Change that lasts, by Polly Neate

Polly Neate

Polly Neate

The problem with “deficit models”, which focus on the inability of individuals to resolve complex and often dangerous problems on their own, is that not only do they highlight people’s deficiencies: they actually exacerbate them, wearing people down with constant reminders of their own inability to cope.

And if there was ever an example of this, the dominant approach to women experiencing, escaping and recovering from domestic abuse is it.

Classified by means of a risk assessment tool, a woman deemed a “high-risk victim” will have her case discussed by a group of professionals at a Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC), at which she is not present. The agencies represented at the MARAC will determine actions which they, and she, should take in order to manage the risk.

With a lot of luck, she will be referred to one of the rapidly diminishing specialist local support services. With a bit of luck, she will be supported at least for the duration of any criminal justice process against the perpetrator. Without luck, and particularly if she has “complex needs” related to trauma, such as mental health problems, drug or alcohol misuse, challenges with parenting in an atmosphere of intimate terrorism, she may become stuck in the MARAC revolving door, deemed “intractable”, “not engaging”.

Since we at Women’s Aid began searching for a better way, we’ve spoken to a large number of women and professionals, and there is a widespread consensus that change is needed. But such is the magnetic attraction of the notion of “managing risk” that most alternatives developed by statutory agencies merely offer more of the same: more different professionals invited to the MARAC table; more risks considered, including those to children. Local specialist women’s services have been doing it differently for decades, but have become starved of public funds.

But one local service, My Sisters Place in Middlesbrough, won a small grant in 2013 to work intensively with a group of these “intractable”, “disengaged” women, and to evaluate the results.

One of the women was Jess, a young women with two children whose partner Rick was a prolific offender for whom court orders and short prison sentences were water off a duck’s back. Between June 2008 and March 2013, Jess’s case was discussed at MARAC 16 times, and the actions taken to manage risk included:

·       20 police callouts

·       12 child protection meetings

·       four housing applications, resulting in rehousing three times

·       nine court hearings

·       three applications for non-molestation orders

·       eight  breaches of non-molestation orders

·       one visit to A&E

·       several visits to the GP

Jess stopped reporting incidents of violence to the police, because she had lost faith that the local agencies would protect her. By April 2013, when My Sisters Place began to work with her, she had depression and was in poor physical health, weighing less than seven stone. She was struggling to function. Her children were also suffering both physically and emotionally and missing school. The “actions” determined by the MARAC were acting as a barrier, not an enabler.

Like many women living in constant terror and danger, however, Jess had coping strategies, and was keeping her children as safe as she could. And she was perfectly able to articulate what she needed. There were three things she needed immediately.

·       “I need the police to stop raiding my house looking for him in the middle of the night.  He’s not here and they keep breaking the door down.” My Sisters Place supported her to explain this to the police, and it stopped.

·       “I need somewhere to live that has no connection to Rick and all this mess.” My Sisters Place advocated for Jess with the housing association and she was moved to a more suitable property with a “sanctuary scheme” – security adaptations geared to the specific needs of a domestic abuse survivor and her family.

·       “I need some help for the children, we’re all in bits.” My Sisters Place helped Jess and her children into counselling and came to all the appointments with her for three months, because she had lost such confidence in “professionals” that she needed support initially to benefit from what was on offer.

The pilot lasted for 18 months. In 2016, My Sisters Place contacted Jess to find out how she was doing. She’d had no problems for 20 months by then.

For the cost of one MARAC meeting, the asset-based, needs-led support that Jess received could be given to five women for a year. The only difference between the service at My Sisters Place and the support provided by many local, specialist women’s services is the evaluation. Yet these services are being decimated by competitive tendering processes which are framed in terms of “high risk victims” and favour large national charities.

Safety is a fundamental human need. So an approach which strives to meet the needs of survivors of domestic abuse will still address the risks they face; it will have to, to make them safe. But you can manage risk without meeting needs, and with an approach which, far from building on women’s own resources, actually depletes those resources still further. Unless we stop and rethink, that’s exactly what we are doing.

Note: Women’s Aid is piloting a new, strengths-based, needs-led and trauma-informed response to domestic abuse: Change that Lasts. The service described above is one of three core elements of the approach. More information can be found at

Names in this blog have been changed.

Polly Neate joined Women’s Aid as Chief Executive in February 2013. Leading the organisation through a time of significant challenge and change, she is also a prominent commentator on violence against women, and on sexism and feminism more widely. Throughout Polly’s career she has influenced government and campaigned for policy change and social justice. Her previous role was as Executive Director of External Relations and Communications at Action for Children, one of the UK’s largest charities. In 2008 she was responsible for the relaunch of the organisation, formerly NCH. Polly is a journalist by profession, with her last media job being as editor of Community Care, a major weekly title for professionals in children’s services and social care which under her control included two magazines as well as web-based products and large-scale events. She has contributed to national newspapers, magazines and books. She won several awards as an editor, both for journalism and campaigning. She has been a member of many advisory and working groups for government and opposition. She was recently voted one of the Top 30 charity CEOs on Twitter and can be followed at @pollyn1