The police notify social services when they attend a domestic violence incident. Jo Finch reviews research on what happens next
KEY WORDS: Young people ❙ Police ❙ Domestic violence ❙ Survivors
Authors: Nicky Stanley, Pam Miller, Helen Richardson Foster and Gill Thompson
Publisher: NSPCC, 2009, 267 pages, www.nspcc.org.uk/publications
Aim: To examine the police notification system of children to social services when called to incidents involving domestic violence and to examine the subsequent service pathways followed by families. Young peoples’, survivors’ and perpetrators’ views of services or agencies that supported families experiencing domestic violence were also explored.
Methodology: Young people, survivors, perpetrators, practitioners, managers and administrators from the police, domestic violence advocate services and children’s social services were interviewed alongside a questionnaire to elicit innovative practice plus a retrospective review of police and children’s social services record that tracked incidents of domestic violence.
Conclusions: Only 5% of all police notifications result in a social service intervention, in the form of an initial assessment. The intervention is also likely to focus on safeguarding rather than family support.
Amid concern that a growing number of police notifications were becoming problematic for children and family social service departments, the research set out to explore the police notification process and follow the subsequent service pathways that families experiencing domestic violence received. The study also examined how young people who witnessed domestic violence in their families, survivors and perpetrators of domestic abuse, viewed services or agencies that offered support. Another strand of the research was to highlight innovative practice in this area.
The study found that although large numbers of families were brought into the remit of social services by the notification system, 95% of families referred in this way did not receive an intervention from social services.
Some social services departments sent out letters to families and the study found that there appeared to be no difference in rates of re-referral by the police between those families who had received a letter from social services and those who did not. This suggests that letters sent to families as a response to police notifications are largely ineffective. Intervention, when it occurred, largely focused on safeguarding, notably where parents or carers were unable to acknowledge the impact of domestic violence on children and were reluctant to engage with social workers. The research also highlighted “stop-start” patterns of intervention with families that had repeated police notifications.
Of note was that intervention was often withdrawn when social workers were informed that the couple had separated. However, the research found that often domestic violence incidents could intensify at the time of separation and importantly, that contact visits were often a trigger for violent incidents.
The notification system was found to be variable in terms of the amount of information provided to social services departments.
Risk tools employed by some police forces, while useful, focused on the victim rather than assessing potential or actual risk to children. Social workers were also reluctant to work with male perpetrators, did not see this as their role and also commented on the lack of resources to help perpetrators address their behaviour.
Specialist domestic violence support services were found to be valued by police and social workers as well as families affected by domestic violence, yet collaboration between these agencies and social services was reported as poor.
A strong theme to emerge from the research was the needs of children and young people; namely, that at the time of violent domestic incidents they expressed the need to be given information by the police and expressed the need for the perpetrator to be removed.
The need for supervised contact between perpetrators and their children in contact centres was also highlighted by families as important given that contact with children at the family home often triggered incidents of violence. However, the only families receiving supervised contact were those subject to safeguarding interventions or as a result of court orders.
The research makes the important point that when police attend incidents of domestic violence, this may provide important opportunities to promote early intervention and support. However, it seems this opportunity is being lost.
The report recommended that frontline police officers should provide children and young people with information and should regard children as victims to ensure their needs are met. It was suggested that the practice of sending letters from social service departments to families needed reviewing, as did training and the support offered to social workers to work with male perpetrators of violence.
The need for early intervention and support across universal services was also recommended plus the development of perpetrator support services. Therapeutic services to children and young people harmed by domestic violence were also recommended as were voluntary supervised contact services. The needs of families without recourse to public funds were also noted as particularly problematic.
Critique of research
The report is long, detailed and contains many interesting findings. Yet the scope of the research is very broad and there is a danger that important findings will be lost in its 267 pages (while the executive summary is frustratingly short).
Perhaps there is a need for a condensed report that does not lose the authentic “voices” of the research participants but conveys the findings more succinctly. This will ensure that busy practitioners across sectors do indeed read this important piece of research.
I also found the recommendations sections rather disappointing in light of the many interesting findings that emerged from the study. Nonetheless, the report gives very clear messages about the needs of families experiencing domestic violence including the need for early intervention and support.
On a more positive note, the police have clearly improved practice in how they respond to domestic violence. How social services respond to the “mountain” of notifications remains the key issue for further exploration.
Further development is needed of the efficacy of the risk tools developed by some police forces as is the development in frontline police practice in how they respond to children are needed.
The report raises many issues worthy of further exploration and, overall, the research makes an important contribution to a hitherto neglected area, namely police notifications to children social services departments and what happens thereafter.
What is a police notification?
When the police are called to an incident of domestic violence where children are present, the police are required to send a referral to children and families social services. These referrals are known as “police notifications”.
● For directors of children’s services: Commission a statistical analysis on the extent of the “problem” of police notifications alongside an analysis of the decision-making process in terms of intervention or non-intervention.
● For police: The notification system will require further development and changes in how frontline officers respond to young people to ensure the needs of children are at the forefront of practice.
● For social service managers: The decision to close cases when it is reported a couple have separated may need to be reviewed in light of the concern about separation as a trigger for further incidents.
● For frontline social workers: To work with perpetrators of domestic violence more proactively and ensure collaborative working with specialist domestic violence services.
● Cleaver, Unell, and Algate (1999), Children’s Need: Parenting Capacity, the Impact of Parental Mental Illness, Problem Alcohol and Drug Use, and Domestic Violence on Children’s Development, The Stationery Office.
● Featherstone and Peckover (2007), Letting them get away with it: fathers, domestic violence and child welfare, Critical Social Policy, 27.
● Humphrey and Stanley (Eds) (2006) Domestic Violence and Child Protection: Directions for Good Practice, Jessica Kingsley.
About the author: Dr Jo Finch is senior lecturer in social work, University of East London
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This article is published in the 11 November issue of Community Care under the heading Social services’ response to police notifications