Domestic abuse interventions: a history of neglect amidst growing need

Roger Grimshaw
Tuesday, 16 June 2020

The lockdown has led to a greater volume of calls to domestic abuse helplines, causing fears that its rigours are making discord and violence more intense and prevalent.

The economic impact of the current pandemic measures is likely to increase the risk of violence in domestic settings; the financial crash of 2008 was followed by a rise in incidents.

This concern comes at a time when the Domestic Abuse Bill 2019 - 21 is passing through Parliament, promising more coherent measures to alleviate the problem.

At first sight the signs are promising. In February, £16.6 m had been promised for emergency accommodation support and in the Budget the Chancellor pledged £10 m for responses to perpetrators of abuse.

New money has been allocated to organisations in the front line, and the recognition of need is welcome. But it raises inevitable questions about the current baseline for service provision and how prepared services are for an upsurge in demand.

The recent history of service provision tells a disturbing story of shortfalls in accessibility and availability of services.

Multi-agency risk assessment conferences (MARACs) discuss how to protect people referred to them by services, in most cases the police, yet in 2017-18 83 per cent of people experiencing domestic abuse according to the Crime Survey for England and Wales did not report their abuse to the police.

Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVAs) support people at high risk of serious harm. A survey by SafeLives in 2019 suggested that there was a significant shortage of IDVAs in England and Wales, only 74 per cent of the workforce required being available. In large areas, only about half the required number was found, in particular, in West Midlands (56 per cent) and Yorkshire and Humber (52 per cent). Over a third of services surveyed were not aware of a service response to abuse perpetrators in their area, with 60 per cent of respondents blaming a lack of funding.

According to an estimate by Women’s Aid, 205,628 referrals of women to community-based domestic abuse services in England were made in the year to March 2017, but services were unable to accept an estimated 51,322.

In 2017-18 it is estimated that 17 per cent of cases referred to refuges were not accepted because of lack of space or capacity. Fifty six per cent of organisations surveyed reported they were running an area of their service without dedicated funding in 2017-18.

These shortages must be put in the context of UK public service cuts since 2009, with more than a million jobs lost, largely in local government; the implications have been felt in the loss of preventive services, putting more pressure on the most specialist services such as IDVAs.

As well as protecting victims, investment in adequately funded services would relieve costs to the police and health services. An economic analysis compared the costs and outcomes of providing IDVAs to a hypothetical group of 100 participants over a three month period; the study estimated savings of £4.7 million.

On June 4 2020, Suzanne Jacob, chief executive of SafeLives, called for a more robust government response to domestic abuse to be incorporated into the Domestic Abuse Bill 2019 - 21.

It’s time for a cross-government strategy, backed by sustainable funding, to ensure support is there for anyone who needs it – and prevention and early intervention work that will help us to break the cycle for good.

Encouragingly there is some good evidence that interventions to protect women and girls can be effective.

Moreover, because witnessing abuse harms children, intervening properly makes families and communities safer. We must ask why services have been allowed to fall short, and whether our elected politicians and decision-makers have the necessary will to face up to their responsibilities. It is all well and good to legislate for the reduction of violence; it is another matter to back good intentions with the practical vision - and the cash - required to implement them.