The Marac model of intervention involves risk assessment in all reported cases of domestic abuse to identify those at highest risk so that a multi-agency approach may be taken. Evidence suggests that this reduces recidivism even among those most at risk.
An intervention that combines risk assessment and a multi-agency approach to help very high risk victims of domestic abuse has established itself as a template for good practice four years after it was pioneered in Cardiff.
It was in April 2003 that the first multi-agency risk assessment conference (Marac) was held in the Welsh capital bringing together 16 agencies, including police, probation, local authority, health, housing, refuge and the Women’s Safety Unit (WSU).
Since then, several research projects(1),(2),(3),(4) have indicated that the meetings yielded substantial improvements both to the practice of professionals and to the safety of victims and their children.
The goal of these conferences is to provide a forum for sharing information and taking action to reduce future harm to very high-risk victims of domestic abuse and their children. Initially, Maracs in Cardiff were held monthly but are now held fortnightly, each covering about 20 very high-risk victims.
This model of intervention follows a process of risk assessment in all reported cases of domestic abuse to identify those at highest risk to enable a specialist multi-agency response. Very high-risk victims are identified from the South Wales Police victim initial risk indicator form that officers complete at the scene. Scores on 20 yes/no questions help police to assess levels of risk.
This form was developed from a review of 47 domestic homicides investigated by the South Wales Police, research, and input from partner agencies. A group of victims also reviewed and approved the form. It gathers information on past physical abuse, escalation of abuse, use of weapons, unemployment or financial problems, substance abuse, pregnancy, jealous or controlling behaviour, impending or ongoing relationship separation, threats, sexual abuse and suicidal thoughts. These risk factors also feature in forms used by agencies in other jurisdictions.
Evaluations of the Cardiff Maracs published in 2004(1) and 2005(2) showed the positive results. Similar multi-agency models of intervention for very high-risk victims have proliferated since, and can now be found throughout the UK.
Maracs are representative of current initiatives to place the victim at the heart of the criminal justice system. Indeed, they are a central element of the Home Office’s National Domestic Violence Delivery Plan, published in March 2006. Risk assessment and intervention for very high-risk victims is also a key feature of work being undertaken by the Scottish executive’s national domestic abuse delivery group.
Interviews with practitioners showed confidence that such approaches could achieve many key objectives, including information-sharing between agencies, contributing to victims’ safety.
It is vital that non-criminal justice agencies are well represented at Maracs. For example, the perspective of health visitors will be different from those held by police or probation, which typically are aware of criminal incidents only. Victim-oriented agencies, such as the WSU and Women’s Aid, can provide information from the victim’s perspective social services can provide information about children and take action on their behalf police and probation are able to offer information about the perpetrator’s history, and presence of other aggravating factors, such as drugs or weapons. There is usually a wealth of information held in the community about a particular household, but it takes a Marac-type process for that information to come together in a meaningful way.
The evaluation of Cardiff Maracs showed that they were successful at improving the safety of victims, as measured by the decrease in the number of police complaints and police call-outs and telephone interviews with victims. All three indicators revealed that most victims (about six in 10) had not become a victim again in the six months after the Marac. Further evaluation research showed that 12 months later this was the case for four in 10. This is notable given their extensive histories and identification as high-risk for repeat violence. These findings indicate the benefits of taking a multi-agency approach to helping women experiencing domestic abuse.
Resource or time limitations and lack of co-operation from victims were viewed as the main barriers to reducing the effectiveness of Maracs. Any response must take into account the complex set of issues confronting women (such as emotional, financial, children) to ensure that they have the resources and support to make the difficult decision to leave and remain safe.
The evidence from several studies shows that Maracs can reduce recidivism, even among the population most at risk. This ties into other research noting the effectiveness of co-ordinated approaches to reducing domestic abuse.(5) No single agency can make victims and their children safe – a shared understanding of risk is needed so that resources are targeted effectively. Co-ordination of resources increases their value and this is why Maracs have been implemented in more than 50 areas. However, more research is needed to further document the benefits of these approaches for different types of victims.
Jean, a 38-year-old mother of three children aged 13, nine and four, was pregnant again, although separated from her partner. At a routine ante-natal visit where she was asked about domestic abuse, Jean disclosed ongoing harassment by her ex. She was referred to the Women’s Safety Unit (WSU) and a Marac by her midwife.
At the Marac it was agreed that agencies would support Jean to collect evidence for a civil or criminal case that the children would be offered support in school Jean’s home would be made more secure and a regular police drive-by would start.
Information about the perpetrator’s level of threat was shared across agencies. All actions were co-ordinated by the advocate at the WSU who was Jean’s primary contact. Jean felt reassured that agencies were taking her concerns seriously and she no longer felt alone. She chose to go down the civil justice route as she thought this would warn him off as he was working and worried about losing his job. Jean and her children are still safe nine months after the Marac.
● “I think it’s purely an information-sharing process, that everyone is linking together, telling everybody the information they have got to make the victim safer, to make the children safer, and to make the workers safer give them the knowledge that they are potentially walking into a dangerous situation.”
● “Some agencies may have snippets of information that on their own don’t raise any particular concern. It’s only when the jigsaw of information is pieced together that the risk factors begin to be understood.”
● “Having something like a Marac in place starts to build relationships between agencies across a much broader range. It also begins to develop much stronger relationships between the voluntary and statutory sector.”
Jan Pickles is director of the Cardiff Women’s Safety Unit. She qualified as a social worker in 1981, and has worked for Barnardo’s, the Probation Service and the NSPCC. In 2001 she set up the Women’s Safety Unit and a specialist domestic violence court in Cardiff and worked with others to develop a shared risk tool and management of risk system (the Maracs).
Amanda Robinson is senior lecturer in criminology at the School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University.
Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed here
(1) A L Robinson, Domestic Violence MARACs for Very High-Risk Victims in Cardiff: A Process and Outcome Evaluation, Cardiff University, 2004.
(2) A L Robinson, J Tregidga, Domestic Violence MARACs for Very High-Risk Victims in Cardiff, Wales: Views from the Victims, Cardiff University, 2005.
(3) H Sutcliffe, A Process Evaluation of Domestic Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences for High-Risk Victims in South Gloucestershire, Cardiff School of Social Sciences: MSc Thesis, 2006
(4) A L Robinson, Advice, Support, Services and Information Together: The Benefits of Providing Assistance to Victims of Domestic Abuse in Glasgow, Cardiff University, 2006.
(5) M F Shepherd, E L Pence (eds), Co-ordinating Community Responses to Domestic Violence: Lessons from Duluth and Beyond, Sage, 1999
This article appeared in the 19 April issue under the headline “Safety in numbers”