Domestic Violence in the UK - a definition and analysis

'The ability to live free from violence and fear is a basic human right.' - Sandra Horley CBE, Chief Executive of Refuge. Annual Report, 2014, p 2

Introduction

A brief essay cannot detail all aspects of a topic which transcends gender or sexual orientation and encompasses psychological, physical, sexual, financial, and emotional abuse. Domestic violence (DV) includes forced marriage, human trafficking, rape and sexual assaults, 'honour killings' and elder abuse (Crown Prosecution Service, 2015). While recognising the importance of these issues and acknowledging that men can also be victims, this essay will focus on DV against women. The evidence shows that the majority of victims are women in heterosexual relationships (Department of Health, 2005). Also, as women tend to have overall responsibility for their offspring, it is relevant to discuss the impact of DV on the children involved.

Domestic violence against women will be noted in the context of patriarchy, but this essay will also build on the main findings of Dobash and Dobash's groundbreaking research (1979) which helped to identify DV as a separate topic for investigation. Many responses have been developed to meet the needs of victims. This essay will focus on the 'Refuge' model and the newer 'MARAC' inter-agency support structure. For illustrative purposes, case histories will be cited where appropriate. Finally, as modernisation of services has attracted criticism and reductions in funding have put pressure on service provision, the impact of these changes will be considered.

Domestic violence is defined as 'any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those age 16 or over who are, or who have been, intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality' (Home Office, 2013).

The Crown Prosecution Service states that one in four women in England and Wales will be a victim of DV during her lifetime (CPS, 2015). International statistics suggest that one in three (one billion women) have suffered DV (Heise et al, 1999). UK police receive one phone call every minute of every day (Women's Aid, 2014) and the British Crime Survey estimated that 12.9 million DV incidents are perpetrated against women over a one year period. At the same time, DV against men accounts for a further 2.5 million incidents (Walby and Allen, 2004). It must be acknowledged that female victims can on occasions be the aggressor. However, the level of violence inflicted by men is generally more extreme (Hester, 2009). Repeat victimisation is also more common in DV cases than in any other type of violent crime.

The impact on victims is long-lasting. Besides physical injuries, women face increased incidence of depression and suicidal ideation. Psychosomatic disorders are commonplace and there is greater risk of unplanned pregnancy, HIV or STIs (World Health Organisation, 2002). Finally, they run an increased risk of being killed: every week, two women in the UK are murdered by their current or former partner (CPS, 2015). The World Health Organisation estimates that 40-70% of murdered women are killed by their current or former partner (WHO, 2002).

Children are also victims. Women's Aid (2015) notes that mothers shield their children to the best of their ability, and may defer seeking help in the belief that the family should stay together. However, 90% of DV incidents are witnessed by children who may also be victims of abuse at the hands of the same perpetrator (Department of Health, 2005).

DV has not always been viewed seriously. Early feminists identified violence towards women as a form of patriarchy, arguing that the power relationships inherent in patriarchal society were reflected in male domination of the domestic sphere (Millett, 1970). In 1971, Erin Pizzey opened the first UK Women's Refuge in West London. At that time, DV was rarely spoken of openly but the volume of women and children seeking help forced the issue onto the political agenda. In 1975, the first Government Select Committee was created to investigate DV. They recommended a minimum of one family refuge place per 10,000 people. The following year (1976) the Domestic Violence and Matrimonial Proceedings Act was enacted, offering civil protection orders (injunctions) for those at risk of abuse. The Housing Act (Homeless Persons) 1977 acknowledged that women and children at risk of violence were effectively homeless and had the right to state-funded temporary accommodation (Isaac, 2014). Domestic violence costs the taxpayer money: £3.1 billion in 2004 (Department of Health, 2005). However, the cost to the victims is immeasurable.

A ground-breaking study of women in a Glasgow refuge confirmed that most abuse goes unreported. Male sexual jealousy was the usual source of conflict. Most women believed the abuse would stop after marriage, suggesting that warning signs were there at an early stage (Dobash and Dobash, 1979). This is supported by a recent SafeLives survey, which found that victims stayed in abusive relationships for around three years during which time they could be assaulted up to fifty times. On average, they saw five professionals in the final year before accessing specialised help (Topping, 2015). Refuge (2014) noted that women using their services had suffered for an average of five years before escaping.

The opening of the first Refuge marked a sea-change in service provision. Refuge is now one of the best-known charities involved in the sector, with a network of 'safe houses' across fifteen local authorities. Their experience, garnered over four decades, gives them a credible voice and their 'three-pronged approach' – provision, protection and prevention – has spawned a range of services.

Refuge protects women by advocating on their behalf for services, and lobbying for implementation of progressive legislation. They advise other agencies on best practice and campaign to raise awareness of DV by promoting education, training and research. DV should never be taken lightly: 80% of victims suffer multiple types of abuse, including physical, sexual, financial and emotional violence. 55% of women accessing Refuges had been strangled or choked by their partner and 55% had received threats to kill (Refuge, 2014):

'Michelle was in a coma for thirteen weeks after being savagely attacked by her ex-partner. He hit her with a crowbar thirteen times. Her children witnessed the assault.'  (Refuge, 2014, p 6)

Most Refuge residents were denied access to economic resources, including bank accounts or welfare payments. Sometimes debts had been accrued in their name, and they may have been prevented from accessing education or employment. Empowering women to regain financial independence with workshops on budgeting skills and 'preparation for work' courses are key components of the Refuge programme (Refuge, 2014).

Activities are organised locally with input from refuge residents, and often reflect the ethnicity of the client group: the Hackney Refuge celebrates Eid and Diwali festivals with the exchange of gifts and special food prepared by the residents. Refuges are sensitive to the cultural needs of minorities, including victims of human trafficking and those with insecure residential status. 'Special' services are staffed by refuge workers (who speak a total of 28 different languages) from the same cultural background (Refuge, 2014). 

'Ayla' suffered years of abuse at the hands of her husband and his relatives before fleeing with her daughter and contacting police. Her husband was arrested; Ayla was referred to the Refuge because of the serious risk of 'honour'-based violence. Her Key Worker introduced her to a local service which provided counselling in Kurdish to help her manage her depression and build up her confidence. She notes:

'Ayla ..... continued to receive death threats from her extended family for leaving her husband. When she arrived at the Refuge, she had some bruising to her face and her right ear. She could not hear in this ear ............. She was sent for various tests at the local hospital [and] was found to be profoundly deaf in her right ear due to the physical violence she had suffered over the years.' (Refuge, 2014, p6)

A Refuge is home to the women and children for weeks, months or longer. Two out of every three residents are children, traumatised and needing specialist support. Children who witness domestic violence suffer emotional abuse. The effects include anxiety, depression, insomnia, nightmares, bedwetting, truanting, aggression, social isolation and loss of self-esteem. Older children may begin using alcohol or drugs, may develop eating disorders or resort to self-harm. (Women's Aid, n.d.) Specially trained Child Support Workers are in every Refuge.

Once life-threatening injuries are dealt with, other needs are assessed. Refuge staff are adept at organising multi-agency interventions, including support for alcohol and drug misuse or mental health issues. Finding a safe permanent home is not easy but women are supported at every stage. On leaving the Refuge, women can access community-based outreach networks providing continued support for their individual needs.

Services are currently being stretched to breaking point as funding is slashed. Home Secretary Theresa May has refused to ring-fence budgets for women's refuges, and public policy has changed to offering protection orders to victims and supporting them to remain in their local community. Erin Pizzey, founder of the UK Refuge movement, thinks this is a retrograde step: 'My therapeutic model included long-term shared accommodation for vulnerable mothers and children. That is still needed.' (Laville, 2014). The impact of budget cuts is significant. During 2014, refuges received 20,736 referrals. Of these, 31% - around 6,800 women – had to be turned away (Refuge, 2014).

New support structures for high-risk victims include 'MARAC' – a 'Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference' - which brings together social workers, children's services managers, police and probation officers, drug and alcohol workers, housing officers, mental health officials, medical practitioners, GP link workers, and specialist domestic violence service managers. The concept originated in Cardiff following the deaths of a toddler and an unborn child as a result of DV. There are 288 MARACS across England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Guernsey and Scotland, and they usually meet monthly (Tickle, 2014).

DV victims deemed at particularly high risk of suffering traumatic or life-threatening events have their cases referred to their local MARAC. Only fifteen out of every thousand cases are men. Panel members contribute their knowledge of each case: rapid decisions are made and actions follow (Tickle, 2014).

In one instance a man had made serious threats towards his partner's unborn child; child protection social workers were immediately assigned to the case. The victim was unaware of her partner's previous convictions for battery. Under the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme ('Clare's Law') it was decided to inform her of his previous history (Tickle, 2014). It is not apparent from these measures just how safe the victim would be, or how confident she would feel, while awaiting more permanent arrangements. Despite MARAC's attempts to create a safety net around potential victims, the number of fatalities linked to DV has not decreased.

Links between MARACs and multi-agency hubs based in local authority areas are being enhanced to facilitate earlier identification of cases, particularly those involving children. The risk to a child in an abusive household may be higher than the risk to the adult, and many of these children remain unknown to children's services. However, the multi-agency approach has its critics. Hague (1998) acknowledges the potential benefits of the policy but cautions against over-optimism, arguing that they exclude the main stakeholders – the victims – as contributors, and can provide a smokescreen to disguise inaction. She also predicted the marginalisation of the refuge movement (Hague, 1998). 

Preparing an abuse victim to leave home and find a place of safety takes time. Tickle (2014) notes: 'Becoming safer and staying safe are long-term, hard-won goals.'  There are many barriers to ending a relationship with an abusive partner, including shame, guilt, lack of support, and financial dependence. Safety is a real concern, and with good reason. Women are considered to be at the greatest risk of homicide at the point of separation or after leaving a violent partner (Refuge, 2015). However, the links between DV services and the Justice system have been considerably strengthened in recent years. Independent Domestic Violence Advocates (IDVAs) are specialist refuge staff based in police stations, hospitals etc, working with 'high risk' women and supporting them through the criminal and civil justice systems. During 2013 – 2014, IDVAs supported 2,642 new women and 2,918 children, including helping 1,024 women through the criminal justice system. 95% of women who wanted to make an official complaint were empowered to do so, and 58% of cases which went to court resulted in a guilty verdict (Refuge, 2014, p 11).

Conclusion

This essay has shown the extent and nature of DV in the UK and the efforts made to provide support for victims. Services have progressed enormously and DV is no longer treated lightly. Police prosecute when they have the evidence to do so, courts have the power to remove abusers from the family home, and women are becoming more aware of the services available to them.

Despite this, women are still at risk. Education and public awareness have roles to play in reducing the incidence of DV. In a multi-cultural society such as the UK, it is also essential that women facing particular challenges because of their ethnicity or cultural heritage have the confidence to come forward and lead by example from within their communities.

The Refuge model has operated successfully for decades but it has limitations. Their literature rightly highlights their work with women and children, but it does not clarify what happens to adolescent sons. It seems doubtful that they can be accommodated within a Refuge, even though they are presumably as emotionally damaged as their sisters or younger brothers. The Refuge is probably the safest option for women, but that protection may carry a price they are not prepared to pay.

It also seems doubtful that abused women would feel completely safe in their family home with just a court order between them and a clenched fist. The MARAC concept has huge potential and it is encouraging to see cooperation between agencies. However, notwithstanding budgetary pressures, when there is an immediate danger to a woman and her children, it would surely more prudent to arrange safe accommodation rather than to rely on care in the community. Nevertheless, women do move on from domestic abuse and the stories of survivors are truly inspiring.

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