Parallel worlds of domestic abuse and safeguarding need to be brought together

Care Act should improve social workers' approach to tackling domestic abuse between older couples, says former LGA safeguarding lead

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The Care Act 2014 and the Making Safeguarding Personal (MSP) programme are likely to improve social workers’ approach to tackling domestic abuse between older adults, says the Local Government Association’s (LGA) former safeguarding lead.

Cathie Williams, now chief officer at the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services (Adass), says the Care Act statutory guidance’s inclusion of domestic abuse as a safeguarding  issue and MSP’s practice focus may address issues in the way practitioners have tackled abuse between older people.

Parallel world

The fact that practitioners did not always make the connections between adult safeguarding and domestic abuse led the LGA and Adass to publish a guide for practitioners and managers, Adult safeguarding and domestic abuse, looking at the overlap between the two. Williams, co-author of the 2013 version of the guide, which was revised earlier this year, says:

“We were picking up that there was almost a parallel world between the safeguarding and domestic abuse fields.”

Williams says that when practitioners walk into a situation where domestic abuse may be present, “the first thing we encourage them to try to stop thinking is: is this safeguarding or domestic abuse? We want them to see a situation as both a safeguarding and domestic abuse set of circumstances”.

Domestic abuse a safeguarding issue

This link is supported by the Care Act statutory guidance, which lists domestic violence as one of a number of possible safeguarding issues that practitioners may encounter.

The guidance states: “Many people think that domestic abuse is about intimate partners, but it is clear that other family members are included and that much safeguarding work that occurs at home is, in fact concerned with domestic abuse. This confirms that domestic abuse approaches and legislation can be considered safeguarding responses in appropriate cases.”

The LGA and Adass guide highlights how to work with specific groups including older people, saying: “Professionals should take great care to assess older people, along with other groups, in a person-centred way, asking open questions and enabling the person to identify their needs.

Avoid stereotyping

“It is important to avoid judgements based on stereotypical expectations of the needs of older people and the services they require.”

Williams says that this approach is being encouraged through the LGA and Adass’s MSP programme, which is designed to foster more person-centred safeguarding practice and is itself promoted by the Care Act guidance.

“Developing Making Safeguarding Personal is a key part of the Care Act and we said very clearly in MSP that the practitioner starts with a conversation with the person as opposed to the old regime where you have to have a strategy meeting (and speak with other professionals rather than the person concerned) within five days of a referral.”

The Care Act’s guidance says: “Making safeguarding personal means it should be person-led and outcome-focused. It engages the person in a conversation about how best to respond to their safeguarding situation in a way that enhances involvement, choice and control as well as improving quality of life, wellbeing and safety.”

Fifty-two councils engaged with MSP last year. “The impact statements show that there was a strong argument from a big proportion of them that if you have a conversation at the beginning you can curtail what can be a lengthy, resource heavy process,” says Williams.

“We had a lot of positive feedback from social workers saying that this is real social work and not case co-ordination.”

Building trust

This approach could work particularly well with older people who – because of the era in which they grew up – are often less likely to report issues about their personal life. So being given time to build up a trusted relationship with a social worker could be the incentive they need to disclose abuse, says Williams.

The new criminal offence of coercive and controlling behaviour in an intimate or family relationship – introduced under section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 and carrying a penalty of up to five years in prison – comes into force later this year. This could also have particular implications for domestic abuse within older couples where the abuser may be too frail to be physically violent so resorts to this type of abusive behaviour.

“There is work to be done – which is being led by the Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service – around how to identify and then address coercive and controlling behaviour,” she adds.

“Older people can have a significant dilemma if the only person they see is the person abusing them, particularly if that person provides their care. Why would they then tell a practitioner that this person is violent, controlling or coercive?”

Early days

With the Care Act due to come into force next week (1 April), Williams adds: “Most local authorities and safeguarding adult boards are revising their policies and procedures in light of the Care Act, and training staff, although it is early days yet. The LGA has run regional events of which safeguarding and domestic abuse is a key part, and more are planned.

“The fact that it is in statutory guidance will change practice. The Care Act talks about Making Safeguarding Personal and by including that it will allow practitioners to spend more time talking to people who are being abused or neglected (or  their representatives or advocates if they lack capacity) at the beginning of safeguarding work about what is going on, what they want and what the options might be for them in terms of responses and legal action. This will enable them to practice more effectively.”

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