16 September 2012

Domestic violence in Southwark

I've blogged before about the work I do as Chair of one of Southwark's Scrutiny Sub-Committees.  In the past we've produced recommend-ations for changes relating to housing repairs, leaseholder charging and the large scale security works on the Four Squares Estate.  Local government scrutiny is not, I admit, a process which prompts great excitement in most people, but I think my committee has done a solid job of focussing in on people's concerns and finding real solutions.  This has been helped by the fact that Southwark's Labour Cabinet has been prepared to engage with the scrutiny process and actually implement new policies where we could show that they were needed.

We've recently completed another report on the important issue of domestic violence and abuse.  This is a difficult issue to investigate, not least because the often hidden nature of this crime.  However, the sub-committee has now produced a report which we hope will improve how the council responds to domestic violence and, in turn, improve support for its victims in Southwark.

The report will go before Southwark's full Overview and Scrutiny meeting tomorrow night (17th September) and then, if it is approved, before the Cabinet.

Domestic abuse can devastate the lives of its victims. The support that victims receive from a variety of different bodies can be crucial in helping them to move on, ensuring perpetrators are held to account and breaking cycles of violence in the home.  Our scrutiny was well timed because Southwark council has recently integrated many of its domestic violence support and response services into one contract, run by a specialist organisation called Solace.

There are four strands to the new integrated service:

- An advocacy and support service for male and female survivors
- A perpetrator programme run by Domestic Violence Intervention Project (aimed at reducing re-offending)
- A Parallel Programme for mothers and their children
- Capacity building workshops for agencies and professionals within the borough (including training for Southwark Council staff

We went into quite some detail in our investigation and you can read the full report for a complete record of the issues we identified and the recommendations for change we made.  But here is a short summary of the main recommendations:

Linking tenancy and leaseholder status to attendance on behaviour change programme - Officers and Solace report that one recurring issue is that perpetrators of domestic violence are often extremely reluctant to attend the “behaviour change programme”.  Where the perpetrator is a council tenant, the council should make attendance on the programme a condition of continued tenancy.  Officers from Solace and Housing should work closely together to use tenancy as leverage to force perpetrators to attend the programme.  The same approach could be taken with leaseholders, where the council is the freeholder

Placing a domestic abuse caseworker with police -  The sub-committee recommends that the police have a domestic abuse support worker working with them, located in their stations, at key days and times. This helps the police to understand the process and needs of  victims and ensures victims have access to support services at the point that they are reporting it.

A dedicated domestic violence court - The time between the domestic abuse incident and court hearing needs to be drastically reduced in Southwark.  Domestic violence courts have been very effective in other London Boroughs in reducing this time and consequently increasing conviction rates.  Southwark council on its own cannot deliver this much needed reform. There is a limit to what the council can do, but the sub-committee and the Cabinet should continue to lobby the government and the Court Service for the introduction of a dedicated court.

Training – The training programme for Southwark Council staff and other external agencies needs to be rolled out as a matter of urgency. Priority groups for training are: community leaders (TRA leaders, voluntary and community sector and councillors) and professionals (social workers, Area Housing Staff, council staff who have regular contact with residents).  These groups are likely to come into contact with victims of domestic abuse and it is important they know how to respond.

Risk Assessment Criteria - Concern was raised by staff working at the Southwark/Solace Advocacy Support Service that staff in different council departments and other agencies were often using different risk assessments.  This may, in part, be due to statutory frameworks requiring different focus, but should not be an excuse for making the system more complex and onerous for victims.  Officers and Solace should train/ work with agencies and council departments to ensure that the correct risk assessment criteria are used.

Additional security scheme – Given that continued accommodation is such a crucial issue for the victims of domestic violence, consideration should be given to setting up a scheme which supports victims to remain in their homes. The scheme should assist with security measures for the homes of victims of domestic violence.

Ensuring all staff in the Housing Options Unit take responsibility for reports of domestic abuse – All staff should take responsibility for dealing with those presenting as victims of domestic abuse.  This is particularly important in high risk areas such as the housing options unit.  Managers should ensure staff are trained and able to do this.  Timely and high standard bespoke action planning should be undertaken and necessary referrals made.

These are just some of the recommendations. You can read the full report here.