A pilot scheme to give victims of domestic abuse greater protection from violent partners by immediately banning the abuser from the victim's home wins praise from police.
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In the custody suite at Swindon's Gablecross police station, PC Nia Tregunna leans against the desk and hands out yet another of their new "DVPOs" or domestic violence protection order.
"If you breach it," she says to the young man in his early twenties standing before her in vest and shorts, "you are liable to arrest and you will come back". The man says he understands, collects his mobile phone, and heads for the exit.
Although he hasn't been charged with any criminal offence, he will now be banned for the next 16 days from going anywhere near his girlfriend. The police are able to impose this immediate sanction by arguing that "on the balance of probabilities" he has been violent towards or has threatened violence towards his girlfriend. The police like to refer to these new DVPOs as an "extra tool in the box".
You get a horrible sixth sense that something awful might happen DCI Caroline Evely
The DVPO scheme is currently being piloted by three police forces: Wiltshire, West Mercia, and Greater Manchester. In Wiltshire, where Channel 4 News has been given exclusive access to the pilot, there is no question that these new orders are hugely popular with the police.
"I am convinced by them," asserts DCI Caroline Evely, who has been instrumental in guiding the pilots through their first year.
The orders represent an attempt, arguably long overdue, by the Home Office to plug what Caroline Evely concedes has been a "serious gap in our ability to help victims of domestic abuse". The "serious gap" refers to the numerous incidents when the police have to release a suspected abuser from custody due to insufficient evidence (the complainant often too scared to make a statement), knowing that he (or she) is likely to return straight to the scene of abuse within hours of being arrested.
"You get a horrible sixth sense," says Ms Evely, "that something awful might happen".
She admits that the police's approach to domestic abuse in the past has, at times, been "woeful". Certainly the "drop out" rate in the criminal justice system when it comes to the issue of domestic abuse victims is striking. Last year there were an estimated two million victims of domestic abuse in England and Wales.
Yet about a quarter of incidents recorded by the police result in arrest and only 1.5 to 5 per cent of incidents result in conviction. Research indicates that from a victim's perspective, the lack of protection afforded by the criminal justice system is key to the decision to "stay in" or "drop out" of the system.
'I'd probably have stuck with him'
"How did you know he'd broken your cheekbone?" I ask Sophie in the corridor beside the domestic abuse office in Swindon's Gablecross police station.
"Because there was a big 'crack' when he hit me, it instantly swelled up, and I couldn't see" she replies.
Sophie [not her real name] lived with her abusive partner in Wiltshire for seven years, suffering extreme violence and abuse, much of it witnessed by their two young children. He used to elbow her in the face, suddenly and for no reason, while they were sitting side by side on the sofa watching TV, she recalls, "I felt embarrassed, ashamed...he was very controlling mentally".
Last year, after yet another assault, Sophie fled from the house and drove to the police station in Swindon. She'd heard of a scheme which she thought might help. The police arrested her partner, cautioned and then released him. But before they released him, they served him with a DVPO banning him from his own home for 14 days.
What was it like knowing for the first time in years that he couldn't come home?
"Lovely" replies Sophie.
In the 14 days of her partner being banned from having any contact with her, Sophie found a new home for her and her children and ended the relationship. Her life has been transformed ever since.
I ask her what would have happened, if her partner had returned home that night after his caution. "I'd probably have ended up in hospital, because he was angry... and probably stuck (with him)".
DVPOs are meant to provide immediate protection to victims of abuse. Based on Austrian "Go Orders", they are civil penalties which can be issued by a senior police officer before a suspected offender is released from custody, without the alleged victim's consent. "We Have New Powers To Tell the Perpetrator To Go" reads the poster in Gablecross police station [see below].
The order can impose an immediate ban on the suspect from returning to his partner's home, controversially even if it's their home too. A DVPO can also prohibit the suspected abuser from having any direct or indirect contact with their partner.
'Breathing space' for victim
A senior officer can issue an immediate Domestic Violence Protection Notice for 48 hours. The notice can then become an "order" lasting a maximum of 28 days if authorised by the local magistrates' court. Crucially, as these are civil and not criminal orders, they require a lower standard of proof in order to be served.
In Wiltshire, since the scheme was first launched in July 2011, they've applied for 181 DVPOs, secured 154 (150 against men; four against women), with the vast majority granted for the maximum 28 days' duration. 20 of the 154 orders have been breached.
The police believe it is reversing the usual practice of the victim and children being removed to a refuge while the offender keeps the home. In this instance, the victim, as we heard from many police officers in Wiltshire, is allowed a certain "breathing space" at home - with the partner removed - to consider his or her next step.
The Home Office is currently evaluating the efficacy, or otherwise, of these orders and is due to report back next summer. Certainly the anecdotal evidence, according to the police in Wiltshire, is that the orders have helped some victims enormously.
National Domestic Abuse 24hr Helpline: 0808 2000 247
Women's Aid website: www.womensaid.org.uk
In an emergency, always dial 999 and ask for the police
For domestic violence perpetrators, there is the Respect helpline, open Mon-Fri 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm, on 0808 802 4040
Respect phoneline website: www.respectphoneline.org.uk
But these are, some would argue, somewhat draconian measures for "civil" orders. They can be issued "on the balance of probabilities" that there's been violence or the threat of violence. That can mean, at times, a DVPO being granted on the basis of mere allegations. And the penalty for someone being ejected immediately from their own home, away from their children, for up to a month, can be severe.
I felt embarrassed, ashamed... he was very controlling mentally. "Sophie"
However Ms Evely does not consider them draconian. "I would put trust in the attending officer who has seen the injuries... the traumatised children... that their professional judgment to remove the perpetrator is the right course of action." She cites the oversight role, too, of the supervising officer and magistrates court.
Others worry, however, that they are seen as too much of a "soft option" for the police, far easier to pursue and obtain than criminal convictions, and thus jeopardising the need for the appropriate criminal investigations to be pursued vigorously. As one leading domestic abuse charity spokesman put it, the danger is it becomes a bit of a "cop-out".
What the government has yet to make clear, moreover, is how the various support services, which take on police referrals of domestic abuse, will be able to resource the added casework which would inevitably stem from a national roll-out of this scheme. This concerns the issue of so-called "capacity".
Various domestic abuse counsellors have told Channel 4 News that they are already hugely stretched with current casework and would not be able to manage an upsurge in referrals prompted by a national expansion of DVPOs. Even one of the architects of the DVPO scheme, Ms Evely, sounds a note of caution to the government: "Capacity is really, really stretched".
She urges the government to consider more funding for this area. They should take note. This is a scheme whose success will largely depend on the ability of the counselling services to step in when the police have served their new banning orders and departed.
Finally, this scheme is all about trying to convince victims of domestic abuse that the police can protect them. For a criminal justice system which has so often failed to protect abuse victims in the past, the challenge to win back trust remains immense.
15 October 2012
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