Domestic Violence and Risk Assessment: Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Domestic Violence and Risk Assessment: Rearranging the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

As we await the guidance and implementation for the new offence of coercive control many are gearing up to ensure their response is fit for purpose.

There has been a lot of discussion and debate about whether coercive control can be identified and prosecuted. Some say it is not possible and we had similar discussions about stalking. Some behaviours are covert and indirect; others are more overt, direct and easy to identify. Control can be very nuanced and this is why experts are working with government to ensure that the guidance is clear as well as practical. Again, this is what we did with the Home Office Circular on stalking, 018/2012.

That having been said, I understand Refuge's concerns about the need for comprehensive training and implementation. There are clear lessons yet to be learned from the stalking legislation as well as with DASH - the Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Harassment and Honour based Abuse Risk Model - both of which were rushed through in the latter stages, neglecting investment in the roll out and implementation. The DASH Risk Model, along with the new domestic violence law is only as good as the end user's understanding of what they are looking for and how to apply or implement it.

Interestingly, College of Policing hold sporadic meetings on the subject of risk assessment. The first meeting was attended by about 40 professionals working in the sector. I was asked to give a ten minute overview of the last 14 years of developing the DASH. When asked the question how many of those present used the model or had been trained in it only five hands were raised, including my own. This group was then asked to consider the pros and cons of the DASH - what was working well and what was not - an impossible task for those who have not read the guidance, been trained or used it. Not surprisingly, out of the four groups we were put into for this task, three stated that the DASH did not have a question on coercive control.

In fact, as I highlighted along with the experts, half of the questions in the DASH focus on coercive control. We purposefully do not ask a victim if they have been raped or sexually assaulted, and so nor do we ask 'are you being coercively controlled'. The questions have been designed by victims for victims and therefore are much more subtle and nuanced. This was a key consideration across the developmental stages.

Importantly the DASH focuses on both need and risk. I am an advocate for change to be long lasting and not to continue to re-invent the wheel - which costs time and money - and people ultimately pay with their lives. The proliferation of risk assessment tools and models over the more recent years, and lack of coherent leadership and a joined up approach, creates a very real threat that we go back 20 years. Those working in the sector over the last two decades, will know that risk models did not exist. Every service grappled with how to deal with the volume of calls (1 every minute, now 1 every 30 seconds) and disclosures of domestic abuse and how best to respond; who was in need and what response did they require. Multi-agency work and information sharing rarely took place. A single agency approach was the norm. This was again costly and ineffective.

The DASH created a framework to identify standard, medium and high risk cases as well as a basis to have a conversation with other agencies in order to co-ordinate an effective response. Safety is a need and the DASH identified standard cases to ensure that the standard today does not become a high risk tomorrow.

In effect, the DASH changed the response from a very reactive approach to a proactive one. It has been informed by the analysis of murders, near misses, lower level offences and consultation with professionals, academics and victims as well as and trialling and evaluating over many years.

All Chief Constables signed up to use the DASH in 2009, which was a major step forward, joining up all police services to use a common approach. The legacy of this significant step change is that Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales are using the same tool, importantly sat alongside specialist support agencies. This has taken a lot of time, energy and resource to ensure that we have an agreed framework to have conversations about cases across services to keep people safe. The infrastructure, IT, processes, policies and training within forces and agencies have been developed to support the DASH. We have come a long way - it's not perfect - but it's important to keep moving forward, as we know the DASH works when the appropriate accredited training and implementation takes place. The police continue to receive much criticism when domestic murders happen and the focus is normally on risk based decisions. However, this continuing shift in leadership, changes to approach and conflicting messages about what works is unhelpful.

The DASH was created by professionals in the police service working with victims of domestic abuse for professionals working with victims. It has been informed over time by evidence and UK data, victim and professionals focus groups, consultation and independent evaluation. This was not about commercial gain but about developing a tool to inform a proactive conversation with victims about need and risk in order to keep them and their children safe and hold the perpetrator to account. This is something that seems to have been omitted from many of the recent conversations.

At a time when police services and agencies are buckling due to demand and lack of resource, it makes little sense to invest time and energy in creating a new model. I wonder how much money and time has been wasted over the recent years on pilots which have no published evaluation, the creation of new processes in different parts of the country and the never ending meetings to discuss why we need to move away from the DASH without any sound evidence to do so?

The answers to the questions in the DASH clearly identify what forms of abuse are present including physical, sexual, stalking, honour based, psychological abuse and/or coercive control. This tool kit can be used to document behaviour as well as to interview perpetrators. Given that the new domestic abuse legislation focuses on a pattern of behaviour, this pattern will be clear from the questions asked in the DASH. This can then be included in the case file and the Crown Prosecution Service can make an informed decision to charge, as well as it informing decisions about bail or remand.

HMIC's report (2014) into the police response into domestic abuse found an inconsistency of approach as to how forces are using the DASH with many seeing it as tick box process, a lack of understanding about the risk factors and a lack of training. This is what needs to change and until it does we are merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.


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