- Abused women and their abusers tended to be perceived within the Western Isles as not being well-integrated socially within their communities.
- Many community respondents recognised that domestic abuse was more widespread than official statistics indicated but perceived that many of the families involved colluded in keeping its occurrence hidden because of the social stigma attached to domestic abuse.
- Respondents identified the need to challenge those widespread attitudes within communities which served to condone domestic abuse during periods of heavy drinking, stress and unemployment.
- Women with direct experience of domestic abuse tended to be positive about the assistance they had received from statutory services and voluntary agencies after they had left abusive relationships. However, effective support was not always available and not sufficiently long-term.
- Professionals working in a range of statutory services and voluntary agencies felt that there was a culture in the Western Isles of non-interference in domestic affairs and of not challenging the attitudes of those who perpetrated or condoned abuse.
- There was widespread agreement amongst the professionals that there was scope for enhancing the quality of inter-agency working and that integrated service provision needed to be expanded to incorporate more services.
- There was also widespread support for more training and awareness-raising for all staff dealing with the consequences of domestic abuse.
In the spring of 2000, the Western Isles Domestic Abuse Forum obtained funding from the national Domestic Abuse Service Development Fund, with matching local funding, to implement a two-phase programme. The first phase was the research project reported here. The second phase, building on the evidence base established by the research, has focused on the enhancement of inter-agency working. The objective here is to ensure the provision of effective, appropriate and sustainable support and help for women and children who have experienced domestic abuse.
The research had three main components:
- an exploration of community perceptions on domestic abuse in the Western Isles through a postal questionnaire survey and a series of discussion groups held with people who were active in local communities;
- in-depth interviews with a small sample of women who had experience of being abused and of leaving abusive relationships;
- a series of in-depth interviews with key personnel in the statutory and voluntary agencies.
Community Perceptions of Domestic Abuse
The Postal Survey. Questionnaires were sent to people living in one hundred households in each of four locations: Stornoway, North West Lewis, Harris and the Southern Isles. In all, 106 completed questionnaires were returned. Just under two-thirds of the survey respondents came from Lewis and Harris with the remainder being located in the Southern Isles. The highest proportion of respondents (28 per cent) was in the 35 to 44 age range. Two-thirds of the respondents were women. The respondents were presented with five-point scales covering a raft of attributes and characteristics, each associated with an abusive behaviour. They were then asked to use the scales to rate five different groups of people. These were:
- men who have abused others in their family or home;
- women who have abused others in their family or home;
- men who have been abused by others in their family or home;
- women who have been abused by others in their family or home;
- men and women who have neither abused others nor been abused in their family or home.
The discussion groups. These were established to explore a broader range of issues associated with domestic abuse, particularly within a community context. Twelve groups were run in various parts of the Western Isles. A total of 63 people took part representing a wide range of community interests. Most of them (49) were women.
- Many of the survey respondents and participants in the discussion groups thought that abusers and abused were not well-integrated into their communities.
- It was generally recognised that families and individuals within tight-knit, rural communities often colluded in sweeping domestic abuse 'under the carpet' because of the social shame attached to it.
- It was also recognised that this sense of shame was experienced even by the women against whom domestic abuse was perpetrated and that local communities often perceived these women to have 'failed' in their responsibilities to their families.
- The geographical and social factors which contributed to poor integration were well understood and many of the respondents also recognised that their own communities might share in the responsibility for the social isolation of some of these people.
- Abusive behaviour was widely thought to be related to personal insecurity which in turn was manifested in behaviours associated with over-controlling and sustained over-possessiveness.
- Both abusers and abused were also widely thought to be less likely to have good parenting skills, family coping skills or skills in managing relationships.
- Excessive drinking of alcohol was seen as a trigger for many domestic abuse incidents and concern was expressed within the discussion groups about the level of tolerance in their communities towards alcohol misuse. They were concerned that the perpetrators of abuse and the women who had been abused often saw alcohol misuse as an excuse for losing control. This, in turn, encouraged the perception that the abuse had not been deliberately intended.
- Poverty, stress, alcohol and changing gender roles were all perceived as contributing factors but respondents were aware that the relationship between these factors and domestic abuse was not a simple causal one. They acknowledged that domestic abuse also occurred in situations where these factors were not present and that the presence of these factors did not always lead to abuse.
- Participants in the discussion groups felt that more information was necessary to enable people who were experiencing abuse to access help. They also supported the need for more awareness-raising about domestic abuse within the communities of the Western Isles.
- Participants also identified the need for the community to challenge a tendency within the culture to condone domestic abuse under certain circumstances. These circumstances included periods of heavy drinking, stress, misfortune and unemployment.
- They also perceived a need to challenge cultural attitudes which tended to and which also perceive the abused woman as having failed in some way to keep the family together.
Interviews with women who had experienced domestic abuse
Women interviewed for this research were contacted through agencies which had a key role in providing support for those who had sought help in dealing with domestic abuse. Nine women agreed to be interviewed. Most had strong island roots. The majority had experienced abusive relationships while living in the Western Isles and some had experience of more than one abusive relationship. Some described a gradual build-up of incidents, increasing in frequency and intensity until abuse became sustained and systematic. Others highlighted the unpredictability of the abuse, making it difficult for them to adjust their behaviour to minimise its likelihood.
- Leaving an abusive relationship was recognised as a long and difficult process but the majority of the interviewees had managed to extricate themselves with some help from family and close friends.
- Their first approach to the statutory services and the voluntary agencies was often made after they had left their abusive partners.
- Some pointed out that where they lived, particularly on some of the smaller islands and in remote rural areas, such support was not readily available.
- Some respondents also observed that the support was fragmented and did not always appear to be geared to coping with the complexity of their needs.
- Others were critical of the quality and relevance of the help and information they received when they were still contemplating leaving their partners. Almost all of them reported that if appropriate advice and information had been provided at this critical point they might have left their abusive relationships sooner.
- The women interviewed were generally positive about their experience of professional assistance after leaving an abusive situation. This applied particularly to the support they had received from Women's Aid, social workers and the police. However, most of the women felt that longer-term support was critically important.
- Almost all of the women we interviewed wanted support systems which operated in a more integrated, co-ordinated and consistent way, with provision made for effective follow-through monitoring and support.
Interviews with key personnel in the statutory services and voluntary agencies
Interviews were conducted with 26 professionals including social workers, housing department staff, health service staff, police officers and others involved in various aspects of prevention, persuasion or education.
Most of this group of respondents were agreed that:
- There was a widespread tendency to excuse abuse when it was triggered by bouts of heavy drinking.
- There was a culture in the Western Isles of non-interference in domestic matters and of not challenging the attitudes of those who perpetrated or excused it.
- The roles of men and women in certain parts of the Western Isles were still very traditional, and this was reinforced not only by people's attitudes but also by their religious beliefs and values. This, in turn, sometimes led to the victims of abuse being blamed for their assumed failings.
- Community attitudes towards domestic abuse were beginning to change but it was also felt that this attitude shift was less likely in the more remote communities.
- The professionals' own attitudes towards domestic abuse, and those of their colleagues, were also changing and they were now more aware of the impact of psychological and emotional abuse as well as physical abuse.
- There was widespread support for more training and awareness-raising. This applied not only to those in the front line dealing with the consequences of domestic abuse but also to staff in housing departments, DSS offices and employment offices.
- The quality of inter-agency working needed to be enhanced and extended to incorporate more services. They wanted clear guidelines and multi-agency training and felt that more needed to be done to inform all professionals about the criteria, procedures, priorities and constraints which affect the operational practices of their colleagues in other departments and agencies in order to facilitate inter-agency working.
There is a clear need:
- to encourage communities to look at how they respond to individuals and families who are socially marginalized;
- to heighten community understanding of domestic abuse;
- to raise awareness of likely indicators of its occurrence.
In this respect local media campaigns could be very helpful. Community groups, church groups, well-women clinics and other voluntary or grant-aided groups have an important potential role to play in raising public awareness about domestic abuse.
There is also a need for more publicity and information sheets targeted on people experiencing abuse, particularly if tailored to different groups such as women with young children, older women, abused men, and men who are abusive but are seeking help with their problem. However, such material would only be effective if it was accessible in ways that would not put the information seeker at risk of being identified by the abuser or by the community at large.
An audit of current support services is necessary to find out if they are adequately meeting existing needs, could cope with increased demand and provide enhanced access for those living in more remote rural areas.
In particular, if an effective, inter-agency service is to be provided for people who have been abused then it will be necessary to find out what actually happens to them when they are processed through the system. This would involve looking at secure record-keeping systems, monitoring, agreed inter-agency procedures, how shared information is managed and whether there are effective follow-up procedures.
Effective co-ordination and co-operation at an inter-agency level also requires consistency of approach. For this to happen it is necessary to take steps to ensure that there is a shared understanding of each other's remit, procedures and professional working assumptions. This requires more multi-agency training and awareness-raising.
The idea of providing inter-agency services through a one-stop shop has now become widely accepted throughout Scotland. Within the context of the Western Isles a virtual one-stop shop might be more feasible. Here it would be necessary to identify and train co-ordinators who could be based in places such as council offices, a refuge, a clinic or an outreach facility and could access other services and agencies through secure electronic links.
Finally, the Western Isles Domestic Abuse Forum may need to consider whether its membership should be widened to include other services and agencies, e.g. Accident & Emergency staff in hospitals, which also have a role to play in providing help, support and an intervention contact point for people who have been abused.
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