Two Lessons from IMPRODOVA: Exploring the Frontline Response

How to better serve the victims of domestic violence? The IMPRODOVA research project has collected field studies with frontline responders (law enforcement, NGOs, health professionals) in eight European countries to provide an answer. There is no silver bullet, but in terms of concrete solutions improvements that are implementable in the short term, two key lessons stand out: the organizations who deal with victims should rely on specialized personnel and improve on inter-organizational collaboration.

Frontline responders who are specialists of domestic violence probably serve the needs of victims in a better way than frontline responders who are generalists. By "specialist", we mean police officers (or social workers, or medical professionals) whose job specialty consists in handling domestic violence cases. By "generalist", we refer to those police officers (or social workers, or medical professionals) who indifferently handle all the cases that they encounter in their work. The key variable therefore is whether victims make themselves known to specialists or generalists.

Generalists typically are less knowledgeable about domestic violence, less inclined to take non-physical violence seriously, more inclined to rely on personal discretion, and less likely to make informed and helpful referrals. Generalists' varying skills and zealousness mean that some investigations can be critically crippled by mistakes made in the early stages of the procedure, leaving at-risk women in a particularly dangerous situation of having reported a crime to the police, not having been taken seriously enough, and now facing retaliation from their partners.

Conversely, specialists are better trained, more knowledgeable about the different types of violence, abuse and control dynamics, and more likely to follow protocols and procedures designed to safeguard the victim's interests. In some countries, such as Hungary, Slovenia or Portugal, virtually all police officers on the frontline response to domestic violence are generalists. In other countries, such as Scotland and Finland, most frontline response is made of specialists. In France, Germany and Austria, it varies according to locations, with some places served with specialized units and others with only generalists.

IMPRODOVA teams find that specialists have received relevant trainings and have more experience. Their expertise ensures a prompt and suitable treatment of "normal" cases, and they can manage more complex and technical cases. Their organizational structure reflects an advanced process of division of labour (cf. the Scottish case and the task-sharing in the Scottish police between the local, divisional and national levels). Specialists are more capable of correctly interviewing the victim, of appropriately filling case documentation, of giving correct advice to the victim, of appropriately orienting the victim to support structures. This is manifest from the Finnish, German and Scottish cases. Being specialized on one type of crime, specialists do not face the problem of managing conflicting priorities—a typical problem for generalists. They usually have more reasons (and perhaps more time) to attend additional trainings, academic workshops, and to visit NGOs. They play the role of internal and external experts for DV prevention and investigation (towards non-specialized police officers, NGOs, public administrations). Moreover, they work to increase awareness of their non-specialized colleagues.

Most important, specialized units also are more likely to work in close partnerships with other types of professionals, for instance the embedded social worker at the police station, like in France. Victims have multifaceted needs, and a single profession cannot provide the kind of support that may alleviate the victims' burden. This is why being invested in a network of professionals from other sectors is so important. For instance, social workers who take care of the social-work needs of victims (housing, children, access to poor relief, etc.) allow police officers to focus on investigations and procedural aspects of the case.

Making different professions involved in meaningful partnerships is hard. The Scottish "Multi-Agency Risk Assessment Conferences" (MARAC) is an impressive example of how different worlds (from police to housing to social work to education) come to talk to each other to make sure that every angle of the victims' concerns are addressed. Three core issues are at stake to make partnerships work. First, there must be mechanisms of coordination between actors who sometimes has reservations about working with other professions. One partner needs to have the legitimacy to make people and organizations work together as team partners. Second, pragmatic solutions must be found regarding the management of information, in worlds where professional secrecy often is sacred. Third, trainings must be available so that newcomers can be brought up to speed.

Professional specialization and inter-organizational partnerships are not glamorous. But they make a difference, and should be pursued, because they benefit victims.

2019-09-30 by Francois Bonnet, Thierry Delpeuch and Margarita Vassileva