Domestic violence: listening to victims

Picture Credit: Refuge

Centres where victims of domestic abuse can access a range of services under one roof are ‘a collaborative opportunity whose time has come,’ according to the UK’s first study of a Family Justice Centre. Society Central looks at the evidence.

 ‘I felt like I was on a conveyor belt and I wanted to get off.’

 Deborah, a 41 year-old mother of two, suffered domestic abuse for years and made several unsuccessful attempts to extricate herself from her relationship with an abusive husband.  Each time  he was sorry, each time he promised to change, each time he reverted to controlling and violent behaviour.

Deborah’s story is not unique – many of the 11 clients interviewed at the centre during a new study of its work had similar stories to tell. Another, Natalie, told researchers:  ‘[The worst part is] the constant worrying . . . feeling like you’re walking on eggshells all time to try and keep the peace’

 The Croydon Family Justice Centre was the first of its kind in Europe. It was set up by the local borough council in 2005 to respond in a flexible way to the needs of those abused in intimate relationships.

 It brings together 33 agencies under one roof, including police, solicitors, housing officers, counsellors and social workers. It draws on services from more than 110 staff, and aims to provide support to around 7,000 adults and 14,000 children each year. Some are referred from other agencies, while others can walk in without an appointment at a time of crisis.

 Services within the building would often refer clients to other services. A police officer described how she could physically take victims across the corridor and put them in touch with others who could help.“We’ve dealt with all the criminal side and then … by another hour or two . . . she’s housed in a refuge, and away from the situation . . . it’s all dealt with in one day pretty much. Even the injunctions . . . and from there on in there’s a big sigh of relief for them. So it’s very impactive to, not just the criminal side but to deal with the whole issue of . . . domestic crime . . . that affords them a little bit of protection.”

 The centre is the subject of a pilot study – the first of its kind in the UK – by researchers from the University of Oxford and Kings College London. The lead researcher, Professor Carolyn Hoyle, has been researching the subject for almost two decades.

One size fits all?

As long ago as 1998 she published research (Hoyle, 1998) which addressed the case for multi-agency intervention services to help those who experience domestic violence. Responses to the issue, she believes, should not assume that ‘one size fits all.’

 Her latest study, carried out with Nicola Palmer from Kings College, London,  sought to understand what triggers led victims of abuse to seek help. It also asked how those who provided services at the Family Justice Centre saw their remit.

 The researchers spent two days a week at the centre over a two-month period, observing staff meetings, discussions about cases and interactions between clients and staff.  

 Almost all the women they interviewed had stopped socialising and avoided family and friends. In other words, to reduce the risk of abuse, they had taken measures that left them further isolated from possible support networks. Some had effectively become prisoners in their own homes, which further damaged their already low self-esteem.

 One of the women told them:

‘When you’re living in it . . . it becomes normality, until someone points it out to you and says, ‘You know, it is abuse . . . they shouldn’t be . . . treating you like this.’

  Most described an escalating cycle of abuse: “It started very gently, it was nothing to scream about,” one of them said. “But . . . it got more aggressive, frequent, and obviously more severe. I got a slap or something like that; then it changed to punches . . . When he got really bad, I’d call the police and he would just leave . . . I’d feel sorry for him because he’d come back home crying and sorry and, I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I just felt sorry for him . . . It would die down for a bit and then gradually just gets up to that point again.”

 In most cases, a particularly brutal attack was the catalyst for seeking help. Most were referred to the centre through contact with the police or a housing service.

 Each morning reported cases of domestic abuse were referred to the centre by police, and helpline workers tried to make contact with victims by telephone.

 The centre’s initial aim was to establish what a particular client’s needs were and then offer tailored support, “ If the woman chooses to leave or put the phone down and say, ‘I’m not doing that’, that’s their choice. You can’t make anybody do anything unless they’re ready and they really want to, but I’m trying to encourageand just to make them see that actually, ‘This is what I do need to look at, especially for my kids,’ one staff member explained.

 By offering tailored services, staff at the centre felt they were able to help their clients rebuild their self-confidence and to make informed choices about their future options.The researchers conclude:  Our study suggests that the Family Justice Centre may well be a collaborative opportunity whose time has come. There seem to be obvious benefits to co-located working: victims do not need to travel from place to place, telling their story afresh …they can get practical help with their diverse legal, practical and emotional needs in one building.

  “Also, although some victims use just one or two of the services, many take advantage of more, and become aware of services with which they were not previously familiar and on which they may draw in months or years to come.”

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