Out of the darkness
New Charter Homes’ domestic violence advisors tragically have their work cut out for them. Jess McCabe joins the team to witness how this type of abuse can shatter lives, and what is being done to help rebuild them
Maria Fleming* answers the door to her pretty, red brick house with a baby in her arms. Meeting the confident 31-year-old today, dressed entirely in black, with short black hair, there is little to suggest the vulnerable young woman she once was.
But later this year her abusive ex-boyfriend, the father of her baby boy, will be released from prison where he has been serving a four-year sentence for robbing a woman at knifepoint.
Dressed in leggings and fluffy slippers, the scars on her arm hint at her troubled past. Maria is matter of fact while she relays the latest incidents - her ex-boyfriend has ignored a ban on contacting her, and she is worried he will turn up on her doorstep as soon as he is released. ‘I’m not prepared to put up with it anymore,’ she says.
Inside Housing is tagging along for the day with Alan Graham, one of Tameside’s independent domestic violence advisors. A straight-backed former police officer, Mr Graham has already been working for hours on his caseload of about 30 to 40 victims, but this is the first appointment of the day for Inside Housing. We turned up just half an hour earlier at New Charter Homes, which runs the IDVA service that supports high-risk victims like Maria.
She happens to rent a property from 14,700-home New Charter - the biggest social landlord in Tameside - but the service deals with cases across the Greater Manchester borough.
Victims are referred to an IDVA by professionals such as police officers or social workers, after they’ve been interviewed using a questionnaire designed to identify victims at risk of serious harm or murder. According to Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse - the national agency which trains IDVAs - there are about 500 IDVAs across the country, down around a third since the start of 2011 as a result of local government funding cuts. This is, CAADA estimates, about 150 fewer than needed to deal with the national caseload adequately.
Christine Christie, director of services at CAADA, says: ‘This situation will endanger lives, and the cost to the public purse is also certain to increase. Research shows that IDVAs are effective: 60 per cent of victims who are supported by an IDVA report no further abuse at case closure.’
Running the IDVA service is not exactly a money-spinner for New Charter. In Tameside, the council funding doesn’t even cover the cost of paying the salaries of the three IDVAs, forcing New Charter to partly subsidise the service. ‘We do it for social return on investment,’ explains Kerrie Pryde, head of prevention services at New Charter. Around half of all referrals are New Charter tenants.
Around 550 incidents of domestic violence are reported to the police every month in Tameside, and many of these cases land on the desks of New Charter’s IDVAs. In the six months to January 2013, the service had 246 referrals. Of these, 179 were ‘engaged’ - or working with an IDVA. And in a brutal signal of how difficult it is for abuse victims to escape, 60 of these cases are victims that New Charter has encountered before.
Twenty of these cases went through the criminal justice system, while 47 victims obtained civil injunctions against their abusers, which means they will be arrested if they breach the order by, for example, coming to the victim’s house.
Back in her home, Maria is explaining her story. As a child, she was taken into care. ‘I’ve had all different types of therapy, but nothing ever worked because I was always in violent relationships.’ The father of her first child, now nine years old, was abusive and violent. After escaping from his grip, she met the father of her son - who he has never met and is now playing in a baby gym, oblivious to these adult concerns.
It wasn’t long before that relationship also turned sour. At one of the worst points, Maria recalls: ‘He was threatening to blow my house up.’
Even from prison, he was calling her and trying to control who she saw and where she went, until he was banned from contacting her. With the help of a course run by the local women’s refuge, Maria says she has made big strides. ‘I just decided I didn’t want anything to do with him,’ she says. But even this seems to have provoked her ex. ‘He couldn’t stand that I wasn’t vulnerable anymore.’
Maria’s confidence is only shaken once the conversation turns to what happens next - her case is due to be discussed at a MARAC meeting shortly. These are ‘multi-agency risk assessment conferences’, which are held regularly to review and take action on high-risk domestic abuse cases such as Maria’s.
Mr Graham explains who will be in the room: he will be there representing her interests, as only professionals are allowed to take part. Also present will be the police, accident and emergency representatives and children’s social care services. When he gets to this point on the list, Maria gets noticeably nervous. Her foot starts tapping quickly. Her forehead wrinkles. Mr Graham tries to reassure her fears about the intervention of children’s services, but she is still visibly worried. Maria’s foot-tapping speeds up.
After the meeting, Mr Graham - who has worked with Maria since 2009, the year he started as an IDVA at New Charter - remarks: ‘The change in her is remarkable. [When I first met her], she didn’t really give me any eye contact.’
Looking back to that time, Mr Graham says her case is typical. ‘I could go to four appointments a day and it’s like these perpetrators are all from the same family, because the abusive techniques are very similar.’ Sometimes the same abuser pops onto the IDVAs’ radar, as they move from one victim to another.
While Maria is far along in her journey of escaping her abuser, our next appointment is with someone at the start of this process. Inside Housing joins another IDVA, Cheryl Allwood, on her first meeting with a new client.
John Mullan* is in his early 30s. We meet at the children’s centre on a housing estate - neutral ground. ‘I’m not children and social care, I’m not the police - my only concern is your safety,’ begins Ms Allwood.
Even with this introduction, it takes about an hour for Mr Mullan, a tenant of a different social landlord, to start revealing what’s going on. At first, when Ms Allwood asks when the problems began with his family members, he only wants to tell positive stories: getting drunk and having a laugh. But after almost an hour of gentle questions, details of harassment and abuse start to emerge. In one drink-fuelled incident, things got so bad that one of Mr Mullan’s children got hurt.
New Charter suggests using a civil order to ban Mr Mullan’s harassers from the estate. But he’s nervous about potentially going to court. ‘The feeling of going to court, and being sat across from people I’m related to…’ he says, before tailing off.
Ms Allwood asks gently: ‘If you think about your life in five years’ time, would you want it to be like it is now?’ Mr Mullan answers immediately: ‘No.’ This gives Ms Allwood hope that he is coming around to realise he must take action.
Back in New Charter’s offices in the centre of the market town of Ashton-under-Lyne, Mr Graham points to the big pile of case files waiting on his desk. One is a referral from the police. The victim, in this case a woman, refused to answer any of their questions but the police have made the referral anyway because she was visibly injured.
‘She won’t pick up the phone to me either,’ Mr Graham explains, scanning the form for clues as to how to approach the victim safely: if she had any school-age children, he could try to set up a meeting at the school. ‘I basically need a way in whereby I can see that person safely. A lot of times, if the person’s pregnant, I’ll ring the maternity unit up,’ he explains. Because the IDVA is part of an information sharing protocol with the NHS, the unit will be able to tell him when the victim’s next appointment is, and he can arrange to have a quiet word with her, without her abuser finding out.
Unfortunately, in this case there’s no obvious way in. He pulls open his draw to show me his fake ID card, saying he is a housing officer for New Charter. ‘That there is my disguise,’ he says: if he calls on a victim and the perpetrator is home, he can pretend to be on other business.
Although this might sound a bit like tricking the victim, he stresses that it is important not to be too forceful.
‘A lot of these perpetrators force the victims into doing things. I’m not going to force anyone to do anything. It’s their choice.’ But he adds: ‘If there’s children involved, it’s a different matter… If it’s going to affect the safety of a child, I’ve got a duty to report that.’
The stakes are high: in February 2012, one of New Charter’s IDVA team’s clients was murdered by her abuser. The case is still undergoing a domestic homicide review, so New Charter could not comment on the specifics. But Ms Pryde notes: ‘Traumatic things happen and it will have an impact on the people working with [the clients].’
Dealing with the stress can be hard. Alan Kibble, an operational manager at New Charter, adds: ‘We as individuals cannot solve everything. If you can’t switch off, at least knowing you’ve done everything you possibly can helps.’
Clare Elcombe, domestic abuse strategy co-ordinator at Bromley Council, is just starting research on how IDVAs can deal with ‘vicarious trauma’. Most IDVAs burn out in about seven years, she says. ‘There is this myth that what IDVAs do is tea and sympathy, when actually it’s a very draining job.’
For Maria, the effort seems to have paid off. ‘So many people think they should put up with the abuse to keep the family [together], when that’s the worst thing to do,’ she says.
Mr Graham observes: ‘We could do with employing you as another IDVA.’
*Names and minor details have been changed to protect the identity of victims