20th June 2019
Nicola Douglas has worked in the field of domestic abuse for the past fifteen years, in both frontline and strategic roles. Nicola is currently the Children and Health Team Leader at Standing Together Against Domestic Violence.
Sally Jackson has been working in violence against women in both the statutory and voluntary sector over the last 25 years. As Partnership Manager she is currently the Operational lead for VAWG across Hammersmith and Fulham, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea.
The value of co-location
Our understanding of the devastating impact of domestic abuse has increased over time and many agencies recognise the importance of supporting the non-abusive parent. However, evidence and research continue to highlight the many ways in which mothers are held accountable for all aspects of children’s wellbeing and safeguarding, even when their partner is the one perpetrating the abuse (Humphreys and Absler, 2011).
By constructing mothers as solely responsible for child rearing and safety we create the perfect conditions for women to be held accountable for abusive men’s behaviour and this ‘renders the abusive partner’s behaviour invisible’ (Mandel, 2010).
Victim blaming is widespread, underpinned by structural inequality between the sexes and is evident in various reports, interventions and approaches around domestic abuse. Examples include Serious Case Reviews where coercive control is misinterpreted as situational couple violence.
Another example is the reporting of the brutal murder of mother-of-five, Natalie Saunders, where the Crown Prosecution Service described Natalie as ‘choosing to remain with Stephen Charlton, despite the physical violence and emotional abuse that he would often inflict upon her’.
Those who have witnessed, experienced or have an understanding of coercive control will know that victims have little space to make choices and that leaving an abusive relationship is incredibly risky. Rather than seeking to understand the context of a survivor’s decisions, many agencies still centre the responsibility for safety on the non-abusive parent.
All professionals, including Social Care staff, have a role to play in helping women to recognise abuse and increase safety. However, this must happen in collaboration with survivors - ensuring that the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control and its impact is fully recognised. If we shift the narrative back to the perpetrator and their responsibility, as Stark (2013) suggests, ‘social work intervention can develop a strength perspective that recognises and builds on the courage it takes to survive coercive control’
At Standing Together Against Domestic Violence we recognise the value of the Coordinated Community Response, working with communities to bring together all the different local agencies that play a part in tackling abuse, from prevention to prosecution and beyond. We help them to coordinate their activities, review performance, identify gaps, and support them to improve.
Since 2015, representatives from local specialist victim/survivor and perpetrator services have been co-located within Children Social Care’s front-line teams. The overall purpose being to better support and safeguard children and families where domestic abuse is a feature. The project has meant that practitioners have been able to offer support and advice to social care staff, facilitated three-way meetings with survivors and social workers, contributed bespoke safety plans and delivered training and briefings to better equip staff with the skills to support survivors and their children.
This work is reinforced by strategic oversight at the Local Safeguarding Children Boards, VAWG Strategic Board and Operational Groups. With this approach we aim to embed a whole systems approach, ensuring that social workers develop a robust understanding of coercive control and domestic abuse.
Research continues to remind us of the importance of such training: Wiesz and Wiersma (2011) asserted that Social workers need training and guidance in order to develop appropriate responses to women. Liegghio and Caragata (2016) recommend training and education in a safe environment where social workers can have the opportunity to reflect on prejudices and assumptions, so that micro-aggression can be made visible.
The co-location project has brought benefits to both our social care staff and specialist services. Both are better positioned to understand the parameters of each other’s work, share ideas and collaborate to increase the safety of survivors and their children.
We have seen improvements in practice following training on the impact of domestic abuse on children. Child and family professionals who recognise that children don’t witness abuse but are subjected to it, approach the work from a more empathetic viewpoint.
We have also started the process of training staff in Safe and Together, a child-centred model deriving its name from the concept that children are best served when we can work toward keeping them safe and together with the non-abusive parent. Mandel (2010) suggests that in most cases, risks posed to children by an abusive partner can be mitigated by intervention with the perpetrator and working in partnership with women. The Model provides a framework for partnering with domestic violence survivors and intervening with domestic violence perpetrators in order to enhance the safety and wellbeing of children.
Mandel (2010) advocates using the framework of coercive control to inform assessment; examining the perpetrator’s pattern of coercive control and the actions he has taken that have harmed women and children.
Safe and Together recognises the full spectrum of the non-offending parents’ efforts to protect the child, promote their safety and wellbeing and works from a strength-based perspective. It fits well with the three pillars of safeguarding:
Protect the child
Support Mother to protect herself
Hold the perpetrator to account
The literature suggests that practice that is sensitive to women’s needs and focuses on perpetrator behaviour as a parenting choice can better protect women and children. Women’s narratives of their experiences suggest that such an approach is possible with relatively small but important changes to the language and behaviour of family and children services.
We have made lots of progress in our understanding of the impact of domestic abuse, with agencies recognising the value of collaboration in order to support survivors and their children to find safety. However, we have much work to do if we are to truly shift the narrative so that perpetrators are held accountable for their abuse and survivors are not left with the sole responsibility for safeguarding children. We owe it to both men and women to raise our standards of men, to expect them to prioritise children’s wellbeing and to call out examples of sexism and misogyny as these are ultimately the bedrock of abuse.
Visit our Spotlight page for more blogs, podcasts, guidance and survivor stories over the coming weeks
Humphreys, C and Absler, D (2011) History repeating: child protection responses to domestic violence, Child and Family Social Work, 16, 464–473
Liegghio, M and Caragata, L (2016) “Why are you talking to me like I’m stupid?”: the micro-aggressions committed within the social welfare system against lone mothers, Affilia: The Journal of Women and Social Work, 31, 1, 7–23
Mandel, D (2010) Child welfare and domestic violence: tackling the themes and thorny questions that stand in the way of collaboration and improved child welfare practice, Violence Against Women, 16, 5, 530–536
Stark, E (2013) Coercive control. In: Lombard, N and McMillan, L (eds.), Violence against women: current theory and practice in domestic abuse, sexual violence and exploitation, London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Weisz, A and Wiersma, R (2011) Does the public hold abused women responsible for protecting children?, Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work, 26, 4, 419–430