game of chess

Muddy waters: Evidence and the domestic violence sector

By Anne Kazimirski 11 March 2016

Recent news that the domestic violence (DV) sector is divided over initiatives that work with perpetrators is, sadly, not surprising. DV charities deal with incredibly complex issues, and are also hugely underfunded, so grapples over the best way to proceed seem inevitable.

At the heart of this current division in the sector is the question of evidence, and whether DV prevention work can have an impact. The challenges around evidence in the DV sector reflect the evaluation challenges of the social sector as a whole, but tend to be harder to surmount, given the intractable nature of DV and its huge consequences.

Add drastic underfunding into the mix and it becomes clear why debates like these often arise. What is the best way to use limited resources? Keep on going with the same initiatives which have some results? Or take risks on interventions for which there is not yet evidence, but which could make a real dent in the issue you’re tackling? Given that lives are at stake, it’s not a gamble any DV charity would take lightly.

The Early Intervention Foundation (EIF) recently held a seminar with NPC and NSPCC, which sought to address some of these issues, with a look at the latest evidence on DV prevention. The seminar brought together academics, practitioners and policy makers to discuss evaluations of interventions in the field.

It was clear from the event that there is still a lot to be overcome by the DV sector with regards to evidencing the best interventions.

Successful comparison group methodologies are hard to come by. And there isn’t much consistency in measures used across different monitoring or evaluation activity.

There are also ethical questions that make it even more difficult, for example: do perpetrator programme evaluations place yet another burden on victims of DV by putting the responsibility on them to report rates of the physical and emotional abuse they encounter?

Current strapped-for-cash times mean there are also doubts about how committed to evidence some commissioners are—even though these lack of funds mean it’s actually more important than ever to spend the money wisely. And as a result, specialist charities are struggling to survive in the current commissioning landscape, meaning we are at risk of losing their expertise.

Being clear on the outcomes the DV sector is working towards is, as always, key to using the right measures, but currently there is a lack of a clear view on what a good outcome is. Where partners stay together, what level of reduction in violence is good enough to indicate impact? And some interventions may be successful at lowering risk in the short-term, but may neglect addressing the needs of the family in the long-term.

But it’s not all bad news. While the water remains muddy, and there remains a lot to be done, the fact that there is an increasing focus on evidence can only be a good thing. As national DV charity SafeLives has shown, evidence can help bring real benefits when used right—their DV evidence sharing initiative Insights, featured in our latest report on shared measurement, helped secure the sector new funding in the recent Spending Review.

Like EIF and NPSCC, at NPC we are keen not only to improve the quality of evaluation, but also the sharing and management of evidence. We like evidence to be used to make the best possible use of resources, and to achieve the best possible outcomes for beneficiaries. So, with our seminar participants, we are going to be looking at developing a stronger practitioner-researcher forum for the DV sector. A key aim for us will be to build on current evaluation and support more shared measurement activity.