Vital services in Wearside to tackle domestic abuse are a “valuable” and “lifechanging” support according to both the survivors and perpetrators who have accessed them, a new report reveals.

Together for Children (TfC), which provides children’s services on behalf of Sunderland City Council, last year commissioned the University of Sunderland to review domestic abuse support services in the local area, ahead of the Government’s long-awaited Domestic Abuse Bill 2021, which has passed both Houses of Parliament and is now signed into law. The Domestic Abuse Act, 2021 provides further protections to millions of people who experience domestic abuse with measures to tackle those who engage in abuse against others.

TfC commissions a range of services to victims/survivors and domestic abuse perpetrators, including a voluntary programme for those who have behaved abusively in their relationships.

The purpose of the study – ‘Walking on Eggshells; Investigating the effectiveness of domestic abuse services from the perspective of the service-user– funded by the Department for Education, was to:

  • Identify processes that supported participants in accessing the services
  • Determine if the services had a positive impact on the lives of the those accessing the services and their families
  • Evaluate and report measures to improve overall user engagement with support services for families
  • Determine how the services for those exposed to or engaged in domestic abuse could be improved

Sunderland academic Sarah Martin-Denham interviewed seven women who were victims of domestic abuse and five men who had been abusive towards their female partners, as part of the research.

Through her interviews she found that the services provided valuable support to victims and the men who engaged with domestic abuse, with life-changing results.

Sarah also found that the men all agreed that children should be taught about domestic abuse and its impact on families, in secondary schools as a preventative measure. Adding: “The programme has seemingly provided men with an understanding of their triggers for aggression and self-regulation strategies to prevent the escalation of incidents. And “Most of the men felt they needed additional social, emotional and mental health support beyond that provided on the programme.”

The services also positively impacted on women’s lives, giving them strength, independence, and a positive outlook and was fundamental to changing their lives for the better.

Sarah says: “The service empowered these women to understand that the abuse from their ex-partners was not their fault and gave them the strength to start a new life with their children. The counselling sessions contributed significantly to the women’s knowledge and understanding of patterns of abuse and relationship breakdown stages.”

“Through support from these services and the empowerment it has afforded the women, the women felt their children’s lives had changed for the better. They said their children no longer witness abusive adult relationships and have an improved sense of security and safety, while recognising the legacy of the exposure to the trauma could be long-lasting.”

Sarah also found participants provided an insight into why they had not come forward and accessed support earlier, sharing fears of judgement from others and the prospect of a daunting recovery process including legal proceedings and emotional challenges.

“Most men and women expressed that they were not aware of available support that they could access,” says Sarah. “The women seemed particularly surprised by the extent of practical support that was available in their local area.”

The report’s recommendations are intended to guide Together for Children in commissioning decisions for domestic abuse support services and to direct future training needs within the organisation.

Jill Colbert, Chief Executive at Together for Children, said: “The findings and recommendations outlined in the report have provided us with an incredibly valuable insight in the impact of existing domestic abuse services in Sunderland.

“Together for Children commissions a range of domestic abuse support services to provide early intervention to survivors of domestic abuse. As the finds suggest, these domestic abuse services are vital within our community and the impact these services have on both for survivors of domestic abuse and perpetrators is significant. Feedback from participants tells us that domestic abuse services are life changing for those experiencing domestic abuse, and importantly, for children who are exposed to domestic abuse in the home.

“We will be following the report recommendations to ensure that our staff are provided with ongoing, targeted training that will ensure those in need of domestic abuse support are identified at the earliest possible stage. We will also ensure that our processes and responses are consistent so that our services can continue to provide support to families experiencing domestic abuse at the right time, in the right way.”

Professor Lynne McKenna, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Society, said: “I am delighted that Sarah’s impactful research and policy engagement work is being recognised. Sarah’s work for Together for Children has gained national attention and has resulted in the DfE requesting to share the research with their colleagues and Local Authorities. This is such a positive outcome for the study, enabling others to learn from the evaluation and to support those exposed to domestic abuse.”

The recommendations, based on interview findings, include:

  • To continue commissioning and funding domestic abuse services as an essential support for the local community.
  • Ongoing and targeted training for staff in TfC to ensure consistent approaches and responses to identifying and signposting women, men and children in need of wider domestic abuse support services, to allow for identification at the earliest stage before the household’s mental health and wellbeing are irreparably damaged.
  • To have consistent systems and processes across services and organisations that signpost women, men and children exposed to or engage in domestic abuse to mental health support services.
  • To explore opportunities for further support for those exposed to domestic abuse in navigating legal and financial affairs, such as court hearings, separating joint finances, and divorce proceedings. This is essential for survivors of domestic abuse who may lack the knowledge, time and resources to initiate these crucial next steps independently.
  • To provide training to education professionals in preparation for teaching children and young people about healthy relationships.
  • To develop public knowledge and understanding of different types of domestic abuse.

To view the full report and its findings, click here.