Category: Violence Prevention

Exploring the experiences of domestic abuse survivors working in the field of domestic abuse support.

What are the psychological consequences of working in this field for women survivors of abuse?

Women’s community groups as well as domestic and sexual abuse support organisations provide safe spaces of healing for women surviving trauma and abuse; spaces where mutual understanding and shared experience can offer a sense of hope and recovery. It is quite usual for a significant proportion of support workers and practitioners within these organisations to share lived experiences of abuse, estimated to constitute over 50% of organisational staffing (Slattery and Goodman, 2009; Bemiller and Williams, 2011). This has been common since the first women’s groups were formed in communities in the 1960s and 1970s in England and these women’s community services are arguably never more needed than currently, given the current epidemic of violence against women and girls being perpetrated (Justice Inspectorates, 2021).

However, what of the impact on support workers with lived experience of abuse? I interviewed twelve women support workers from five different women’s support organisations to ask about their thoughts, feelings, and experiences regarding their career choice and to enquire how this had affected them in terms of both positive and negative emotional impacts. What were they gaining personally and what was the impact on them when undertaking this emotionally challenging work?

Creating something positive from lived experience of abuse

The findings from my study (Gilbert, 2020), found that the experience was distinctly personal to each woman I interviewed, as was the readiness to feel able to work in women’s support work. Overwhelmingly, a key benefit for interviewees was the notion of purpose. For women survivors who chose to work in domestic abuse support work, this practice role could be the mechanism for many to achieve a personal sense of purpose and to make sense of a traumatic period in their own lives, using the experience in a positive way. One woman spoke about this in detail to me and said,

“I suppose it’s a silver thread that can be pulled from the trauma of what I went through. I can pull one positive aspect from the experience of abuse and use it for something good, something honourable – helping other women to move from victim to survivor, like I was able to, with the help of other women survivors. “

In addition to purpose and meaning, women spoke of the rise in their own self-esteem and their feelings of a sense of belonging to something important. In being able to work as a professional in domestic/sexual abuse support work, this enabled survivors to rebuild their sense of confidence and created a sense of empowerment by enabling them to create a professional life after experiencing abuse themselves. Women interviewed identified an environment of shared understanding, a sense of feeling comfortable, and to have had a sense of a unique connection with their women service users. The notion of having ‘walked in the same shoes’, enabled survivor support workers to feel able to provide what they described as an authenticity of support to other women experiencing abuse and violence. They strongly believed that in offering what could be termed ‘peer’ support, this felt very different to support from someone without similar shared lived experience.

Personal costs of survivor support work

Conversely, there were personal costs to being involved in support work as a survivor. The main issue appeared to be triggering painful memories and trauma, irrespective of the time between experience and practice. Some women survivors found it difficult not to recall events in their own lived experience when working with women service users, especially if their personal accounts resonated with their own experiences. Vicarious trauma is a potential risk for all support workers of victims of domestic abuse, so, too, burnout or countertransference (Iliffe and Steed, 2000).

The protective factor to mitigate against risk was supportive supervision from a line manager or a clinical colleague, and from this small-scale study, for many of these practitioners, this was not provided and did not meet their needs as survivors support workers. The further saturation of hearing about domestic abuse and in hearing the distress of service users over and above the survivor’s own lived experience is likely to be damaging without such clinical support.

Summary

The benefits to both survivor support work and to the women service user can be powerful within the domestic violence and women’s support sector. Survivor support workers can gain a sense of self- actualisation, esteem and belonging when working in their practitioner roles.

However, there can be a risk of re-victimisation to the support worker, particularly where appropriate clinical supervisory support is not provided. In using their own lived experience as a source of knowledge, a survivor support worker can enhance her own sense of self-worth, using her experience positively to add to her own process of recovery and self-actualisation.

There is a wealth of specialist women’s community support knowledge in the UK, including grassroots organisations formed by and for survivors themselves. Many of these are outside of the main large charity organisational funding steams and they struggle to maintain their services in the face of increasing demand and short-term funding arrangements.  The whole domestic abuse support sector needs longer term, ringfenced funding for specialist domestic abuse support organisations (SafeLives, 2021), especially those who provide for disadvantaged groups, those with complex disadvantage or those serving (semi) rural areas. This will then enable all survivor support workers to access the appropriate level of clinical or support supervision that they need to remain safe whilst undertaking this challenging but essential service in our community.

This blog post is based on a presentation delivered by Beverley Gilbert, Senior Lecturer, University of Worcester at the 4th European Conference on Domestic Violence on 15th September 2021, held online from Slovenia.

Beverley Gilbert

Beverley is a Senior Lecturer in Violence Prevention and Criminology at the University of Worcester. Her academic career follows 30 years working in various roles within the criminal justice sector. Her PhD research with Anglia Ruskin University examines peer mentoring with women who have multiple and complex disadvantages. Beverley is a member of the Trauma and Violence Prevention research theme at the University of Worcester, she is an Independent Member of Women Against Violence in Europe (WAVE) and Associate Member of Work with Perpetrators – European Network (WWP-EN).

Rebuilding trust in the police

The horrific details of the murder of Sarah Everard are shocking. Wayne Couzens,  an off-duty police officer with the Metropolitan Police, admitted killing Sarah in March 2021. He used his power as a police officer and falsely arrested Sarah Everard as she walked home in London, abducted her, then raped and murdered her. The details of the case are harrowing, and the impact of Sarah’s murder described by her family and friends is heart-breaking. Couzens has received a whole-life sentence for his crimes, meaning he will never be released from prison. The case has highlighted fears that many women face about their own safety, and has a much wider impact on society and trust in the police.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Dame Cressida Dick, acknowledged that the actions of Couzens had ‘shaken’ trust in the police. So what does this mean for policing, and what can the police do to rebuild the trust of the public?

Why trust matters in Policing

Effective policing relies on having the trust of the public. Levels of trust in the police depend on both personal contact and expectations of individual encounters with the police, and also confidence that the police as an institution will act as expected. Bradford and Jackson suggest that there are three dimensions of trust in the police, with the expectation that the organisation and individual officers will “be effective, will be fair, and will display values that are aligned with one’s own or one’s community.” Trust is a key element of police legitimacy whereby the public essentially accept the authority of the police as legitimate, and therefore comply with police actions and decisions. The procedural justice model found that compliance and legitimacy is gained through officers acting with fairness, treating people with respect and explaining their actions.

Measures of police legitimacy have been included in the Crime Survey for England and Wales which asks to what extent respondents agree that the police act lawfully, act consistently with their own ideas of right and wrong, and should accept police decisions. The results showed that whilst three quarters of people said they had confidence in the police, fewer (61%) agreed it was their duty to accept police decisions.

How might trust be restored?

Following on from the events surrounding the circumstances of Sarah Everard’s murder, there are a number of areas that the police could consider to start to restore the trust and confidence of the public.

Firstly is recruitment. Police officers and staff are vetted prior to being employed, to assess their integrity and suitability for police work. Couzens passed the vetting process and remained in post with full authority. The vetting processes and procedures for maintaining professional standards may well need to be reviewed to check they are robust and fit for purpose. The College of Policing offers guidance for police forces on making decisions about integrity, making sure officers and staff behave in an appropriate way, and providing transparency about the decisions that are made. The College of Policing publishes the Barred List annually, detailing officers and police staff who have been dismissed from their roles, including reasons for dismissal. In 2019-20,  232 officers were added to the barred list; most frequent reasons for their barring were: integrity (n=85), honesty (n=59), failure to perform duty (n=31), and abuse of position for sexual purposes (n=31). Whilst this offers some level of transparency, and the process has removed officers who should not be in a position of trust, there may be some question as to whether this is effective enough.

Changing Police culture

A culture of sexism and institutional misogyny has been reported to be widespread within the police service, and needs to be thoroughly investigated. This has been highlighted by the Police Federation’s National Women’s Group who described the pervasive nature of misogyny, frequently facing male ‘banter’ and questioning their competency for the job. However, in wider society misogynistic behaviour towards women is often tolerated, and accepted as part of the normal culture. Nottinghamshire Police piloted a policy of recording misogyny as a hate crime. An evaluation of this police found shockingly high levels of misogynistic activity, with the majority of women experiencing this behaviour, but with very few incidents being reported to the police. The experiences described have become normalised, and many women thought the police would not take any action, would not take it seriously or may blame them for attracting this behaviour.

Photo by  Ethan Wilkinson on Unsplash

Police effectiveness in tackling violence against women and girls

Violence against women and girls is widespread – women and girls are disproportionately victims of violent crime including rape, other sexual offences, domestic violence, stalking and honour based crimes. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) recently published the report of their inspection of how effectively the police engage with women and girls. Data reported by HMICFRS indicated many types of violent crimes where women are disproportionately victimised, with sexual grooming, sexual activity involving a child under 16, exposure and voyeurism and stalking all recording over 80% of victims as being female.

In addition, a public survey by the HMICFRS found that trust in the police to keep women and girls safe was low: they reported that 14 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that ‘Police in my area work to prevent violence against women and girls’, with the same percentage agreeing that ‘I trust the police to prevent violence against women and girls’. Respondents wanted the police to:

 

  • Take offences against women more seriously (including arresting and charging more offenders for all types of violence/abuse; acting earlier so violence doesn’t escalate; speed up the process of dealing with offences; listening to women’s concerns about safe spaces; prioritising violence against women)
  • Ensure police have the correct values with more empathy towards female victims and that misogynistic behaviour is tackled;
  • Stop victim-blaming and put the responsibility on male perpetrators; and
  • Work in partnership with other organisations to address the epidemic of sexual violence and image-based crimes that particularly affect girls.

Making changes

The Government’s strategy for Tackling Violence Against Women and Girls focuses on increasing support for victims, and increasing the number of perpetrators brought to justice, with the overall aim of reducing the prevalence of violence against women and girls. Victim engagement with the police is key to this, to increase the number of women feeling confident enough to report these crimes,  and to engage with the police and the wider criminal justice system. Effective implementation of this strategy needs the police to be seen to be trustworthy. As the Metropolitan Police announce an independent review into the standards and culture with the aim of rebuilding public trust, and the Home Secretary promises an public inquiry into police vetting procedures, behaviour and discipline, this may lead to culture change and improved practice within the police service more widely.

Dr Rosie Erol

Rosie is a researcher in the School of Psychology, and leads the Trauma and Violence Prevention research theme. She joined the University of Worcester in 2011, having worked previously as a senior researcher at the Home Office.

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