful or effective DVA intervention. Professionals can also call the National LGBT+ Domestic Abuse Helpline if additional specialist advice is desired.

2. Assumptions- DON'T make them

As simple as this point may be, it’s often surprising how often and easily we can all make assumptions about our clients. As VAWG sector workers there can be a temptation to assume the gender and/or sexual orientation of a victim/survivor, or that of their partner. A lot of people assume that LGBT+ people or same sex partnerships do not have children. As we know already, assumptions can mean that a victim/survivor stops engaging with a service or can mean that important details of a case are missed by professionals, including whether there’s any children who might also be at risk. Assumptions can therefore have serious implications for the safety of the people we are supporting, LGBT+ parents included.

3. Language- DO think about it

Language makes up a huge part of our everyday experience. From brief exchanges on the street with a stranger, to ongoing communication with a DV/A client, the way we are seen and the way we see ourselves is often framed by the language that is used around and about us. victims/survivors are no exception and may be already sensitive to incorrect language use due to past negative experiences. 

Using the correct pronouns for someone is not just important, it’s essential, as is using the correct pronouns for their partner or family.

Using non-gendered language, or language which is inclusive of gender and sexual fluidity is validating and can make a client much more comfortable. An example of this could be using ‘parent’ rather than ‘mum’ or ‘dad’.

If you do make a mistake or feel you’ve misused a word or language, don’t panic! We are all allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. It’s important to acknowledge, apologise and, if appropriate, have a conversation about it. When it comes to the use of language, intention can make all the difference and it’s often very easy to tell between a genuine mistake and bad intention.

4. Our own prejudices as DV/A workers

DV/A workers often have a political understanding of abuse, and this can make us better and more intuitive responders to our clients. However, it’s also important to be aware of our own prejudicial attitudes and how this can play out. As a DV/A worker, do we automatically doubt male experience of abuse due to their gender? When supporting a lesbian survivor of IPV, does that cause us to make assumptions about the nature and seriousness of the abuse she has suffered? When supporting a victim/survivor of familial abuse based on homophobia or transphobia, do we recognise this (as we should) as domestic abuse? Do we doubt the story of a trans women due to harbouring pre-existing ideas about trans people? These prejudices can make up further barriers to LGBT+ people accessing the support they need.

Asking ourselves questions like this can be difficult, and the answers might be hard to admit to ourselves. Training on Gender Sexuality Relationship Diversity (GSRD), available from Galop, can go a long way to debunking prejudicial attitudes, and empowering DV/A workers to be more inclusive in their approach. Remember that it is possible to be critical without becoming punitive.

5. Parental Rights & Responsibility in rainbow families

Custody and parental rights can often be a part of threatening or coercive behaviour within LGBT+ IPV, so it is important for DV/A workers to identify the dynamics of the family. LGBT+ parents are subject to the same PRR systems as heterosexual parents. It’s important to note that while LGBT+ partners may have an equal parental role, only one partner may have legal PRR for the child or children, and this can impact any abuse occurring and steps that can be taken to support the family. It’s also important as support workers to be familiar with different routes into parenthood for LGBT+ partners, including (but not limited to) adoption, fostering, IVF, surrogacy and step-parenthood.

As with heterosexual families, there is a range of statutory and specialist support that help including; children’s services, MASH, MARAC and CAFCASS, Childline and family law advice.

6. Rainbow families are intersectional families

Lastly, like all families, do keep in mind that rainbow families are a part of lots of different communities including faith or religion, BAME, cultural beliefs and practices, and this doesn’t stop being the case with rainbow families. Having an intersectional approach can benefit all clients and improve their wellbeing and safety. Support staff should recognise that these intersecting aspects may pose unique risk to the client, or act as another barrier to support them, as well as appreciating the positives of diversity. This work often serves as a testament to the vibrancy of difference within families and communities.

For more guidance on working with LGBT+ survivors of domestic abuse please see our Spotlight series and report Free To Be Safe

Stonewall Housing has produced additional risk assessment guidance which can be used alongside the Dash

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

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The importance of Children's Social Care responding to the whole family

Nicky Stanley is a professor of social work, and Director of the Connect Centre for International Research on Interpersonal Violence and Harm at the University of Central Lancashire.

There is increasing interest in the use of ‘whole family’ approaches for families living with domestic violence and abuse (DVA). Children’s Social Care has increased its capacity to identify DVA but still struggles to find appropriate ways of achieving change in families where children experience DVA. Many social workers acknowledge that failing to work with perpetrators places responsibility on women for men’s violence and results in ‘mother blaming’. Moreover, there is recognition that separation is not always the answer to DVA: some families do not want to separate and DVA often continues beyond the point of separation.

In response to these trends, whole family approaches are emerging and some have been evaluated.  Three main models can be identified:

1.One organisation works with all family members. They are usually seen separately and individually, perhaps with different workers for victim, perpetrator and children. Sometimes they are seen together.

2. Different organisations/ professionals work with different members of the same family, but co-ordinate their work – in this case, much depends on the quality of the collaboration and co-ordination.

3. Interventions are delivered to the family as a group – the family are always seen together – this approach draws on the family group conference model.

Interventions need to address some key concerns:

  • Whole family approaches may fail to recognise the gendered power dynamics that underpin DVA – DVA affects different family members differently
  • The safety of women and children may be compromised
  • Perpetrators may resist or evade whole family interventions and women and children become focus of services’ scrutiny by default
  •  Social workers and other practitioners lack confidence and skills in working with abusive men.

Two UK Examples:

Growing Futures, Doncaster – intervention developed and delivered by Doncaster Children’s Services Trust

Key features:

  1. Specialist teams of staff with DVA experience located within social work teams
  2. Reduced caseloads, high levels of supervision and training
  3. Specialist perpetrator workers and access to local perpetrator programme for fathers
  4. Flexible model – offering family members individual and/or joint sessions and allocating different workers to different family members
  5. Informed by principle of ‘meeting families where they are at’ – accepting that some families wish to stay together though others don’t
  6. Working with high risk referrals from Marac and Children’s Social Services
  7. Engagement with service voluntary and no time limits on length of engagement
  8. Joint work with children’s social workers
  9. Use of range of therapeutic tools especially in direct work with children.

Evaluation Findings (Stanley and Humphreys 2017):

  • Whole family working contributed to building trust and engagement in context where partnership with families was previously lacking.
  • Meeting families ‘where they are at’ appeared key to engaging families with negative experiences of social work.
  • Voluntary nature of engagement built trust and was used creatively in joint work with social workers.
  • Small caseloads, focusing on supervision and an unrestricted time limit for intervention were valuable in allowing practitioners to work creatively.
  • Victims [CH1] and children were more likely to be engaged in direct work with services than fathers: 71% of victims, 66% of children, 54% of fathers engaged in direct work.
  • Specialist perpetrator worker and opportunities for referral to perpetrator programme were vital as it was not always appropriate for all family members to have same worker and staff confidence in working with perpetrators was slower to develop:

‘…when I talked to him about what our service could offer him in terms of direct work I felt very unconfident …I did however offer him support via group work which is run by another service’

For Baby’s Sake – intervention developed and delivered by Stefanou Foundation

Key features (Domoney et al 2019):

  • Two pilot sites (contrasting local contexts); specialist teams based in Children’s Services
  • Harnesses potential for change in pregnancy to work with both parents, aiming to end cycle of DVA and adverse childhood experiences
  • Engages both parents (whether or not they are/stay together); from pregnancy until baby is two
  • Parents allocated separate practitioners who co-ordinate their work; substantial training and supervision
  • Prioritises safety, mental health and parent-child attachments – emphasis on therapeutic engagement and methods

6. Some early signs of positive impact: ‘I felt like I was babysitting my baby – now I feel like a mum’.        

Evaluation due to report October 2019

References

Domoney, J., Fulton, E., Stanley, N., McIntyre, A., Heslin, M., Byford, S., Bick, D., Ramchandani, P, MacMillan, H., Howard, LM., Trevillion, K. (2019) For Baby’s Sake::Intervention Development and Evaluation Design of a Whole-Family Perinatal Intervention to Break the Cycle of Domestic Abuse. Journal of Family Violence. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10896-019-00037-3

Stanley, N. and Humphreys, C. (2017) Identifying the key components of a ‘whole family’ intervention for families experiencing domestic violence and abuse. Journal of Gender-Based Violence, 1, 1, 99-115.

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

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Experiences of male victims in the context of Children’s Social Care

Luke Martin has over a decade’s experience working in the domestic and sexual abuse sector. With both an academic and practical background in the field, Luke has established himself as one of the leading professionals on working with male victims of domestic and sexual abuse. 

Luke most recently worked as the Domestic and Sexual Violence and Violence Against Women and Girls Training Lead for Brighton and Hove City Council, building and delivering over 25 training packages across the city before going freelance in January 2019. Luke is an approved Respect trainer, as well as an associate trainer for SafeLives, Rock Pool and AVA.  

Academically, Luke is a guest lecturer for Goldsmith’s University on MA Understanding Domestic Violence and Sexual Abuse. With an academic background in Law, he also lectures on several law and criminology courses. In 2016 Luke also published ‘Debates of Difference: Male Victims of Domestic Violence and Abuse’ in ‘Domestic Violence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Protection, Prevention and Intervention’, published by Palgrave Macmillan. More information is available on his website

The response of Children’s Social Care to matters of domestic abuse has changed drastically in the last few decades, however, there is still often a disparity between the risk we identify male perpetrators posing to that of female perpetrators. There is limited research on the topic, so that which I draw on is anecdotal from my work as a Male Idva.  

Most of my engagement with Children’s Social Care has been supporting male clients whose female partners were substance dependent, and more commonly alcohol than drugs. As we are aware when looking at perpetrators use of violence, the violence would increase whilst under the influence but there would always be abuse used whilst sober. There was a misconception that perpetrators would stop abusing when they addressed their use of substances, which was not the case.  

Tom and Jane wished to stay together, but their Social Worker had highlighted that there were many issues that needed to be addressed for this decision to be supported. Jane used high levels of physical violence whilst drunk and there was often glass broken during incidents, with children aged ten, three and two in the property. Jane was also pregnant with her fourth child. Children’s Social Care was alerted as the oldest sibling would remove the younger two and take them to a neighbour when incidents were taking place.  

On attending a Child Protection Conference the Chair was very quick to suggest couples counselling might be of benefit. As an Idva I had to challenge this as we know it might increase risk, which was acknowledged. It was also noted that Jane had previously experienced abuse from ex-partners and that maybe she should be referred in to an Idva service to work with her around these experiences. This also caused challenges as the abuse was historic, and ultimately it was not the historic experience of abuse that was putting both Tom and the children at risk. Jane might need support around her previous experiences, but The Children’s Act informs us that the welfare of the child is paramount.  

A common belief expressed by agencies working with male victims and female perpetrators, including Children’s Social Care, is a belief that domestic abuse is completely different when perpetrated by women. It isn’t. We explore the same aspects of coercive control and risk of physical harm, including weapon use. The gender split is hugely disproportionate, with 92% of perpetrators being male and 84% of victims being female, and us seeing far fewer male victims who are at high risk coming forward. All professionals need to have an understanding of men’s experiences of abuse and recognising abuse perpetrated by women. The case of Alex Skeel highlights the risk that a female perpetrator can pose; when found by the Police Skeel was told by a medical professional that he was ten days away from death at the hands of his abusive partner, Jordan Worth. Skeel and Worth had two young children, who were present in the property as the ongoing abuse took place.  

Thoughts of women using violence or abuse goes against society’s perception that women should be demure and placid, caring and loving. This must shift in the same way we are having conversations around toxic masculinity and a fear for men in showing emotion, being seen as weak, or more explicitly, demonstrating behaviour linked to society’s ingrained beliefs of how a woman should behave. Understanding of gendered roles needs to shift in both camps.  

In conclusion, a lack of understanding and the weaponisation of children and the Children’s Social Care system can lead to male victims being further abused or isolated from accessing help and support from key agencies. It’s up to all professionals to work together and increase understanding, to improve outcomes for all victims and survivors. 

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

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The value of having student social workers on placement in domestic abuse services

Kathleen Collier is the Head of Learning and Employee Development for Black Country Women’s Aid, a pioneering charity that provides domestic and sexual violence abuse services, as well as complex needs, specialist stalking and  modern day slavery provision. She is also the co-founder of SelfCare Psychology, who specialise in the wellbeing of frontline practitioners.

In this blog Kathleen looks at the benefit of student social workers completing placement in domestic abuse services, what they learn, what they are unprepared for, what gaps in knowledge are highlighted and equally, what it teaches domestic abuse workers about social work.

I am in the unique and privileged position of having experienced social work placements in a domestic abuse service setting from many angles: as a student social worker myself; as supervisor; and now as someone who co-ordinates placements. Essentially, I came to the sector as a social work student, qualified and then never left! So what is the value of these placements, and how do they improve and enrich the practice of all involved?

Firstly, and I think crucially, they let social work students comprehend the emotions and trauma inherent in domestic abuse. In social work practice, domestic abuse will be a key issue for many of the families you work with. However, supporting a victim directly with their experience will rarely be the focus of your work. You can learn from lectures and books about the dynamics of controlling relationships, about Maracs, about Idvas and about protective orders. What you can’t learn is how hard it is to leave someone you still love because they hurt you.

You can't learn how hard it is to let go of what you want the relationship to be, and accept it for what it has become, when you don’t understand why. How hard it is to accept that your children are being harmed by the person you chose to share your life with. For future social workers to truly appreciate this through witnessing it first-hand is invaluable. It allows them to go forward with an understanding they wouldn’t otherwise have, of how hard change can be for victims, change they may well be the one asking them to initiate. 

Secondly, experiences on placement in this environment will challenge ‘common sense’ interpretations of victims’ behaviour that can lead to damaging assumptions by professionals. The things victims do don’t always make sense without being viewed through a lens of trauma and control. Misunderstanding victim behaviour can have serious consequences when Children’s Services are involved.

Take the victim who stays in text contact with a perpetrator she has left. The ‘common sense’ interpretation: she wants him back. With the understanding a placement gives you: maybe she’s scared to cut him off, because the silence means she doesn’t know what’s happening, she can’t gauge his mood, and she can’t calm him down. Essentially, she’s not able to manage the risk from him the best way she has known how, and needs support to find a new way and feel safe. These nuances of understanding make all the difference, and can make or break the relationship between social worker and victim.

But the learning isn’t all one way. Domestic abuse workers learn a lot too from these placements.  The stereotypical negative perception of social workers can mean victims misplace blame onto them, and project their feelings of anger, frustration and hurt. Having insight from a student social worker on the processes they have to follow and the way they think, allows domestic abuse practitioners to challenge victims’ perceptions so that they can engage more effectively.

Domestic abuse workers can be uniquely placed to do this, as they are there with the sole intention of supporting the victim, and so potentially have the relationship and rapport to enable meaningful discussion. It allows them to support the work social workers are doing, and work better together to support change. Changing the conversation with victims from how unfair it is that they’re being told how to live their life, to what they can do to ensure their children’s welfare because they can understand the concerns, can be invaluable.

Social work placements in domestic abuse settings benefit everyone, from the professionals to the clients. Understanding the victims’ perspective means social workers can practice effectively with sensitivity to the needs and experiences of victims. Understanding each other’s ways of working as social workers and domestic abuse workers allows us to support each other in our roles. All this can only lead to better outcomes for everyone.

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How can we learn the lessons from Domestic Homicide Reviews?

Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs) and Serious Case Reviews (SCRs) frequently identify a lack of good information sharing amongst agencies, and frequently find that professionals have not identified different forms of risk within families.  Information sharing is about more than just passing on information; it’s about how agencies understand risk and collaborate to reduce it. In his blog, James Rowlands discusses how we can best utilise DHRs to prevent repeated mistakes.

James Rowlands is a Doctoral Researcher at Sussex University, where he is researching the part that Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs) play in the Coordinated Community Response. He is also an Independent Consultant, and in that capacity chairs DHRs. James originally trained as a Social Worker and an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA). James set up the first advocacy service for gay, bisexual and heterosexual men in Wales (the Dyn Project) and he has 14 years of experience in the domestic abuse sector having worked in a range of frontline and strategic roles. Most recently, James was the Strategic Commissioner for Domestic and Sexual Violence for Brighton & Hove and East Sussex. He also serves on the Board of Respect, the United Kingdom’s membership organisation for work with domestic violence perpetrators, men and young people.  

A Domestic Homicide Review (DHR) is an important part of the coordinated community response, albeit after a tragedy. There are understandable criticisms of DHRs. Why do we invest so much money, time and energy into a case after someone has died? Why do they take so long? What actually changes as a result? These are all good questions, some of which I have wrestled with in other blogs. But perhaps put those questions aside for a moment. Consider instead what a DHR is trying to do. The promise of a DHR is to try and understand the experiences of a victim. In the words of the Statutory Guidance: to ‘articulate the life through the eyes of the victim (and their children)’. That includes talking with, and being guided by, the questions and concerns of family and friends. A DHR is also about learning lessons by considering how professionals and agencies individually or collectively worked together, as well as thinking more generally about responses to domestic abuse including what might help or hinder access to support. And lastly, a DHR should make meaningful recommendations. All this with the goal of bringing about meaningful change and trying to reduce the likelihood of future homicides.

But problems with information sharing are a recurring theme in DHRs. In a 2016 report by the Home Office, communication and information sharing were identified as an issue in 76% (25 out of 33) of the DHRs sampled. For anyone familiar with other kinds of reviews, including those relating to children and adults, that finding won’t be a surprise.

In my experience as a DHR chair, there are two common issues with information sharing. Sometimes information just isn’t shared. During a DHR in Bexley, which considered the death of Nargiza, we found that an agency considered making a Marac referral but for various reasons hadn’t. Consequently, when Nargiza’s case was later heard at a Marac, critical information was missing. It’s not possible to know if that additional information could have changed the ultimate outcome; but it’s fair to say that if it had been available the Marac would have had a starkly different understanding of Nargiza’s experiences, risks and needs.

Other times, information is known but isn’t acted upon. In a DHR in Lambeth, the victim (Sophia) was contacted by Children’s Services as a result of an allegation by her ex-partner. The complaint itself was likely an example of ‘abuse of process’. That wasn’t recognised, in part because Children’s Services took an incident-based approach. But it was also clear that Children’s Services didn’t draw on the information known to other agencies – including the police, a domestic abuse service and schools. That was significant because those other agencies had part of the bigger picture of Sophia’s experiences, as well as the behaviour of the perpetrator. The result was that the case was assessed as low risk and closed.

While these two cases were very different, they have something in common. In the first, information wasn’t shared. In the second, information wasn’t acted on in the way we might have expected. For both Nargiza and Sophia, it meant that their needs (and the risks they faced) were not understood and there were missed opportunities to intervene.

What frustrates me is we keep having the same conversation about information sharing.

Spin those two issues about information sharing on their head for a moment. What happens when a victim doesn’t share information? Or doesn’t act on in information the way we might have expected? All too often, they get blamed. I have seen that in some DHRs which focus on what a victim did or didn’t tell professionals, while others set out what services were offered and then explain that a victim ‘declined to engage’ or ‘didn’t take up support’.

That’s just not good enough. We are holding victims to one standard but often find ways to explain away the same scenario if a professional or an agency does it. Worse than that, even when we recognise that information sharing wasn’t good enough, the lesson doesn’t seem to be getting learned. 

Of course, it’s easy for me to write this. There are a whole range of other factors at play, from the role of services through to demand. But frankly, we shouldn’t be having this conversation time and time again. It extracts too great a toll on victims and their loved ones, including those who are murdered.

We need to stop victim blaming, reflect on our own practice, and be open to challenge – whether that comes from service users, other professionals or the families and loved ones of those who have been murdered.

So, what’s my closing thought? Well, ultimately DHRs are about trying to improve the response to domestic abuse and to prevent future homicides. It’s still too difficult to find published DHRs, although the government has committed to building a national repository in its response to the recent consultation on the Domestic Abuse Bill. In the meantime, look at your local or regional Community Safety Partnership website, read the Home Office report I mentioned earlier or check out Standing Together’s DHR Case Analysis

Ask yourself, which findings are relevant to me or my team or agency? How can I apply the learning, whether that’s in frontline practice or the commissioning of services? We shouldn’t have to keep learning the same lessons. Unfortunately, that’s not going to change overnight. But change it can. To get there – and in doing so, to honour those who have died, hold perpetrators accountable, and hopefully prevent future homicides – each of us needs to play our part in making sure the lessons really are learned.

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

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