This blog explores the crisis which the domestic abuse sector is facing. It draws on Cordis Bright’s experience of research, evaluation and consultancy in this sector over the last ten years to highlight the key tenets which would ideally underpin the local and national response.
Four months into lockdown. We are adjusting to the shock of Covid-19 and its devastating effect on the health and wellbeing of our society. People are now talking openly about a new way of living in the medium to long term which will involve more periods at home and ongoing social distancing.
Those who understand domestic abuse have been clear from the outset about the very significant risks which the lockdown creates. In April, Dame Vera Baird DBE QC, (Victims’ Commissioner for England and Wales), Nicole Jacobs (Domestic Abuse Commissioner for England and Wales) and Anne Longfield OBE (Children’s Commissioner for England and Wales) informed the Home Affairs Committee of the urgent changes which are required to ensure domestic abuse victim-survivors are supported and protected.
The government’s decision to focus on medical/hospital pressures meant that although those voices may have been heard, action from government was and continues to be minimal. We know that an additional £2m has been made available to domestic abuse charities, but it is clear that this is not enough . For instance, the reported data makes for harsh reading: Refuge report a 700% increase in helpline calls , Scottish Women’s Aid report that 84% of its groups operate waiting lists (this figure was reported before the lockdown had begun)  and the project Counting Dead Women reporting more than five suspected domestic abuse deaths per week during lockdown (a figure which is usually around 2) .
Now that the country is reconciling itself to a new normal, a very rapid review of domestic abuse and violence against women and girls (VAWG) strategies, with a particular focus on families and children must be an urgent priority.
Unfortunately, as the Marmot Review 10 Years On  reminds us, the fabric from which this new approach must be fashioned is not nearly robust enough. And more specifically, we know that mobilising a response to domestic abuse challenges is especially difficult due to under-funding, system-wide approaches still being developed (evidence suggests that a co-ordinated response which encompasses health, social care, housing, education and criminal justice is likely to be more effective)  and the lack of refuges and safe spaces.
In our view, this issue needs a two-fold approach: national government needs to review policy, legal requirements and practice guidance to ensure that ongoing social distancing requirements and other coronavirus pressures do not become an excuse for inaction. At the same time, local areas must rapidly understand changes in demand and examine ways of re-prioritising service delivery, support and enforcement in this space: local commissioners and providers must collaborate in the creation of an urgent, flexible strategy and delivery plan.
This local response needs to work really creatively: the conditions in which it is operating are likely to include:
- More demand.
- Ongoing under-funding.
- A continued lack of refuges and safe spaces.
- A tangled system with limited strategic and operational oversight between the critical parts of the system that must collaborate to be effective (e.g. health, social care, housing, education, criminal justice).
- And a continued shortage of perpetrator programmes with strong evidence of success.
The new approach needs capacity to work quickly and respond to increased crises. It also needs to urgently prioritise pro-active family support services which have capacity to prevent situations escalating to crisis point and overwhelming the system. Finally, as there is a need to act on the basis of limited evidence, a nimble approach to testing-and-learning will have to become the new normal. In this environment, rapid evaluation, responsive feedback loops and practical implementation of the results will be key.
There is no doubt this is difficult. But perhaps recognised urgency provides an opportunity. The extent of the crisis could enable key partners to take stock, rapidly adopt proven ways of working, and innovate.
Lucy Asquith and Hannah Nickson are Senior Consultants at Cordis Bright. We have a strong track record of supporting the Home Office, Police and Crime Commissioners, police forces, and local authority areas with strategy and evaluation in the field of domestic abuse and VAWG. This includes previous experience of strategic needs assessments, reviews of specific interventions, and evaluations of whole system approaches, innovative whole-family support, and perpetrator programmes. The ideas in this blog have been drawn from those experiences. We are really interested to hear others’ views: sharing ideas and solutions seems more important than ever. Please get in touch with your thoughts so that we can create and share stronger resources and ideas for the sector at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
And if you are looking for support with a revised strategy, evaluation or learning approach, we’d be really interested to discuss further. We have been talking to clients about a number of activities, including:
- The need to ensure system leadership is informed by evidence: this involves very rapid strategic needs assessments and facilitating informed discussions among system leaders to make decisions.
- Rapid evaluation of innovative or un-trialled approaches: the aim is to provide emerging evidence of likely success so that more confident decisions can be made regarding investment and/or disinvestment in services.