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Privatisation of probation services and domestic abuse

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photo credit: by Janine via photopin cc

photo credit: by Janine via photopin cc

Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, plans to privatise parts of the probation service, but how will this impact on domestic abuse cases? 

On 22 March 2013, the media reported on a harrowing video supposedly made by a Serbian domestic violence victim in 2012 which has gone viral.

In the video entitled: ‘One photo a day in the worst year of my life’, the first few pictures show the female victim looking happy, content and smiling. The tone changes quickly with visible bruising to her eyes, haematomas to her face, marks around her neck, until at the end of the video, her face is beaten badly.

In this final shot, she holds a sign stating: ‘help me, I do not know if I will welcome tomorrow’ implying she does not know if she will live to see tomorrow.

The authenticity of the video consisting of 365 photos has been questioned. Some believe the ‘victim’ featured in the video is a model made up to look like a victim using stage make up.

Whether it’s authentic and features a victim of domestic abuse, or whether it has been posted as an awareness raising tool, it clearly makes a very real representation of domestic abuse.

Whilst men and women can be both the perpetrator and the victim of domestic abuse, the figures indicate men are the primary perpetrators.

As someone who has spent ten years working with perpetrators and victims of domestic abuse, I have seen first hand the effects of domestic violence and the entrenched negative attitudes perpetrators hold towards women.

The fact is, whether this video features a real victim or not, domestic abuse happens, and all too often.

According to Women’s Aid , in the UK:

One incident is reported to the police every minute.

Domestic violence accounts for between 16 and 25 per cent of all recorded violent crime.

On average there will have been 35 assaults before the police are called.

Every day thousands of children witness domestic abuse.

54 per cent of rapes are committed by a woman’s current or former partner.

On average two women per week are killed by a partner or a former partner.

Domestic abuse is about control. Often it starts with a small incident, quickly progressing in severity and the degree of harm caused to the victim.

And often domestic abuse is committed by a perpetrator capable of convincing everyone he is utterly charming.

If the perpetrator receives a community sentence he becomes the responsibility of the probation service who allocate an officer to manage the community order and work to rehabilitate the offender.

Importantly, they manage the risks posed to the victim, to any children and to any future partners.

When working with perpetrators of domestic abuse it is critical to ensure information is gathered from multi-agency sources and not just from one-to-one contact with the perpetrator.

One typical characteristic of perpetrators of domestic abuse is minimisation. They will make light of their abusive behaviour, they will blame the victim or even deny the offence ever happened.

Domestic violence perpetrators by their very nature are manipulative – they are used to putting on an act.

They are not easy individuals to work with. It takes a skilled officer to unpick the web of lies, recognise and analyse the facts, make an accurate assessment of the potential risk of harm and put the relevant safeguarding measures into place.

Risk is a dynamic factor. It’s not static, it does not remain constant. Any victim will tell you how quickly things can change.

Managing risk takes effective team working and regular communication with programme tutors, victim liaison officers, the police, social workers, Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conference (MARAC) officers, Independent Domestic Violence Advisers (IDVA’s) and officers from women’s services.

It’s about managing this information and about the direct one-to-one work offender managers do with perpetrators.

Offender managers have been specially trained to have these skills, and they do their job not for the salary they receive, because they are far from well paid, but because they believe in people.

They work tirelessly and often thanklessly to rehabilitate offenders, to reduce re-offending, to protect the public and to make a difference to the lives of individuals and to our society.

The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling plans to privatise the probation service.

He plans to scale it back and “refocus” the public service to specialise in dealing only with the most dangerous and high-risk offenders and public protection cases. So, Grayling recognises the skills the probation service has in managing risk of harm and protecting the public.

His plan then, to privatise the service is extremely concerning for domestic violence perpetrators, but especially for their victims.

Under Grayling’s plans, private companies will only manage low and medium risk offenders. The probation service will manage only high and very high risk offenders.

Personal circumstances and the recognised triggers for offending can change so quickly.  In the current economic climate, financial hardship and unemployment add to the risks associated with domestic abuse. Often behind closed doors where there are no witnesses there is a very different scenario being played out to the one that is portrayed to friends, family and the public.

That’s the nature of domestic abuse. The level of risk posed to the victim can change in an instant. Managing that risk is about recognising the factors that impact on the likelihood of the perpetrator re-offending and to what degree.

It takes the highly regarded skills of the probation service, often the only agency to have direct, regular contact with the perpetrator, to identify when risks are escalating,to assess the imminence of those risks and to act appropriately and efficiently in putting into place effective risk management strategies.

‘High risk of harm’ is defined as ‘where the risk of harm is imminent’.  As the level of risk is what is to define the role of the probation service, let’s consider this definition in more details:

Under Grayling’s plans, perpetrators of domestic abuse will be passed back and forth between private companies and the probation service as and when their perceived risk levels change. For victims of domestic abuse, this could be catastrophic.

Once someone’s risk level is assessed as having changed to high, the risk of harm has been assessed as imminent. And the use of the word ‘imminent’ is critical.

When protecting the public, when protecting an identified victim, is there really time to be passing an individual capable of causing imminent harm across to another agency, to an agency where the officer won’t have worked with this individual or have had sufficient time to be fully aware and familiar with the intricacies of the case?

And while the case is being transferred what is happening to the victim?

And, when something goes wrong, which agency will be held accountable?

All important question which do not seem to have been given sufficient considered by the Justice Secretary.

Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan criticised Chris Grayling’s plans for privately-contracted probation services:

“Payment by results in criminal justice is untested, and the Tory-led Government are taking a reckless gamble with public safety.

“Pilots were already under way to see if payment by results worked and to ensure any problems were ironed out before being rolled out.

“The new Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, is demonstrating breathtaking arrogance in choosing to ignore the pilots,” he said.

Every Probation Trust in the country was rated either good or exceptional by the Government in 2011, and Mr Khan warned that Mr Grayling’s proposals risked replacing them with private firms such as G4S.

Mr Khan said; “Rushing into payment by results is a danger to the offenders who might not receive the rehabilitation support they require, and to the safety of communities up and down the country.”

Following the Carter Report in 2003 and until disclosure of Grayling’s plans, end to end management of offenders has been considered critical in affective rehabilitation; one significant aspect being the consistency of a dedicated officer assigned to the offender for the term of the sentence.

Working in this way is said to allow the offender manager and offender to get to know one another, to build a rapport. Importantly, it allows the offender manager a better knowledge of the offender and an increased opportunity of assessing when things aren’t right.

Grayling’s planned offender management model will abandon this concept.

Concerns are that his plans will jeopardise the lives of victims by experimenting with an untested model of risk management.

The offender managers and programme tutors employed by the probation service, the people who work on a daily basis with these offenders are extremely concerned about Grayling’s plans and rightly so.

They know the complexities and unpredictability involved in working with offenders and with risk.

The same cannot be said for the private companies it is anticipated will manage offenders assessed as low and medium risk of harm.

Offender managers are so concerned they are trying everything in their power to raise awareness about what might result. Action has involved twitter parties under the #saveprobation, a facebook page, many, many letters to politicians and an e-petition urging the government to rethink its plans to tender out up to 70 per cent of the probation service’s core work.

They have voiced their concerns in the hope someone in a position of power will understand the potential and very real issues connected to these plans and how they will impact on the offender, the victim and the public.

Ultimately, they want to save probation – a high-achieving public sector body with employees who care about people, not money.  They want to protect the public in a way the assessments of the service they provide indicate they seem to know best.

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