DARFA – a holistic restorative approach to family domestic violence

The Domestic Abuse Restorative Family Approaches (DARFA) Partnership is a consortium of three organisations, dedicated to making the lives of families safer. STTEPS, Wales Restorative Approaches Partnership (WRAP) and Brightlink Learning, the DARFA partners, subscribe to a set of shared restorative and co-operative values. Their core aim is ‘to work with openness and transparency, encouraging the right of families to self-determination’. The consortium and the services it works with place families at the centre of everything they do, working with them rather than for them or to them.

DARFA began in 2013 with six organisations, working together to offer children experiencing domestic abuse a voice. Lorna Baldry, the CEO of Brightlink, said: “We had an idea for a model that our shared experience told us would work, meet the needs of families and fill gaps in existing provision. So we applied for funding and although we were unsuccessful with our first application, feedback showed that the funder liked our model.”

Sally Milton, the CEO of STTEPS said: “This experience brought us to the realisation that we believed in the consortium and the model so much that we wanted to continue to work together in search of funding. We were determined to create an opportunity for families, particularly children, to benefit from our services.”

In July 2014 DARFA were awarded funding by the South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner from the Ministry of Justice and began work on researching, designing and testing the Choices for Change (C4C) programme.  Julia Houlston Clark, the CEO of WRAP, said: “Choices for Change is an evidence based cutting edge service of interventions for families. Practitioners co-work with whole families, so they and their supporters develop their own strengths-based solutions to address abusive behaviours, experienced from one or more family members, which could be threatening or controlling and coercive, financially, physically or emotionally.

The programme benefits the families, who receive direct support through C4C, and their wider relationships. But it also benefits the network of practitioners and organisations who may be working with them and can develop their own capacity to deliver the C4C programme under careful licence.”

C4C includes a core offer, tailored to the needs of each family, of a series of restorative meetings carried out over six months. In addition to the core offer, there is a wider supportive environment and peripheral offer which supports individuals in meeting their own needs in education, housing, debt, substance misuse and other issues they may be experiencing.

While C4C is designed to help families dealing with domestic violence, the first selection criteria are that there is no risk of serious harm, often no criminal offence has been brought to charge, and there will be ‘no further action’ in police terms. All family members are risk assessed using the CAADA-DASH risk assessment checklist, plus dynamic ongoing risk assessment.  Choices for Change was originally only available to those scoring 14 or less on CAADA-DASH, which indicates up to a ‘standard’ risk of imminent serious harm, as opposed to moderate or high. More recently we have worked with higher risk cases by co-location with Social Services Integrated Family Support Team.

The DARFA partners are aware of the risks associated with using restorative justice conferencing with high-risk domestic violence and abuse, and recognise the need for caution in those cases. Julia said: “There are valid concerns around the abilities, experience and training of any potential conference facilitators to support and challenge any harmful or coded perpetrator behaviours that may re-victimise those present during or after a restorative justice conference. DARFA doesn’t deliver this form of restorative intervention as the risk levels, principles, partnership expertise, and underlying restorative processes are very different.”

Julia continued: “For the levels of risk we are working with, and where we know the victim and offender are going to stay together no matter what or want an amicable nonviolent separation, a series of restorative interventions is the safest and most effective option. “

These couples are sometimes choosing to stay together anyway and may do so secretively and therefore more dangerously if separation is imposed. While the restorative meetings are taking place, the model also includes family check-ins to bring the change pragmatically and honestly into the room, and to plan for the longer term to prevent harm. Sometimes couples may decide to separate amicably and plan to co-parent as part of an outcome agreement.

The decision to focus the Choices for Change model on cases with a low risk of serious physical harm is based on evidence. The Partner Abuse State of Knowledge (PASK) project is a large-scale international research effort which – as the name suggests – brings together research on intimate partner abuse and violence. Julia said: “The research tells us that up to 60% of intimate partner violence is low level. Without minimising any physical violence, where it is involved it’s more likely to be pushing, shoving or slapping rather than broken bones and severe injuries requiring hospitalisation. The harm is more likely to be psychological, emotional, financial, and coercive.  However, there is a risk that without intervention, that harm may escalate over time.”

Up to 60% of harm is bi-directional. Rather than a clear victim and perpetrator, the situation is more fluid and complex – sometimes harm is being done to one partner, sometimes to the other and sometimes both to each other. This implies a much wider spectrum of behaviour and variation of seriousness and harm than is commonly captured when we think about domestic violence.

Many of the families and individuals Choices for Change will work with do not regard their situation as ‘abusive’, and have normalised the negative behaviours they are experiencing. While the situation does not pose the threat of ‘acute harm’, the effects are wide ranging and highly damaging, often spanning generations. For children, in particular, growing up in an abusive environment can have long-term negative effects, which are frequently carried with them when they grow up and have their own families.

The interventions delivered by the C4C programme are designed to mirror the complexity and connectedness of relationship needs and systemic family harms.  Julia said: “There still needs to be provision of targeted interventions to meet the specific needs of the potential multiple victims and perpetrators in these cases – children, partners, and extended family members or supporters.”

Choices for Change is based on the belief and evidence that you can’t work with just an individual and expect an entire system or family to change. By working with whole families who are experiencing domestic abuse, and taking a core, strengths-based approach which sees families as experts in their own lives, and capable of generating their own solutions, the family is helped to function more healthily when it is safe to remain together.

For many families, the idea that an intervention is being imposed on them can make them resistant to the intervention. The DARFA partners said: “Parents may fear losing their children and appear to comply just to make agencies go away.  Perpetrators and victims can feel shamed and blamed, and denial can increase through traditional criminal justice methods alone. Choices for Change offers a robust alternative or parallel intervention to punitive, criminalising, externally enforced models of separation, which can have negative consequences for all family members.”

The Choices for Change model works on the principle that where appropriate approaches are used, family members can co-work with highly trained professionals, finding their own strengths and solving their own problems. This significantly reduces the emotional and intergenerational cost to families and communities, and the financial cost to society incurred through sometimes unnecessary interventions by public authorities.

Julia, Sally and Lorna said: “C4C presents a step-change in approach. It involves the full range of restorative approaches, coaching families in restorative skills so that they can utilise them once practitioners withdraw. “

C4C is proven to offer a measured, evidence-based, safe process bringing together the well documented benefits of restorative approaches, systemic family working, and early intervention. This is critical if all family members are to listen and be heard and given the tools to ensure they can fully participate in providing a solution which is as fair and inclusive as possible for all affected, especially children.

DARFA is currently exploring funding opportunities and associate relationships to develop the use of the Choices for Change model, aiming for a large-scale, externally evaluated service. Work has also begun on how the model might be replicated to meet other areas of need, including transient, traumatised populations.

Sally Milton concluded: “We want to change the life-outcomes for families facing domestic violence through further development and dissemination of the Choices for Change project, responding to evidenced demand.  We want to intelligently challenge any uninformed myths and risk aversion, with a robust, evaluated and safe model of restorative training and practice.”

Case study

The Davies* family did not identify themselves as having issues around domestic violence, but this was contradicted by police reports. This was cause for concern, and social services were afraid the family were minimising what was happening between them and therefore putting their safety at risk.

The initial referral to Choices for Change was for consultancy involvement around safety, supporting the social worker. The family, who had previously refused to engage with domestic abuse services, later decided to engage directly with Choices for Change because it was voluntary and included the whole family. The father was subsequently charged with robbery and was given a short custodial sentence. During this time the mother and son were able to have restorative conversations about their family life.

Through these conversations the mother agreed to complete a CAADA-DASH risk assessment which led to presentation at a Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference. As a result of this meeting the family were re-housed to ensure safety, and the Choices for Change service bridged a relationship between the mother, the Independent Domestic Violence Advocate and the police. With the family’s consent Choices for Change kept social services informed about safety issues throughout. This enabled a more realistic and transparent picture of the risks to the family for all services.

“I trusted them, and they listened” – service user

You can find out more about DARFA at www.darfa.uk about the individual organisations within the consortium at www.stteps.co.uk, www.restorativewales.org.uk and www.brightlink.org.uk and about the Choices for Change model at www.choicesforchangewales.uk