A friend emailed me yesterday saying: “Shouldn’t you be writing something about the Philpott case and domestic abuse?” In one sense it is understandable that the domestic abuse has not been central to the media coverage of this terrible tragedy – focusing rightly on the awful loss of six children’s lives. But, the domestic abuse was there of course – in terms of coercion and control, violence and abuse.
There is no question that the final outcome of the web of abusive relationships around Mick Philpott was extreme and hopefully exceptional but the information that has been made public about his behaviour is chillingly ‘normal’ in the context of high risk domestic abuse. Based just on what we know from the papers, his girlfriend would almost certainly have been deemed to meet the MARAC referral threshold. Thinking of the questions on the CAADA DASH risk checklist – separation, conflict around child contact, coercion, sexual abuse, financial abuse, history of violence to previous partners, attempted suicide, victim fear, escalation – the list goes on. Every single day, IDVAs all around the country receive referrals where women are living with all these risks, and for every one that is referred for help, there is another invisible woman who is not identified (in this case his wife?), tells no one and suffers alone.
There is much talk in the domestic abuse field about homicide prevention. Of course we want to prevent and reduce homicides. But let’s not fool ourselves that the ‘typical’ homicide looks so very different to the typical high risk case. It just doesn’t. There are 100,000 high risk families in this country. About half of those cases are heard at a MARAC each year. With the exception of the number of children involved – and the unusual cohabitation arrangements – many look very similar to this case. It is essential that we fund adequate services for these families and that we are clear that homicide reduction will only happen if we address high risk cases much more widely.
Similarly, we need to be clear about a few things if, as a society we want to protect our children. Social care professionals talk about domestic abuse ‘impairing parenting capacity’. It feels like a terrible understatement in this case but yes, domestic abuse does ‘impair parenting capacity’. This was a very extreme example, but if we don’t acknowledge this, and support women who suffer domestic abuse to parent and protect their children, then we are failing those children. This has to start with links being made between risks to children and risks to women and vice versa.
I go back to the last question on the CAADA DASH risk checklist, that list of questions that needs to be asked every time someone discloses domestic abuse. It reads: “Do you believe that there are risks facing the children in the family? If yes, please confirm if you have made a referral to safeguard the children?” Let’s make sure we never overlook this one.
Finally I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary work done by specialist DV practitioners, IDVAs and their MARAC partners every day – working to prevent tragedies like this. The tragedy avoided does not create headlines but it does save lives.