Improvements in policy but not practice
Today’s (4 July 2023) thematic inspection of “work undertaken, and progress made, by the Probation Service to reduce the incidence of domestic abuse and protect victims” does not make for comfortable reading. The inspection is based on the work in six Probation Delivery Units and included two case samples: 60 cases that started an order or licence six to seven months before our fieldwork, with a domestic abuse perpetrator or domestic abuse history flag attached to their record and 83 cases where the person on probation was recorded as having started an intervention aimed at preventing further domestic abuse offending seven to nine months before our fieldwork.
The headline findings are:
- 30 per cent of people on probation are current or previous perpetrators of domestic abuse
- only 28 per cent of the of people on probation had been sufficiently assessed for any risks of further domestic abuse
- 45 per cent of our case sample should have had access to an intervention but had not.
Policy, strategy & leadership
The inspectorate found that have been improvements to the leadership of domestic abuse work at a national level, and clearer policies are now in place to guide this work, although there is room for further improvement. HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) has published a domestic abuse policy framework, which provides comprehensive guidance on managing domestic abuse work. However, this document is not used regularly by frontline staff and managers. The Probation Service is included in the government’s overarching Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan (HM Government, 2022). However, it still does not have a specific domestic abuse strategy which sets out its approach to domestic abuse work.
In theory, a good range of domestic abuse interventions is available to address different risk and need levels, and cater for all perpetrators of domestic abuse through groupwork or one-to-one delivery. However, in practice, inspectors saw little delivery of structured interventions and practitioner toolkits, and no comprehensive analysis has been completed to understand what delivery volume should be expected.
Assessment and planning
Inspectors found poor-quality risk assessments concerning domestic abuse that missed out on essential details or failed to provide a sufficient analysis of the case. Not enough use was made of information from other agencies or previous probation assessments, even though over half of the sample had been identified as being at risk of domestic abuse for more than four years. Only 28 per cent of assessments were judged to provide a sufficiently clear and thorough analysis of the risks of domestic abuse. While the volume of completions of the SARA (spousal assault risk assessment) has increased, they often lacked sufficient analysis to provide a meaningful assessment of the likelihood of further domestically abusive behaviour. Probation practitioners do not value the tool, and as it sits outside the primary offender assessment system (OASys) risk and needs assessment tool, it is not seen as a priority. Yet, the SARA is a key determining factor in access to domestic abuse interventions; if not completed accurately, it can lead to inappropriate intervention referrals.
Sentence and intervention delivery
Overall, inspectors concluded that the implementation and delivery of sentences managed the risks of domestic abuse effectively in only 27 per cent of the cases we inspected. Too few enquiries had been made with children’s social care services and the police to inform sentence management, leading to gaps in the practitioner’s knowledge about the risks in the case. In cases where information had been gathered, it was not analysed or used sufficiently to inform case management. Many probation practitioners knew little about specialist domestic abuse services that could support them in their work. Reviews of cases often failed to address changes in factors linked to domestic abuse or make adjustments to ongoing work. In over half of the cases where it was necessary, information had not been gathered from other agencies to inform reviewing. Overall, reviewing focused adequately on the risks of domestic abuse in only 23 per cent of cases.
The inspectors again highlighted the impact of under-staffing on this poor performance, in one PDU inspected, vacancies for front-line staff were running at 50%. The inspectors also noted that they found some examples of impressive practice. Where specialist multidisciplinary teams were in place, this enabled practitioners to work collaboratively with police and other services. Practitioners in these teams demonstrated a better understanding of the complexity of domestic abuse. As they usually had smaller caseloads, they had the time to work more effectively with people on probation. Joint work with other specialist organisations, such as through the Drive project, also led to effective work to reduce domestic abuse.
The inspectorate makes a range of recommendations (many of them made in previous reports) and Chief Inspector Justin Russell summarised the main findings:
“I had hoped that more progress would have been made to address the very serious need to improve probation practice around the risks of domestic abuse. Unfortunately, there has only been minimal positive change. I recognise that many in the Probation Service are doing all they can, with limited resource, to manage cases adequately, but there is a long way still to go.”