"Modern slavery is more likely to be considered … than the impact of domestic violence."
At least 57% of women in prison and under community supervision are victims of domestic abuse. The true figure is likely to be higher because of barriers to women disclosing abuse. Research suggests that for many of these women, their offending or alleged offending resulted directly from their experience of abuse.
In our new No Safe Space report, published on 29 July, Centre for Women’s Justice shares insights from women with lived experience and frontline practitioners about the approach taken by statutory and non-statutory agencies in the West Midlands towards victims of domestic abuse who are accused of offending. We look at how agencies identify and support these women, divert them from the criminal justice process where possible, and take account of their experience of abuse in criminal proceedings against them. The report draws out lessons for national policy and local practice throughout England and Wales.
"When women are engaged with a support organisation, they are more willing and likely to disclose."
Challenges despite local strengths
The West Midlands benefits from a coalition of highly regarded women’s specialist services, such as Anawim and Black Country Women’s Aid, as well as the New Chance and Project CARA police diversion schemes, and a rare women-only probation team. Despite these strengths, the study reveals how significant challenges – which are likely to be replicated in most, if not all, areas of England and Wales – mean there is a long way to go before the response to domestic abuse victims accused of offending can be considered effective.
Identifying and supporting victims
The women taking part in the study told us they did not feel safe disclosing abuse, did not see any point in doing so, and were not asked until late in the criminal justice process.
Where a victim of domestic abuse is identified, all public-facing agencies aim to safeguard them and their children. However, the police acknowledged that limited resources and rising demand reduce their ability to respond effectively to victims of domestic abuse or divert women at the point of arrest. Practitioners called for greater investment in early intervention and prevention, before women reach this point. Local authority domestic abuse leads acknowledged they do not have a strategic approach to meeting these women’s needs.
The police custody environment is not conducive to disclosure of abuse. However, disclosure is not the only way to identify victims, as shown by probation practitioners who routinely check their own records on perpetrators, to assess whether women are at risk. The police could learn from this approach.
Local women’s specialist services, and women-only probation teams, are good at supporting women and facilitating disclosure through a relationship-based approach. However, this usually comes later in the criminal justice process. Support is available from third sector services at the point of arrest for women who are diverted, but referrals have dropped significantly. Probation practitioners in prison are concerned about ‘fragmentation’ of support for women in prison and on release, following probation reunification. Pathways into healthcare and lack of safe accommodation remain significant problems.
Diversion and informed criminal justice decisions
The New Chance women’s diversion scheme and Project CARA out of court disposal for women and men accused of domestic abuse offences have both led to successful outcomes, but referrals dropped significantly during the pandemic and have not yet recovered.
Prosecutors are considered more likely to be aware of modern slavery as a driver of offending, than of domestic abuse. Improving prosecutors’ understanding of the dynamics of domestic abuse, and the ways in which it can drive victims’ offending, would strengthen decision-making on prosecution.
Probation practitioners have got better at including information about domestic abuse in pre-sentence reports, but sentencing nonetheless often illustrates a lack of understanding of domestic abuse.
"They are not giving us a safe space."
Need for action in a harsh environment
Coming shortly after the House of Commons Justice Committee reported on the government’s ‘slow progress’ in implementing its Female Offender Strategy, and with a ‘refresh’ of the strategy awaited, this study is a reminder of the need to make both the strategy and its subsequent concordat a reality on the ground, in order to reduce women’s criminalisation and imprisonment. This requires concerted action and increased investment in community services, informed by those with lived experience, including Black, Asian, minoritised and migrant women and girls. The CPS, courts and judiciary must be fully engaged in this work, as well as the police and probation services, and health, social care and housing leads.
Faced with an increasingly harsh economic environment, following a growth in recorded domestic abuse, and with a projected rise in women’s imprisonment that would blight many more lives and add an even greater burden to the public purse, national and local agencies cannot afford to leave any stone unturned in the attempt to strengthen the community response. The forthcoming women’s problem-solving court pilot will be a positive development, and this approach (already successfully tested in Manchester) should be encouraged everywhere.
Conclusions and recommendations
Some participants in our study suggested there are lessons to be learned from attempts made in recent years to improve protection for victims of modern slavery and child sexual exploitation. These reflections, and the wider findings of the study, support CWJ’s earlier recommendation for a comprehensive legal, policy and practice framework to be introduced at national level to protect victims of domestic abuse from unjust criminalisation.
Local whole system approaches need to include a strategic focus on protecting domestic abuse victims who are accused of offending. Local authorities must ensure these women are at the heart of their strategic approaches to tackling domestic abuse and serious violence, including the provision of safe housing.
Our proposed reforms also include improvements in guidance and training for the police, prosecutors, judges and magistrates; the establishment of women-only probation teams as standard everywhere; and relatively modest additional investment in women’s specialist services. All these measures would help prevent more victims being needlessly drawn into the criminal justice system, relieve pressure on the police, courts and prison and probation services, and give domestic abuse victims access to the support they and their children need to thrive.
Thanks to Jason Leung for kind permission to use the header image in this post which was previously published on Unsplash.