The government launched guidance last month aimed at ensuring victims of domestic violence can access safe, long-term accommodation.
The guidance makes it clear that local authorities should treat victims of domestic abuse, currently in safe accommodation such as a refuge, as a priority for social housing. Local authorities are being encouraged to use their existing powers to help victims of domestic abuse to remain safely in their own home without their abuser, if they wish to.
However, the guidance has been met with scepticism by Women’s Aid which has urged the government to rethink its course of action.
Exemption from residency requirements
Launching the guidance, which is subject to consultation, Communities Minister Lord Bourne said: “Domestic abuse is a devastating crime with complex challenges that extend far beyond the boundaries of local authorities.
“That’s why we’re committed to providing local authorities with the robust guidance they need to improve victims’ access to long-term and secure housing they need to rebuild their lives,” he added.
The guidance published will build on and clarify existing guidelines which encourage local authorities to make exceptions to the residency tests and give appropriate priority to victims of domestic violence.
The consultation explains that many victims of domestic abuse are forced to flee their homes to seek safety in temporary accommodation, often a refuge and sometimes in another local authority area to put distance between themselves and their abusers.
However, when they are ready to move on from the refuge into settled accommodation, they may experience difficulty. People living in refuges may have insufficient priority under the local authority’s allocation scheme; while those who have fled to a refuge in another local authority area may be unable to apply for social housing because the local authority’s qualification criteria include a residency or local connection test.
As a result, the guidance recommends that local authorities should exempt from their residency requirements victims of domestic abuse who have escaped violence from another area and are currently living in refuges in their area.
It also states that the government would expect local authorities to apply the ‘medical and welfare’ and the ‘homelessness’ reasonable preference categories to victims of domestic abuse who are living in refuges to ensure that they are given appropriate priority for social housing.
Local authorities should also use their existing powers to support their tenants who are the victim of abuse to stay in their homes if they wish to.
‘Life or death’
However, Katie Ghose, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid, said that the government’s proposed reforms could dismantle the national network of refuges and put “the lives of women and children trying to escape domestic abuse at risk”.
“This is a matter of life or death. On average, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. If pursued, the reforms will result in a postcode lottery of domestic abuse support services with further refuges being forced to close their doors and more women and children being turned away from the lifesaving support they offer. Without a safe space to escape to, more women and children’s lives will be lost to domestic abuse,” she said.
The reforms also undermines the government’s promise to transform the national approach to tackling domestic abuse through their landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill, which outlined that the state “will do everything it can to both support them and their children,” Women’s Aid warns.
The charity warns that over one in ten specialist domestic abuse services currently operate without any local authority funding, while 94 women and 90 children were turned away from a refuge on just one day this year.
By devolving this funding to local authorities, the government will “remove a woman’s individual entitlement to support with her housing costs when she flees domestic abuse to a refuge and refuges’ last secure form of funding”.
“This will compound the devastating impact of localism on specialist services, forcing refuges who are currently operating on short-term, shoestring budgets to close and leave more women and children trying to escape abuse with nowhere to turn,” added Ms Ghose.
The charity urges the government to change course and work together to protect refuges by creating a long-term and sustainable funding model for a national network of refuges, which increases the number of bed spaces and support provision available to match the level of need, to ensure that every woman and child can escape domestic abuse.
Domestic abuse is most commonly cited factor during social care assessments
The government is set to introduce a new landmark Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill to ensure agencies effectively respond to domestic abuse.
The issue has been under the spotlight recently as there are 6.5 million adults estimated to have directly experienced domestic abuse from the age of 16. According to the NSPCC, domestic abuse is a factor in over half of serious case reviews and around 1 in 5 children have been exposed to domestic abuse. Research by Cafcass and Women’s Aid found that domestic violence is alleged in almost two thirds of child contact cases.
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. This translates into around 28 new episodes every week in every local authority in the country.
A Joint Targeted Area Inspection report by Ofsted, HMI Probation, HMI Constabulary, Fire and Rescue Services and the Care Quality Commission published earlier this year highlighted both best practice and problems with existing practice. The report stated that 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 volume of activity that domestic abuse creates for agencies is so great that it requires sophisticated systems and well-coordinated processes,” said the report.
Separation can escalate risk
The JTAI highlighted that agencies, particularly probation providers, may be missing the bigger picture around containment of the perpetrator and their behaviour. For example, sometimes, probation providers assumed that a perpetrator was contained when sentenced to custody. However, they can continue their abuse from prison.
Professionals did not always recognise that, though not always, separation could escalate risk. They did not sometimes realise that the abuse does not end when people stop living together.
The use of written agreements in two of the six local authorities was widespread, however, there was no evidence that they are effective. Given that the focus of written agreements is often not the perpetrator who is the source of the abuse and therefore the risk, it is unsurprising that they are ineffective, the report argued.
To achieve an effective response to domestic violence, effective collaboration across different agencies and effective means of sharing information is required. The ability to share information quickly and effectively is critical to whether or not agencies are able to work together to spot risks, triangulate a picture of a problem and diagnose a solution, it added. Agencies need to share information more readily and more efficiently with schools in order to protect children better.
The JTAI highlighted a case study of good practice from Lincolnshire and inspectors noted the local authority’s use of age-appropriate tools to understand the range of risks that children face. The local authority had also undertaken an impressive strategic overview of domestic abuse that enabled them to understand patterns and trends. As a result, there was good understanding of domestic abuse across a range of different agencies.
All the JTAIs identified strengths where services were co-located, although it noted that the benefits of co-location can be achieved without the need to locate professionals in the same building.
Inspectors noted strengths in working with communities and minority groups in some local authorities. For example, inspectors highlighted good practice in Bradford where there was a provision of specialist domestic abuse services to male victims and LGBT groups.
Parents spoken to by inspectors were very positive about the ‘Let’s Talk’ programme in Hounslow that supports children who have lived with domestic abuse. Creative work was undertaken with children to enable them to understand their experiences of living with domestic abuse. Work was also undertaken with adult victims, which enabled them to better support their children.
Achieving long-term impact is only possible if professionals are looking at the right things. Inspections found a pattern where professionals focused on the victim. In the best case scenarios, this represented an understandable focus on the mother as a victim of crime and in need of protection. But, even in the best cases, there was often a lack of accountability or responsibility attributed to the perpetrator of the abuse. Furthermore, in a minority of cases, there was an inappropriate attribution of responsibility on the mother to protect her children.
Focusing on the needs and experiences of children is critical. A failure to adequately focus on the experiences and needs of children means there is a high risk that the emotional and mental impact of domestic abuse will go unaddressed.
Across the cases seen, there was a notable absence of attention given to the perpetrators of abuse, compared to the victim. Throughout the evidence, the complexity of coercive control and its role in the behaviour of abusers arose frequently.
Prevention is better than cure
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 inspectorates stated.
Prior to the JTAI on domestic violence, they carried out a JTAI on child sexual exploitation, and highlighted that “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. Where are the profiles of domestic abuse perpetrators? We have heard there may be some disruption practice in some areas, but we did not see it in these inspections and it is not widespread.”
While much good work is being done to protect children and victims, far too little is being done to prevent domestic abuse and repair the damage that it does, it adds. There needs to be a public service message aimed at reducing the prevalence of domestic abuse as part of a long-term strategy. 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.
“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 JTAI concluded.