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GUEST BLOG:“Setting the Heather on Fire:” Using the Safe and Together Model’s Critical Components to Advance Practice in the West of Scotland

By  Mhairi McGowan

ASSIST is the largest independent domestic abuse advocacy service in Scotland, covering 42% of the population across the West of Scotland from the urban environment of Glasgow and the surrounding areas to the beautiful landscapes of Ayrshire, Argyll and the Isles.

This wide area is governed by twelve distinct and different local authorities and although they all work under a Scottish wide child protection system, there are always local nuances that require navigating. What unites all of these local authorities is a desire to keep children safe, but there is inconsistent knowledge and inconsistent practice in terms of having a domestic-abuse-informed child protection system. ASSIST Advocates therefore constantly struggled with child protection social workers who had varying levels of knowledge and who would make decisions based on their own, sometimes misconceived, ideas about what a non-offending parent had the agency or autonomy to do.  The result of this inconsistency was sometimes mistaken interventions, wrong decisions and unsafe practice particularly around the issue of contact between an offending parent and his children.

There were also underlying consequences that impacted on our ability as an organisation to provide the appropriate support for families going through the child protection system. Where a Social Worker or Court appointed reporter did not have the appropriate understanding of domestic abuse, staff spent a lot of time trying to educate and raise awareness, thus taking them away from actually providing the support as well as having varying degrees of success in building understanding.

The conference was a great success and he certainly ‘set the heather on fire’. Safe and Together was the topic of conversation all over Scotland, both formally and informally. We were very pleased and hopeful that things would begin to change.

A few of us in Scotland in a number of organisations began to talk about Safe and Together, and as ASSIST had a 10th Birthday conference planned for Oct 2014, it seemed a great opportunity to ensure Safe and Together principles were heard by a wider audience. We invited David Mandel to speak. The conference was a great success and he certainly ‘set the heather on fire’. Safe and Together was the topic of conversation all over Scotland, both formally and informally. We were very pleased and hopeful that things would begin to change.

There was some movement. A couple of local authorities were very quick to sign up for the Safe and Together training and over the last two years that number trained has slowly increased. Strategically, a small group of agencies continued to meet to ensure the issue remained on the Scotland wide strategic agenda. As a member of the Joint Strategic Board, tasked with implementing Scotland’s Violence Against Women and Girls Strategy, I along with others were able to ensure Safe and Together had a high profile.

Operationally, staff were still experiencing difficulties trying to explain the process of abuse and decisions were still being taken that continued the problem of the invisibility of the perpetrator, so we decided to see what we could do to implement Safe and Together principles into our own daily practice.

ASSIST has been working with Police and Prosecutors since 2009 in a variety of ways to increase the visibility of the perpetrator. As that process developed, we came to understand the concept of pivoting from the concentration on the victim/survivor to the perpetrator, so hearing that a similar pivot was possible in relation to children and the child protection system was immediately attractive.

We created a small working group and set about thinking about where we could make a difference. We realised that there were lots of opportunities for us to use the principles of Safe and Together that could make a difference to individual children, even if systems were not yet ready to effect the change required.

We decided the first change should be our preparation for MARAC meetings. A MARAC, (Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference), is a meeting where information is shared on the highest risk domestic abuse cases. The meeting includes representatives of local police, probation, health, child protection, housing practitioners, Independent Domestic Abuse Advocates (IDAA’s) and other specialists from the statutory and voluntary sectors. A co-ordinated action plan is agreed with the aim of increasing the safety of the victim. The primary focus of the MARAC is the adult victim, as formal child protection procedures are considered separately, but the safety of children and young people are also discussed and actions agreed.

We structured our input about children around the 5 Critical Components of the Safe and Together Model and immediately began to see discussions at the meetings and action plans change.  We had made the perpetrator more clearly visible and illustrated the effects on children. We were cautiously pleased. As Domestic Abuse Advocates, we are so used to inconsistencies, that we feared this initial gain might be a temporary feature, but it continued.

We thought about the other aspects of our practice that could change and so decided to adjust our input to the reports for court written by Criminal Justice Social Workers. These pre-sentencing assessments carried out on the perpetrator involve an interview with him to gauge his insight into the offence, as well as contact with the Police and ourselves to consider the risk to victims and to offer sentencing options to the Sheriff (Judge).

It was already standard practice that information given to report writers by ASSIST was used carefully to ensure that nothing could be attributed to the victim. Our structuring of the conversation around the 5 Critical Components gave the report writers a clear focus around which they could ask questions of the perpetrator that helped not only in relation to what had happened to the children, but also to the level of the perpetrator’s insight into his behaviour. Report writers welcomed the additional information and although not always aware of what we were doing, could appreciate the need to speak to us first. This doesn’t always happen, but we’re working on it.

It was an easy shift then to ensure that every discussion with Social Workers whose focus is children included the 5 Critical Components. Even if the individual social worker had never heard of Safe and Together, the fact that we were able to say, ‘he undermines her parenting by….’,  ‘she strengthens the wellbeing of the children by….’ and of course crucially, ‘his behaviour impacts on the children in the following ways…’. meant that the information we were trying to impart to them was clearly identified.

It was an easy shift then to ensure that every discussion with Social Workers whose focus is children included the 5 Critical Components. Even if the individual social worker had never heard of Safe and Together, the fact that we were able to say, ‘he undermines her parenting by….’,  ‘she strengthens the wellbeing of the children by….’ and of course crucially, ‘his behaviour impacts on the children in the following ways…’. meant that the information we were trying to impart to them was clearly identified.

By now, all the discussions with external agencies were framed around the Safe and Together Framework, but there was still a gap. We weren’t gathering this information systematically, which meant we were giving ourselves extra work as we pulled it all together from various parts of the information we held about the client.

Our first task as IDAA’s is to assess the risks our clients face and do this via a mix of actuarial and professional judgement. The actuarial assessment carried out is by way of the SafeLives DASH, which is the UK’s standard assessment of risk from Intimate Partner Violence. We incorporated prompts into a number of the questions to ensure all the relevant information relating to Safe and Together were gathered at the same time. We were therefore able to fully assess the risks and have the information accessible in a way that benefitted our staff.

Our clients also connected with this approach. It was apparent to them, because of the questions we asked, that the perpetrator’s behaviour, and crucially, the efforts clients made were understood and validated.

Although the primary function of Safe and Together is to ensure that child protection agencies have the information they require, we have found that it enhances our practice and helps our connection with our clients. It helps us see the full spectrum of the perpetrator’s behaviour as it applies to the children in a clear and concise way and gives us a structure and language that child protection agencies understand.

We have a way to go before Safe and Together is standard practice in Scotland, but with the strategic and operational gains made, I am confident it won’t be too long before it is. In the interim, introducing Safe and Together into our daily practice has enhanced the practice of workers, but more importantly has ensured better outcomes for children and adults.
* Mhairi McGowan, is an international domestic violence expert of and  Head of Service for ASSIST.  Her email is mhairi.mcgowan@glasgow.gov.uk.

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