parental capacity

Whole family working around domestic abuse in Sheffield

Published: 02/08/2018

Author: Candi Lawson and Allison Higgins

‘For years I’ve felt like I’ve been banging my head against a brick wall trying to get people to realise that I am not just an over protective mum, and then you’ve come in and supported my family. Professionals from all over are listening to each other and working together to make others understand. I am so glad that when my independent domestic violence advisors (IDVA) asked me if I wanted extra support that I said yes.’

Strengthening Families participant

The Strengthening Families Domestic Abuse Project began delivery at the end of 2017. The main aim of the programme is to work intensively with families where domestic abuse is a key concern and there is a risk that the case could escalate through social care to care proceedings.

The project arose as a result of observing a model developed by colleagues in Doncaster, but also from long experience as a commissioner and Assistant Service Manager respectively working on both sides of the fence. We collaborated with specialist domestic abuse providers and managed a parenting team working in Early Intervention and Prevention Children’s Services focused on domestic abuse.

The problem we are trying to solve is ‘how do we work together to reduce risk of harm to children and adult victims, while at the same time recognising and addressing the complex nature of domestic abuse and the impact of coercive control?’

The recent joint targeted area inspections (JTAI) recognised that all too often incidents are seen in isolation by Children’s Services, so cases are repeatedly opened and closed. Thus, the pattern of domestic abuse has not been fully acknowledged. This was also due in part to the way we were working with the non-abusive parent which in most instances was the mother.

We have been requiring the victim of domestic abuse to take responsibility for protecting the children and as long as she says she’s not having the father back then we state that ‘mum is acting appropriately to protect the children’ without a great deal of consideration of how compliant the perpetrator may be.

What hasn’t been explored is the influence that coercive control can have on the mother’s decision-making ability. Whilst she knows that having dad back is not a good idea, she is at risk of being manipulated by his threatening behaviour. There is also the possibility that she still loves him and hopes he will change, or that she needs the financial support he provides as the breadwinner. This often leads to a situation where another incident is likely to occur, safeguarding procedures are put into place and the process begins again. The perpetrator themselves usually wasn’t the focus of the intervention and sometimes wasn’t spoken to at all.

Strengthening Families has aimed to address these issues by constructing a multi-agency team and multi-agency interventions, building on existing expertise and the support services already available in the city. The core objective of the approach was to address the needs of each individual as part of the whole family picture. The project team included expertise and experience from a variety of local agencies that are used to responding to domestic abuse. The closer alignment would then enable more bespoke packages of support for individual cases to be created.

Cases are primarily identified through social care and multi-agency risk assessment conferences. The domestic abuse key worker works closely alongside the social worker, aiming to create a whole family plan that connects the services together and avoids silo working.

The composition of the team recognises the complex nature of many domestic abuse cases that are at risk of entering care proceedings. One element that has been particularly useful is to have expertise around substance misuse. A key aim of the approach is to engage with the perpetrators by challenging their attitudes and behaviour, changing the narrative from ‘why doesn’t she leave?’ to ‘why doesn’t he stop?’.

The best possible outcomes could only have been achieved with the inclusion of an independent domestic violence advisor, the team leader, who is a practitioner herself, and through the role of a perpetrator engagement specialist from the South Yorkshire Community Rehabilitation Company.

The link with social care is embedded through the named Advanced Social Work Practitioners who are attached to the project. The whole team had an intensive induction consisting of training on all aspects of domestic abuse but with a strong emphasis on considering the impact of coercive control on children and on parenting. Links have also been made with the Integrated Offender Management team who are beginning to manage more domestic abuse offenders.

In addition to our support, the first Caring Dads parenting programme has recently started, which provides help for fathers who use abusive behaviour towards the mothers of their children. Other group interventions, You and me, mum and Power to change, both for victims of abuse, have also contributed to the range of support options available.

Perpetrators have told workers that ‘no one has ever asked me what I think before’. We have learnt that the avoidance by agencies means that when Children’s Services are involved, the perpetrator will often turn to the victim for information, triggering further abuse.

Through our work, we are learning how to equip Children’s Services to unpick counter allegations by using Johnson’s Typologies of Abuse and are getting a better understanding of coercive control. We have also learnt that the Domestic Abuse, Stalking and Harassment (DASH) assessment needs greater embedding into practice.

We are seeing that young adult children who are still living at home need therapeutic, and often mental health support to help them get over the long term impact of living with abuse as a child. Although, by expanding upon Prochaska and DiClemente’s cycle of change we can help victims think about where they are in their recovery from abuse.

There are challenges ahead, not least that this is a small cohort, so disseminating learning and changing practice in a wider way will be no small task. In the highly pressured world of children’s social care, managing the risks and taking the time to enable change and therapeutic work to take place can be difficult. However, we are fortunate that there is a newly commissioned voluntary perpetrator programme available in Sheffield and the team is working alongside some excellent social workers who understand that domestic abuse needs a different response.

Candi Lawson Allison Higgins

Candi Lawson and Allison Higgins

Candi Lawson is an Assistant Service Manager and Alison Higgins a Strategic Commissioning Manager. They both work for Sheffield City Council in the Commissioning, Inclusion and Learning Service. Sheffield City Council are Partners of Research in Practice.


DiClemente C, Prochaska J and Norcross J (1994) Changing for Good: A revolutionary six-stage program for overcoming bad habits and moving your life positively forward USA, HarperCollins Publications Inc.

Johnson M, (2008) Intimate terrorism, violent resistance, and situational couple violence USA, University Press of New England