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Practice blog

Children's social workers, domestic abuse and collaborative working

Vashti Wickers works as an independent consultant and trainer, providing improvement consultation and completing safeguarding auditing programmes for local authorities. Previously, Vashti spent 20 years practicing statutory social work, including working as Head of Service. Within this post Vashti held operational responsibility for the Multi Agency Safeguarding Hub as well as the frontline child protection teams.   

Vashti’s expertise in the field of domestic abuse stems from working within a Safer Community team – which included managing a team of Idvas as well as being the first team to be trained in and deliver the Recovery Toolkit programme for domestic abuse survivors. 

The facts 

Domestic abuse remains one of the most significant issues within statutory social work practice today. It features in over 50% of Serious Case Reviews and makes up a significant proportion of casework across all Children’s Services departments. 

Whilst recently undertaking a thematic audit looking at repeat child protection plans, I found that 64% were as a result of domestic abuse. 

Most social workers will agree that the overall approach is not effective for most families. As a profession we are passionate about getting this right, as the damage to the children and young people we work with is evident. 

Notwithstanding some pockets of excellent practice, there is more that needs to be done. 

Who knows? 

This is not only a matter of too little time and resource, although this clearly contributes to an ineffective response at times and frustrates progress with families. But just as critical is the lack of consistency in terms of knowledge provided to social workers to allow them to develop the attitude and approach that is required in responding to domestic abuse. 

In talking to newly qualified social workers and students, many report little or no input around domestic abuse at university. Social workers therefore may enter the profession understanding only the physical incident model, or simply that domestic abuse is harmful to children. 

Once in the statutory world, it is then somewhat of a lottery. Some local authorities offer a robust training package including coercive control, stalking and working with perpetrators. However others offer little or nothing. The availability and consistency of specialist agencies and programmes is also variable, meaning that access to expertise is not always there.  

Of course, there are social workers who have a vast amount of experience and knowledge – but the system should not be reliant on this alone. 

There should be a mandatory expectation for all child protection social workers to undertake domestic abuse training, and specifically coercive control. Without this, we cannot expect them to understand the complex dynamics, the lack of control a victim has, the inability to choose whether to stay or go, the pervasive fear, the interrelatedness of mental health and substance misuse and the reason why victims so often do not live up to the expectations placed on them. 

Instead, all too often we continue to see the non-abusive parent (still largely mothers) having to take full responsibility for protecting the children, a lack of focus on the perpetrator’s behaviour, and therefore the pattern of blame and shame continuing leading to a re-traumatisation of the victims through the system itself. 

There remains a focus by professionals on parents separating – ignoring the fact that 76% of women killed by their partners were killed in the first year following separation (Brennan, 2016). 

Social workers also need to understand the impact of coercive control on children, an area where research is growing. Emma Katz (2016 and 2019) tells us that children are active, not passive, participants in these dynamics – and that if we continue to focus on the harm caused via the physical model then we are likely to misunderstand levels of risk. 

Social workers must be curious about the individual situation. There will always be cases where the risk is severe and immediate and that necessitate the child to be removed for their own protection; but even in these circumstances the approach is critical to reduce potential re-traumatisation. 

Collaborate and participate 

The second issue is a lack of coordination and collaboration between agencies. 

Families require a group of experts to wrap around them, given the complexity of need here. There needs to be a collective understanding of risk (and consistent use of the Dash), a sharing of expertise, and an approach that is trauma-informed to give the optimum opportunity for the family to navigate their path to safety. 

Serious Case Reviews continue to identify misunderstandings, assumptions and blame between agencies in terms of who is working with whom, and what interventions are taking place.  

Professionals can provide the healthy support and challenge model to social workers, can be proactive in their engagement and participate in assessments and interventions. 

Social work is most effective when there is trauma-informed, relationship based work combined with collaborative practice. Nowhere is this more true than in cases of domestic abuse. Social workers need to get alongside the non-abusive parent, take the time to understand what has happened, listen and support them to increase their safety and regain control over their situation. All agencies need to see the situation through a trauma-informed lens, and use a strengths-based perspective to recognise the courage it takes to survive a coercive control relationship. 

What next? 

In conclusion I am reminded of Dr Gabor Mate as he describes the distinction between blame and responsibility. ‘Blame’ says that you did something that you could have done otherwise and so you are at fault. ‘Responsibility’ says that you did something, but not consciously or deliberately, but because you are programmed by your experiences. So therefore in becoming conscious of the reasons for our behaviours, we are able to take responsibility. 

It occurs to me that this applies equally to social workers. In the same way that we need to remove shame and blame when working with our children and their parents, let us remove the shame and the blame from social workers and instead properly equip them to be able to respond effectively to domestic abuse.

Brennan, D (2016) Femicide Census, profiles of women killed by men : redefining an isolated incident.

Katz, Emma (2016) Beyond the Physical Incident Model: How Children Living with Domestic Violence are Harmed By and Resist Regimes of Coercive Control.

Katz, Emma (2019) Coercive Control, Domestic Violence and a Five-Factor framework: five factors that influence closeness, distance and strain in mother-child relationships. Violence Against Women, online first.

Podcast:

How our childhood shapes every aspect of our health with Dr Gabor Mate.

#37 in series 'Feel Better Live More' with Dr Chatterjee. 21.11.2018.

 

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

Voices of experience: survivor reflections on Children's Social Care

Emma Retter is a Research Analyst at SafeLives, and previously worked as a lawyer in the family courts.

Survivor voice informs everything we do at SafeLives. In preparation for the new Domestic Abuse Bill, we created an online platform called Every Story Matters, so that as many people as possible could raise their voices and say in their own words what needs to change. Hundreds of people responded to that call in just a few weeks and, without being directly asked about it, many survivors recounted experiences of their interactions and involvement with Children’s Social Care. Alongside our Insights data, this blog will look at what survivors of domestic abuse who are also parents, have told us about how they’ve felt when Children’s Social Care have intervened with their family. 

First, to the data. Our 2017-2018 Insights national dataset[1] revealed that where there was abuse in the family home, 60% of these families were known to Children’s Social Services. Although this blog will focus on the 60%, it’s shocking to see that 40% of families are not on Social Services radar – and are therefore completely unknown and unsupported by Children’s Social Care.

Insights data from 2016-2017[2] showed that families known to Children’s Services were significantly more likely to have disclosed complex needs, including drug misuse (6% vs 2%), alcohol misuse (8% vs 3%) and/or mental health issues (36% vs 26%), compared to families with children who are not known to Children’s Services. This Insights dataset also suggests that families with Children’s Services involvement are more likely to be experiencing physical violence (71% vs 57%); one of the most visible forms of abuse.

In Every Story Matters, survivors told us they feel there is a lack of understanding of the more hidden abusive behaviours, such as coercive and controlling behaviour. Education and training on the complexities of domestic abuse, they felt, is the crucial change that is needed within Children’s Social Services and beyond. Survivors particularly felt that perpetrators used ‘tactics’ and ‘charming behaviour’ when social workers were involved and that these manipulative behaviours were not understood by Children’s Social Care. Here is an example of what one survivor feels needs to be done to better protect children where there is domestic abuse in the house:

Much better understanding and empathy through training from survivors for social workers and police as they are the initial point of contact when children are involved, I personally felt invaded and insulted by social services from the time they came on the scene…they had no understanding of the husband and his capabilities…’

The conflict between Social Services, Cafcass and the courts was also a common theme when survivors spoke about Children’s Social Care. Survivors found that Children’s Social Services had completely different views to that of the court and Cafcass and that they felt contradicted at every turn. When Social Services decided that there was to be no contact with the perpetrator, survivors would then be told by the courts that contact had to happen. Survivors found this confusing, worrying and dangerous for the children. One survivor wrote:

Yes. We had involvement from SS [Social Services]. Who said be a protective mother don't allow contact... So denied contact... Got ripped apart in court for being in contempt of court.... Police involved so there was bail conditions.... Got ripped apart in court for denying contact... Did police [or] SS [Social Services] back me up? No because they keep so out of it and seem to think family court will sort it.  These conflicts of same action creates gaps between services meaning my children remained unsafe and suffered further abuse…

Victim blaming by Children’s Social Services, alongside a fear of the children being removed from survivors’ care was another concern that was mentioned by more than one survivor. Survivors were frustrated that they were made to feel as though the abuse was their fault, with no responsibility being placed on the perpetrator. A strong fear of what Social Services would do if they found out about the domestic abuse was also expressed by survivors, from the stigma attached to having Social Services involved with the family to the removal of children from survivors’ care. One survivor, who was abused by their son, shared this story:

…I went to social services for help, and was blamed for their difficulties, to the point that the LA [local authority] took me and my husband to court to get a care order. We had asked for help with our sons' violence, destruction & aggression, been offered parenting courses, inappropriate therapy and plenty of ignorance. When the violence continued and support was refused, we had no choice other than to ask for our child to be accommodated by the LA, which triggered, not the help our child needed, but instead, Care Proceedings and our child returning to Care.

Survivors also told us that Children’s Social Care can and do make a difference to families. When Social Services provide survivors of domestic abuse and their children with the help and support they need, the experience of the intervention is dramatically different. A number of survivors told us that they chose to go to Social Services for help and one survivor wrote about how positive their experience with Children’s Social Care was, particularly the support their children received. When services work together, when there are domestic abuse advisors involved and when Children’s Social Care are supportive to the victim, the outcome for survivors and their children can be lifechanging as this final uplifting survivor story illustrates:

Although I still fear my ex I am so glad I left and went to court to fight for justice. I had so many worries about social services and how he would react if I reported him but none of it happened. Women's aid and rape crisis and my Isva have been my absolute lifelines. It's a long process but me and my son are moving forward with life and I am able to see a future free from abuse.

Hearing the voices of survivors and lifting up their experiences as individuals and as a collective voice is crucial to understanding how Children’s Social Care can really support survivors and their children. SafeLives will continue to listen to and share these voices to make sure survivors’ experiences influence everything we do to create a positive change. 

 

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

By emmar

Helping victims in Scotland become safer, sooner

Jen Douglas is our Scottish Engagement Lead. In this blog she talks about why it is so important to have the tools to make an accurate and fast assessment of the danger victims of domestic abuse face, so they can get the right help as quickly as possible. 

When someone is experiencing domestic abuse, it’s vital to make an accurate and fast assessment of the danger they're in, so they can get the right help as quickly as possible. Our Scottish Dash checklist is a tried and tested way to understand risk and is based on extensive evidence taken from homicide reviews, ‘near misses’ and lower level incidents.

Dash stands for domestic abuse, stalking and ‘honour’-based violence. What this tool does is provide a common language between organisations so that we can all assess risk in a more joined up, coherent way. The Dash cannot replace vital professional judgement or the need for training. It is guidance only.

The simple series of questions makes it easy to work out the risk someone is facing, and what they might need to become safe and well. A high score means the victim is at high risk of serious harm or murder and needs urgent help. These victims should get help from an Independent Domestic Abuse Advocate (Idaa), and all the relevant local agencies should come together at a multi-agency risk assessment conference (Marac) to make a plan to make them safe and well.  

We know from our Whole Lives dataset that it can take 4 years on average before victims of domestic abuse get the support they need to become safe and well. Any additional barriers, such as language, increase this time. At the point at which they accessed help, over half of victims said that the abuse was escalating in either in frequency, severity or both. Resources and evidence-based guidance like the Dash are essential in capturing the risk and reducing serious harm or fatality and have become embedded in the Scottish response to domestic abuse.

We believe every person living with domestic abuse needs to be supported to be safe, wherever they live, whoever they are. In order to do this, it is imperative that our risk checklist is accessible to as many survivors as possible and it is now available to Gaelic speakers and Gaelic speaking services. With approx. 57,000 speakers in Scotland this necessary tool will support in the management of risk and referral to local Marac provision.

In time for the introduction of the new Domestic Abuse Scotland (2018) Act we have updated and produced toolkits (including our Scottish Marac toolkit) to ensure that professionals are supported, and the scope of the new legislation is reflected within practice and our response to domestic abuse. It is only with a co-ordinated, systematic and evidenced approach that we will ensure the safety of survivors and their families; delivering the right support at the right time.

See our resources for professionals in Scotland 

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Challenging the stigma around mental ill-health in BME communities

Asha Iqbal is a mental health campaigner and founder of Generation Reform, an initiative that  aims to tackle head-on the stigma that Black and Ethnic minority communities face around the issue of mental health. Calling upon her own lived experience of coercive control and ‘honour’-based abuse, Asha has been featured in publications such as Women’s Health, where she’s spoken about her struggles with PTSD and anxiety. Find Asha on Twitter

Working in a mental health hospital as a call handler, I used to see patients from South Asian communities, whose families would rather pretend that their relative was abroad than in hospital, because they were so ashamed. There was a complete silence around mental health within these communities. Shame and stigma can really affect patient treatment; it can impact on their engagement and the speed of recovery. As an Asian woman, it was something that completely shocked me, and it inspired me to write a blog post regarding my mental health problems growing up.

The blog attracted 30-40,000 views within a few hours and I had hundreds of messages in response. I didn’t realise how much impact it would have. And that’s how Generation Reform started. Because of the interest that I got I thought there was a need for an open conversation. I was probably one of the first people from the South Asian community and with a Muslim background to talk openly and publicly about these issues.

I felt that different generations had different experiences of stigma, shame and barriers and that each generation needs different approaches to help them reform, that’s why I named it Generation Reform. I am not a professional in mental health, so I thought with my media and marketing background, the best way for me to tackle this issue was by creating an open conversation and using social media the way I knew how. I thought, let’s use my skills and try and tackle this issue.

There’s quite a lot of different issues associated with mental health for some communities. One would be reduced marriage prospects and the shame attached to that. Having mental health problems can reduce your chance of finding a suitor because some people believe that mental ill-health would be passed on to any children and so wouldn’t see you as marriageable. Of course in some communities, there is a danger of forced marriage and so being seen as unmarriageable is a risk factor.

Unfortunately, severe mental health problems can sometimes be associated with either black magic or the ‘Jinn’; supernatural and sometimes demonic beings. People brush severe mental health problems under the carpet so a lack of understanding and education about mental health creates further barriers.

I got told many times that the answer to my mental health issues would be through prayer and that this would cure it. Even when I was feeling suicidal that was the only response I got. As you can imagine this leaves a lot of people without the support and medical care they need.

Within South Asian communities, the older generation hold a lot of the power. The knowledge that they have on any topic will be the advice that’s given and usually what they say goes within the household. However, a lot of the older generation do not use social media so for me a way to reach younger generations and spread better knowledge and awareness of mental health was through social media.

Two years ago when I actually started campaigning I found it a struggle, because I couldn’t see mental health campaigners that I could relate to. None of them faced the same struggles with ‘honour’ abuse that I did. None of the public campaigners were from South Asian communities orfrom a Muslim background. That gap in representation is what inspired me to keep going.

That’s the feedback that I got from other young Asian people; that it was amazing for them to see someone from the community, not sensationalising anything but being quite open and honest about their own experience. 

A lot of people face mental health problems; one in four is the current figure. It needs to be normal conversation, it needs to be something that we tackle on a daily basis. It can’t be something that we’re surprised to be asked about.  My wish is for it to just be part of daily talk so that people aren’t afraid of reaching out for help. 

Even if you’re not experiencing mental ill health, you can help. It’s always great to have a discussion about mental health, to know what services are out there and to be non-judgemental. That’s one of the most important things; don’t be judgemental. Just listen but also do your own research, start your own conversations as well. That’s what helps break down the barriers and the stigmas.

 

For more information and support with forced marriage, mental ill health and ‘honour’ abuse please refer to the following organisations:

Mental health:

Mind

Young Minds

 

Forced marriage and ‘honour’ abuse

Karma Nivana

Forced marriage unit

 

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Babs' story

This story was submitted to us by Babs, a 65 year old woman and survivor of domestic abuse.

My name is Babs.

I am 65 years old; I say that because it is my age, and age has defined my life.  I am today at home reading a book.  I feel well and quite content.  I bought some autumnal plants for the garden, even though there is a storm brewing.  The cats are calmly asleep and my head feels quite peaceful.  These days are becoming more common for me now – this feeling of peacefulness.  I don't have a partner, and I still have a mortgage.  I have skills like being a swimming teacher, and an English language tutor which I took up after my divorce. I also volunteer, sing in two choirs, and write.  I have always found a space to write, however dark the day. It has been my friend, a black or blue ballpoint pen, scribbled on bits of paper; poetry, love, relationships all go down on notepads when I feel this gentle soothing space in my head. 
 
When I think back to when I was forty, I only think of the colour black, and a dirty underground train and a tunnel so dark there wasn't even a flicker of a dying light bulb to see me through.  It has taken all these years and beyond to hear my little squeak of a voice like a roaring mouse talking to me back, instead of hearing others shouting, telling me off, hitting, screaming, crying, anger, children, fighting, hurt and pain. 
 
I first met him when I was 24, studying by night for a degree.  He was nothing like the man of my book dreams.  But he was affectionate, kind and tactile.  He would wrap his arms around me with love.  He was funny, witty, and had a love for the pub.  I thought he would be my soulmate.  He wrote poems just like I did.  We could have a life together and it never occurred to me that when he drank, or when I had done something wrong or upset him, he had permission to hit me, or to shout and scream and call me names and then the next day apologise and tearfully say he had never done anything like that before, and was sorry he wouldn't do it again.  I always believed him.  When finally our relationship ended, and I had the strength to end the violence, I thought I didn't know him at all. 
 
When I was young I was told I was quite sensitive and so words that seemed trivial and meaningless stuck with me.  A negative tone, a phrase… all I remember is not feeling good about myself, it consumed what should have been a happy childhood. I often felt alone and afraid, in a family home surrounded by aunts and uncles and cousins.  We were a real family, but emotionally behind closed doors I felt as apart as the raging oceans that divide our beautiful lands.  Something was wrong with me, I didn't quite fit in.  But however I tried to push away those family ties, I always went back for love, attention and approval.  
 
I learned the word ‘can't’ very early on, I couldn't pass exams, I couldn't cook, I couldn't find a boyfriend, I couldn't make myself pretty.  My brother shut himself in his room, when he heard my tears. 
 
After I studied in my twenties at night school for a degree, I settled with my children and husband.  But the concrete cementing the bricks was cracking.  I had the same emotional distance from my marriage as I did from my childhood. I tried so hard to make it work, but he could not deal with or understand my emotional needs, and I could not understand that his way of dealing with problems was to drink or to shout at me.  He would call me mental, neurotic, or mad or all three.  When I couldn't take any more, I shouted back, got angry or hysterical, it was like a tidal wave coming at me, and I had no defences. 
 
I loved my children until my heart would break. I thought by giving him a family, and children, laughter and love he would be the nice, loving husband, I always craved and he wouldn't have to keep saying sorry for what he did to me.  I tried so hard to make it work, we had counselling, and he would just rant at the counsellor with all the things that irritated him about me, but he never talked about himself, or things that really mattered, like being in debt.  I didn't want it to end. He found a job out of London, he kept finding jobs out of London, in the hope I would move away from my friends and life.  He was never happy in one job, and so I thought if I taught, and earned good money, he could give up work and be at home with the kids.  Everything I did was for him.   
 
One night he got hold of me whilst I was studying.  Something snapped.  I didn't want this to go on any longer.  I had had enough.  I am a fighter, to give up I felt a failure. 
 
After he left, without my emotional outbursts to contend with he became the perfect father.  Suddenly I found myself in charge of a broken family, I had to reunite us all as a unit without their dad, with new boundaries and rules – I was doomed for failure.  My children were left miserable and angry without their dad to put them to bed at night. I missed the key in the door, when he came home from work, I still do.   
 
On contact times, he would stand outside the home and cuddle them until their hearts and his would break.  Then they would call me names, and he would stand there and say nothing.   
 
They went from one parent to another, for a childhood lost in a rampage.  Although I got full custody, the pull of an absent parent was too much, and my two daughters went eventually to live with him.  They estranged from me and left with me with forever love that I hold inside for them. 
 
I managed to move and start again to rebuild my shattered self-esteem. My ex-husband died and I had hope again for my family that we could rekindle something that was lost. But the baggage of abuse hangs on, as I reproach myself with guilt, sadness, and hurt. 
 
There are no winners. I have managed to find my own identity again, the person I was or wanted to be, the passionate writer, love of the sea and sunshine. I can't get it all back, because my children have dealt with their own pain by starting again, a life without me to share it with. 
 
It's too late now for bickering and arguments.  This is how it is for this moment in time.  My love for them unbended for all we went through and came out of.  I live in hope we will share it again one day. 
 
I don't need lots of money in my life now.  I just crave some peaceful solitude without childhood fears creeping back like tendons.  The scars will never fully heal but more than that, my children will never feel that love I have for them because their emotions for me their mum, have been taken away in all that heap of abuse.