• James Rowlands

Online domestic homicide reviews - something old, something new

‘Working from home’. For many people, that phrase has become an inescapable part of the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In its wake has come hours spent in front of a screen, as the ability to move resources and meetings online has become an essential part of business. In terms of domestic abuse, platforms have been developed to bring together advice and support for survivors and professionals alike (like Women’s Aid Support Hub for survivors, or a similar resource by Safelives). Moving online has also enabled different parts of the domestic abuse infrastructure to continue to function (see, for example, Standing Together’s discussion paper on Covid-19 and MARACs).

So, it’s no surprise that domestic homicide reviews have taken the leap too. Quite early on, with the agreement of local Community Safety Partnerships and with the support of colleagues at Standing Together, I began chairing domestic homicide review meetings using Microsoft Teams. The reasoning was simple: with the impact of Covid-19 stretching into the future, we wanted to maintain the momentum of domestic homicide reviews that had already begun and to avoid lengthy delays to those that were due to start (not least because of the effect of delay, including on family).

I’ve been struck how readily domestic homicide review panels have taken to online meetings. Indeed, as a chair, I’m indebted to the willingness of panel members to step up into what has felt like a brave new world. Working online is certainly very different from meeting in person. There have been positives too, and as review panels we’ve still managed to share information, ask challenging questions, and work together to identify learning and generate recommendations.

But it’s been difficult. It barely needs to be said that there are a host of issues with moving something like a domestic homicide review online, not least concerns about technology, how we use it, and also data protection and confidentiality.

My focus here though is how working online affects the doing of domestic homicide reviews. Specifically, how does working online affect our presence as review panel members? That is, how we show up and make ourselves available?

First off, how can I/we be more than floating face/s on a screen? Yes, working online allows us to connect but that connection can be tentative. Our online presence can be interrupted, by technological issues or other unexpected arrivals (children and pets spring to mind). Working online also has a different rhythm to it. Like much of this new world, that has pros and cons. Gone are issues like travel, so perhaps it is easier to commit to meetings, but at the same time sitting in front of a screen can be exhausting (which means we need to think about the length and flow of online meetings).

Second, linked to but different from connection, how can we build a rapport as a team? Working online can feel diminishing. For me, that is literal: in a meeting with a review panel, the numbers involved mean people are both two-dimensional and also small headshots on the screen. It can be hard to build a rapport (although conversely, 1 on 1, people can often feel closer). With an established review panel, it’s less of a challenge. Relationships have already been established so it’s more about adjusting to a new medium. Starting a new domestic homicide review is a different proposition. How do you build a relationship when you’ve never met in person? One thing I’ve tried is having pre meets with small groups of review panel members as a way of bringing people together. That’s allowed me to adapt an exercise I usually do in a first review panel meeting where I ask review panel members to explore the purpose of DHRs, the challenges we might face, and how we want to work together. As an exercise in the room (done in a ‘world café format), it can be chaotic but invigorating. Online its harder but as an exercise it has allowed participants to begin getting a sense of each other, as well as of the ‘us’ that is becoming as the review panel begins its collective endeavour. More generally, there are lots of other ways to keep a review panel engaged, most of which aren’t specific to domestic homicide reviews. There is some good guidance that’s available (online of course!), and I found this short article helpful.

Third, working online challenges our sense of space. That might have benefits. My experience is that when people come together as a review panel, they often enter the meeting space and use it as they would for any other committee meeting. But a domestic homicide review isn’t just any meeting. Being online means entering into a necessarily different space. Perhaps meeting online can change our default ways of working for the better, disrupting hierarchies or making us actively think about how we present ourselves. And once online, we need to have the confidence to enter into a dialogue differently (from a raised virtual hand, to unmuting, to a typed thought in a comment box). Perhaps people’s approach to discord changes too. For me, some of that is about making sure people feel they have permission to come into the online space, however ruffled the edges may or could be.

Fourth, being online has a curious feature. In one sense, the challenge of connection means the process can feel more distant. But at the same time, working online is intimate. At the click of a button, many of us are bringing both panel members (many of whom will be strangers, or at best professional acquaintances), as well as the subject of the domestic homicide review, into our home. I know working online has changed my boundaries. In-person, I would talk to other panel members as the meeting broke up. I’d also have time alone as I made my way home after the meeting. Now? Well, I walk into another room. As a result, some of those coincidental opportunities to debrief and reflect have vanished. That poses some issues for us all, including the emotional labour involved in doing DHRs. That might mean we need to think differently about how we check out as a review panel (something I don’t think I have worked out yet), as well as how we access support individually to manage the experience of being involved in a domestic homicide review.

So far, I’ve talked about how being online affects us as review panel members. But there are others involved in this process. For example, working online raises a host of questions about how we engage with family and friends in a way that both enables their participation and works for them, while also being supportive and safe.

But there is also another person whose presence we need to think of, which is the victim (and others like the children, or indeed the perpetrator). The statutory guidance talks about how the narrative of each review should ‘…articulate the life through the eyes of the victim …’. (p.7). But, when delivering domestic homicide reviews online, if we as participants can feel distanced and struggle to connect, what does that mean for our ability to keep victim’s central and try and understand their experiences?

Like so much of the response to Covid-19, perhaps the issue is as much about what we did before as it is about what has changed or is new. Yes, Covid-19 has brought new challenges, of which working online is one. But, in many cases, these challenges have shone a light on troubles that were already present but which have come into starker focus. (So, for example, those at most risk from the effects of Covid-19 have been those who also faced discrimination and structural inequalities in our society).

The revelatory aspect of Covid-19 affects domestic homicide reviews too. The same things that can make our presence as review panel members harder can also work to make a victim more distant: our potential remoteness from each other may also produce a distance from the life that has been taken or lost. Yet, if the practice of domestic homicide review before Covid-19 didn’t centre victims (or, in a similar fashion, treated family and friend input as functional rather than essential), then a move online is simply going to exacerbate something that was already there.

Perhaps it is better to think of this as a combination of something old and something new. A more fruitful conversation may be to ask how domestic homicide reviews can centre a victim and then to consider how to do this in an online world. This is a question for chairs, to think both about their understanding of the purpose of DHRs and their practices in delivering them. But it’s also a challenge to review panel members: to be part of that process themselves and, if necessary, demand more of chairs who do not routinely centre victims. Centring a victim is not easy. In part, that might be about ensuring a victim’s symbolic presence. I try and bring a photo of the victim to review panel meetings and I ask people to look at the photo and make a personal commitment to them as a person. I also make a point of using someone’s name (rather than succumbing to the bureaucratic but distancing form of initials or a case reference). There are also more literal ways to try and see a victim as clearly as we can. That includes seeking out input from family and friends to try and understand someone who is the subject of the domestic homicide review, then returning to, or imagining, their experiences throughout the process. It also means setting out to question and destabilise easy (often agency based) narratives about what happened, as well as embracing family involvement (from the value of pen portraits, through to family feedback and comment on a draft report). All of these different techniques can be adapted to an online environment. Having said that, even in a review panel where we do this, I’m increasingly of the view that the very endeavour is a Sisyphean task. Maybe we can never succeed in fully centring a victim in a way that truly does them justice. But perhaps it is the constant struggle to try and achieve this that is the critical element of the doing of domestic homicide reviews.

The centrality of victim experience is a much bigger issue than I can cover here. So too is the experience of working online. Nonetheless, I hope that some of the ideas I have been able to share have highlighted both the challenges and opportunities of working in this new medium. But I also hope that this blog is a reminder that our response to working online is not simply about a new situation, instead, it necessarily builds upon our existing principles and practices of domestic homicide review.

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