It sometimes surprises me that it’s only been seven years since Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs) came into being. In that time, DHRs have become a feature of the Coordinated Community Response. Sadly, reflecting the tragic toll of domestic violence and abuse, they are all too common, with over 400 completed between 2011 and 2016.
To borrow a phrase from Frank Mullane of AAFDA, DHRs are meant to ‘illuminate the past to make the future safer’. I’d hazard a guess that many of those involved in some way with DHRs, from family and friends, to chairs and panel members, would agree, and hopefully feel they have made a contribution towards that goal. But many are also likely to have a sense of frustration. Participants in DHRs may feel they miss the wood for the trees, are drawn out, disempower victims yet again, minimise (usually male) violence, or repeat the same findings. What’s more, too often, it can be hard to pin down exactly what has changed as a result of a DHR
That shouldn’t be the case. While there are legitimate arguments about why we do DHRs (the most powerful of which is why do we invest all this time and money into a case when someone has died, if we don’t always do that when they are alive), they are an important part of a Coordinated Community Response. They can help professionals and agencies identify what is and isn’t working in their response to domestic violence and abuse. When done well, they should also be an opportunity for family and friends to be part of the process, sharing what they know, asking questions and (hopefully) getting answers. Most importantly, DHRs should honour those who have been murdered by trying to explain what happened and driving change to reduce the likelihood of future homicides
Given all that, it is good news that the government has included DHRs in their consultation, which is framed as nothing less than ‘transforming the response to domestic abuse’. What might this mean for DHRs? Well, the government is proposing that DHRs fall under the remit of the Domestic Abuse Commissioner, including taking on responsibility for the quality assurance process (this currently sits with the Home Office). As the DA Commissioner would also responsible for making recommendations to public bodies to improve the response to domestic violence and abuse, in theory that means the findings from DHRs should go into the mix when those recommendations are made. Importantly, the consultation suggests that public bodies will have a duty to respond to the recommendations made by the DA Commissioner, so that should help drive change.
The government describes its aim in consulting on DHRs as ensuring that ‘learning … is understood and acted on’. That aspiration likely reflects the frustrations I described above, as well as reoccurring themes like poor information sharing, a lack of understanding about the dynamics of domestic violence and abuse or issues around training. There is a hint about how the government might want to do about this, including increasing awareness of any learning, as well as ‘making DHRs more accessible, routinely collating and sharing recommendations and providing updates’, but nothing more. In short, the consultation flags DHRs, floats a couple of test balloons, and that’s it.
So, let’s be positive and take the consultation on face value. If the government is asking for ideas and proposals to ensure DHR learning is acted on, what’s on the wish list? Well, for what it’s worth, here are my thoughts. (Full disclosure on my part, these are gleaned from my time as a local council officer responsible for commissioning reviews and now as an independent chair working as an associate with Standing Together)
1. The DA Commissioner. I’m not going to get into broader question of their role. AVA, on behalf of the Ascent London VAWG Consortium, have produced a Good Practice Briefing that has some helpful things to say on this. But suffice to say, however you respond to the consultation, I hope everyone says loud and clear that the DA Commissioner needs to have the resources to do the job properly.
In relation to DHRs, the DA Commissioner is being asked to take on quality assurance. While quality assurance is vital, right now the process can take far too long and it’s not always clear what added value the it brings. Ideally, the DA Commissioner won’t just copy and paste the Home Office’s current approach. They should be charged with taking stock of quality assurance to date, evaluating its impact and designing a process for the future that is timely, focused and robust. And when I say robust, yes, that means ensuring DHRs that don’t make the cut are sent back, but it also mean joining the dots so that areas (and chairs) that repeatedly produce poor DHRs are called out.
2. Who is responsible for DHRs? At the moment DHRs sit with Community Safety Partnerships (CSPs). Arguably that has a lot of benefits. It means a local area is responsible for a local review. But that also brings with it a whole host of challenges. Some DHR panels and local areas are incredible, but there is always a risk that a panel becomes ‘just another meeting’ or is a space where challenge doesn’t really happen or isn’t welcome (for a whole variety of reasons which I won’t go into here, but perhaps that is a blog for another time). I strongly believe that CSPs should retain responsibility for DHRs, but my experience of Police & Crime Commissioners (PCCs) is that they can be a key player in the DHR process. One option might be that PCCs should have a role at a regional level, perhaps as co-commissioners of DHRs, so bringing an additional level of support and scrutiny
3. Once a DHR has been completed, the Statutory Guidance is clear that an action plan needs to be developed. That’s all well and good, but the question is what happens next. Local partnerships need to hold individual agencies accountable for delivering their single agency recommendations, as well as any recommendations made for them by a DHR panel. But many actions are for a wider group of agencies or the partnership as a whole. If there is a well-functioning partnership in place, agencies will be comfortable working together to deliver on action plans. But that’s not always the case. In those circumstances, how are partnerships held accountable for delivery? Well, transparency is key. What changes as a result of a DHR need to be more accessible. Local areas should be required to report on progress. Many DHRs will already be routinely be shared with Local Safeguarding Children Boards or Safeguarding Adults Boards, but arguable they need additional democratic oversight and should be presented to Local Councillors – so people can see what is (or is not) changing.
4. We need a better local, regional and national picture of what is being learnt from DHRs, as well as what’s changing as a result of recommendations.
A single review shines a light on the experience of an individual victim, the role of agencies and can also help hold the perpetrator accountable. But individually and collectively agencies and partnerships need to be get better at disseminating findings to increase awareness of DHRs and any learning. There are some great examples of this across the country, but too often DHRs seem to end with publication. There should be an expectation that CSPs take a DHR and turn it into a practical document that can use used by professionals in day to day practice by producing learning briefings, running dissemination events and integrating learning into existing training. The DA Commissioner has a role here, asking local areas to explain how they disseminate learning and evidence the impact of this as part of the quality assurance process.
But producing good quality DHRs should not be an exercise in isolation. There needs to be a requirement for regions, perhaps under the auspices of the local PCC, to regularly bring together findings and report progress against action plans. This would make it easier to share lessons learnt from DHRs, as well as to identify common (or repeating) themes and recommendations, and if need be, driving forward actions across regions. With some forethought the DA Commissioner could use these regional summaries to provide a regular national overview.
5. The other side of this picture is data. Although there have been some efforts to bring together findings from reviews nationally (by Standing Together and the Home Office, as well as the Femicide Census) and regionally, more could be done. Currently the Home Office requires local areas to submit some limited information about DHRs using a reporting form. This isn’t enough. A national data set, collating demographics; personal characteristics; risk factors; and contributory factors in each and every homicide would be an invaluable resource. The DA Commissioner should be charged with developing standards around this data collection, then either collecting it or working with agencies who are already doing this work.
6. Where are DHR participants in all this? We need to start thinking more seriously about how we support panels to do the best job they can. At the start of a DHR, I usually ask if panel members have been involved in a DHR before. Many people haven’t. That means they are learning on the job. There are some great resources available, one of the best is this video about how one state in the US conducts Domestic Violence Fatality Reviews. The DA Commissioner needs to work with national stakeholders – like Standing Together, which has a track record of promoting best practice – to make sure there is accessible information and guidance available, otherwise we are just setting people up to fail. The same is true for families and friends, building on and supporting the work of organisations like AAFDA.
7. The DA Commissioner should review the Statutory Guidance. People will no doubt have a whole range of ideas about how the guidance could be amended based on their own experiences, but when the guidance is reviewed next, that review needs to consider the big picture: there is a lot of learn from other types of reviews that might help improve the DHR process. The role of family and friends has rightly been strengthened, and no doubt that can be further developed. But front-line professionals are often absent from the DHR process, and there should be space to think about (to borrow a view from SCIE) their ‘view from the tunnel’.
8. What more? Well, this could be controversial, but I think we need a discussion about what’s realistic. At the moment there is an expectation that all domestic homicides are reviewed. Additionally, there has been a welcome move to extend DHRs to include suicides. But DHRs are time consuming, may not always be the best answer for local areas or families and are expensive. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that homicides should not be reviewed. As a minimum, local areas should spend time looking at each and every death and feed key information into a national data set. The question for me is whether all homicide needs a DHR in its current form, or whether there could be a more flexible approach depending on the circumstances of the case, the wishes of the family and the experience of the local area. That will be difficult to manage, but it might allow local areas to make more considered decisions on where to focus scarce resources.
So that’s it for my thoughts on all things DHRs. I hope they might be useful. But whether or not they are, make sure you contribute to the consultation (you have until the 31st May) and have your say on the government’s proposals around DHRs, as well as the wider response to domestic violence and abuse.