How to Work with Families Living with Abuse: Top Tips from the Experts
Domestic abuse is a major concern for those working with families in the aftermath of the pandemic and professionals have reported being increasingly worried that they do not know how to deal with domestic abuse effectively. In response, we have put together this post with top tips from our experts in assessment and treatment to help guide practice with families.
Early research into the effects of the pandemic on domestic abuse has shown that restrictions used to minimise the spread of the virus have reinforced environments that aid the behaviours used by perpetrators to exert power and psychological harm against a partner. We are seeing this emerging from research, as well as evidence in our own case referrals, that abusers are using the lockdown to increase their control over victims, escalate abuse and use the pandemic as a tool for continuing abuse within the family.
Recent surveys by the British Association of Social Workers into the effects of COVID-19 in the UK further supports these findings revealing that over two- thirds of respondent social workers believe domestic abuse has increased since pandemic restrictions were brought into force. However, social workers also reported feeling overwhelmed and under-equipped to deal with domestic abuse effectively particularly when the abuse is primarily emotional rather than physical.
Top tips from the experts
DV-ACT experts have worked for decades to deliver interventions for families living with abuse, as well as delivering training and consultancy services to social work teams across the UK, so they are well placed to offer practical guidance for professionals working with this client group. I asked each team to provide their top tips for professionals working with families which are set out below along with a final top tip from me!
Top guidance from our specialist team working with female victims
Do not underestimate the difficulty of breaking attachments to an abuser - Many women underestimate the emotional work of separating from an abusive partner, this means that leaving the relationship is not usually a one-off event but tends to occur through a process of increasing preparedness through a number of separations and reconciliations. In the meantime, children's services may act to keep the children safe by requiring the parents to separate using written agreements with specific contact arrangements in place. However, separation under any form of duress carries a much greater risk of reconciliation in the long term. In order for victims to remain meaningfully separated, they will require support. Read more about how vulnerable mothers can be helped to detach from their abusers here
Encourage change, but put blame where it belongs - It is important that while we urge Mothers to make positive changes in order to protect their child/ren we also acknowledge that the responsibility for abuse should always be placed with the abuser.
Accessibility - Domestic abuse interventions and plans can often be written by professionals with a higher level of education to the client, so language should be simple with words that are easy for them to understand. Intimidating words that mean nothing to the woman should not be used, for example 'minimising' can easily be lost if not explained.
Provide the right treatment programme - Most community domestic abuse programmes offer excellent education, support and advocacy to victims of violence and abuse. However, the needs of mothers in care proceedings are often complex, with enduring problems around adult attachments, accountability and prioritising their children’s safety. In these cases, more intensive, challenging and focused work is needed in order to support lasting change.
Encourage outside interests - In cases where women are at risk of controlling behaviour by their intimate partners, one of the most effective methods to ameliorate this is to ensure that they pursue interests outside the home. Securing employment is the most valuable of these in that it also provides a sense of autonomy and financial independence. Contact with other adults also provides her with an opportunity to ‘reality check’ her own circumstances against those of other women.
Tips from our perpetrator treatment team
Focus on the perpetrators abusive behaviour - Sometimes it is easier to focus on the problems which can be more easily addressed such as substance misuse or housing. This is often because the mother tends to be more compliant and there are numerous interventions to choose from. This can create a false sense of the risks being 'managed' when in fact the source of greatest danger is left untreated. The mother can also experience this as focusing on her faults when she is the main victim - 'moving the goalposts'. Try to concentrate efforts and resources in the area where the greatest concern lies.
Beware Minimising language - Using terms such as relationship/couples/family 'conflict' reinforces the assertion that the violence and abuse taking place in the home is mutual and means that the perpetrator is not fully responsible for the abuse and it is a 'relationship problem'. Language can also be used to minimise behaviour such as saying "hands around the neck" instead of strangulation or "she was moved out of the way" instead of "she was pushed/shoved". It is important to name the abuse accurately so that there is clarity about who is responsible.
Stop objectification - When helping perpetrators to manage their behaviour, an effective and easy to teach/understand tool is to stop calling names. In order to violently assault someone most people need to first objectify them and perpetrators of domestic violence are no different. Tell them that if they do nothing else they MUST stop calling their partner names. They will be surprised at how helpful it is.
Know the suitability criteria for domestic abuse treatment programmes - In order to make meaningful progress in treatment programmes it is important for the perpetrator to be able to address their own behaviour in an open honest way. Therefore, perpetrators who avoid culpability for their behaviour and discount its effects on victims are among those least likely to make progress and change and will most likely be found unsuitable by reputable domestic abuse treatment programmes without motivational work. Be aware that any work other than a full domestic abuse perpetrator programme is unlikely to reduce the risk from the perpetrator.
Manage expectations for change - All parties should understand that a perpetrator’s general prognosis for change in relation to abusive behaviour, especially without a robust intervention, is poor. Although it is also important to recognise that attendance on a programme does not necessarily reduce the risk as this is dependent on his engagement and motivation to change
Guidance from our specialist risk assessment team
Do not put too much weight on clinical impressions - Clinical impressions are not always helpful in domestic abuse, especially as some of the most controlling and dangerous men are able to present themselves very well and many abused women present with issues such as poor mental health or drug and alcohol abuse as a direct result of the abuse.
Past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour - For this reason apologies, statements of remorse and promises to change are best dismissed in light of previous abuse. What a parent says (especially when subject to assessment in care proceedings) is unfortunately not the most reliable indicator of what they will do.
Look at the circumstances behind reported mutual violence - Often the mother is more forthcoming about any violent resistance she may have used. Victims tend to self-blame particularly if the perpetrator has spent many years blaming her for the violence and abuse that he has used, and so she may disclose her own violence which then takes you back to the situation of ‘counter-accusations’ or ‘relationship problems’. It is important to look at the circumstances behind any violence used by the mother, this can include not just violence from the perpetrator but also coercive control, gas-lighting and emotional abuse. To get to grips with the dangers in a situation and therefore plan properly you need to know who did what to whom and under what circumstances.
Identify the risk concerns - The risk concerns need to be clearly identified and prioritised so that there is no confusion with the parents about what the issues are and which are the most important. It may be necessary to have an expert domestic abuse risk assessment completed that will set out the risks and make recommendations as to how to manage those risks which can be incorporated into a safety plan. All types of abuse must be considered including coercive control and emotional/financial abuse as these can also have a deleterious effect.
Listen to the victims own assessment of risk - remember that the victim/survivor, with her intimate and nuanced knowledge of his moods and behaviours, has been managing the risk he poses on a daily basis. Listen to what she has to say about safety planning and, above all, if a woman tells you that she feels at risk this should be acted upon.
From our experts in child safeguarding
Safety planning should include the whole family - It is important that safety planning is carried out with all families that are living with domestic abuse, which should have the children's safety and protection as the primary concern. Where social workers are already working with a family that are remaining together, both the victim and the perpetrator should be included in the planning. Older children should also be involved so that they have a safe route out of the home with a place of safety arranged in advance.
Explain the impact of abuse on the children - Parents often believe they have successfully shielded the children from violence and abuse. However, children are usually aware of the abuse and can give detailed accounts of violent behaviour that their parents had assumed they never witnessed. Exposure to domestic violence as a child can have a severe effect on the child’s emotional and psychological well-being, even if they are not directly assaulted, this knowledge can motivate parents to prioritise the children's wellbeing.
Consider the effects of all types of abuse - Children living in the tense and abusive environment fostered by coercive control can find that they are prevented from living a full and happy life as they are restricted from spending time with their mothers, wider family members and other children. They may also be stopped from engaging in extra‐curricular activities or attending medical facilities. Living in this way can cause children to become isolated, disempowered, hamper their development and contribute to emotional and behavioural problems. It is important to note that in studies of children's experiences of coercive control it has been found that in families where physical violence was not a regular form of abuse, children exhibited the same negative outcomes as those who had lived with more frequent physical abuse.
A Final tip from me
Consult domestic abuse experts - I have lost count of the times a case has come to us after multiple assessments have been completed that have failed to move the case on. Domestic abuse occurs as a result of a complex array of static and dynamic factors and it is vital that the expert understands the way in which these combine to create risky situations for children. Conclusions should offer clarity to professionals on a way forward and contain realistic risk management plans. For more information visit our post: Why only domestic abuse experts should be used for domestic abuse cases
A note on the current level of risk
As we emerge from the pandemic restrictions it is important to acknowledge the impact that restrictions will have had on families isolated with an abuser. Of particular concern are those perpetrators that have a history of coercive controlling behaviour and who have used high risk, potentially lethal, behaviours in the past.
If completing visits remotely due to Coronavirus restrictions avoid any video conferencing work with victims in the home, we have found that meetings taking place in the maternal grandparents home often have the joint benefit of having someone to care for the children while the session takes place. If this is not possible it may be necessary to meet in social work offices. Regular visits are highly protective and must be a part of any working agreement.
Detailed guidance for social workers on how to complete safety planning with families can be found in our posts How to complete safety planning with families and coercive control management and safety planning guidance. The Coronavirus guidance section of this website gives further assistance on how to help families living with domestic abuse, including; what can be done to help families living in isolation with an abuserandcompleting emergency safety planning with perpetrators. This section also gives up to date information on how DV-ACT assessments are used to safeguard children in care proceedings.
How DV-ACT can help
DV-ACT experts are able to complete assessments and treatment programmes with victims and/or perpetrators for cases where domestic and/or sexual offending is a concern regardless of the status of the case. Assessments will examine the use of abuse in the relationship and the impact of this on the children and victim, with a risk management plan for each member of the family. DV-ACT can also deliver focused and specialised treatment programmes for both victims and perpetrators. Contact us for further information
References and resources
The British Association of Social Work (BASW) - Social work during the Covid-19 pandemic: Initial Findings https://www.basw.co.uk/resources/social-work-during-covid-19-pandemic-initial-findings
Arenas-Arroyo, E., Fernandez-Kranz, D., Nollenberger, N. (2021). Intimate partner violence under forced cohabitation and economic stress: Evidence from the COVID-19 pandemic,
Womens Aid COVID-19 survey - The impact of Covid-19 on survivors: findings from Women’s Aid’s initial Survivor Survey and A Perfect Storm – The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on domestic abuse survivors and the services supporting them.
Katz, E., Nikupeteri, A., and Laitinen, M. (2020) When Coercive Control Continues to Harm Children: Post‐Separation Fathering, Stalking and Domestic Violence - https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/action/showCitFormats?doi=10.1002%2Fcar.2611
Katz, E. (2016). Beyond the physical incident model: How children living with domestic violence are harmed by and resist regimes of coercive control. Child abuse review, 25(1), 46-59. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/car.2422
DV-ACT are a team of domestic abuse experts, available throughout the UK, who provide assessments, programmes, consultancy and training to local authorities and the family courts. Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. To read more about us please visit our post - Who are DV-ACT?