In September, Ofsted, along with fellow inspectorates for health, police and probation, published a joint report about domestic abuse. ‘The response to children living with domestic abuse - Prevent, protect and repair’ took a close look at how local agencies work together to help and protect families affected by domestic abuse.
Throughout this piece of work, inspectors noticed some common themes and issues. One of the most important, which I want to discuss in this blog, was how social workers use written agreements to help deal with domestic abuse.
We know that written agreements can be a really useful tool to help modify certain kinds of behaviour. Similar to written contracts, where social workers and parents agree terms that the parents sign, written agreements set out simply what sort of behaviour is acceptable and what is not.
Over time, they have become part of the accepted social work toolkit. We see them used again and again. However, there is little or no formal research underpinning their use. Do we need to have a conversation, as a sector, about how and when written agreements should be used? I personally think so.
So what does our report on domestic abuse tell us about this?
Focus on perpetrators, not victims
Unfortunately, our work highlighted that written agreements are sometimes used in a way that is clearly inappropriate.
In particular, we’ve seen agreements being used in situations of coercive control – where they place responsibility for managing the risk to children with the victim or make them responsible for policing the behaviour of the perpetrator.
Some agreements included terms like ‘the victim will not continue a relationship with her abusive partner’, ‘she will not allow him into the house’, ‘she will not be in contact with him’, and so on.
One stipulated that the stepfather would not argue with the mother during contact with the children. However, the mother would be responsible for supervising contact and was responsible for stopping it if an argument occurred.
In another case, the emphasis was on a mother to ensure that her partner, who had been abusing her for 18 years, did not have contact with the children. It clearly didn’t take into account the coercive control she was likely to have been subjected to.
As far as I’m concerned, this is tantamount to victim blaming. And, as you might imagine, inspectors saw no evidence that these agreements were effective. Given the fact that the focus was not on the perpetrator – who was the source of the abuse and therefore the risk – this is hardly surprising.
It seems obvious that any victim in a situation where coercive control is a risk would find it very hard to comply with such an agreement.
Specific, clear and realistic
A number of serious case reviews (SCRs) criticise how written agreements have been used. In particular, they point out the unrealistic expectations written agreements place on victims of domestic abuse. One SCR highlighted that an agreement almost seemed to be a means of protecting the agency involved, rather than having the child’s safety at heart.
Learning from inspection and from SCRs has given us some helpful guidance on how written agreements can be used more effectively. Here are some of the key ingredients:
- Written agreements should be specific and have clear expectations. Professionals need to be assured that parents genuinely understand the agreement.
- Agreements should be underpinned by thorough assessment that is clear about risk and protective factors of all relevant adults and family members.
- They should be produced with parents who are equally committed to changing their behaviour.
- There must be clarity on how the written agreement will be monitored and reviewed in accordance with multi-agency plans and how this will inform the assessment of risk and action taken.
- A clear focus should be on the work undertaken with family members to effectively manage risk and protect children - in particular work to change the behaviour of the perpetrator.
- The limitations of these agreements should be made clear.
We didn’t find written agreements to be effective in reducing domestic violence incidents or indeed reducing risk. In fact, we found that their use in some circumstances actually increased risk, giving false assurance to professionals about the safety of children.
Only the actions of parents and professionals can keep children safe - an agreement on paper provides no guarantee. But if professionals think children are safer than they are because an agreement is in place, there is a possibility they might take less action to mitigate risks.
The way forward
Despite the cases I’ve mentioned, there are circumstances where written agreements can be effective. We know, for example, that they can work well when family members are full and equal participants in their development, such as through family group conferences. Here, parents are empowered and enabled to develop the right plan and agreement for them. This is a far cry from the situations I’ve mentioned above.
I think we also need to be much clearer about the terminology surrounding any written agreement, its status, and what it means. In the view of some professionals, it is a signed contract. For others, it outlines the local authority’s concerns, their expectations of parents and the consequences of not meeting those expectations. One SCR author suggested that what was put in place could be better described as a ‘safety plan for the child’.
Whatever the terminology, I’d like to see more debate across agencies about when and how a written agreement can be used positively and when they shouldn’t. As I’ve stressed, such agreements should never be vague or unrealistic. Equally, professionals can’t credibly expect written agreements to be effective if they don’t take into account the power relationship between adults. And, to reiterate – that all family members who sign up to the agreement are committed to change is absolutely essential.
As a sector, gaining a greater understanding and clarity about how written agreements can be used best is really important. But even more so is making sure that, in our zeal to support and protect those suffering domestic abuse, we aren’t victimising them further.