24 Feb 2015

NHS ‘must do more’ to protect domestic abuse victims

Too often the NHS is missing opportunities to stop domestic abuse, according to a damning report due to be published on Wednesday and shown to Channel 4 News.

The report, compiled by the domestic violence charity SafeLives, found that, on average, over 85 per cent of victims were in contact with A&E units, GPs, or the police in the year before they finally got effective help to stop the abuse, writes Matthew Cundall.

The charity examined almost 5,500 domestic abuse cases, all of which occurred between 2013 and 2014.

Not every contact related specifically to domestic abuse, but they all presented opportunities, says the charity. It claims that if the health service was more proactive it could get support to many thousands of victims suffering in silence.

Rebecca Coombs was barely 21, a mother of two, when she was hospitalised for the first time by her partner. She was beaten so badly she was taken by ambulance to A&E. But no-one asked her, she claims, who had beaten her up.


Eventually, when she was hospitalised for the third time, Rebecca pressed charges and she says she finally got the help she needed.

A recent report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary suggested that nearly half of all domestic abuse victims do not go to the police. It is why SafeLives wants to see much more of a lead coming from the health service.

When asked if the health service has made domestic violence a priority, the charity’s Chief Executive Diana Barran told Channel 4 News: “No, they have not made it a priority.

“We think there are about 100,000 victims in this country, who have about 130,000 children in their homes, who are experiencing the most extreme abuse today, and about 250,000 who are suffering significant abuse; in our jargon we would describe them as medium risk.

Fear and violence

“Most of those medium risk are being missed today and nearly half of the high risk. So we could probably find another 300,000 people who are suffering fear, violence and coercion, if the health service was being really proactive.

“Although there’s been lots of guidance and lots of good intention the actual execution from our perspective has been very limited.”

Channel 4 News went to Bristol Royal Infirmary to see how it is training its frontline healthcare staff to better spot the signs of domestic abuse.


Bristol is one of a number of hospitals which now has in-house specialist domestic violence advisers (IDVAs), like Punita Bassi. Her job is to spot victims when they present at A&E and act as a first point of contact.

And in the last four years since the scheme began, the response has been huge, they told us, with over a thousand victims of domestic abuse referred to a specialist by frontline staff.

Ms Bassi told us that before the advent of IDVAs, there were 11 domestic violence referrals in 11 months. In the same time period since, there have been 70.

But A&E Consultant Dr Rob Stafford, when asked what his message to the Department of Health is, said: “Domestic violence (DV) is a very important problem that we are starting to address and we have come a long way in addressing, but I think there is still room to improve in the way we detect DV and the way we approach its management.”