Social workers in every area of practice may come across domestic abuse, whether they work in child protection or with older people.
Working effectively with the police is a vital part of the social work role in domestic abuse cases. In a new article for Community Care Inform Children and Inform Adults, former Scotland Yard detective Maria Gray provides expert guidance on safeguarding, when to involve the police and building evidence.
When to involve the police
In every case where domestic abuse features, it is paramount that consideration is given to whether to involve the police at an early stage. This can have benefits both to the individual and the professional dealing with the case.
Seemingly low-level or minor incidents may also be criminal offences, in that they amount to a pattern of behaviour or a course of conduct indicative of stalking or harassment that can have potentially serious consequences.
Think about any immediate steps that need to be taken to prevent harm. Domestic abuse situations are potentially high risk for everyone involved. The point of separation from an abusive intimate relationship is often when the victim is most at risk. The police can contribute to decisions to help social workers manage this risk.
For example, police information on those involved in a domestic abuse situation can help inform safeguarding enquiries under section 42 of the Care Act 2014 (or section 126 of the Social Services and Well-being Act 2014), and can assist social workers to decide the appropriateness of other options for interventions such as mediation or family group.
Many factors can contribute to domestic abuse, such as substance misuse, or events that may trigger abusive behaviour, including:
- The suspect being charged or released from custody or prison by the police or the court.
- The imposition or expiry of a court order.
- Family proceedings, especially concerning child contact.
- The start of a new relationship by the victim.
While these factors can increase risk, they don’t in themselves mean social workers should automatically refer to the police. Risk assessment is a dynamic process and police and partners should regularly monitor ongoing risk. Social workers should involve the police where there is ongoing risk of harm because sharing intelligence will give a clearer picture of what’s happening, so they can make better informed decisions.
Use multi-agency safeguarding hubs (MASHs) where they exist to gather information, and inform your decision making and information sharing. Effective information gathering may alter your decision on whether you need to refer to police. Be aware that some enquiries may heighten the risk to those who are subject to domestic abuse.
Reporting incidents to the police is often an area that causes some dilemma for social workers aiming to balance the trust of the individual and concerns about breaching confidentiality with trying to achieve a positive outcome and reduce risk of harm.
Barriers to reporting to police
It is worth bearing in mind the potential barriers for why someone may be reluctant to involve the police. It is vital to try and establish those reasons and, where possible, mitigate those concerns. Some examples include:
- A previous negative experience with the police either in this country or from a place of origin.
- Potential threatening or blackmailing by the abuser, or being pressured into criminality which can be used as a threat.
- Being a carer or having been abused by their carer. The threat of loss of a carer or home, or of financial hardship is often used as leverage by the abuser.
- Fear of losing their children into care when social services become involved.
- Love for the perpetrator and not wanting to ‘get them into trouble’.
The perpetrator will be aware of the impact of such threats or the worry that they cause and may use this to avoid police or other professionals becoming involved. It can be frightening for the victim to be threatened with harm if they involve the police. It is also a frightening prospect for the victim to involve police in their own situation.
It is important to reassure them that they will be listened to and taken seriously. The main aim of the police is to keep the victim and their children safe. Advise them on other help and advocacy that is available to support them to deal with any other concerns that might influence their decision making.