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Domestic Abuse Evidence Review

Research 24 March 2021

Executive Summary

  1. According to the Home Office (2013:2), domestic abuse is: Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members1 regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse:• psychological • physical • sexual • financial • emotional
  2. Domestic abuse in itself is a complex phenomenon which encompasses four broad categories: intimate terrorism; mutual violent control; situational couple violence; and violent resistance (Johnson, 2006). Intimate partner terrorism is the most documented in literature and this is abuse is agued to have its roots in power and control.
  3. Evidence has shown that domestic abuse is a gendered crime although it is important to acknowledge that females can be perpetrators of domestic abuse although they are in the minority. Feminist literature theorizes that domestic abuse is rooted in patriarchy. There are theorists such as Steinmetz (1977) however who dispute such evidence and argue that women are just as abusive as men. There is more empirical and theoretical evidence to support the theory that men commit more acts of domestic abuse than women. Statistically, women are more likely to be victims of domestic abuse.  In the year ending March 2019, an estimated 2.4 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year, of which 1.6 million were women and 786,000 were men (Office for National Statistics, 20179:2).  Statistics show that women were more likely to be repeat victims of abuse and men are more likely to be repeat perpetrators (Walby et al, 2004). The literature also shows that the reasons that men and women commit abuse are different and the abuse committed by men is more likely to be a demonstration of power and control (Johnson, 2006).
  4. Evidence shows us that we need to take an intersectional approach to working with marginalized victims such as those from BME and LGBT backgrounds (Crenshaw, 1999). There are other marginalized categories of victims such as disabled victims, the elderly and travelling communities. Many victims from marginalized backgrounds do not report abuse to authorities due to a fear of stigmatization; shame; insecure immigration status and for LGBT relationships fear that their sexuality will be used against them. Despite many similarities in domestic abuse in minority groups, minority groups are not a monolith and each case should be treated on a case by case basis with special consideration to their protected characteristics.
  5. Evidence shows that children are not simply bystanders in abusive households but should be considered victims in their own right. Hester (2011)’s three planet model conceptualizes the way in which different agencies work with abused children. The research argues that there is an interconnectedness between domestic abuse and child abuse which should be considered by all agencies. Domestic abuse has been shown to lead to adverse childhood outcomes; increased risk taking; anxiety and in some cases death (Devaney, 2008).Most children in abusive households (91%) are harmed by the main perpetrator, in a minority of cases, the victim of the abuse can be neglectful or abusive to their children.
  6. Victims of domestic abuse often face a host of challenges when attempting to leave an abusive relationship such as fear, isolation and practical barriers. The point of leaving is often the most dangerous time for a victim and evidence from Women’s aid (2019) reports that 55% of the women killed by their ex-partner or ex-spouse in 2017 were killed within the first month of separation and 87% in the first year.
  7. In order to tackle domestic abuse, literature recommends proactive policies for service users and staff. For staff, the recommendations include paid ‘safe days’ for victims of domestic abuse to follow the example of New Zealand and South Ayrshire County council and a safe space outside of HR to talk about the abuse.  For service users-multi-agency working; believing the victim, adequate risk assessments and training for professionals has been shown to keep victims of domestic abuse safe.
  8. Literature highlights the importance of trusting the victim’s fear and shifting the responsibility for domestic abuse in the hands of the perpetrator.

1.0   Introduction

Domestic abuse is a global problem responsible for more than 87,000 female deaths in 2017 (UNODC, 2018:15). In the United Kingdom,  one in four women are killed by an intimate  partner daily (Women’s aid, 2019). Domestic abuse is an interesting phenomenon as it is not in itself a crime but one which is constructed through the committing of an indictable offence as well as an associated relationship between the victim and perpetrator. Domestic abuse can be familial or intimate partner but this evidence review will focus on intimate partner violence (IPV) as it is well documented within literature. This review will examine the narratives around domestic abuse with a focus on minority groups and the socio- legal framework; the prevalence data and responses to domestic abuse for staff and service users.

1.1 Domestic abuse definition

According to the Home Office (2013:2), domestic abuse is

‘Any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass, but is not limited to, the following types of abuse: • psychological • physical • sexual • financial • emotional. The definition of domestic abuse also includes honour based violence and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

‘Controlling behaviour is: a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.

Coercive behaviour is: an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.’

There is no governmental definition of stalking but stalking can be defined as: ‘a pattern of fixated and obsessive behaviour which is repeated, persistent, and intrusive and causes fear of violence or engenders alarm and distress in the victim.’  (Suzy Lamplugh Trust, 2019)

Although the Home Office definition of domestic abuse seems comprehensive, Kelly & Westermarland (2016) argue that the current definition of domestic abuse is not fit for purpose. They argue that referring to domestic abuse as ‘an incident’ or pattern of incidents reduces it to incidentalism which fails to capture the pervasive nature of abuse within intimate partner relationships. Domestic abuse is often not an isolated incident but a pattern of power and control and even where physical violence is present, this is often accompanied by other forms of abuse which keep the victim/survivor in the relationship and this is supported by extensive research (Stark, 2013; Dobash & Dobash, 1998; 1992). Johnson (2006) however argues that there are four categories of domestic abuse namely: intimate terrorism; mutual violent control; situational couple violence; and violent resistance and not all types of abuse are rooted in power and control (Johnson, 2006). He surmises that only intimate terrorism and mutual violent control are borne out of power and control.

The government’s definition of domestic abuse, despite its limitations, is advantageous as it does not reduce/limit domestic abuse to just physical violence but also refers to the broad spectrum of abuse present in intimate partner relationships.

This evidence review will refer primarily to domestic abuse and not domestic violence. Although the terms are often used interchangeably, one can argue that the two are distinctly different from each other. The term domestic abuse widens the scope to include dangerous behaviour that would otherwise be o overlooked (Monckton-Smith, 2013) and it captures the insidiousness and continuum of behaviour such as coercive control and stalking which are not necessarily violent but have been found to predicate domestic homicide more than physical violence (Stark, 2013). Terminology is important in the study of intimate partner abuse as it can mean the difference in a survivor’s journey to identifying their experiences as abusive and thereby seeking help. As researchers and policy makers of intimate partner abuse, there is an ethical and moral responsibility to use appropriate terminology. There has often been a tendency in the media to sensationalize domestic abuse and only report stories of homicide or extreme physical violence which means that the insidious nature of abusive relationships is often ill-understood.

2.0 Domestic abuse as a gendered crime

‘Investigating what is gendered about domestic violence requires a theoretically informed understanding of gender (Jakobsen, 2014:539)

It is widely accepted within feminist literature that domestic abuse is rooted in patriarchy and thus is a gendered crime (Walby, 2004; Kelly & Westermarland, 2016; Dobash & Dobash; 1998; Dobash & Dobash, 1992; Donovan & Hester, 2014). Patriarchy is rooted in structural inequality which awards privilege to men acting out gender roles whilst punishing women punitively for deviating from said gender roles. Patriarchy is argued to manifest itself in laws, structures, policies, attitudes and ultimately violence (Dobash & Dobash, 1992; Jakobsen, 2014).

Feminist researchers such as Kelly and Westermarland (2016) theorize that domestic abuse is rooted in men’s need to control women and it is a gendered crime, not only due to the prevalence data but due to the structures that continue to perpetuate it (Walby, 2004; Dobash & Dobash, 1998). The prevalence data demonstrates that women are more likely to be victims of domestic abuse than men (Office for National Statistics, 2019) both nationally and globally. Women represent two-thirds of the official prevalence data on domestic abuse in the UK (Office for National Statistics, 2019).

Looking only at empirical evidence, however, gives us a very narrow understanding of patriarchy and its contribution to the domestic abuse problem. Instead, it is helpful to also take a theoretical approach to patriarchy and view it as a social system which forms the foundations of our society. Dobash and Dobash (1998) argue that patriarchy can be seen and is reinforced by gender roles and cultural understandings of masculinity. Jakobsen (2014:556) argues that, ’gender norms do support the violence, but violence also enforces the performance of gender, maintains gender hierarchies, and is in itself an enactment of gender’. According to pre-dictated gender roles, women are weaker and are expected to be more subservient whilst men are seen as the stronger protectors of the household (Dobash & Dobash, 1998). Men are therefore conditioned to be dominant to re-enforce masculine ideals whilst women are socialized to be more amiable.

‘It is said that while men in patriarchal societies are taught to strive towards a hegemonic masculine ideal based on power and dominance, women are socialized towards an emphasized femininity based around conformance, passivity and domesticity,’ (Walker et Gill, 2019:2)

There is wide evidence to support the assertion that domestic abuse is rooted in patriarchy and many examples can be found within criminal law.  The criminal law defence of ‘provocation’ which was found in Sections.3 of the Homicide Act 1957 was largely a defence for men who killed or abused unfaithful wives. Marital rape was only criminalized in 1991 and until 1891, men had the right to chastise their wives, which reinforced the ownership that men had over women (Mullender, 1996).

An opposing school of thought suggests instead that domestic abuse is symmetrical between men and women i.e. men and women perpetrate domestic abuse at the same rates and for the same reasons (Steinmetz, 1977; Douglass et al, 2020). They further argue that female propensity to commit domestic violence can be illustrated through crimes such as infanticide, which is most commonly committed by women (Douglass et al, 2020; Dobash & Dobash, 2004). Dobash and Dobash (1992) dispute such theories, arguing that such examples conflate infanticide with domestic abuse and furthermore, Dobash and Dobash (1992) strongly argue that most infanticide is committed out of desperation and predicated by neglect which is distinctly different to domestic abuse. It has also been shown in literature that most familicide is committed by men but this is very rarely considered in arguments that show women as equally violent to men.

Theorists such as Steinmetz (1977) and Douglass et al (2020) argue that self-reported data shows that women are just as abusive as men. Although self-reported data has been argued to elicit more representative data than official statistics (Stark, 2010; Langhinrichsen-Rohling, 2010), what is lacking from these accounts of female violence is a nuanced interpretation of why and when women use violence and abuse in relationships. Stark (2010) reports that many females in such studies reported using retaliatory violence or pre-emptive violence after numerous physical attacks. Feminist literature also argues that females committing violence are trying to assert power and control in a patriarchal system. Kandiyoti’s   (1998) seminal work on bargaining with patriarchy explains female violence as a reaction to a patriarchal system and oftentimes a means for survival within a system in which they are disadvantaged. Gill (2019) argues that women’s abuse should be analysed and understood within the societal context within which it exists. Dobash and Dobash (1992; 1998) also argue that the typology of abuse between men and women is starkly different and this is supported by research from Hester (2009). Hester’s (2009) research with Northumbria police showed that men were more likely to be repeat offenders and more likely to use physical violence than women.

Steinmetz (1977) argues that men are under-represented in domestic abuse statistics due to under reporting. One of the reasons established for under-reporting was minimisation of the abuse. However, the same argument holds true for women as domestic abuse is largely underreported across genders and it would stand to reason that women might also be underrepresented within DA statistics. According to the Office for National Statistics:

‘The under reporting of crime to the police is known to be particularly acute for domestic abuse offences, […] Estimates based on those interviewed in the Crime Survey for England and Wales during the year ending March 2015 showed that around four in five victims of partner abuse (79%) did not report the abuse to the police.’

What is striking is that women are reported to be more likely to seek help than men despite the low rates of police reporting (Stark, 2010).

‘ The limited evidence we have shown that female/male ratios in help-seeking prompted by domestic violence range from 4:1 (for police calls and arrests) to between 15:1 and 20:1 for calls to hot-lines’ (Stark, 2010:206)

Although it is widely accepted that the majority of domestic abuse perpetrators are male, it can be harmful to discount that women can be perpetrators of domestic abuse (Douglass et al,  2015).  Easteal et al (2015) argue that narratives around women’s violence portrays them as ‘mad, bad or sad’ and it can be argued  that such narratives can serve to deny women of their agency. Perhaps the notion of female domestic abuse perpetrators is seen as ‘incompatible with our conception of good women who are nurturing and emotional mothers and/or passive and cooper-active wives… therefore, a woman who kills (or abuses) profoundly challenges deeply held assumptions about women and their capacity to nurture others’ (Easteal et al, 2015:32).

Granted, it could be over simplistic and reductionist to suggest that women cannot perpetrate domestic abuse or violence however, research demonstrates that there is still gender asymmetry within domestic abuse as women are more likely to be repeat victims of domestic abuse; they are more likely to be hurt or killed by a partner or ex-partner; they are at a structural disadvantage within society and generally their reasons for committing abuse are different to those of men (Hester, 2006).

Johnson’s (2005)’s  research provides a more nuanced view of the gendered nature of domestic abuse as he argues that not all domestic abuse is gendered but certainly intimate terrorism is gendered. His view is largely supported by evidence from literature (Walby et al,  (2004; Hester, 2006). For Stark (2010:209),’the bigger conceptual question is ‘not who uses violence but is to identify how violence functions in relationships to preserve and extend gender inequalities’.

3.0 Domestic abuse prevalence and cost

In the year ending March 2019, an estimated 2.4 million adults aged 16 to 74 years experienced domestic abuse in the last year, of which 1.6 million were women and 786,000 were men (Office for National Statistics, 2019:2). Statistics also showed that women were more likely to be repeat victims of abuse than men (Hester, 2009).

The Office for National Statistics (2019:19) reports that in the year ending March 2016 to the year ending March 2018- the majority of victims of domestic homicide were female (74% or 270) which contrasts with non-domestic homicides where the majority of victims were male (87% or 849).

Globally, women are more likely to be killed in intimate partner homicide than men (UNODC, 2018).



Source: UNODC (2018:11) Global Study on Homicide


‘The Office for National Statistics shows that those from a lower income are more likely to be victims of domestic abuse.’

‘Those from a minority ethnic background were over-represented in the domestic abuse statistics.’

Monkton-Smith (2019) argues that we should look at domestic abuse both in financial and human cost. In the year ending 2017, domestic abuse was reported to cost the government £ 66 billion and £47 billion of which comes from the emotional harms (the fear, anxiety and depression experienced by victims as a result of domestic abuse) (Home Office, 2019:5). The costs to health services is £2.3 billion and the police £1.3 billion  and   housing costs totalling £550 million, which includes temporary housing, homelessness services and repairs and maintenance (Home Office, 2019:6). Domestic abuse also has a sizable impact on the economy and the Home Office estimates that £14 billion is lost from time off work due to domestic abuse (Home Office, 2019:6).

4.0 Intersectionality in domestic abuse

Domestic abuse in intimate relationships is largely based on power disparities and for minority groups, this power differential can be even more acute. The term intersectionality was initially coined by Crenshaw (1991) to describe the multiple layers of oppression experienced by women of colour due to both their race and gender. Although the concept was originally coined for women of colour, it has now been used to describe the oppression of marginalized groups including BME, LGBT, disabled, travelling and migrant communities (and this is not an exhaustive list of marginalized groups). It is important that intersectionality is considered when working with marginalised groups and applying a one size fits all approach would be wholly inappropriate and could further alienate the victim. Creating equal opportunities for victims means noticing disadvantage and tailoring the support around that disadvantage and not treating everyone the same. Marginalised groups are a heterogeneous group and it was therefore important to break down some of the most disadvantaged groups.

4.1 LGBT

The longstanding narrative around domestic abuse has long since been heteronormative and this is rooted in classic feminist literature which portrays domestic abuse as gendered with men primarily being the perpetrators and females being the victims (Donovan & Hester, 2014). It has thus been difficult for victims/survivors of domestic abuse in LGBT relationships to situate their abuse within the socially and politically constructed framework of domestic abuse (Donovan & Hester, 2014; Monckton-Smith et al, 2014). Unfortunately, there are disproportionately high levels of domestic abuse within the LGBT community and the risk increases if you a transgender (Stonewall, 2020). According to Stonewall (2020),  80% of the transgender respondents reported being victims of transphobic attacks. LGBT victims of domestic face double victimization from the community and from their abuser. Safelives (2017:9) reports that 40% of LGBT respondents had reported homophobic or transphobic attacks in the last 12 months.

Due to the stigma that can often come with their sexuality, LGBT victims of domestic abuse can hide/minimize domestic abuse in order to protect their perpetrator and community who are already stigmatized by society. This is often the case in other marginalised groups who, often under report domestic abuse to protect their community from further stigma. The unfortunate nature of prejudice means that individuals from marginalised communities are not assigned individual identities but are lumped together with others from their group, therefore one person reporting abuse could result in even more judgment and shame towards their community.

The following unique forms of abuse should be considered in LGBT relationships:

  • Threat of disclosure of sexual orientation and gender identity to family, friends, or work colleagues.
  • Increased isolation because of factors like lack of family support or safety nets.
  • Undermining someone’s sense of gender or sexual identity particularly when one partner is transgender.
  • Limiting or controlling access to spaces and networks relevant to coming out and coming to terms with gender and sexual identity. • The abused may believe they ‘deserve’ the abuse because of internalized negative beliefs about themselves.
  • The abused may believe that no help is available due to experienced or perceived homo/bi/ transphobia of support services and the criminal justice system

(Galop, 2020:2).

[For further reading, please see the evidence review on domestic abuse in LGBT relationships]

4.2 BME

Gill (2017:560) argues that ‘black and native women are more likely to be murdered by an intimate partner and 33% more likely to be shot to death by the police’. In the United Kingdom, if you are a migrant woman of colour, the odds are stacked even more against you.  Imkaan’s (2010) (an advocacy charity for BME women) research showed that 92% of BME migrant women surveyed reported that their perpetrator used their immigration status against them. In the current political climate, perpetrators can often weaponized a survivor’s immigration status against them which causes them to fear asking for help. Their findings also strongly suggest that BME women were more likely to stay in abusive relationships.

There are further barriers to leaving in place for migrant victims of domestic abuse namely institutional barriers such as a lack of housing; lack of financial provision due to no recourse to public funds (Siddiqui, 2018); hostility from agencies in addition to culturally and religiously constructed barriers (Gill, 2018). There can be other prohibitive factors such as a limited support network; language barriers and a distrust of services (Gill, 2018). In some BME communities, there is also the added risk of so-called ‘honour based abuse’ which can be an added barrier to leaving (Siddiqui, 2018).

So called “Honour based violence” (HBV) can be defined as:

“A crime or incident which has or may be committed to protect or defend the honour of the family/community”. It incorporates a range of violent behaviors from forced marriage and female genital mutilation to killings” (Eshareturi et al, 2014:370)
There are opposing theories in literature on whether HBV should be located within the domestic abuse framework but this is beyond the scope of this paper. HBV will be considered domestic abuse as the current legal framework dictates that this is the case.

For a long time,  BME feminists heavily criticized the government and institutions for dismissing HBV as cultural and therefore justifying a non-interventionist approach (Siddiqui, 2014; Eshareturi et al, 2014). There has been a recent shift over the last few years, from cultural sensitivity/relativism to ‘mature multiculturalism’ which means that multicultural sensitivity is not an excuse for moral blindness (Siddiqui, 2018:367). This approach places a positive responsibility on institutions to not dismiss abusive practices in BME communities as ‘cultural’ but to acknowledge them as a public issue (Siddiqui, 2014). Positioning HBV as a cultural problem can be dangerous as it is people not cultures but people that kill people (Walker & Gill, 2019). The consistent message from literature is that HBV should be dealt with as seriously as other domestic abuse crimes and there is a ’one chance rule’ which  suggests that criminal justice professionals might only have one opportunity to save a victim’s life (Eshareturi et al, 2014). The high profile HBV deaths of Banaz Mamod and Shafilea Ahmed illustrate some institutional failings and missed opportunities to save a victim’s life.

It is important still to remember that practices such as so-called HBV although pronounced in some communities, are not unique to BME communities. The risk factors should be considered for any individual coming from a closed community group where there is a strong sense of community over individual ideals and where there are grave consequences for defying the status quo.

5.0 Domestic abuse and children

‘At the time they start school, at least one child in every class will have been living with domestic abuse since they were born’. (Safelives, 2017:1)

There is a global focus on the impact of domestic abuse on women but often the impact on children is overlooked. Literature shows that domestic abuse can have an equally if not more devastating impact on children who are the hidden survivors in abusive households (Devaney, 2008). Domestic abuse can lead to adverse childhood outcomes such as increased risk taking, substance misuse and , social problems (Devaney, 2008) and furthermore it . It has been widely reported in literature that children living in abusive households are more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression (Devaney, 2008; Safelives, 2013). It has been argued that children living in abusive households are more likely to be victims of physical and sexual violence at some point in their lives (Devaney, 2008). Domestic abuse within a children’s life should be seen as exacerbating their pre-existing vulnerability as domestic abuse has been linked to street involved children and studies have shown intergenerational ‘consequences for children exposed to chronic abusive and violent behaviours, linking child victimization to poor educational achievement and health outcomes’, (Cleaver et al, 2019:140). Research has found that in many households where child abuse and domestic abuse takes place, there are often complex needs such as substance misuse and learning difficulties in the household (Devaney, 2008; Safelives, 2013). Research also shows that children living in domestically abusive households are at direct risk of familicide although familicide is a developing area of research (Mailoux, 2014).

Hester’s (2011) seminal work ‘the three planet model and domestic abuse’ argues that there are three planets in the safeguarding of children mainly: ‘child contact’; ‘domestic abuse’ and ‘child protection’. Often, the three planets do not intersect in their risk assessments and professionals from each planet i.e. family court, IDVAs and social workers respectively, work in silo.

Source: University of Bristol adapted from Hester (2011) The Three Planet Model: Towards an Understanding of Contradictions in Approaches to Women and Children’s Safety in Contexts of Domestic Violence. British Journal of Social Work. 41. 837-853.


On the domestic abuse planet, Hester (2011) argues that there is a focus on the victim/survivor of domestic abuse and very little focus on the children. Devaney (2008) further argues that within the domestic abuse context, children can often be viewed as caught in the middle of the abuse and not considered victims in their own right.

Within the child contact planet, Hester (2011) argues that both the abusive and the non-abusive parent are seen as having equal rights to the child despite any abusive acts they might have committed. It has been consistently documented within literature that the child contact standard is ‘good enough parenting’ and the general consensus is that perpetrators of domestic abuse can still be good enough parents (Hester, 2011). Unfortunately, what this fails to account for is the interconnectedness of domestic abuse and child abuse  (Hester, 2011). One of the common misconceptions reported in literature is that abusive persons are ordinarily not abusive towards their children, however research has shown evidence to the contrary. Safelives (2013:16) study on the impact of domestic abuse on children showed that, 62% of the children exposed to domestic abuse were also directly harmed, most often physically or emotionally abused, or neglected and in 91% of the cases the perpetrator was responsible for the direct harm to the children. In situations where children are not directly harmed, it can be argued that abusing the child’s other parent does not make you a ‘good enough parent’.

Hester (2011) argues that within the child protection planet, the responsibility of protecting the child is placed on the person who is being abused and there is often direct or implicit suggestion that the survivor leave the relationship as this is in the best interest of the children. Moreover, there is little focus on the perpetrator’s behaviour and very little or no accountability placed on them for the harm caused to the child. Literature has consistently captured that more responsibility is placed upon the survivor of abuse to protect the children (Devaney, 2008; Humphrey et al, 2011; Hester, 2011; Monckton-Smith, 2014). Within the child protection planet, mothers are penalized for staying in abusive relationships through increased social services involvement or through their children being taken into care (Humphrey et al, 2011). Navigating an abusive relationship and being a parent at the same time is difficult for survivors and the coercive nature of abusive relationships can impact their ability to parent (Hester, 2011; Humphrey et al, 2011). Humphrey et al (2011) cites ways in which abusive partners fracture the victim’s parenting relationship: through undermining her in front of the children; taking away resources and also creating a ‘conspiracy of secrecy’ in which parent and child are unable to speak openly about the abuse experienced.

It is ironic that mothers are penalized for not being good enough parents to their children by ‘tolerating’ domestic abuse and yet fathers (despite their abusive actions), are presumed to be good enough parents. There is a consensus that more perpetrators need to be held to account for putting children at risk, but there is a lack of direction on how this should happen and perhaps this could be mapped out in further research.

Notwithstanding this, it can be argued that research such as that of Hester (2011) and Humpherey et al (2011) fails to acknowledge that in a minority of cases, survivors of domestic abuse can also be directly abusive/ neglectful towards their children, most likely but not always as a consequence of the abuse they suffered. Although the primary abuse towards them is never their responsibility, survivors should still be empowered and supported to address any neglectful or abusive behaviour they might be exhibiting towards their children.

Hester (2011:845) suggests that, ‘the most effective intervention for ensuring safe and positive outcomes for children living with domestic violence is usually to plan a package of support that incorporates risk assessment, trained domestic violence support, advocacy and safety planning for the non-abusing parent who is experiencing domestic violence in conjunction with protection and support for the child’.

6.0 Responding to domestic abuse

The literature highlights a disappointing narrative from some professionals that domestic abuse is a problem constructed by the victim and it is the victim’s responsibility to stop it from happening (Monckton-Smith et al, 2014; Hester, 2011; Devaney, 2008; Stark, 2007). There are some professionals who have been reported to feel that domestic abuse is just that, a domestic problem and feel they have no role to play in safeguarding victims. Domestic homicide reviews have ultimately shown us that this is not the case and such damaging narratives can ultimately lead to fatalities. Domestic abuse is a crime of victimization, the responsibility of which lies on the perpetrator and it is a crime that society and institutions need to take seriously (Monckton-Smith et al, 2014).

A good starting point for tackling domestic abuse is to deal with the perpetrator as the social problem and not the victim (Monckton-Smith, 2014; Devaney, 2014). Monckton-Smith et al (2014) suggests that an ‘impartial’ response to domestic abuse will only proliferate the problem as victims are interchangeable and perpetrators of domestic abuse will go on to reoffend in future relationships. It is important to believe the victim and not to collude with the perpetrator. There is a myth amongst some professionals that many victims of domestic abuse, namely women, lie about the abuse they experienced to get back at their partner/ex-partner (Monkton-Smith, 2014). Statistics from the CPS reveal that false allegations of domestic abuse are rare, and what this shows us is the need to listen to victims of domestic abuse and take domestic abuse seriously (Women’s aid, 2019).

6.1  Service users

Evidence shows us that properly conducted risk assessments are important in order to safeguard victims and their children (Monckton-Smith, 2019). Domestic abuse risk assessments should not be a box ticking exercise but an exercise of professional judgement (Devaney, 2014; Monckton-Smith et al, 2014). The DASH (Domestic Abuse Stalking and Harassment Toolkit) which is the official risk assessment matrix  for domestic abuse, does not weight each question the same and equally victims of domestic abuse can often minimize abuse which is why it is important to exercise professional judgement (Monckton-Smith et al, 2014). Professional curiosity and intuition should not be undervalued in the safeguarding of domestic abuse victims. Nottingham County Council’s DHR review of *Stacey showed that the victim (Stacey) had been in contact with a few professionals but in many situations disclosed emotional and financial abuse but not physical abuse. Similarly, Monckton-Smith et al (2014) highlights a case-study in which a woman scored 8 on the DASH score but was ultimately high risk. Adequately trained professionals should feel confident in recognizing high risk indicators in victims’ accounts even where the victims have a low score on the risk assessment (Monckton-Smith, 2019; Stark, 2007). Nonetheless, risk assessment is an imperfect exercise and even at the best of times, human beings can make mistakes.

The difficulty is that many ‘first responders’ often feel ill-equipped to deal with domestic abuse in the first instance due to a lack of training. Training has been highlighted as of paramount in the tackling of domestic abuse (Monckton-Smith et al, 2014; Devaney, 2008; NICE, 2014). The Brighton Domestic homicide review of *Alina highlighted an institutional lack of understanding of stalking which could be tackled through rigorous and continued training. Monckton-Smith (2014) conducted qualitative research with criminal justice professionals and some stated that they did not need training as they had been dealing with domestic abuse callouts for over 20 years. Victim’s accounts however tell us a different story, one which suggests that many criminal justice professionals still participate in victim blaming and have a very warped understanding of domestic abuse. Evidence also suggests that there is a knowledge gap on working with marginalised groups and domestic abuse (Imkaan, 2019). It is important that staff continuously engage in improving their understanding of domestic abuse and researchers such as Monckton-Smith (2011) offer additional training information which can be used to advance professionals’ understanding of domestic abuse. Monckton-Smith et al (2011) have developed a Domestic Abuse Reference Tool (DART) which can easily be used by frontline professionals to supplement the DASH questions. Adequate training can help combat myths around domestic abuse and one recurrent myth is, ‘why don’t they just leave?’

Although counterintuitive, leaving an abusive relationship is not always in the best interest of the victim, research suggests (Monckton-Smith, 2013; Hester, 2011, Stark, 2007). Simply telling a victim to leave can be dangerous and potentially life-threatening advice. Literature highlights that separation or an attempted separation is often a trigger for domestic homicide (Stark, 2007; Monckton-Smith, 2019). Women’s aid (2019) reports that 55% of the women killed by their ex-partner or ex-spouse in 2017 were killed within the first month of separation and 87% in the first year, victims of domestic abuse often stay in abusive relationships for a multitude of reasons including fear, isolation, practical reasons, shame and trauma. Safelives and Women’s aid (2019) guidance reiterates the importance of putting a plan in place before a survivor leaves an abusive relationship. A very effective way of putting a plan in place can be through multi-agency working.

There is also a well-established evidence base which highlights the importance of multi-agency working in cases of domestic abuse (Hester, 2011; Devaney, 2008; Monkton-Smith, 2014; NICE, 2014; Cleaver et al, 2019). For multi-agency working to be effective it need not be a piecemeal exercise but a victim centred and goal focused discussion. A consistent theme from domestic homicide reviews (DHRs) is a lack of multi-agency working which results in missed opportunities to safeguard those affected by domestic abuse. Examples of good multi agency working include local safeguarding boards, MARACs (Devaney, 2008) MAPPA, DHRs, and professional meetings.

Literature on domestic abuse also reiterates the importance of believing the victim’s fear and evidence shows us that many victims can become experts in managing their own safety (Monckton-Smith et al, 2014).

*victims’ names have been changed to protect their families.

*victims names have been changed to protect their families.

6.2 Staff

‘It is also important to remember that sometimes those that are tasked as part of their employment to respond to domestic abuse can also be victims or perpetrators of domestic abuse’ (Westmarland, 2013:13)

There is an unfortunate tendency to assume that one’s social status or job role absolves them from victimization or perpetration, an implied notion that ‘they should know better’.  Regrettably, this is not the case and statistics tell us that domestic abuse is a societal problem that can affect anyone. Particularly in helping professions, there can be a tendency to focus on policies that protect service users and unwittingly overlook staff and this can have an impact on staff disclosures. Westmarland’sWestmarland’s (2013:8) study of organisational responses to domestic abuse found that of the organisations surveyed, on average there were only 0.5 disclosures of domestic abuse monthly and official statistics suggests that this an underrepresentation.

Notwithstanding their duty of care to their employees under health and safety legislation, employers have a vested interest in tackling domestic abuse due to its economic cost. It is reported that domestic abuse costs the global economy 5% of the world‘s GDP (Hester, 2009:571) and Public Health England (PHE, 2018) reports that employers in the UK lose £1.9 billion annually due to reduced productivity.

One of the recommendations from a domestic homicide review in Brighton is that ‘employers and unions should be assisted to raise awareness amongst staff members, know how to respond to concerns or a disclosure and offer proactive support’ (Croom, 2014:11). NICE (2014) recommends channels for discussing domestic abuse other than HR and a safe and supportive environment in which employees can take time off to deal with the effects of the abuse. Employee assistance programmes are an effective channel through which staff can discuss any experiences of domestic abuse but this does not absolve employers from their duty of care towards their employee (Westmarland, 2017).

Some institutions have taken proactive measures to support their employees such as PHE in association with Business Continuity who have published domestic abuse toolkit which outlines how to support employees affected by domestic abuse. In New Zealand and now South Ayrshire County council, employees who are victims of domestic abuse can receive up to 10 days of paid safe leave which enables them to access support without worrying about financial consequences  (Guardian, 2019). Westmarland(Westmarland (2017)proposes) proposes that policies should be in place to respond not only to victims but to perpetrators of domestic abuse in the workplace. Newcastle city council have proactive put in place a policy to deal with perpetrators of domestic abuse in the workplace (Westmarland, 2017). Housing organisation Gentoo has been cited as a best practice example for dealing with domestic abuse in the workplace. Gentoo provides a free legal clinic for staff (accessed by over 70 people since 2015), has access to a domestic violence perpetrator programme for staff and their clients, and allows paid leave to attend the perpetrator programme the Freedom programme for victim-survivors or to attend court or other appointments (Westmarland, 2017:17).

The best approach to domestic abuse in the workplace is to have a ‘holistic approach.’

‘Holistic approaches are those that are internally and externally facing and have a number of strands to their approach, including a policy (which may include domestic abuse leave), training, champions/ambassadors, coordinators, good multi-agency links, and support and resources for both staff and customers/clients’ (Westmarland,  2017:17).

7.0 Conclusion

Research shows us that domestic abuse is not just a domestic problem but a societal issue which affects 2.4 million people in the UK alone. There is a growing understanding that domestic abuse is in itself complex and although feminist research theorizes that it is rooted in power and control, more nuanced understandings have shown that this is not always the case.

The evidence also shows us that domestic abuse cuts across a cross-section of society but the evidence also suggests that certain groups are disproportionately affected including women, disabled victims, those from BME groups, LGBT and travelling communities and we need to take an intersectional approach to working with them. Moreover, it is apparent that children are a special category of victim and special consideration should be given to their safety. It is important to remember that survivors of domestic abuse from minority groups are not a monolith and these risk factors should inform professional risk assessments but not be used to further stereotype or stigmatize.

In order to tackle domestic abuse, evidence shows that training of staff; proactive policies and a coordinated response for both adult and child victims has been shown as best practice (Hester, 2011). More needs to be done to displace victim blaming discourse which continues to dominate some institutions. The message from literature is clear- we need to take domestic abuse seriously and place responsibility in the appropriate hands: that those of the perpetrator.

Stacey Musimbe-Rix – Probation Practice Researcher
KSS CRC Research and Policy Unit
April 2020


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