Yesterday the Prime Minister announced a consultation on Domestic Violence which would result in new measures to help victims.
Whilst I am not necessarily against any new ideas which could potentially help improve and secure more convictions against abusers, I do think that perhaps more can and should be done with existing services to enable victims of DV to be better supported when trying to escape an abusive relationship.
It appeared as if much of the Prime Minister’s discussion on improving services to DV victims, focused on services within the Criminal Justice System. In my experience however, the CJS is only a small piece of what is involved in fleeing domestic violence, and in my opinion it is important to improve services across all sectors who offer support to victims of domestic violence.
Based on my own personal experience, one of the biggest areas that needs improving is the need for partner agencies to work together, not against each other, to better enable a victim to leave an abusive relationship and refrain from returning to that relationship.
One of the biggest complaints I have witnessed from professionals is the struggle to convince a victim to leave an abusive relationship, only to see the victim return to the very same relationship and for the abuse to be repeated and, more often than not, escalate.
Whilst ultimately I did not return to my long-term abusive marriage, during the period in which I fled with my two children, and during our multiple relocations, there were countless times when it would have been easier, less complicated and far less stressful to simply return to the relationship rather than face the bureaucracy of partner agencies failing to work together.
MARAC (Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences) is a meeting held with representatives and/or specialists from both statutory partners as well as voluntary sectors (police, fire, probation, social services, education, health, housing, IDVAs) to share information on high risk domestic violence cases. The primary focus of the MARAC is to safeguard the adult victim and representatives from each sector discuss options for increasing safety and a co-ordinated action plan is drawn up for the victim.
My case was referred to MARAC eight times in the space of 12 months – not because I failed to engage with services, but as a result of agencies failing to stick to the agreed action plan and work together.
The first time my case was referred to MARAC, I remember my IDVA explaining to me that this was the best opportunity I had for agencies to come together around one table to discuss my case and put an action plan together to enable me to safely leave my violent marriage and to help secure our safety. The practicalities were somewhat different however – here are a few of the difficulties we encountered and whilst they are my own personal experiences I have heard other victims recount similar experiences:
At the first MARAC where my case was heard, it was agreed by all representatives from all agencies present that due to the high level of risk to both myself and my children, no individual or agency other than the police officers working on our case were to contact either my husband or extended family. However, within 24 hours of the MARAC meeting, the social worker assigned to our case had contacted my husband, as well as my mother and mother-in-law and informed them I had reported the abuse to authorities and the children and I were being moved by police out of the family home.
I was violently assaulted as a direct result of the Social Worker’s disclosure. My case was referred back to MARAC and once again the decision was made and agreed by all agencies present that no individual other than the police were to be in contact with my husband or extended family. The decision was also taken to relocate us for a second time. Within days of the MARAC meeting, the social worker once again made contact with my husband to inform him of the decision to move us again. The social worker went on to disclose the address of our safe location and a further violent assault occurred.
Whilst the police officers involved in our safeguarding were exasperated by the actions of the Social Worker they stated they could take no action against her as she worked for another partner agency. I was advised by police that the only way to stop the Social Worker from disclosing any further information would be to hire legal counsel to represent the children and I.
I find it perplexing that although decisions are made and agreed by all present at a MARAC meeting, if one partner agency then explicitly goes against a decision which has been made, they are not then held accountable to MARAC. How can that be productive? The police made the decision that we needed to leave the family home, a decision I engaged with and followed, and yet a decision which went on to be compromised by a partner agency.
Another issue we came across involved a different partner agency, this time Education. Due to the failings from Social Services, the decision was made for the children and I to be relocated completely out of the area and into a new part of the country. Our case was once again referred back to MARAC. A decision was made by the new Police Force and agreed to by all representatives at MARAC for both children to be placed in the same school. I was informed of this decision and advised to complete the necessary paperwork.
I completed the necessary ‘In-Year’ application forms applying for the children to be admitted to the same school and submitted them to the Education Department. I was informed the application process would take 6 weeks, during which time the children would be out of school. I was also informed that there was no school within the area in which we lived which could accommodate both children – either there was an available space for the eldest but not for the youngest or vice versa.
During the children’s 6 week absence from school, I was contacted by the Education Department and informed I would be charged for ‘wilfully keeping my children out of education’.
At the end of the 6 week process I was informed that my eldest child had been accepted at the school we had applied for, but there was no space for the youngest child. Instead I was offered a place in another school 9 miles away for the youngest. The police would not accept the children being placed in two different schools and I was instructed to appeal the Education Department’s decision – a process which took an additional 6 weeks during which time my youngest child remained out of school. For the appeal process to take place I had to submit documentation in support of my appeal which required documentation from MARAC about their decision to have the children placed in the same school. However, I was informed that for safeguarding reasons MARAC were unable to provide any documentation. My IDVA spoke to the ChSupt who was overseeing our case who stated he would first have to speak to the Police Legal Department before providing us with the required documentation.
Finally a hearing was held 3 months after the initial school application to consider my case. The hearing was attended by a legal representative from the Council, a representative from the Education Department, and myself. The Education Department presented their case first and spoke for 30 minutes on why it was not possible to place the children in the same school. I was then given the opportunity to present my case at which time I submitted the documentation provided by the ChSupt of our local Police Force. On reading the evidence supplied by the ChSupt, the Chair of the hearing stated, “why is this case even being brought before this hearing, if the Police state that for safeguarding reasons the two children concerned need to be placed in the same school, then no one in their right mind would go against that decision.”
I find it incomprehensible that the Head of Education was present at the MARAC meeting in which our case was discussed, and in which MARAC were informed we were being relocated into the area due to previous agency failings in our case. A decision was made by all parties present that for safeguarding reasons the children needed to be placed in the same school, and yet there was no fast-track application process for this to happen through MARAC. Instead we had to endure a process which took 3 months (during which time my child was out of school) and included submitting documentation which had already been shared in MARAC for this issue to be resolved.
These are only a few of the issues which we had to endure when fleeing our domestic violence and it was as a result of these difficulties that I often thought of returning to the abusive relationship as it would have been easier than having to navigate the bureaucracy of agencies failing to work together.
It is not just the CJS where improvements are needed to provide necessary support to victims of domestic violence – all support agencies and partner agencies need to improve their practices of working together to enable better and safer outcomes for victims. Escaping domestic violence involves so much more than just a criminal conviction and to only look at the CJS for improvements is short-sighted in my view.