How the SHE project is helping transform the lives of victims and perpetrators of domestic violence

In today’s blog, IPSCJ Manager Sarah Armstrong-Hallam tells the story of what led her to play a pivotal role in the launch of the institute and how her current work on the SHE project is helping evaluate the support offered to both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence.

I started at the University of Northampton in 2000, where I worked with the Centre for Children and Youth and the Social Policy Research Group. They were certainly two contrasting areas, but both built on my interest in childhood and criminal justice.

The first big project I worked on was a review of Northamptonshire police’s response to the Macpherson report following the death of Stephen Lawrence. That sparked my desire to work on real world research into the impact of such events on the public.

During that time, I also developed project, contract and people management skills that led me to work alongside the Police Authority, where we looked at victimisation of young people – particularly around violence and anti-social behaviour. That was just as the preparatory work for creating the Office of Northamptonshire Police and Crime Commissioner was taking shape.

The IPSCJ was formed shortly after, thanks to a growing desire for policing to become evidence-based and reflect some of the advancements made in the health service. I worked with Laura Knight during those early days to build the research institute, focusing particularly on the development of it from an academic and university perspective. Since then, I really haven’t been able to let it go – it’s been a real passion project!

My work on the SHE project

The SHE Project was developed with a third sector partner called the Nene Valley Christian Family Refuge, now known as Eve, who are a frontline domestic abuse charity that helps predominantly women by giving them access to support and safety.

We helped them develop a three-stage intervention which is being funded by the Big Lottery. We’re nearly halfway through evaluating this three-year project which is being delivered by Eve’s specialist staff. There’s three strands to the program, the first of which is working with the perpetrators (known as the Fresh Start program) who have a history of violence against their partners. The second is working with families (primarily the parents, but also the children if they’re under the age of three) using a systemic family therapy approach. The last strand is a program called Mpower, which was developed by Professor Jane Callaghan and her team through a two-year European funded project, which works with young people who have witnessed or experienced domestic violence to enhance their resilience and develop their skills and coping mechanisms.

The evaluation work we’re undertaking involves talking to staff, and the evaluation of the aforementioned three strands, where we talk to male participants who have gone through Fresh Start, the families who have interacted with the SHE program and the young people who have engaged with Mpower.

This takes the form of interviews and looking at pre- and post-measures to get some quantitative information in relation to wellbeing, resilience and risk factors for victimisation and/or offending. This helps us to build an overall picture as to how impactful the programmes are. Our lead researcher talks directly to the participants and other family members in order to generate the data we need about the outcomes the individuals are experiencing.

That data comes back to us, at which point we explore it for themes. For instance, we look for tipping points and any barriers experienced by the participants, and which aspects of the programme or support have stayed with them, having been particularly impactful. We also look at how engaged they thought they would be compared to how engaged they were in practice; it’s really about identifying the highs and lows of the process.

My role is quite top level. I have oversight of programme and evaluation delivery, therefore making sure the resources are available to ensure everything happens at the right time, but I also act as a conduit between the different partners to make sure the referral process is working ok.

Positive uptake

It’s unusual to have a project like this that’s looking at all of these areas at once – particularly considering the inclusion of perpetrators in this particular project. Eve’s focus is still on protecting women, but their other goal is to reduce the likelihood of reoffending and revictimisation, hence the perpetrators being involved. The uptake has been pretty good so far (around twelve men have already been through the process) which is usually the challenge for perpetrator programmes, which are almost always voluntary. By the time a victim seeks help, there’s already a significant problem within that family unit and there’s usually a trigger for them seeking help, but perpetrators can only get involved if they demonstrate a genuine desire to change and recognition of the harm they’ve caused.

One of the challenges we have encountered is that although the need for domestic violence victim support in Northamptonshire is significant, recruiting has actually taken longer than we expected. That’s taught us a lot and gives us a better understanding about how to open those lines of communication and better engage with people who need support.

The gap between understanding the need and being able to engage has also been a big learning curve for me. It’s not just about women seeking help; we’ve lost several refuges in the county over the last few years, and although funding is still going into domestic violence through local authorities and the Police and Crime Commissioner, I think there are opportunities to look at how we can join up these conversations and funding streams to take victims and their families on a single-track journey, rather than different referral points and routes to support.

The road ahead

The remainder of the project will focus on scaling up participation, before spending the last eight to twelve weeks bringing the whole evaluation together. That will result in a report and working with partners to explore how the learning from the evaluation work can be used in practice and what short and long-term goals for improvement in delivery should be agreed. This is of course with a view to ensuring the sustainability of the programmes going forward.

Evaluating a three-year project like this is a gift for us – it’s not often we get that opportunity, and it has been a very rewarding experience so far.

We’ll provide further updates on the She project once interim reports and the final report become available.