Scotland leads UK on preventing violence against women, but its new policy is still incomplete

New policy is laudable, but disappointing in one major respect. ChameleonsEye

A peculiar omission in the Scottish government’s new strategy for eliminating violence against women and girls – Equally Safe – was highlighted last month by a North American expert in this field. Consultant David Mandel flew to Glasgow from Connecticut to tell the 10th conference of the ASSIST project, which supports domestic abuse victims, about his “Safe and Together” system.

Safe and Together, which is being used in Connecticut and Ohio, focuses on the perpetrator’s pattern of abusive behaviour and not on the mother’s so-called “failure to protect”. This acknowledges that the fault and responsibility is solely the abuser’s and not partly the mother’s for either provoking him or choosing to stay.

Mandel’s system demands a massive shift in Scottish child protection practice, towards risk-assessing the abuser and potentially removing custody rights in situations where the couple have broken up; and devising ways that the woman can be kept safe in situations where they stay together. The system is also designed to ensure that children who have experienced domestic abuse get the protection they need from the grown-ups.

Atlantic crossing

Safe and Together is very much in line with the direction of thinking in this area and would be considered best practice by many policy professionals on this side of the Atlantic. It is another example of Scotland taking its lead from North America when it comes to domestic abuse policy. In contrast, the Scottish government’s “equally safe” strategy rang somewhat hollow when it was published the following day.

Equally Safe is a statement of intent rather than a detailed policy document. It will be fleshed out by various workstreams in the coming months. At this early stage, there is certainly much to welcome. It recognises that violence against women is both a cause and a consequence of women’s inequality. It acknowledges that all forms of it are gendered phenomena overwhelmingly experienced by women and girls because they are female. It put greater emphasis on prevention than we have ever seen before, on the back of commitments to more robust police and court responses to offenders and plans to pilot “Clare’s law”.

But one key part of David Mandel’s strategy was missing. There was little mention of the tens of thousands of Scottish boys and girls who are present during incidents reported to the police, nor the 100,000 who are estimated currently to be the victims of domestic abuse.

What happened to the children? Hungte, CC BY-SA

Boys and girls growing up with domestic abuse can be badly affected, whether as victims or as witnesses. The impact on their health, well-being, educational attainment and their future adult relationships can be long-term and detrimental. A strategy aimed at eliminating violence against women and only girls ignores the plight of vulnerable boys. Anything else flies in the face of international research.

Progress on children

Scotland has made great progress since 2000 in championing children’s rights with its national commissioner for children and young people, the “voice against violence”and the “listen louder” campaigns.

There have been policy innovations such as the national domestic abuse delivery plan for children and young people 2008. The children’s dimension to domestic abuse was also acknowledged in the new Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014, which stipulates that every child in Scotland have a guardian; reforms to children’s hearings; and the national child protection guidance 2014.

Services for children and young people have been greatly improved in some areas of the country by expanding specialist provision through the CEDAR (children experiencing domestic abuse recovery), Women’s Aid children’s services and ASSIST. And the Scottish government has been putting its money where its policy is by making a £34.5m investment in tackling violence against women during 2012-15 –- an increase of 62% on the funding provided during 2004-07.

The UK dimension

These efforts have also been somewhat in front of what has been happening elsewhere in the UK. England and Wales was stuck for longer in a mindset of responding to domestic abuse through the criminal justice system. Only more recently has this begun to shift towards recognising the potential adverse emotional impact of domestic abuse on the young. And even this year, research indicated that many health-care professionals in England and Wales do not feel they have received clear guidance on how to cope with the children’s dimension in domestic abuse cases.

The fact that Scotland has generally done relatively well in this area makes it all the more mystifying that all children are not considered a priority in this latest policy announcement. The government’s failure to recognise the plight and rights of sons as well as daughters may mean that David Mandel’s journey may have been in vain. We can only hope that children make a comeback once we get down to the detailed policy phase in the coming months.