It's about time
It is self-evident that Domestic Homicide Reviews are a sensitive and complex process. Rightly so, as to achieve their purpose, they have to balance several different aims. These aims include holding a victim at their centre; hearing from family and friends (and sometimes a perpetrator); building an account of contact with agencies; and finally identifying and addressing gaps and issues in professional, agency and system responses.
Domestic Homicides were implemented in 2011. As Jane-Monckton Smith noted in her new book ‘In Control: Dangerous Relationship and How They End in Murder’, something like 800 Domestic Homicide Reviews have been completed since then. That number is in itself shocking. First, it speaks to the impossible task of representing any life lost as a number. Second, it’s a stark reminder of the everyday reality of domestic abuse and how, tragically and all too often, it can sometimes end (normally, as the Femicide Census has powerfully shown, with women being killed by men).
But looking beyond that number to Domestic Homicide Reviews as a response to such tragedies, what is perhaps surprising is how little guidance we have on how this process should be undertaken. Sure, there is the statutory guidance that sets out a host of requirements. But the reality is that the statutory guidance leaves the detail of how to fulfil many of these requirements unstated. Meanwhile, while there is also various research – much of which I summarised in my 2019 Winston Churchill Fellowship report – this doesn’t tell us much about how people are doing Domestic Homicide Reviews in practice.
What we do know though is that there is considerable variation in how Domestic Homicide Reviews are run. Some Domestic Homicide Reviews offer powerful testimonies of those who died, and are an act of accountability as professionals and agencies, working with families, come together to try and learn lessons. Unfortunately, others do not. Indeed, some research has highlighted how different the Domestic Homicide Review reports can be, as well as some of their weaknesses (not least, how sometimes family may not be listened to, or how the story they tell may blame victims, de-risk agencies or fail to identify opportunities for real change). There are also challenges in how the Domestic Homicide Review process itself works, as a recent study by Standing Together has highlighted.
The fact that we still don’t have a national repository, 10 years after Domestic Homicide Reviews were implemented, is part of the problem. It’s hard to build a picture of how to do Domestic Homicide Reviews when we can’t find them individually or routinely consider them in aggregate. That’s why work like HALT (Homicide | Abuse | Learning | Together) is so important, not least because it is a welcome step towards establishing a national repository.
So to, the absence of any required training on how to become a Domestic Homicide Review chair, or indeed for agency representatives who come together to form the review panel on their role and responsibilities, means that there is no common set of principles and standards that we can hold ourselves too (and hold others too as well). Some local areas are trying to address this. Meanwhile, AAFDA is doing important work in this area, not least through its training, as well as the newly launched Domestic Homicide Review Network. But there remains an urgent need to ensure that everyone involved in Domestic Homicide Review is working towards a shared goal and has the skills and knowledge they need to do that.
But, for me at least, there are also practical questions about how to run a Domestic Homicide Review that we need to be able to answer. Four key questions come to mind.
How can we turn the group of agency representatives who are invited to the review panel into a team, so they feel confident and able to have the (sometimes challenging) conversations that are critical to an effective Domestic Homicide Review?
What are the best practices in terms of family involvement in Domestic Homicide Reviews so that family can make an informed choice about participation and, in doing so, have a genuinely equal status in the process? (this includes considering issues like if and how to involve children, and of course, we also need to think about the involvement of others who knew a victim too, like friends or colleagues).
What can we do to keep a victim at the centre of the process? That may include the role of photos to help the review panel keep a victim in mind and centre their experience when examining professional and agency responses. It may also include the value of pen portraits or other techniques to ensure, however limited it may be, that the final report produced by the Domestic Homicide Review is a testimony to someone’s humanity rather than seeing them reduced a ghostly figure who haunts it.
Finally, what should Community Safety Partnerships be doing, from their decision making through to publication and dissemination, so that Domestic Homicide Reviews are more than just a process and a document but a vehicle for inquiry and change?
I think these are important questions. In part, to answer them we need to do hard work. Perhaps, like so much of Domestic Homicide Review, that work is about dialogue. We need to find ways to talk about how we do Domestic Homicide Review and make sure we hear from all those involved – not least family, review panel members, chairs, and others like community safety partnerships. In part that is what my research is about, as I am trying to build a picture of how people understand the purpose of, but also how they do and then use, Domestic Homicide Reviews. I hope to start being able to share findings soon. But we need to do more. After 10 years of Domestic Homicide Review, arguably we need to step back and look at the process as a whole. An evaluation of what has worked and what has not is long overdue. One of the principles at the heart of a good Domestic Homicide Review process is accountability (I’ve written about 'what makes a Domestic Homicide Review' previously, although I didn’t use this term at the time). Surely though, that accountability runs two ways. With that in mind, it’s high time we evaluated the Domestic Homicide Review process as a whole. That is because an evaluation is one way we can be confident about how we are, collectively, trying to honour those who have died, hold those responsible accountable, and are working together to try and improve responses to domestic abuse and, hopefully, prevent future deaths. I hope, as part of the refreshed drive that the Domestic Abuse Commissioner brings, that we don't have to wait another 10 years for such an evaluation.