Special report: Domestic violence services should focus on perpetrator

Woman in fear of domestic abuse

Joint Targeted Area Inspections call for new approach to domestic abuse services and urge an awareness campaign

There should be a national public service initiative to raise awareness of domestic abuse and violence, a joint inspection report has concluded.

A public service message aimed at reducing the prevalence of domestic abuse is needed as part of a long-term strategy, the multi-agency response to children living with domestic abuse report by Ofsted, Care Quality Commission and Her Majesty’s Inspectorates of Probation and Constabulary, found.

“The focus of this public service message needs to be on those perpetrators who have offended or might offend, and to communicate a better understanding of the behaviour and attitudes of those perpetrating abuse,” said the Joint Targeted Area Inspection.

Alison Michalska, President of Association of Directors of Children’s Services said the association strongly supports the call for a public health approach to tackling domestic abuse, including the development of a national public service campaign aimed at raising awareness of domestic abuse and violence.

Domestic violence is ‘persistent and widespread’

The Joint Targeted Area Inspection brings together inspectorates Ofsted, Care Quality Commission (CQC), HMI Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) and HMI Probation (HMIP) to ‘examine how well agencies are working together in a local area to help and protect children’, in this round, focusing on domestic violence.

Each set of JTAIs focus in depth on a particular issue; the first JTAI programme, carried out in 2016, focused on child sexual exploitation and children missing from home, school or care and this second JTAI programme which began in 2016 examined ‘the multi-agency response to children living with domestic abuse’. The six local areas inspected were: Bradford, Hampshire, Hounslow, Lincolnshire, Salford and Wiltshire.

The report states that domestic abuse is “persistent and widespread” and the most common factor in situations where children are at risk of serious harm in this country. It can have a detrimental and long-lasting impact on a child’s health, development, ability to learn and well-being, yet there are 6.5 million adults estimated to have directly experienced domestic abuse from the age of 16.

The prevalence of domestic abuse means that there are many children who are also affected but the Office of National Statistics’ Crime Survey only collates statistics in relation to adults who have experienced abuse. However, domestic abuse has been estimated to affect around one in five children.

Not enough focus on the perpetrator

Domestic abuse is the most commonly cited factor when children are assessed by children’s social care services to determine whether they need support. In 2015-16, there were around 222,000 episodes where domestic violence was cited as a factor.

“The volume of domestic abuse incidents is so great that it requires very well-designed systems and processes to manage the load,” warned inspectors. “However, the nature of domestic abuse is such that families may encounter one serious incident or crisis after another. This can result in professionals working in a short-term way that looks at the intervention needed to tackle the immediate risk at the expense of the longer-term outcome.”

This short-term crisis management can make it difficult for professionals to see the bigger picture, including the impact of coercive control, the report adds.

It also highlights how domestic abuse can look different in different families. In some cases, it persists at a similar level for many years whereas in other cases, it escalates in severity and frequency.

The focus on the immediate crisis leads agencies to consider only those people and children at immediate, visible risk. As a result, agencies are not always looking at the right things, and in particular, not focusing enough on the perpetrator of the abuse.

As a result of the inspections, a pattern emerged that suggests agencies focus on the victim as the only solution. In the worst cases, agencies placed “an inappropriate attribution of responsibility” on the mother to protect her children. The end of an abusive relationship was considered to reduce the risk to children, when in fact, for many victims and their children, violence can increase and escalate when the relationship ends.

Most agencies did not focus on the perpetrator of the abuse enough. Instead, they focused on removing the family from the perpetrator, leaving them to move on to another family and, potentially, a repeated pattern of abuse.

Societal change

Professionals have made progress in dealing with the immediate challenges presented by the volume of cases of domestic abuse. “However, domestic abuse is a widespread public health issue that needs a long-term strategy to reduce its prevalence,” the report warned. “The volume of activity that domestic abuse creates for agencies is so great that it requires sophisticated systems and well-coordinated processes.”

Inspectors saw significant differences in how well these systems worked in different local authority areas. While agencies have overcome many of the problems associated with the volume of cases, the next step is for them to take a long-term approach towards the prevention and reduction of domestic abuse over time.

However, this is more than a task for agencies individually, and requires a societal change in the conceptualisation of domestic abuse among professionals, and between individuals in the public domain.

The report highlights that accepted practice in tackling social problems is to prevent, protect and repair. Much good work is being done to protect children and victims, but far too little is being done to prevent domestic abuse and repair the damage that it does.

There is limited reliable research or evidence that enables agencies to select and deploy interventions they know are effective in changing the behaviour of perpetrators. There needs to be a focused effort across agencies to develop and test interventions. Once interventions are identified, they need to be made available for all levels of risk and need, particularly at the stage of early intervention, said the report.

Subtle shift

There is still a lack of clarity about how to navigate the complexities of information sharing, the report warns. There needs to be a more consistent understanding of what information can be shared, with whom and when it should be shared and then ensuring that there are systems are in place to do that.

Inspectors praised the ‘One Stop Shop’ service for parents who are subject to domestic abuse in the London Borough of Hounslow. The service is open one morning a week and parents can access a range of services, advice and support from various professionals including legal advice, support from an independent domestic violence adviser (IDVA), children’s social care, the police, housing, substance misuse support, a refuge worker and an independent sexual violence adviser.

Midwifery was highlighted as a strength by inspectors in five out of six local authority areas. There was evidence that midwives were knowledgeable about the risks of domestic abuse and the additional risks to unborn children.

The inspections identified strengths where services were co-located. Inspectors highlighted good practice in Bradford where there was a provision of specialist domestic abuse services to male victims and LGBT groups.

Inspectors said: “We have seen a great deal of practice that demonstrates how effectively a very large number of agencies have:

  • Prioritised their response to domestic abuse,
  • Invested in designing sophisticated systems, processes and relationships to share and act on information about domestic abuse in their communities,
  • Built capability in many different workforces to respond in a timely and appropriate way.

 Focus on disruption

However, there was evidence that a “subtle shift” was required in the way we understand and respond to domestic abuse. While agencies inspected have gone a long way to addressing some very complex challenges – they cannot do it alone.

“Change must start with a more systematic focus on perpetrators’ behaviour and preventing their abuse of their victims. By not taking this step forward, the cost to victims and children, and to the public purse, will remain high,” the report stated.

The lack of attention to prevention means that intervention is too late. The ‘incident-led response’ of many professionals is a response driven by ‘blue-light’ crises. A measured response driven by prevention would move upstream. When a universal service first recognises that domestic abuse may be a factor, the first line of action should be to give access to specialist support that will target the perpetrator’s behaviour.

The pattern of domestic abuse is that it starts small and at the early stage, the level of intervention needed to halt it becoming more serious is much less challenging for the perpetrator to engage with and much less costly for the public purse.

The report also highlights that schools also have an essential role in educating children about domestic abuse.

The report concludes that developing practices could be helpfully borrowed from parallel areas of work. The last round of JTAI’s were on the subject of child sexual exploitation and inspectors said the contrast between the practices in this area and domestic abuse is “stark”.

Most practice in preventing child sexual exploitation is now intently focused on the perpetrators of this abuse. Local areas build perpetrator profiles and they focus on disruption. While there have been reports of some disruption practice in some areas regarding domestic violence, inspectors warned that it was not seen during these inspections and it is not widespread.

“What these inspections have shown, however, is that the pattern of practice has served its time,” inspectors concluded. We think the system is ready to evolve. Domestic abuse may be endemic, but it is not inevitable and it is possible for prevalence to decline. There has been a pattern of reported decline in all violent crime since the mid-90s and reported intimate partner violence has followed this trend.”

“There are few people in public service who don’t agree that prevention is better than cure. Yet this seems to have taken hold more securely in some areas of public service than others. Domestic abuse is incredibly harmful to children and it poses an enormous cost to the public purse to deal with the repercussions,” the report concluded.

Power and control

Chief Executive of Women’s Aid Katie Ghose said: “Our Child First campaign shone a light on the long-lasting, detrimental impact domestic abuse has on children’s well-being and safety. Sadly, in some cases abuse results in the tragic loss of innocent lives. This is a social epidemic that needs to be urgently tackled and we support this landmark call for a fundamental re-think in how we prevent and tackle domestic abuse.

“For far too long, the focus on cases deemed to be “high risk” has failed to provide women and their children with the support they need to recover in the long term and it has failed to tackle the root causes of domestic abuse. It is critical that all parts of the public sector – from midwives to teachers and social workers – recognise and understand domestic abuse so that they can intervene early and effectively support women and child survivors to help them escape abuse. Sadly, as the report shows, victim blaming attitudes across all agencies are still far too common.

“Power and control are at the heart of domestic abuse. We need to tackle the sexism and inequality that are root causes of domestic abuse and ensure that perpetrators are held solely accountable for their actions. We believe survivors’ and their children’s experiences and needs must be factored into all responses to tackling domestic abuse. As a survivor quoted in the report states, the public sector must start asking what she needs, rather than telling her what’s best for her,” added Ms Ghose.

ADCS president Alison Michalska warned that some councils have had to cut back on non-statutory services, as their funding reduces, which means that vital support services for victims of domestic abuse aren’t always available or accessible despite the clear need for these services.

“The report rightly highlights the need for a long-term strategy to reduce the prevalence of domestic abuse and we strongly support the call for a public health approach to tackling domestic abuse, including the development of a national public service campaign aimed at raising awareness of domestic abuse and violence. But we will not see the necessary shift from intervention at the point of crisis to prevention that we need to see without sufficient, sustainable funding from government,” she said.

“A shift to a more systematic focus on prevention and changing perpetrator behaviours is long overdue and the government must lead this endeavour from the front as a matter of urgency,” concluded Ms Michalska.

The multi-agency response to children living with domestic abuse





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