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Tackling domestic violence together: the team approach

Maxwell Mclean
Chief Superintendent/Divisional Commander Calderdale
West Yorkshire Police
Previous Head of Child Protection Unit
West Yorkshire Police

How can we find a way for agencies to share information openly and honestly about women at risk of domestic violence? Why was Patricia Goddard, a 42-year-old woman from Halifax, murdered on Tuesday, 22 September 1998, by her husband of less than a year, when in the preceding five months she had visited six different agencies because of her husband's violence?
Domestic violence thrives on privacy, secrecy and lies - yet as partners in tackling that violence, we collude in this by failing to share information and properly assess risk.
It is time to learn from the structured process of sharing information within the child protection arena and transfer this information to the investigation of domestic violence.

Police attitudes to domestic violence have considerably changed in the UK over the last 12 years or so. The Home Office Circular 60/1990 had a huge impact on this change of attitude.(1) It included the following statement:
"The Home Secretary regards a violent assault or brutal and threatening behaviour over a period of time by a person to whom the victim is married, or with whom the victim lives or has lived, as ­seriously as a violent assault by a stranger."
Police officers began to understand that when someone is assaulted in the street by a stranger that is often the beginning and the end of the matter. For a similar attack to happen in the home, it is often just part of a campaign of abuse that may also have a psychological or emotional nature to it.
In West Yorkshire Police, this circular resulted in the Chief Constable making a policy statement on violence:
"All domestic violence will be investigated as a crime. There will be a presumption in favour of arrest, charge and prosecution."(2)
These principles still guide most police forces' policies in domestic violence.

A unique crime
The definition of domestic violence set by the Home Office for all police forces is:
"Any incident of threatening behaviour, violence or abuse (psychological, physical, sexual, financial or emotional) between adults who are or have been intimate partners or family members, regardless of gender."
But what is unique about domestic violence? Why is it so different from other assaults? Well, there are several reasons for this. For instance, in most cases:

  • Victims are emotionally involved with the ­offender.
  • Victims are financially dependent.
  • Victim lives with the offender.
  • There are no other witnesses.
  • Offenders exercise power over the victim.
  • Victims are threatened.
  • Victims are likely to see the offender again.
  • There is a high chance that the victim will be assaulted again.

Taking these factors into account, many police forces extend their positive action against domestic violence beyond adults in intimate relationships or within families to include, for example, violence by grown children or extended families.

What is success?
Success in policing domestic violence is notoriously difficult to define. But what do you consider to be "good" police action? Is it:

  • An arrest?
  • A successful prosecution?
  • Any intervention that holds the man accountable for his violence (90% of domestic violence is about violence against women)?(3)
  • Anything that stops it happening again?
  • "Buying time" before it happens again?
  • Or is the only worthwhile measure to act in ­accordance with the woman's wishes - even if she says leave it?

Why we must share information
Domestic violence is the single largest category of violent crime in the UK. According to the British Crime Survey, which is a victim survey and considered to be more accurate than police statistics, there are 6.5 million incidents of domestic physical assault every year.(4) Every minute of every day the police are called to a domestic incident.(*)

*Taken from "Snapshot - counting the cost of ­domestic violence". Medical Protection Society press release 25.10.2000

Domestic violence is the biggest repeat crime of all. Studies have indicated that a woman will suffer violence on average 35 times before ever telling the police. In the UK, about 45% of all calls for assistance come from women who have been victims within the last 12 months.
Domestic violence accounts for one-third of all violent crime in the UK. But, unlike so many other crime types, the first difficulty for the police is finding out that something has happened, that there is a problem to address, because only 12% of victims come forward and report the violence.
When they do come forward, we may be dealing with a victim who really isn't sure if she has done the right thing, and who may be reluctant to prosecute. We are faced with the dilemma of whether to seek witnesses or to respect a victim's privacy. There are further difficulties for the police when children are in the home (and in West Yorkshire that is at least one-third of all incidents we attend - and we attend about 30,000 in a year). We need to ask ourselves many questions, such as:

  • Should we interview children?
  • Does it depend on their age?
  • Should we wake children?
  • Should we check them for injuries?
  • Should we refer our concerns to social services?

Remember that in 90% of incidents occurring within families, children are in the same or next room.(5)
We are only really beginning to get to grips with the issue of reporting children at risk to social services as a result of an incident of domestic violence in a household. Yet already in my area we are referring 150 incidents a month, every month, because of concerns for children.
Can social services cope? Should they respond only to referrals made with the consent of the families involved? There are also real concerns about the implications for women reporting matters to the police who may be worried about social services involvement.
We do share information in crime and disorder partnerships, where there is a legal obligation to work together producing local plans through responsible agency partnerships. We also share information in the area of child protection, and in assessing potentially dangerous offenders together with the probation service. With respect to child protection, there is no doubt that this information sharing is helped by the Children's Act 1989, which places an onus on agencies and protects disclosure of information if it is to protect children.
Perhaps it is time for a Domestic Violence Act to provide a statutory obligation to share information. Such an Act exists in India, and although it may appear ineffective when assessed purely on the number of prosecutions, it is claimed by women's groups in India to act as a very effective deterrent to domestic violence.
With domestic violence we often hit a wall when it comes to gleaning information, as people use anything to hide behind, such as the Data Protection Act 1984, despite the fact that there is a clear exemption for the prevention or detection of crime or the prosecution of offenders. Or we claim medical confidentiality with a patient (a recent study among community safety ­officers in the Metropolitan Police found that 79% of officers requiring medical information to assist domestic violence investigations had "patient confidentiality" used by healthcare professionals to justify withholding information). Or we fail to share the information at the request of the woman. Or we just don't record it properly. When I introduced a model for dealing with domestic violence in Leeds, I found that there was a 100% underrecording rate in the police. So where we thought there were 1,000 incidents a year in a particular division, there were in fact 2,000 incidents reported - they just weren't being recorded properly. I now always tell colleagues planning to tackle domestic violence to take their recorded figures and double them.

What can the government do?
Along with some of our colleagues in other agencies, the police have repeatedly asked the government to provide a national domestic violence strategy. To date, we have not been successful. Without the drive from the centre, it is difficult to provide the seamless service to victims, as most issues involve funding or the co-operation of key individuals within the respective agency.
Domestic violence impacts on several government departments, including health, education, housing, the women's unit and the cabinet office, with the lead now being taken by the home office.
As the police service becomes more approachable to victims of domestic violence, it follows that more offences will come to light. This is in conflict with crime reduction targets, as our reported figures will inevitably rise. Figure 1 shows what has happened in West Yorkshire over the past five years.


The police are required to measure two other indicators under the government's "Best Value" performance regime (first put in place in April 2000):

  1. The percentage of reported domestic violence incidents where there was a power of arrest in which an arrest was made relating to the incident (see Table 1).
  2. Of these, what percentage involved "partner on partner" violence (see Table 2).



Please remember Patricia Goddard. She went to six different agencies, including the police and two hospitals, in the five months preceding her murder. All of these responding agencies did what they could to the best of their abilities, but always in isolation. It was only when the police were investigating her murder that all of the care that Patricia had received came to light.
Ask yourself, could that happen where I work today? The point is that no one agency can assess the risk to a woman if they are acting in isolation. Sharing information is the key.
Our challenge in investigating and managing domestic violence cases is to create the environment whereby those concerns can be shared while retaining respect for the individual. That is the only way to tackle the biggest single category of violent crime.

Next issue
In NiP 9, Nicola Harwin looks at strategies to prevent domestic violence


  1. Home Office. Domestic violence. (Home Office Circular 60/1990.) London: Home Office; 1990.
  2. Home Office. Domestic violence. Revised circular to the Police. (Home Office Circular 19/2000.) London: Home Office; 2000.
  3. Home Office. Domestic violence and repeat victimisation. (Police Research Group Briefing Note 1/98.) London: Home Office; 1998.
  4. Home Office. Domestic violence: findings from a new British Crime Survey. (Home Office Research Study 191.) London: Home Office; 1999.
  5. Hughes H. Impact of spouse abuse on children of battered women. Implications for practice. Violence Update 1992;1 Aug:9-11.

Home Office Violence Against Women website
Newcastle Domestic Violence Forum