Family justice centre, Croydon: the first of its kind in Europe

It was a busy first 10 months for Europe’s first family justice centre where 32 agencies work together under one roof to help victims of domestic violence. Josephine Hocking looks at what makes it unique

It is difficult to imagine a place where domestic violence victims can seek help from 32 agencies under the same roof. But such a service is running in the London Borough of Croydon where the family justice centre’s mission is to reduce violence and death. It opened in December 2005 and helped 3,000 families in its first 10 months. The stated aim is to assist 14,000 children and 7,000 adults each year.

Professionals at the family justice centre include an on-call duty and assessment social work service, advocates, police, solicitors, housing officers, Women’s Aid, Victim Support, debt and benefits advisers, and probation staff.

The number of agencies is set to rise to 40, boosting the number of staff from the current 112. All are employed and managed by their own organisations, using existing resources. Referrals come from professionals or direct from service users.

A partnership between Croydon’s council, police and primary care trust, the centre is the first of its kind in Europe and was inspired by a US project (see “In the Beginning).

Croydon’s social services director, Hannah Miller, is enthusiastic about the centre and is pleased it is on her patch. Her department provides the duty and assessment social work service.

Miller says it would be a poor use of resources to base a qualified social worker full time at the centre, as many seeking help do not need social work input. So she has allocated dedicated social work time and management. Social workers visit the centre regularly and attend case conferences. More social workers can be called on when necessary, and promise to arrive at the centre within 20 minutes of being contacted. The arrangement works well.

The multi-agency working practised at the centre is an idea that many aspire to but clashing professional cultures often preclude this. One way to resolve this is to make them sit side by side.

Jill Maddison, the centre’s director, says: “When professionals really work together you appreciate and understand what others can and can’t do. Social workers might moan they can never get hold of the police and wonder why an officer isn’t answering his phone. But when you can walk over to his desk and see he’s busy in the interview room with a suspect, that’s helpful.”

Maddison’s advice to social workers supporting families experiencing domestic violence is “don’t work on your own”. More can be achieved with a multi-agency approach.

The idea originated in the US. Lawyer Casey Gwinn’s vision led to the opening of the world’s first family justice centre in San Diego, California. He says the reason it was never previously attempted is that “agencies couldn’t get along”.

“The biggest problem is one of power and control from those agencies that see us as a threat.”

Maddison is not surprised that agencies can obstruct each other: “The voluntary and community sector are encouraged to compete for funds and work. It is not in their best interests to co-operate.”

Commander Steve Allen of the Metropolitan Police is a vociferous backer of the centre, telling a recent conference: “The model produces a coherent response. Otherwise agencies do struggle with each other. I have seen a lack of action due to people arguing about whose name is on the poster and who will get the credit. People are dying while that goes on. It has to stop.”

Modest and intensely focused, Maddison is highly regarded by colleagues in the borough and beyond. She trained as a social worker but never worked as one. She has been in the domestic violence field, in the UK and the US for 18 years, in roles including family lawyer, therapist and policy adviser. At Croydon Council, she was asked to find solutions to tackle the borough’s domestic violence problem.

Five adults and three children were murdered in domestic violence-related incidents in the borough in 2004-5. The centre opened in December 2005 and there were no domestic violence-related murders or child deaths in 2006.

Maddison’s energy and commitment have kept the centre on course during an exhausting first year. Her persistence was exemplified by her policy on information-sharing. Conventional practice dictated that the centre’s 32 agencies could not easily share information. But Maddison saw that as a hindrance to successful outcomes.

She says: “I read many lengthy documents on information-sharing but the solution was simple. We ask our clients if they will agree to information-sharing. We explain that it will help us to help them. We’ve only had one refusal so far.” However, child protection concerns can override this freedom to exchange information.

But establishing the centre has been a slog. “The idea is simple. But setting up and running a family justice centre is not easy. The first year is the hardest,” she admits.

Then there is the constant proximity to intense suffering. “It affects me, yes,” she says, “no wonder, when I see children either rigid with fear or racing about knocking things over because of what they’ve been through.”

A highlight of the centre’s first year for staff and service users were lunches for survivors. “Seeing 120 happy families in one room, who are now safe, is amazing,” she says. “My staff benefited from seeing the good effect of their work. Before, we were patching up bad situations now we are stopping the violence. Our approach does not get quick results, but it works.”

In the beginning (back)
The world’s first family justice centre – “where families come first and professionals come together” – opened in San Diego, California, in 2002, under the leadership of lawyer Casey Gwinn. His vision was to be a one-stop shop so that people seeking help did not have to trek between agencies.

Today 27 organisations work out of the centre, and deal with 1,100 families each month.

“Previously, systems were designed for the benefit of service providers,” says Gwinn, volunteer chief executive at San Diego. “Now we run services to suit our clients. They ask what took us so long to do it that way.”

At San Diego none of the 23,000 clients seeking services since 2002 have died. Another important outcome is that more cases are going to court.

Family justice centres are big news in the US. The San Diego centre appeared twice on Oprah Winfrey’s TV show, a major boost in helping spread the word.

President Bush has backed the idea with an initiative that included funding. Today 20 family justice centres are open in the US, with more planned.

In the UK, many local authorities are pursuing the idea but Croydon is the only one running with it so far.

Rescue mission
A mother, ineligible for benefits due to her immigration status and reliant on her abusive partner for money, sought help from Croydon’s family justice centre.

Professionals, including a social worker and housing staff, linked to provide intensive support and safeguarded the woman and her children. The good relations with police based at the centre paid off when it was suspected the woman’s partner had a gun.

Setting up a child protection strategy is smoother for the duty social worker when all agencies involved are in the same building. Having lawyers on site is also invaluable. The community safety team was on hand to make the woman’s house safer.

Related article
Domestic violence

Contact the author
  Josephine Hocking

This article appeared in the 1 February issue, under the headline “Safety in numbers”

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