Cultural shift needed for recognition of gender-based violence
The authorities' attitudes towards and understanding of domestic abuse need to be sharpened. Domestic abuse is a gender-based phenomena which is typically cyclical and long-term and gradually becomes more violent over time if no intervention is made. This continues to be often forgotten both by professionals engaging with victims of violence and also more broadly in discussions on domestic abuse within our society. Without a systematic risk analysis of domestic abuse, social welfare and healthcare professionals or police officers can erroneously assess an act of violence to be a singular event – just a drunken lunge or a domestic argument – in which intervention is needed primarily just to restore neighbourhood peace.
In Finland, police officers received 26,000 emergency calls in 2018 to homes because of domestic violence, but in the same year only 5500 domestic violence crimes were filed. This gap raises questions, as domestic violence has, since 2011, been an offence under public prosecution. This means, that the police should have no discretion over filing a criminal offence report of the suspected domestic violence. Although all the cases referred to the police from the emergency centre as domestic violence cases do not always relate to actual domestic violence, this gap and other evidence also suggest that some domestic violence remains unidentified by the authorities.
The research shows that domestic abuse has often continued for some period of time before the first contact with the authorities is made. According to statistics from the UK1, victims of domestic abuse contact the police on average after the 35th act of violence. Finnish studies of domestic abuse victims2 have shown that the police or other authorities are aware of only around 10% of the total amount of violence directed against women. A cultural shift is needed in order for professionals' assumptions and actions in cases of domestic abuse to be based on the facts.
'The woman held her nose and assured us that she had dry membranes which sometimes cause slight nosebleeds'
Research has been carried out at the Police University College of Finland on the actions of police officers when handling domestic violence cases3. According to the research data, only around half of calls to homes involving domestic abuse lead to the reporting of an offence. Although some of the decisions not to report an offence result from lack of clarity or evidence as to the course of events, there are also instances like the one quoted in the title above, where violence is downplayed and there is clear negligence resulting from ignorance of the law.
According to the same study, the police patrols do not always carry out their obligations to provide information about different sources of help and to guide victims towards these: in 65% of domestic violence cases, the victim was not given any information about sources of help. Although the police as a general rule refer the victim towards the services on offer during the police interviews, the victim may have to wait months for the interview. For a person suffering from repeated violence, this waiting time is traumatic. Also, the perpetrator of the violence needs help as well. So that the cycle of violence can be broken, measures for guiding people towards the help available should be initiated as quickly as possible after the point when a professional becomes aware of the situation. According to the study carried out, around one third of the calls to homes received by the police were to addresses where the police had had at least two other domestic violence cases within the six-month monitoring period. Returning repeatedly to the same address is a clear indication that the cycle of violence is not broken without more careful situational assessments and external support.
"They will keep away from each other for the rest of the evening"
In Finland, the authorities' work focuses strongly on the restoration of immediate safety, meaning that the people involved are able to cope in the present moment and perhaps through the following night. The assessment of the risk of violence unfortunately does not often extend beyond this timeframe. The IMPRODOVA4 research and development project that is currently under way has been inter alia assessing the police's risk assessment processes in domestic abuse cases. According to the preliminary results, systematic risk assessment is carried out in the police departments during the pre-trial investigation by just a few criminal investigators who have the relevant training, while the risk assessment carried out by patrolling, uniformed police handling domestic violence cases relates primarily to the maintenance of their own occupational safety and assessment of the decision to arrest the suspect.
The systematic assessment of the risk of violence and the prevention of potential future crimes come clearly within the duties of the police. During domestic violence cases, the police5 get an overview of a number of risk factors that are extremely important to be aware of, to identify and to record. Without risk assessment training, however, this cannot be expected of anyone. Also problematic is that only a handful of criminal investigators are trained in the systematic risk assessment of domestic abuse, and that these few are left trying, alongside their other work, to identify the most serious from among hundreds of different domestic abuse cases.
Systematic risk assessment is a procedure which should be implemented broadly across the authorities' different basic functions. It helps authorities to systematically assess the kind of violence they are dealing with. It also aids cooperation with other service providers and it speeds up and improves protective measures for victims. In Finland, positive results have been obtained from the MARAC multidisciplinary risk assessment meeting, in which systematic risk assessment is carried out and, for the domestic violence cases assessed as serious, the victims are assisted through a multi-professional working group which includes the police and also professionals from areas such as healthcare, social work and child protection as well as victim's aid NGO's.
Existing tools into use
We have got used to considering Finland as a model of gender equality, so it has been hard for all of us – professionals, decision-makers and the population at large – to accept that gender-based violence is a serious human rights and public health issue for us. In Finland, per capita deaths of women as a result of domestic violence are in fact higher than in any other western EU country.
We already have existing tools for intervention in cases of domestic abuse and models for effective collaboration between professionals. In Finland the free online course 'Create trust - Stop the violence '6 for professionals has been developed. It is used by the police as well as social welfare and healthcare professionals, and other professionals can also make use of it. The course contains information on violence against women and domestic violence as well as the effect of violence on victims and on children who are exposed to it, and it also presents many methods for intervention and cooperation between authorities, including systematic risk assessment. We need both the deeper understanding of violence provided by such training and a shift towards a more victim-orientated way of thinking if we want the actions of the police and other authorities to genuinely improve the safety of victims.
Typically, the victim of domestic abuse does not leave after being hit for the first time. Based on the research, every professional dealing with such customers has reason to assume that it is the 35th case of such violence in the person's life rather than the first, and to act accordingly. This assumption should only be adjusted if systematic risk analysis indicates otherwise.
(The quotes used in the headlines are from the research data of the Police University College of Finland)
Development Manager, Lawyer, Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare
Senior Specialist, Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare
Researcher, Police University College of Finland
by Martta October, Suvi Nipuli, Marianne Mela