40% of family support staff have personal experience of domestic abuse, finds survey

'Considerable' personal experience of domestic abuse has helped some practitioners understand its impact on those they support, but also highlights importance of wellbeing services for staff, says report

Overworked and frustrated young business woman in front of computer in office

Four in ten family support and early help workers have personal experience of domestic abuse, a survey has found.

The proportion of those who reported personal experience of domestic abuse (39.1%) compares with a prevalence rate for women aged over 16 across England and Wales of 27% as of 2023, according to Office for National Statistics (ONS) data.

Women accounted for 90.9% of the 350 practitioners, across 11 local authorities, surveyed online as part of a scoping study into early help and family support staff’s domestic abuse knowledge and skills.

The study, commissioned by children’s services evidence body Foundations, found that personal experience had helped some staff understand the impact of domestic abuse on those they supported.

However, it also underlined the importance of providing wellbeing services, including counselling and reflective supervision, for practitioners, said the report, produced by social work academics from the University of Central Lancashire and King’s College London.

DfE plans to expand role of early help staff

Foundations commissioned the research in the light of the Department for Education’s children’s social care reforms, which envisage an expanded role for early help staff in supporting families in significant need, including domestic abuse.

Under the plans, currently being tested, existing targeted early help and child in need provision will be merged into a new family help service, designed to provide early, non-stigmatising support that prevents families’ needs from escalating.

At the same time, early help and family support practitioners – and other non-social workers – will be able to take responsibility for child in need cases, with social work supervision, under revisions to the Working Together to Safeguard Children guidance.

Concerns over knowledge and skills

However, inspectorates including Ofsted have raised concerns about some early help staff already receiving overly complex cases.

At the same time, the Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel has detected a “simplistic and over-optimistic” approach to domestic abuse within children’s services, generally.

As well as the online survey, the Foundations-commissioned study was based on:

  • Staff feedback on an online training module they were invited to complete alongside the survey.
  • Case studies in five of the authorities, involving interviews with practitioners and managers and analysis of strategic documents.
  • Interviews with four domestic abuse training providers.
  • A review of policy documents in England and Wales.

Positive impact of domestic abuse training 

Most survey respondents (84.3%) had worked on at least one domestic abuse case in the past six months and a similar proportion (85.1%) of staff had received domestic abuse training.

Overall, two-thirds (67.9%) of respondents said they had had sufficient training to assist victims, with the rest not confident or unsure.

And while most staff expressed confidence in relation to key practice tasks and skills in domestic abuse, levels of confidence were related to whether they had received training.

For example, while 65% of those who had not received training felt confident they could make appropriate and sensitive referrals for those who had experienced domestic abuse, this was true of 88% who had received training.

Recognising indicators of abuse

This gap was also evident in relation to recognising possible indicators of domestic abuse, self-reported knowledge and attitudes.

Staff who had received training were significantly more likely than those who had not to always/nearly always enquire about domestic abuse in response to mental health, physical health, parental conflict or school attendance problems.

Having had training was also associated with better self-reported knowledge on all of a list of 18 areas.

Domestic abuse knowledge and attitudes

Overall, respondents were most likely to say they knew quite a bit or a lot about the impact on children and young people (83.1%), signs and symptoms (80.3%) and their role in relation to domestic abuse (78%).

Knowledge was lowest in relation to national guidance, for example on the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, where 28% reported knowing quite a bit or a lot, followed by responding to perpetrators (37.6%).

In relation to attitudes, while 31.3% of staff believed that ‘women abuse men as much as men abuse women’, this belief was significantly more common among untrained staff.

Feedback from staff who completed the training module after the survey identified improvements in self-reported knowledge compared with their levels beforehand.

Impact of experience on domestic abuse skills

Alongside training, those who had worked for their employer for longer were more likely to express confidence in their skills and self-reported knowledge of domestic abuse. Over half (57.4%) had worked for their current employer for more than five years.

Case study local authorities provided early help and family support staff with a range of external and in-house training – the latter being more generic – but acknowledged that provision was constrained by budgets.

Practitioners identified knowledge and training gaps in relation to working with disabled children, families from diverse communities and LGBTQ+ families.

And though much early help and family support work in the case study areas involved domestic abuse, practitioners had limited experience of working with perpetrators, who tended to be referred to specialist staff.

Case study authorities provided staff with support to deal with the challenging aspects of domestic abuse work, including reflective and clinical supervision, debriefing, group sessions and access to counselling.

Improved domestic abuse training urged

The report set out a number of implications for policy and practice from the research, including that:

  • Training on domestic abuse, from induction to advanced level, should be embedded in councils’ early help and family support workforce development strategies.
  • Authorities leverage the skills and knowledge of domestic abuse specialists in supporting their early help and family support staff.
  • Councils build early help and family support staff’s confidence and skills in working with perpetrators and supporting children affected by domestic abuse, including disabled children.
  • Training represents the experiences of diverse communities in relation to domestic abuse.
  • Authorities support the wellbeing of their workforces through clinical and reflective supervision and access to counselling.

Support is available 24/7 from Refuge’s freephone national domestic abuse helpline (0808 2000 247).

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