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Idea Exchange: We gave domestic abuse survivors a role in running services

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Two years ago, Stevenage BC and our partners recognised the local domestic abuse service was disjointed.

 

  • Project: Stevenage Against Domestic Abuse
  • Objective: Prevention and early intervention to tackle domestic abuse and make Stevenage a safer place for those affected by it
  • Timescale: December 2015 – present
  • Cost to authority: £50,000 a year
  • Number of staff working on project: Four
  • Outcomes: Satisfaction with the service is high with: 82% say they are fully satisfied and 18% fairly satisfied. 56% say it has improved their safety fully; 33% mostly or partly, 11% not at all. 78% report the service meets their needs fully, and 22% mostly. 100% feel fully understood and listened to
  • Officer contact details: Rob Gregory

People who had been attacked and fled their homes would have to make potentially life-changing decisions about their future, sometimes while sitting in the police station or council offices. Others in abusive relationships classed as ‘low risk’ received little or no support, despite the danger that violence would escalate. Too few victims come forward anyway and many more suffer in silence. Something needed to change.

We discussed concerns with our partners in the police and county council, and began to develop a more strategic and co-ordinated approach. A key element was our decision to bring in the experts to advise us: people who had experienced domestic abuse themselves. We are a co-operative council, committed to working with residents and partners to shape our work. We asked people who had come to us for help what they needed and how we could improve our support.

Rob gregory and sarah pateman cropped

Rob gregory and sarah pateman cropped

Rob Gregory and Sarah Pateman

These were not easy conversations to have. Some people quite understandably just wanted to move on and pick up the pieces of their lives. Others chose to return to abusive partners, but some decided to work with us and with their support we created the Stevenage Against Domestic Abuse (SADA) Forum. It first met in April 2016, and put those affected by domestic abuse at the heart of decision-making.

The forum often approached matters quite differently to how the council would have done alone, and helped us to identify gaps in the service. This summer, we opened a safe space for people who have suffered abuse to stay for up to a week. It is unique in that, unlike a refuge, it is available immediately as a short-term breathing space. Victims and their families can stay there, for free, while they make what can be major decisions on their future, and we encourage other organisations to refer people at risk there.

Forum members also run informal drop-in sessions for victims and their families to talk about their experiences with others who have been through it and really understand. Out of necessity, it operates on a referral-only basis and is mobile, held in community and children’s centres.

Of course, it is important not to overstate the forum’s input and oversimplify the process. All the forum members’ ideas are discussed at length to help ensure they will achieve their anticipated aims, then modified or further developed. Other ideas come from our partners or staff. We’re always looking to innovate and refine what we do.

Alongside the victim-centred approach, we have strengthened our partnership working. The police oversee criminal incidents and Hertfordshire CC provides children’s services support, while charities such as Citizen’s Advice are another vital source of help. We also work with independent domestic violence advisors, mental health teams and health visitors, the Women’s Resource Centre, the police’s domestic abuse team and local police officers.

The forum and partnership working are the anchors for what has become a service with its own unique governance. This includes a SADA board, which makes strategic decisions, led by council leader Sharon Taylor (Lab), who is a key advocate of the service. A the chair of the forum attends the board meetings. There is also a working group, which deals with operational matters, and a multi-agency panel to discuss low- and medium-risk cases and ensure all the support comes together. They work alongside the forum to ensure victims’ voices are at the forefront throughout.

Cllr Taylor said protecting people who have suffered abuse in their own homes is a priority: “The changes we’ve made with partners have created a holistic service. It offers early support to help prevent problems escalating, and gives people who have been abused the support they need to make decisions about their life and future safety.”

That early help includes one-to-one support for perceived ‘low-risk’ cases. Many people do not want to go to a refuge but need help to stay around friends and families where they have support. Even if people decide to stay with an abusive partner, we can plan for their safety in case things do get worse and help them to recognise signs of escalation.

The police are strongly committed to SADA and appreciate the focus on prevention. David Lloyd (Con), Hertfordshire’s police and crime commissioner, said: “Domestic abuse is an abhorrent crime and tackling it is one of my top priorities. More money has been invested, creating a single point of contact for victims and providing high quality support for people who’ve been subjected to abuse. I welcome the SADA initiative as it is imperative that all agencies work together in a coordinated way to offer timely and appropriate support.”

The SADA service encourages and empowers survivors to make decisions that are right for them, which could include applying for their own orders against perpetrators. We offer support to everyone including men and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities, and for family members experiencing or witnessing domestic abuse, including children. We facilitate a course that allows parents to understand the impact of abuse on their children and how they can rebuild their relationships.

Because we know people will not always feel able to report attacks, we have also trained council frontline staff to identify signs of domestic abuse. Our repairs team flag up when they see repeated reports of damage, which could be indicative of domestic abuse, and a joint visit with tenancy services may be completed to offer support.

We also run an in-house service which seeks to address the needs of perpetrators, through a drug, alcohol and offending service to help them understand and change their behaviour. Almost a quarter of incidents reported to the police are alcohol- or drug-related, so addressing those problems is an important element of the service we offer.

We have trained teams at neighbouring councils and partner agencies including North Hertfordshire DC, East Hertfordshire DC and Mind in Mid Herts. We also plan to give talks in schools on healthy relationships, which is a key way of stopping problematic behaviour developing.

We have secured funding from outside sources including the Department for Communities & Local Government and Stefanou Foundation. Our ongoing challenge is to ensure the service is sustainable by working with other commissioners and funders, and evolving other services to better meet the needs of local communities. We believe this approach provides better support and saves money in the long term.

To know people are safe and feel safer is the outcome we would like to see, though it is hard to measure. In a recent survey of the people we have helped, 56% said our service had fully improved their safety; 11% mostly; 22% partly; and 11% not at all. Overall satisfaction with the service was high; and 100% of people said they felt fully understood and listened to.

In Stevenage we actively encourage the reporting of domestic abuse and are striving to ensure that our town remains a safe place where people are empowered to report abuse to the authorities or to seek advice and support.

Sarah Pateman, community safety manager and Rob Gregory, assistant director communities and neighbourhoods, Stevenage BC

 

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