I’ve been reading and thinking a lot about the experience of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans (LGBT+) victims and survivors recently. Perhaps inevitably, given my professional background, I’ve found myself looking at Domestic Homicide Reviews (DHRs). As you might expect, given the size of the LGBT+ population, there are relatively few reports to be found. The handful I located mostly involved gay men. That’s perhaps not surprising. There is relatively little research on LGBT+ domestic homicide, but what exists suggests that the fatal domestic violence that affects LGBT+ people is predominately, although not exclusively, perpetrated by men. As a result, I’m drawing on DHRs involving gay men for this blog, although when I reflect on the wider implications, I will talk in more general terms about LGBT+ communities. It’s not always helpful to conflate the vastly different experiences that LGBT+ people may have, but for the purposes of this blog, I think that’s reasonable because I want to highlight learning that could be relevant in a variety of cases.
Reading the DHRs was often a frustrating experience. A key issue was language. One DHR referred to a victim as “openly homosexual”, while another said of the victim and the perpetrator that “neither was openly gay but there is conversely no indication that they ever attempted to hide the nature of their relationship”. Both statements are problematic. They reflect a simplistic view about the disclosure of sexual orientation, framed in terms of being ‘out’ or not. The reality is that, for most LGBT+ people, disclosure is something that has to be negotiated regularly, when changing jobs, moving to a new home or accessing services.
On top of that, the first statement uses the word "homosexual". There is some interesting research that has explored the terminology that different generations of LGBT+ people use to describe themselves, reflecting their experiences during the course of their lives. But I doubt this is why the term homosexual is used in the DHR, not least because it’s neither contextualised nor explained. That’s an issue because ‘homosexual’ is medicalised, outdated terminology that has for the most part fallen out of use.
Another frustration was the tenor of some of the DHRs. At best there was usually a cursory consideration of the experience of LGBT+ victims. There was little or no reflection about the experience, risks and needs (including unique forms of abuse) that LGBT+ victims face. Nor was there much consideration about the barriers to help-seeking, or an assessment of the extent to which local services had the skills and confidence to meet the needs of an LGBT+ victim.
Perhaps the most troubling example for me was found in the DHR I mentioned above that used the term "homosexual". It stated that the victim was “openly homosexual and had experienced bullying and harassment because of this”. I don’t think I am over-egging the point by saying this sentence is problematic. It locates the victim’s experience of bullying and harassment in his sexual orientation rather than acknowledging the reality that, despite huge strides, many LGBT+ people can experience discrimination of some sort or another on a daily basis. In the case of an LGBT+ victim of domestic abuse, that experience can lead to a double jeopardy. A perpetrator can use it, repurposing abuse as a tool to threaten (“That’s what will happen if you leave”) or as a promise (“Only I can protect you”). So, at the very least such circumstances need some serious consideration in a DHR.
While it’s impossible to know what the discussions in and around the DHRs were, I think it is revealing that, for the most part, the DHRs I read did not include a representative from an LGBT+ service on the review panel. A single review panel representative cannot, and should not, be responsible for the entirety of a DHR. But I’d like to think that if there had been a representative from an LGBT+ service then some of the issues above would have been at least identified, and perhaps avoided altogether.
Taken together, I was left feeling that several of the DHRs I read were a missed opportunity. That’s not to say that they didn’t identify learning. But the learning was about policy and process. The DHRs read as a mostly technical exercise. What’s more, when you looked at the recommendations, you might not even realise the DHRs concerned a gay male victim.
Rather than deconstructing individual DHRs, I wanted to take positive action. So, I asked myself, what would I do if I were the chair of a DHR into the homicide of an LGBT+ victim?
First off, I’d want to include an LGBT+ service on the review panel. That might be a challenge as there are only a small number of specialist LGBT+ domestic abuse services nationally. But even if there isn’t a local domestic abuse service, it should be possible to identify a review panel member. They could come from a local generic LGBT+ community organisation or be a nominee from an LGBT+ Staff Network or Police Independent Advisory Group (IAG). Looking further afield, there are also national charities like GALOP, as well as academics with an interest in this issue. They may not be able to sit on a review panel; but they could be asked to act as a critical friend. Whatever the solution, having specialist input is essential: if a victim is from a particular community, how can a DHR expect to do its job if it doesn’t have any expertise on which to draw?
Second, there is an ever-increasing amount of research and guidance into LGBT+ domestic abuse. Most recently, GALOP released a report about their advocacy service, while SafeLives ran a Spotlight on LGBT+ people and domestic abuse. Why am I mentioning this? Well, one of the goals of a DHR should be contribute to a better understanding of domestic violence and abuse. For me, that means trying to both understand and contextualise a victim’s experiences. To do this, DHRs need to actively use research and guidance. That hopefully increases the chance of a thoughtful DHR, which could help avoid the kind of the issues I flagged above. But more broadly, a thoughtful discussion of the experiences of a particular community can serve as a resource that can help raise awareness and educate professionals.
Third, a critical goal of a DHR is to prevent domestic violence and homicide by improving service responses for all domestic violence and abuse victims. Of course, that means a DHR should address the learning from individual agencies, as well as multi-agency practice. The result is that most DHRs will identify at least some learning and recommendations that are technical and about incremental change and improvement. But a DHR should also take up a broader challenge. For me, that means looking at the big picture and asking some challenging questions. In the context of an LGBT+ victim, those questions might include:
Does the local partnership have a good understanding of need? What does it know about its local LGBT+ population, especially levels of reporting? As all the evidence tells us that reporting is often low, what does the local partnership know about what is and isn’t working for LGBT+ victims and survivors?
Does the local strategy engage with the needs of LGBT+ victims and survivors in a substantive way? (Saying “domestic abuse affects LGBT+ victims too” isn’t enough). Does it identify concrete actions to consult with local LGBT+ communities, or to how to identify and address need?
Have agencies thought about how they can work together to better respond to the needs of LGBT+ victims and survivors? That could be through reciprocal training swaps, ensuring there are robust referral pathways, or making sure the development of publicity and awareness-raising activity takes account of LGBT+ victims and survivors.
More immediately, are local agencies able to meet the needs of an LGBT+ victim, which means thinking about policy and procedure, as well as staff training? I have run too many training sessions where professionals are open enough to admit that they don’t even have copies of an LGBT+ power and control wheel to hand, let alone other tailored tools and resources. While I admire their honesty, that isn’t ok.
Has the local partnership thought about how to develop services? For example, is there an opportunity to develop a business case for a specialist service, ideally one that is co-produced with and ultimately led by and for the LGBT+ communities?
If the answer to any of these questions is a no, it should be the subject of some clear, targeted recommendations to address the gap. Some people may think these questions are beyond the remit of a DHR, but I don’t agree. A DHR should be able to operate across different levels. As its central concern it must attend to an individual victim’s experience, and also engage with (and hopefully answer) any questions posed by their family and friends. But it should also interrogate the broader response locally. That’s because if the goal of a DHR is to try and prevent future homicides, it needs to be ambitious.
So, why am I saying all of this? Well, I guess I am hoping that the questions I have raised here might serve to prompt some reflection. Can a DHR really try to see through the eyes of a victim, as suggested in the statutory guidance? The reality is that the picture painted by a DHR is always going to be incomplete. But DHRs should be expansive, not narrow. That’s not always easy. As I write this, I have been reflecting on the DHRs I have chaired and whether they have fully addressed the experiences of victims from different communities. I don’t think I have always got it right, and I’m still learning. But learning is a process, and I hope my reflections here make a useful contribution to a wider discussion about the purpose of DHRs and might be helpful to other chairs and professionals as they go about professional life.
In other news
The last time I included a list of DHRs that had been published was in my blog in December 2018. So, here are the DHRs I am aware of being published since then:
Liverpool City Safe – death of Lynne and Natalie (a combined DHR and Safeguarding Adult Review. The review itself was published in 2017, but an updated action plan was published in this month, so I have included it here).
These are the DHRs I have come across, so this may not be a comprehensive list. If you are aware of other DHRs being published, please let me know.