A holistic restorative approach to family domestic abuse

This is an article from the Restorative Justice Council magazine Resolution Issue 61: Autumn 2017

There is still much debate about the suitability of restorative processes to deal with the harm caused by domestic abuse. Here, members of the Restorative Change Partnership talk about their new programme of restorative interventions which puts families’ needs and experiences at the centre of the process to break their cycle of harm.

The Restorative Change Partnership (previously known as Domestic Abuse Restorative Family Approaches) began in 2013 in South Wales as a consortium of best practice organisations who held similar beliefs around familial domestic abuse and restorative best practice. We had an idea for a model that our shared knowledge and experience told us would meet the needs of families and fill gaps in existing provision.

Our core model is based on extensive evidence that you can’t work with just an individual or even a couple and expect an entire family system to change. By working with whole families who are experiencing domestic abuse, and taking a core restorative strengths-based approach which sees families as experts in their own lives, a family can be enabled to generate their own solutions to function more safely and healthily.

The initial development partnership included agencies from restorative approaches and criminal justice, education, supported housing, domestic abuse, therapeutic interventions, motivational interviewing and academic researchers in intimate partner abuse and evidence-based working.

A substantial grant from South Wales police and crime commissioner with Ministry of Justice match funding enabled a year’s intensive project together. The aim was to co-design and pilot a best practice whole family restorative intervention and a replicable partnership delivery model and strategy. The funding enabled wide research around contemporary theories and evidence-based practice, national and international.

Our research led to the co-production of Choices for Change (C4C), a manualised and licensed six-month programme of restorative interventions tailored to the needs of each family, and a replicable working model for partnership agencies. C4C involves the full range of restorative approaches, training families in restorative principles and skills over time, in their own home and with any key agencies that matter to them. Families can confidently utilise the core restorative skills together once practitioners withdraw.

Supportive systems and environment

Ensuring robust and safe systems and processes is key, with clear partnership management of referrals and allocation to the most appropriate delivery partner to lead. Risk assessment includes the CAADA-DASH risk identification checklist at key points but is always dynamic, with regular shared cases and constant peer supervision across agencies. Shared core extensive training and co-facilitation means that highly experienced domestic abuse practitioners work alongside restorative practitioners with extensive experience of complex and sensitive case working, sharing expertise. An established peripheral offer with local agencies also supports individuals in meeting specific needs, for example counselling, debt or substance misuse services.

Case study

The Jones family* did not initially identify themselves as having issues around domestic abuse, but this was contradicted by police reports. Social services were afraid the family were minimising what was happening between them and therefore putting family safety at risk.

The initial referral to C4C was for consultancy involvement around safety. The family, who had previously refused to engage with domestic abuse services, decided to engage directly with C4C because it was voluntary and included the whole family. The dad was subsequently charged with robbery and was given a short custodial sentence. During this time the mum and son were enabled to have honest restorative conversations about their preferred family life.

Through these conversations, the mum agreed to complete a risk assessment which led to presentation at a multi-agency risk assessment conference. As a result of this meeting the family were re-housed to ensure safety, and the C4C service bridged a positive relationship between the mum, the independent domestic abuse advocate and the police. With the family’s consent, C4C kept social services informed about safety issues throughout, with ongoing restorative check-ins with all family members. This enabled a more realistic, honest picture of the risks to the family with themselves, and greater disclosure with each other and all services.

“I trusted them, and they listened.” – C4C participant

*The Jones’ family name has been changed.

Family-led change

Practitioners co-work responsively with families, so they and their supporters develop their own strengths-based bespoke solutions to address any abusive behaviours, sometimes experienced between two or often more family members. The behaviours experienced might be threatening, controlling and coercive, financial, physical, emotional or several of the above.

C4C enables families to build, maintain and repair relationships and meet needs using restorative values and skills themselves. There may be individual, couple, and whole family restorative meetings and circles, as well as conversations in different combinations of people and relationships where requested over time, led by their needs. Families take responsibility, are accountable with each other and plan together, so all can be safe and thrive again and break their cycle of harm.

Amicable separation is a common outcome, with families sometimes deciding that this is the best solution for all, especially children. Some parents felt able through C4C to speak openly and present their own safety plans at social services child protection meetings, incorporating their own simple restorative outcome agreements. This is a huge step forwards from more externally-imposed plans, in terms of ownership of achievable change, and has contributed to 100% of fully participating families being taken off child protection registers.

Case selection

C4C was originally only available to those cases with a standard risk of imminent serious harm, as opposed to moderate or high. More recently we have worked with higher risk cases by co-working closely with social services integrated family support teams.

The Restorative Change partners are very aware of the risks associated with using one-off formal restorative justice conferencing with high risk domestic abuse and the need for extra caution in these cases. There are valid concerns around the abilities, roles, prior experience and training of any potential formal conference facilitators. We all need to challenge harmful or coded perpetrator behaviours that may re-victimise those present during or after a conference. This effective challenge is difficult if it is a stand-alone meeting without wide supportive ongoing relationships. C4C doesn’t currently deliver this formal restorative intervention at high risk levels, but it does provide a very solid model for higher risk work to be delivered safely in the future, in prisons or the community. We believe a programme of restorative interventions over time is a safe and highly effective option.

The decision to focus the C4C model on cases with a standard risk of serious physical harm was based on evidence. The Partner Abuse State of Knowledge (PASK) project is a large-scale international research effort which brings together extensive research on intimate partner abuse as a continuum. PASK tells us that 60% of intimate partner abuse is actually low level. Without minimising any physical abuse where it is involved, this is more likely to be pushing, shoving or slapping rather than broken bones and severe injuries requiring hospitalisation. The harm is more likely to be psychological, emotional, financial and coercive. However, there is a risk that without intervention harm may escalate over time.

Rather than a clear ‘victim’ and ‘perpetrator’, the reality is often more fluid and complex. Sometimes harm is being done to one partner, sometimes to the other and sometimes to each other, or to or by children. This implies a much wider systemic spectrum of behaviour and variation of seriousness and harm than is commonly captured. Many of the families and individuals C4C works with do not regard their situation as ‘abusive’ and have normalised the harmful behaviours they are experiencing. While the situation does not pose the threat of ‘acute harm’, the effects are wide ranging and highly damaging for all, including children of all ages and often spanning generations. The interventions delivered by the C4C programme are designed to mirror the complexity and connectedness of relationship needs and systemic family harms.

C4C offers a robust alternative or parallel intervention to punitive criminalising or externally enforced models of separation, which can have negative consequences for all family members. For many families, an intervention being imposed on them can create apparent resistance for complex reasons. Parents may fear losing their children and appear to comply just to make agencies go away. If couples are choosing to stay together despite warnings or sanctions, they may do so secretively. Both harmed and harmer can feel shamed and blamed, so secrecy, denial and harm can increase. The C4C model encourages regular honest family restorative check-ins to bring trust and change pragmatically into the room with high support and high challenge, and families can plan with goals incrementally to prevent future harm.

The future

Restorative Change is continuing to explore development and funding opportunities and build on relationships to develop and evaluate the use of the C4C model, including for working with elder family violence. The model will also be replicated to meet other areas of need, including transient, traumatised populations.

We hope to continue to intelligently challenge any myths and risk aversion about restorative work with domestic abuse with a robust, evaluated and safe model of restorative training and practice.

Lorna Baldry www.brightlink.org.uk

Sally Burris www.step2group.co.uk

Julia Houlston Clark www.restorativewales.org.uk

For more information email contactus@darfa.uk or visit the Domestic Abuse Restorative Family Approaches website at www.darfa.uk (soon to be renamed as Restorative Change).