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The Engage Model: How to effectively engage perpetrators of domestic abuse

Many challenges can occur when working those who show harmful domestic abuse behaviours, specifically in relation to sustained levels of engagement and participant dropout rates, but a new project is providing a solution to overcoming these challenges through a suite of early interventions.

03/04/24

The Engage Model: How to effectively engage perpetrators of domestic abuse

Giving social workers the tools to work with perpetrators of domestic abuse can be effective in the majority of cases, Saskia Lightburn-Ritchie, Chief Executive of My CWA told a COMPASS seminar in Birmingham.

‘If you work in children’s services, domestic abuse is a factor in 70 per cent of cases and in 40 per cent of cases in adult teams,’ she said, adding ‘It may not be the primary reason and may not even be recorded in some cases.

‘What tends to happen is that an incident occurs, the police send their vulnerable person’s assessment and then a plan is drawn up. That plan is for the mother, who is the victim, to protect her children from the perpetrator -- otherwise those children may be removed.

She said that current practice puts the onus on the victim to manage the situation ‘but if adult victims of domestic abuse had the capacity to manage the behaviour of their perpetrator, there wouldn’t be an issue in the first place.

Typically, ‘we cover our backs professionally but the relationship goes underground. Who are we safeguarding? We are safeguarding our organisation – we say there was a contract in place and she wasn’t supposed to meet him.’

‘If the perpetrator is taken out of the family, then the perpetrator goes to another place, putting people there at risk.

‘Why is it, in social work that we often feel we can talk to the victim but not to the cause of the harm in that family?

She said that My CWA has a unique approach. ‘We work with the whole family, starting with the perpetrator. It does not target the victim in the way that has traditionally been the case in social work.

‘Our approach is to go in as early as possible – we are across Cheshire in all the custody suites. We talk to people in the cells. We offer bail support to people with mental health and drug and alcohol issues. Our aim is to protect children and families. We are not risk averse but we risk manage.’

‘We offer trauma-informed support to perpetrators because there is often underlying trauma. That is not an excuse but it is important that we recognise that this is often all they have ever experienced and it’s very, very difficult for them to move on.

‘We don’t accept that people can’t change We have seen over the past 13 years that they can. We need to recognise the risk and manage it. So we are not saying to them “you cannot come to the house” but we put some boundaries around that. Accountability is at the heart of our work.

The approach has been successful in Cheshire: ‘we have seen a 70 per cent reduction in bail breaches.’

‘MyCWA did a survey of over 3000 social workers across the UK, with Safe Lives [the charity working to change the response to domestic abuse]. What came out of that was 89 per cent of social workers agreed completely that they ought to be talking to perpetrators.

‘What shocked me was that 73 per cent of the social workers did not feel confident to engage with perpetrators – they gave many reasons but what it came down to was fear that they would make things worse

‘We train thousands of social workers to deliver a toolkit of six tools to talk to perpetrators so whether criminal justice or not, you can start having those conversations confidently.

The toolkit ‘allows you to assess [the perpetrator’s] capacity to change, their motivation and how you go about getting them referred on to a therapeutic programme.

‘The most important tool is neutral stance: you cannot go to people and challenge them [at the wrong stage]…you have to build rapport…you cannot get aggressive with perpetrators -- they will be aggressive back.’ Instead, the training helps the social worker to be calm, de-escalate and show compassion. ‘It does not mean colluding; it means you can disagree in a way that is not combative.

‘We also speak to the victim and tell them what we are doing with perpetrators, what it is for, and how it could be manipulated…so they know in advance.’

My CWA has worked with over 3,000 perpetrators. ‘Nearly every one of them I have worked with has some positive idea about themselves -- that they are a good parent, that they work hard --- something that you can hook on to and use in their conversations…and over the period of time of the whole process, you see sustainable change taking place.

‘If we are genuinely trying to deliver trauma-informed work, we have be able to work with all of the family. At what age do people change from being vulnerable children to perpetrators that we write off?’

Find out more about My CWA: https://www.mycwa.org.uk/

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