In UK all domestic abuse cases assessed as high risk get referred to Multi Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC). This is a monthly multi agency meeting where representatives, from both the statutory and voluntary sector, share information about specific high risk cases and make decisions on the most appropriate way to reduce the risk to the individuals. Even though the MARAC discusses all the cases referred, survivors themselves are not present at the meeting. Representing their interests at the MARAC are Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVAs), who are trained professionals advocating on behalf of survivors at the Conference.
Tiffany Cunningham recently joined the team of national LGBT domestic violence helpline, Broken Rainbow UK to advocate specifically for the needs of LGBT clients in and around Manchester. In the interview she discusses how she works to protect and support her clients and shares insights into the dynamics of reporting specific to the situation of LGBT clients.
Tiffany, thank you doing this interview. Can you briefly describe what do you do as an IDVA?
My role is to provide victim or a survivor with short term crisis intervention. I work alongside the police, but IDVAs also work independently from all of the organisations, to advocate on behalf of the client that we are working with. Our main role is to reduce the risk that is posed to the client. We also work alongside legislation, which means we need to know how the civil and the criminal justice system function, what legal orders are available to protect the client and how to obtain them.
Your main task is to minimize the risk of medium to high risk survivors. How is the risk level assesed?
Agencies that refer the clients on usually conduct the risk assessment and fill out the screening form. The form consists of several questions touching upon the experiences with the domestic abuse. If the client answers ‘yes’ to a certain number, they are automatically categorised as a high risk victim. Consequently their case will be referred to the MARAC, where they will be represented by an IDVA.
Primarily you represent the wishes and needs of your clients, can this create tensions with other agencies you liaise with?
I primarily support clients in working out what their options are and help them make an informed choice. This can be sometimes conflicting, particularly with what the police wants. The IDVA service was initially established to help the police to help increase conviction rates and a lot of the time the clients that you work with might not want to press charges, might not want to provide a statement and that can be a massive frustration for all involved. Ultimately, if this is the case, I need to pass a message that the client don’t want to go through the core process and that this wish or choice needs to be taken on board by all.
How long does it usually take the survivor to access support?
Generally speaking, I heard a lot of professionals say it takes on average up to 35 incidents before victim or survivor attempts the first contact. A lot of the times it’s not even they decide to make contact themselves, it’s that the police had been called. In my experience survivors would rarely access services on their own, especially when there are children involved. When it comes to LGBT survivors I think this number much higher.
You have previously worked as a generic IDVA and have now specialised to support LGBT survivors. What are the additional challenges of your new post?
As a generic IDVA, I would normally, follow a pattern and know exactly what to do. I would for example meet the survivor in a a refuge, advise them about their options, about reporting, the court system, potentially obtain a restraining order, or do whatever it took to immediately reduce the risk and then I would signpost them to an appropriate service, usually an organisation I was working with for more long term outreach support. When it comes to LGBT individuals a lot of the time refuges are not available or not meeting the specific needs of LGBT individuals. There are also a lot of gaps around where to refer an LGBT survivor for long term support, especially outside of London. One of the difficulties I face with is also the court system. The magistrates are not trained or sensitive to specific circumstances brought on by the LGBT clients. There is for example very little understanding around the issue of privacy and coming out, but also understanding around gender identity and expression. The police response to LGBT domestic abuse is often also of concern as a lot of the time police do not screen for sexual orientation or gender identity so they might document the incident as a mutual combat as opposed to a victim – perpetrator domestic incident.
Then again, awareness around domestic abuse seems to be growing and legislation seems to be catching up as well. Is service response improving too?
I think the response to domestic abuse between opposite sex partners is constantly improving and the agencies and services are trying their best to respond appropriately and I think they are getting better, but in terms of supporting LGBT clients, this is not the case. In most cases generic services don’t know how to respond and when they do respond, they often don’t respond appropriately. Personally I have experienced most of the mainstream services as based on a heterosexual model, the terminology, the publications, the leaflets, everything is about the victim being female and in heterosexual relationship and with children. And this is something that needs to change. I think LGBT domestic abuse is highly disregarded within the generic services. This might be mainly because it’s so severely underreported and as there is no practice around this, people don’t know how to respond and a lot of the times would even miss to identify it.
And if there aren’t any cases, then we don’t have a problem?
Yes, exactly. I think when it comes to LGBT domestic abuse, there is a viscous circle of complete invisibility in the system, underreporting, no training and the system failing to acknowledge the problem. I find this quite damaging really, because if we are not able to don’t respond properly we will end up putting the client at greater risk. As an IDVA you have to respond, you have to have answers, you have to be able to solve the problem on the spot. What I find even more worrying though is the denial and invisibility of this abuse within the LGBT community. As an LGBT IDVA I’ve occasionally also trained LGBT groups and found it quite alarming about how little knowledge and awareness there is around this issue in the community.
Any thoughts on why this might be so?
I think the answer is not simple and there are many factors that influence our perception and behaviour around domestic abuse. I mean, even though, awareness, policies and service response are constantly improving when it comes to domestic abuse happening in heterosexual partnerships we still haven’t completely cracked the silence around that one either. Perception of who is a survivor of domestic abuse is also very gendered, very often, automatically excluding men as survivors. What kind of message is this sending to all gay and trans men? One of the reasons might also be, that LGBT communities worldwide are still fighting off a lot of negative stereotypes and prejudice and are thus reluctant to admit to a problem that might tarnish a perfect image of a loving and happy community deserving of equal individual and family rights.
Are you able to discuss your work with survivors in more detail?
I’m currently working with a client who lives in ultra-orthodox Jewish community. They are married, with children, but want to transition. They have been exposed and forced into conversion therapy, by their partner and there is a massive risk of suicide, on the other hand, if they decide to leave the community they are at risk for being killed. I am currently in touch with the legal assistant program so that they can get some legal advice, because if they leave the community they will have to leave their children, so we are currently trying to explore what the options are. This is one of the most complex cases in my career as an IDVA and I must admit I have to be very creative with every step I take working with this particular client.
You’ve touched upon inadequate service response when it comes to sexual orientation, how do services tackle different gender identity/ies or expression/s?
I’ve noticed in my work, that if a client is lucky, a specific service will work with you as long as you identify with one gender or if you are at the beginning of your transition. I find that quite challenging, in a negative way of course. There are many issues with trans-inclusivity and domestic abuse services, if nothing else, there’s often issues with prejudice, language and also with referrals. Right now my main question, with the case I’ve talked about is how to sort out emergency housing for them if need be. I’m trying to find out what refuge I can recommend that would have sensitive staff who have been trained on trans issues.
If you had a wish list specific for your post, what would some of the items on it be?
I wish there was funding for community teams to be established within specialised LGBT organisations. It would really help me if I could refer the client to a specific agency for long-term psychosocial support. Because as an IDVA, once the risk is reduced, I need to close the case and withdraw from it. Most of the work I do with the survivors is very technical, I don’t have the capacity to offer them the long term support that so many of them need. I also wish more mainstream organisations were LGBT inclusive in practice, so I felt safe referring a client to them for emotional support. I know a lot of them have increased the visibility of LGBT issues on their websites, so they are making their publicity more inclusive, but what I am concerned with is that this does not go along with the trainings, at least not with all of the service providers.
Interview was done by Jasna Magić in May 2015