With restrictions in place across the country many of us are turning to video calling to work with clients. When working with families living with domestic abuse we must consider the victim and the children's safety at all times and have strategies in place to deal with any problems that may occur.
Keeping services going has never been so challenging, but the process of safeguarding children from abuse can never stop so we are all looking to develop new ways of working. A recent review of the use of remote hearings in the family courts found that video calling was the preferred way of working, with Zoom being the most popular technology. Still being able to read body language, and each others faces, gives Video conferencing a clear advantage over telephone calls.
DV-ACT experts have continued to complete domestic abuse assessments and one to one work, throughout the Coronavirus crisis, with both victims and perpetrators via online video calling. However, despite the advantages of keeping services and support work going there are greater concerns regarding the risk to victims and their children that must be addressed.
10 safety tips for working with victims remotely
Our experts have produced the following guidance for those completing video calls with victims of domestic abuse. We also have a free checklist that you can download here
1. Assess the risk - Revisit any assessments completed in the case, the current risk to the victim and children must be the primary consideration. Is the risk from the perpetrator too great for the work to go ahead in the home?
2. Check the history - Consider the likelihood that the perpetrator will be in the house, if the couple are separated, do they have a pattern of separating and reconciling? Given the current restrictions victims could well be tempted to allow, or be pressured into allowing, the perpetrator to move back in, especially if they need support around child care or mental health.
If the couple are together it may be helpful to check whether the perpetrator is in employment and whether he is likely to be out of the home during core working hours and time the calls for when he is not expected to be in the home.
3. Previous behaviour - When looking at the risk that a perpetrator poses to their victim, past behaviour is the most reliable indicator of future behaviour. When planning video calls it is important to look at the perpetrator's history regarding stalking or monitoring her activities. If the perpetrator previously recorded the victim without her knowledge or consent then it is important to consider this as a possibility and if in doubt a safe alternative should be found (we have asked people to attend a solicitor’s office or a contact centre – whilst observing social distancing- for video calls in some instances).
4. Set up the call with the victim - When arranging the call with the victim specifically ask that they; choose a room that has a good signal and is appropriate with a low risk of being interrupted, tell others in the home that she is not to be interrupted (you could suggest that a sign is placed on the door), arrange childcare or have plenty of activities for the children to do while she is on the call and use headphones (with headphones the prospect of someone overhearing the conversation is reduced).
5. Scan the room - At the beginning of the call always ask that they scan the room with their device so you can check that no one else is there. Ask the client where the children are and who is looking after them. If the parents are unavoidably in the home together you could ask that they both attend the start of the meeting together then ask that he leave, so that you can watch his exit. However, if the parents are together you cannot guarantee that he will not overhear the conversation and certainly no work specific to domestic abuse should be considered safe to go ahead under those circumstances.
6. Have an alternative, silent contact method - If you suspect that someone is listening in or have concerns that someone else is in the house text them or use the chat function in your video application to communicate silently. It may be helpful to have a prearranged code word or phrase that means they need help.
7. Change your questioning style - - When working in child protection and making assessments of risk we often have to 'ask the un-askable', often deeply personal, seemingly intrusive or sensitive questions which could generate a response that places the victim at further risk.This should be avoided if there is a risk of being overheard. Also while tackling the issues is important, it may be more appropriate to use closed questions in ‘lockdown’ interviews. Consider using questions that the victim can just answer 'yes' or 'no' to, so that anyone listening will not know what is being discussed.
8. Take note of the surroundings - Are there any clues that abuse is ongoing in the house? Good indications of violence include; holes in the wall, doors off the hinges or damage to cupboards/bookcases (not caused by children). General signs of neglect could also be apparent in the home.
9. Presentation of the client - Pay close attention to the person's mood, obvious signs of violence such as bruises and cuts should be immediately dealt with as well as signs that marks are being covered up (such as heavy makeup or long sleeved, high neck clothing). Their body language can also be an indication, appearing distracted and a fear of being interrupted, is a common sign that there is a problem. It is often more difficult to get a sense of whether a person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol during a video interview so it may be useful to ask at the outset when was the last time they drank/used substances.
10. Follow up safety planning - If an abusive partner is now living in the home, or if you suspect they are, safety planning should follow within a safe space as soon as possible. Guidance on completing safety planning with families can be found here. Basic emergency planning should be sent to the victim immediately, including; assurance that the police will attend if they call 999 (also advise them of the police silent solution system), advise that those fleeing abuse are exempt from lockdown measures and reiterate the need to keep the children safe.
The current level of risk
The Coronavirus crisis lockdown poses a myriad of problems for victims including a much higher risk of fatal violence. Of particular concern are those that have a history of coercive controlling behaviour and who have used high risk, potentially lethal, behaviours in the past. Forensic criminologist Jane Monckton-Smith has explained why there has been a spike in fatalities:
“Lockdown means that people who were already controlling and abusing their partners are now even more controlling and volatile. The lockdown has not created abuse, it has just made it more visible and dangerous”.
A note on child contact using video calls
Allowing perpetrators to 'enter the house' to complete child contact via video calling should be approached with caution. This type of contact can give the perpetrator an opportunity to harass and control their ex-partner, with the possibility of children witnessing further conflict. They can also look for ‘clues’ as to the mother and child’s location if they are in a safe address which is unknown to him.
The Nuffield Family Justice Observatory have carried out a number of rapid surveys on the effects of digital contact on children's well-being and how children and their birth families are keeping in touch during the lockdown.
The Coronavirus guidance section of this website gives further assistance on how to help families living with domestic abuse, including; completing safety planning with families, completing emergency safety planning with perpetrators, and advice for separated parents. This section also gives up to date information on the use of remote hearings in family courts, and how DV-ACT assessments are used to safeguard children in care proceedings.
DV-ACT experts are continuing to work throughout the Cornavirus pandemic as usual and are available to discuss cases and complete assessments on both victims and perpetrators. Visit our post how-are-dv-act-completing-assessments-during-coronavirus-crisis to find out how we are currently working.
Helplines and online support
National Domestic Violence Helpline 24/7 – 0808 2000 247
Womens Aid online help for female victims (Monday to Friday 10:00am - 4:00pm, Saturday and Sunday 10:00am-12:00pm) - https://chat.womensaid.org.uk
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
Mens advice online chat for male victims (Wednesday, Thursday and Friday – 10 – 11am and 3 – 4pm) - https://mensadviceline.org.uk/contact-us/
Childline - 0800 1111
Childline online service for children or young people experiencing domestic abuse (9am-midnight) - www.childline.org.uk/get-support/1-2-1-counsellor-chat/
NSPCC helpline (Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm or 9am – 6pm at the weekends) - 0808 800 5000 Contact counsellors 24 hours a day by email or online reporting form email@example.com
Family Lives, a confidential helpline service for families in England and Wales (9am – 9pm, Monday to Friday and 10am – 3pm Saturday and Sunday) for emotional support, information, advice and guidance on any aspect of parenting and family life - 0808 800 2222
You can also email for support, advice and information at firstname.lastname@example.org
999 silent solution - when 999 is called, if the caller is unable to speak they need to press 55, but there is a procedure that needs to be followed and the limitations of this need to be made clear -https://www.policeconduct.gov.uk/sites/default/files/Documents/research-learning/Silent_solution_guide.pdf
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.