There has been some ongoing debate concerning the use of one–off formal restorative justice conferences with high risk domestic violence and abuse, largely centred on the potential for increasing risk and victimisation. 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 conference. DARFA will not be delivering this form of restorative intervention as the risk levels, principles, partnership expertise, and underlying restorative processes are very different.
All restorative practitioners, managers and agencies need to stay highly conscious of realistic risk management throughout any work where domestic abuse is evident (as with any form of harmful behaviours in relationships). “Do no more harm” is a fundamental restorative principle that needs to be central in this context. Shared core risk assessments are vital, with training for all involved and rigorous protocols for sharing information confidentially between agencies and with family members as appropriate.
Whilst carrying out a survey on behalf of DARFA, researchers found that over a third of practitioners who responded said that they are already working restoratively with families around domestic violence and the effects on the family.
Figures show all of the participants that answered the restorative approaches survey online stated that they would, or they are already working with families around domestic violence “Any negative behaviours can be resolved, eradicated, improved through restorative approaches as a foundation for improvements. Irrespective of the nature of the abuse, the victim should be offered an opportunity to share how abuse makes them feel in order for the perpetrator to have an opportunity to reflect on the harm their behaviour creates. A restorative approach is one element of the biggest picture but could be vital tool in moving forward to effect change” – Restorative Family Practitioner, Third Sector, Cardiff.
In the same survey the researchers found that all of the practitioners who answered said that even though they were aware of the potential risks that could present themselves, with the right training, risk assessments, thorough preparations and by building relationships, families can not only repair harm but also heal the ‘whole family’. “I believe it would be a positive approach to managing the conflict within famines where appropriate, with clear risk assessments, competency framework and supervision to support practitioners to support families in domestic violence cases” – Resolve Training Consultant.
“In the hands of highly skilled practitioners both in domestic violence and restorative approaches and capable of identifying, managing and mitigating risks, it can be a very useful approach. The training we provide in restorative approaches is only sufficient to work with victims of domestic abuse if the practitioners are skilled in working in that arena and so understand and can manage the risks involved” – Restorative Approaches Development Officer Cardiff Local Authority.
The Restorative Justice Council and the Ministry of Justice acknowledge that in sensitive and complex cases like serious domestic violence or sexual crimes, any restorative justice process bringing a victim and perpetrator face to face to explicitly address the harm must be handled with great care, and with extensive facilitator and participant training, experience and longer term expert support. There are other valid observations that a one- off meeting alone cannot easily address patterns and cycles of harmful behaviours and victimhood, as opposed to focussing on the usual one harmful “event,” which is extremely rare in domestic abuse contexts.
One participant in the survey carried out on behalf of DARFA felt that “with the growing interest in restorative justice by governments and communities, raises several questions about appropriateness arise. One area often questioned is the use of restorative approaches in cases of domestic violence. Many advocates of victims of domestic violence argue that criminalisation of domestic violence was important in changing societies views towards violence in relationships. They fear that the use of restorative practises will return domestic violence to the private sphere and continued victimisation. Practitioners of restorative justice/approaches, on the other hand, hold out the possibilities of restorative approaches changing behaviours of offenders and empowering victims” – Local Authority Team Manager, Children and Young people services.
However, evidence from New Zealand (who are world leaders in restorative practices) and from Europe seems to indicate that the victim can indeed feel empowered through the process, which is a worthy outcome. It’s not about the offender somehow ‘making it up’ to the victim, but it is about the victim feeling heard and having a chance to ‘tell their story’, even where the offender is an ex-intimate partner. There is also other international evidence from the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe that victims’ needs can be met using restorative processes either alongside criminal justice or instead of, where criminal proceedings are not possible or in some cases desirable by victims.
Restorative approaches to domestic abuse – diverse interventions
The Choices for Change project is different to traditional victim-offender only meetings, which is the more frequently researched case study scenario, in several ways. It is part of a wider picture of restorative approaches in whole family working, such as those being developed in projects in Durham and Wokingham, and through initiatives such as Families First across Wales, and Troubled Families programmes in England.
UK wide practice examples
In Durham, police are currently working restoratively with high end harm within troubled families with issues of domestic violence, which has to be ‘signed off by the Chief Inspector’ on a case by case basis to assess risk prior to any restorative intervention. As part of their current agenda Durham Police held The National Troubled Families Meeting in January, to be chaired by the Chief Constable Mike Barton as the ACPO Portfolio National Lead for Troubled Families. It was attended by senior police leads from across England, Local Authorities and the College of Policing, and discussed some of the next steps in becoming a restorative county with the involvement of all partners in the voluntary/private/public sectors.
The Daybreak Dove Project in the UK has been running since 2001 providing Family Group Conferencing for domestic violence and abuse. The model has provided a basis for other similar projects, such as in Camden and Leeds.
Low to medium risk of harm
In comparison with high risk and crimed domestic abuse cases, with the families and individuals coming to Choices for Change, there is a low level of risk of serious harm. They will have been risk assessed using the CAADA DASH tool and the Choices for Change option is only open to those scoring 14 or less, which indicates only a ‘standard’ risk of imminent serious harm as opposed to moderate or high. No offence may have been recorded as being committed, and/or may have been classed as ‘no further action’ in police terms.
Evidence base for Choice for Change
In addition, the interventions designed to address this lower risk of serious physical harm are underpinned as a model by the current research base behind the Choices for Change model. The Partner Abuse State of Knowledge (PASK) project is a large-scale international research effort which – as the name suggests – looks at just what we know about intimate partner abuse and violence.
While much attention has quite rightly focussed on high-risk cases where there often is a clear victim and clear perpetrator, and a high risk of physical harm from violence, research from the PASK indicates two significant points:
Firstly, up to 60% of intimate partner violence is ‘low level’: without minimising any physical violence, if physical violence is involved it is pushing, shoving slapping rather than broken bones, injuries requiring hospitalisation and so on.
Secondly up to 60%of this is bi-directional, meaning that rather than a clear victim and perpetrator, the situation is more fluid and complex. It is sometimes possible that some of the domestic abuse is bi directional, between both parties from each to the other. This implies a much wider continuum of behaviour and variation of seriousness and harm than is commonly captured when we think about ‘domestic violence’.
A third point arising is that this is chronic behaviour: it is normalised. Many of the families and individuals Choices for Change will work with do not regard their situation as ‘abusive’; it is simply the fabric of relationships. And yet, this chronic, conflictual, hostile, unhappy, non-communicative setting, while it does not pose the risk of acute harm found elsewhere on the continuum, has some terrible life-long effects for children in terms of their own life chances. The harm can also ripple out, and be acted out, in behaviours of children and between siblings and parents, in terms of whole family dynamics. The emotional trauma associated with being in this kind of family dynamic has wide ranging negative effects which echo down the generations as the children grow up to have their own families.
Behaviours and attitudes linked to domestic abuse at home can be noticed early in education settings with the right staff, pupil and parent training , which is why Choices for Change has strong working links with a number of key schools from across Cardiff and the Vale. The Consortium has engaged senior education wellbeing leads and teachers to identify safe, respectful, and robust systems for awareness raising, referrals, and engagement with children and their families, in collaboration with other agencies, as a key part of breaking the abusive cycle as early and effectively as possible, from nursery to college.
Families is a key word here: initiatives such as Families First and the Integrated Family Support Service all accept that you can’t work with just an individual and expect an entire system to change: Choices For Change accepts the same.
Even where there are high levels of abuse, most often the ‘victim/s’ just want the abuse to stop and be happy with the ‘perpetrator’: a restorative approach accepts this reality, just as it accepts that helping a couple to split up safely is a good outcome if that is what the couple identify is best. It does not try to ‘get the couple back together’, and it also accepts that couples must sometimes be aided to split up safely, through management of risk, for the safety and wellbeing of the whole family.
By working with families who are experiencing these sorts of difficulties, taking a core strengths-based approach which sees them as experts in their own lives, and capable of generating their own solutions, the family is aided to function better and to be happier as a family.
Note:- The DARFA consortium now consists of 4 organisations, Brightlink Learning Ltd, Wales Restorative Approaches Partnership, STTEPS and Tros Gynnal Plant. Our manualised system was produced as a result of Ministry of Justice funding in 2014/15 and has been tested since in conjunction with Social Services. All enquiries can be made by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com