In this guest blog post, Frank Mullane discusses how new domestic homicide reviews can help agencies learn the lessons from killings related to domestic violence. Mullane is the co-ordinator of the charity AAFDA (Advocacy After Fatal Domestic Abuse), which offers help to families and training to agencies conducting domestic homicide reviews. His sister and nephew were killed in a domestic violence homicide.
Since 1999, an average of 126 people have been killed each year in England and Wales by former or current intimate partners, four women for every man. These disturbing numbers are recurring despite significant initiatives to combat them, such as standardised risk tools, multi-agency risk assessment conferences (Maracs) and independent domestic violence advocates (IDVAs).
I don’t know why this is. Apparently, around half of those killed did not contact ‘official’ agencies. Perhaps they contacted friends, family and community leaders. So, within the community, we need to increase awareness of risk factors and safe interventions. But people sometimes get killed after contacting ‘official’ agencies too, so are we doing enough to protect those at risk?
On 13 April this year, seven years after being presented to parliament as section 9 of the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act, domestic homicide reviews became law. Now the real work begins. These reviews need to prevent murders and improve services provided to all domestic violence victims.
In 2008, the Pemberton Homicide Review of the murders of my sister and nephew, a pilot for this legislation, was published. It led to my helping write the guidance for these reviews and Home Office leaflets for families and friends of victims. I set up the charity AAFDA to help families after these tragedies by listening to their stories and offering practical help, particularly with Domestic Homicide Reviews. AAFDA also provides training for many agencies.
I agree with the ‘no blame’ approach to these reviews, as followed in America, but this does not mean ‘no accountability’. Attaching blame may lead to shame, humiliation and scape-goating, perhaps mimicking the relationships being reviewed. Holding public bodies to account is simply about ensuring that our public services do what they should.
We should be focusing on changing systems and processes. Bad systems allow and may even facilitate poor performance. One way to inspire professionals to be thorough and creative in these reviews is to help them experience the depth and profundity of the loss. This may in part be achieved by the review team meeting the family and friends of the victim. As one chair of a review personally communicated to me, “without the input of family it would have been a very thin review indeed”.
Official records need to include a view of tragedy as seen through the victims’ eyes and those of the victims’ families, friends and acquaintances. This eventually happened during my family’s review and egregious failures were highlighted, leading to significant impetus for change. The revelation of failures may often be very helpful to families, as the government’s victim commissioner, Louise Casey, has noted “What people often say they want is information on why it was that, in their view, the criminal justice system let them down.”
Too often, official records hold only the view of the statutory agencies, a point strongly made by Dr. Jane Monckton-Smith of the University of Gloucestershire. We need to speak to perpetrators and their families too.
Perhaps another way to get comprehensive and innovative reviews is to dispense with the organisational hierarchy as professionals meet to participate in the inquiry. After all, we shouldn’t mimic the inequality in the relationship that is being considered. This approach may help free up and empower individuals to bring their best efforts to the table.
The reviews need to have what Professor Neil Websdale of the National Domestic Violence Fatality Review Initiative calls a ‘wide angle lens’ approach. They should not just focus on what intervention opportunities were missed and why, but on what new ones could be introduced.
Professionals have said to me that if the victim did not contact them, there was nothing they could have been expected to do. But in these cases we need to ask ourselves why a victim did not contact the official agencies. Were the agencies’ services advertised ? Did the victim not trust an agency? Did the victim approach an agency but no record of that contact was kept? For those local areas tempted to avoid holding a review in these circumstances, please think again. Reviews need to be forward-looking too.
I lobbied hard to include in the guidance that a purpose of these reviews is to prevent homicide. I’m a bit weary of learning lessons being described as an end game. We need to apply as well as learn lessons or nothing changes, so learning and applying are activities we must undertake to achieve the main purpose. I hope local areas will really try to make these reviews count, or what’s the point?