WillisPalmer Head of Operations, Harriet Jannetta on why a fresh approach to tackling domestic abuse is needed
Domestic abuse is a complex problem which effects the lives of many people. Over the last 10 years, awareness and understanding of the impact of domestic abuse on children and society has grown, yet the problem remains and, in fact, numbers have increased. Crime statistics for England and Wales (Flatley, 2016) show that 332 women and 78 men were killed by their partners/ex-partners between March 2012 and March 2015. In the same time period, 35 women and 46 men were killed by a son/daughter or other family member. Furthermore, the number of reported victims of domestic abuse rose from 62,546 in 2014 to 71,926 in 2016, with domestic abuse now accounting for almost one in 10 criminal offences in the capital. The recently published learning from serious case reviews states that domestic abuse was the most common risk factor in SCR’s present at varied risk level in 71% of the SCR’s.
The reality is that domestic abuse is an issue that sadly is not going to go away in the immediate future. The impact of this on children in relation to their emotional, social and behavioural development and to a mother’s emotional wellbeing and self-esteem is devastating and can be extremely negative.
This government, like many others before, claims that domestic abuse is unacceptable and addressing the issue is a priority. Yet within the recently published Women’s Aid report “Nowhere to Turn” they state that:
“Women in the most severe need, the obstacles they must overcome in order to be safe are simply insurmountable. For too many women who have immigrated to the UK, the law preventing them from receiving any support from the state is putting their lives at risk. For homeless women escaping abuse, despite protections that should be available, all too often no eﬀort is made to ﬁnd anywhere for them to live. For women with mental health problems, or who misuse drugs or alcohol – despite the obvious and well-known links between these issues and the experience of abuse – services are simply not commissioned or funded to meet their needs.”
The government’s Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) strategy 2016-2020 sets out a commitment to ensure that no woman should be turned away from the help and support that she needs. Yet severe cuts made to social care budgets mean that this aspiration, although commendable, remains an aspiration and not a reality.
Clearly there is no one answer to this problem but what we do know is central to meeting the multi-dimensional and inter-related needs of children and families requires integrated and joined-up services.
There is considerable guidance written about how to achieve this on a strategic level but it does not really matter how many strategies are produced if in reality they make little impact on what’s happening on the ground. Partnership is at the heart of an effective response to domestic abuse.
A regular criticism is that professionals do not really understand how coercive and controlling behaviour impacts on a victims’ ability to function effectively, how this shapes and impacts on their everyday decisions and interactions with professionals and family. All too often the emphasis is placed on the women to safeguard and protect her children with shortcomings in parenting becoming the focus of attention. This means that often perpetrators are allowed to step outside of the assessment process leaving professionals with basic knowledge about the risks that they present. Yet understanding and assessing risk is fundamental for safeguarding children. Furthermore, there is an important distinction to be made between risk identification and risk assessment. While risk identification involves knowledge, and use of the checklist and identification of risk factors, risk assessment requires more in-depth knowledge and is an on-going, sustained process.
In the process of risk assessing, increased emphasis should be placed on the perpetrator who poses the risk to the victim survivor, but also to any other partners, children and vulnerable family members. It is essential to recognise that often friends and family hold vital information about the level of risk. Establishing a culture where perpetrators are held to account and are expected to engage is fundamental to developing a joined-up approach.
Of equal importance is the need to break down boundaries and promote collaborative working across adult and children’s services. A theme that vibrates over and over again is that domestic abuse can only be effectively addressed within a multi-agency framework. Yet because of a lack of single agency accountability or responsibility, responses frequently remain fragmented.
The complexity of domestic violence and its manifestations means that any approach to working with survivors and their children should be across agencies and professions and across the voluntary and statutory sectors. This, however, remains the most difficult thing to achieve and consequently domestic abuse continues to be a significant problem for society.
I would argue that we must stop paying lip service to the issue and to truly address and safeguard the needs of the victims and the children, we have to develop a fresh approach. This is one where the perpetrator is held accountable and the victims and children’s voice is heard in developing a safety plan. Service providers need to be sensitive to the needs of families and recognise that change can take time. Developing trust is only going to be achievable if we listen. Responses need to be practical, therapeutic and coordinated. It is imperative that risk is seen as dynamic, fluid and is regularly reassessed at ‘critical points’ within each case.
In short, what is needed is a whole systems approach which puts the victim and children at the centre.