CMS0015

 

Written evidence submitted by SafeLives

 

Who we are

We are SafeLives, the UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, for everyone and for good. We work with organisations across the UK to transform the response to domestic abuse. We want what you would want for your best friend. We listen to survivors, putting their voices at the heart of our thinking. We look at the whole picture for each individual and family to get the right help at the right time to make families everywhere safe and well.

 

Last year alone, nearly 11,000 professionals working on the frontline received our training. Over 70,000 adults at risk of serious harm or murder and more than 85,000 children received support through dedicated multi-agency support designed by us and delivered with partners. In the last five years, 2,000 perpetrators have been challenged and supported to change by interventions we created with partners, and that’s just the start. We believe that domestic abuse can be stopped. Stopped before it starts. Stopped before it ruins lives. In the last 15 years, we have worked with thousands of frontline services, partners and survivors who are relentless in their efforts to tackle domestic abuse.

 

Background

Our submission to this Call for Evidence has been heavily informed by the brave accounts and testimonies of our authentic voice Pioneers and panel members. Many were keen to talk about their experiences of using the CMS, and their response demonstrates that current policies and procedures are unfit to handle disclosures of abuse and do provoke and exacerbate the trauma caused by domestic abuse. Survivors spoke of a real need to develop a culture change within the CMS, to equip caseworkers with a better understanding of what it means to be a victim, and the lengths perpetrators will go to prolong the abuse they inflict on victims and their children.

 

SafeLives’ Insights datasets gathered from frontline services across the country tell the same story – our Outreach Dataset tells us that where the victim and perpetrator are not living together, two in five (40%) have ongoing contact. For nearly two thirds (64%) of these, children are a reason for the ongoing contact, and in two in five (40%) of these cases there is ongoing conflict around child contact arrangements. In a third (34%) of these cases the perpetrator uses child contact arrangements to continue abuse. This equates to 9% of all cases, and 21% where they are not living together but there is still ongoing contact.[1] Furthermore, we know from our Children’s Insights data that in nearly a fifth of all domestic abuse cases (18%), disagreements about the child’s upbringing were used as an opportunity for ongoing abuse.[2]

 

When it comes to handling disclosures of domestic abuse, professionals often fall at the first hurdle. Research conducted along with survivors of domestic abuse shows that there is a culture of fear among professionals of asking the right question, namely – ‘have you been suffering domestic abuse?’ Professionals outside of the domestic abuse sector have often been found to dance around this question out of an in-built fear that it might unveil a litany of problems and issues that a client or customer may be facing, for which that professional might not have had the appropriate training to respond effectively.[3] Learning from SafeLives’ ‘Beacon’ sites shows that victims require a flexible service that is responsive to their needs and offers an appropriate level of support. We also found that workers’ skills and sensitivity were important for engagement and was an opportunity for survivors to realise that they were not alone in their experiences.[4]

 

Victim/survivors of domestic abuse repeatedly report that they would appreciate CMS caseworkers being much more direct in asking about the abuse they might be suffering. Naturally, this goes arm-in-arm with appropriate training of how to ask the right question, and then dealing with disclosures in the best way possible. Victims often want the onus to be on professionals to ask the right question, rather than the other way round. Making it easier to disclose domestic abuse when applying to CMS should be given much greater consideration – feedback from our Pioneers and Authentic Voice panel members who are all experts by experience indicated that the CMS has no understanding of how domestic abuse affects victims. Most feel that current procedures place the burden on victims to prove everything relating to their abuse, while similar burdens are not being placed on perpetrators.

 

When speaking with survivors, they made it clear that CMS caseworkers need to be confident that they can signpost that person to the correct support and should have a basic awareness of both the local and national referral routes for victims of domestic abuse. This is not to say that CMS caseworkers should have an intricate knowledge of DA referral pathways, as these services might not always be necessary to know. In some instances, being aware of clear health pathways, for instance, would suffice.  The CMS need to be confident that they can give out this information clearly and sensitively, especially when we consider that victims of domestic abuse may be at a heightened risk, simply for applying through the CMS. The training of CMS caseworkers should, at a minimum, include the following:

 

 

Survivors also spoke about the need for CMS customers to be given just one caseworker, as this doesn’t appear to be the position all the time. This caused further anxiety and trauma throughout the process as survivors were having to disclose their experience of abuse more than once. Survivors consistently reported to us that there appeared to be a distinct lack of awareness about the realities of being a victim of domestic abuse. If we consider that around 95% of domestic abuse victims experience some form of economic abuse, this is something the CMS should take very seriously. Victims of domestic abuse are most at risk when they leave the relationship, which coincides with when people apply for CMS. There needs to be clearer understanding of the risks that victims face in this critical period. If a claimant discloses abuse to a CMS caseworker, the type of abuse they have suffered should be identified early on, and what can be done immediately to mitigate those risks. Ensuring the immediate wellbeing of victims of domestic abuse and signposting to specialist services who are better placed to conduct a risk identification must constitute the minimum response.

 

In addition, we believe it is vital that the CMS initiates a non-judgemental culture where victims are treated sensitively and empathetically when making a disclosure. As a possible solution to this problem, some survivors stressed the need for a dedicated ‘Domestic Abuse Champion’ role within the CMS. This would be somebody who is passionate about using their platform to provide basic support for their colleagues around handling disclosures and ensuring the CMS does all it can to support victims, rather than aid perpetrators. 

 

The staggering lack of understanding about domestic abuse from the CMS, as reported by our survivor stories, indicates that radical changes are needed to ensure that the process of applying for child maintenance does not cause further trauma to the victim and their children, nor facilitate the perpetrator to continue their abuse.

 

“Approaching the CMS was a waste of time – if anything, it actually perpetuates post-separation, economic abuse.”

 

Survivor case studies:

a)      “I had to endure a three- and half-year court battle with my perpetrator, who had declared himself self-employed, knowing that the CMS would make calculations based on his declared salary. His finances were all lies, and the CMS were blind to this. The family courts had no interest in discussing issues around child maintenance– there is no relationship between the courts, the CMS, and HMRC. My perpetrator was able to use this process to continue the abuse. I suffered mental health problems as a result – it needs to be understood that the ramifications are huge, and impact victims in a multitude of ways, not just financially.”

b)      “My husband declared himself as unemployed and did not declare all of his earnings – he only had to pay £10 per child, even though he had undeclared assets. The CMS opened a case on him and then closed it promptly without notifying me. Every time I contacted them, I had to repeat my story as I was always dealing with a different person. The whole process took over a year because, in that time, my husband went to jail. I then found out that because he was now in prison, he didn’t have to pay child maintenance. He was also able to convince the CMS that an agreement was made in the family courts that he would not have to pay, and they took his story at face value. I made a complaint because of my horrific experiences and was only offered £50 in compensation. The CMS totally failed to protect me and demonstrated their willingness to believe his story over mine. Throughout this whole process they failed to assign me a caseworker who was trauma-informed and who understood what I was going through.” 

c)       “My ex-partner had his own building business and therefore a lot of assets tied up in the business. However, when I applied for child maintenance, my ex-partner said he was unemployed, even though he had a commercial policy on his van. The CMS did not lift a finger in trying to prove or disprove his story – in fact, it was left to me to prove that he was in fact working. I sent them all of his financial details, but his situation was not investigated further by them. My ex was intentionally depriving me and his own son, but for him it was simply another way to exert control over our lives.” 

d)      “My ex-husband was down as unemployed but was involved in criminal activity and later arrested. Because of his status he was exempt from paying child maintenance. When you’re in prison you do often receive a salary for work you do inside – why can’t this go towards child maintenance payments?

e)      “I learnt from using the CMS that it serves to exacerbate the violence and continues modes of control. My ex-partner did not want to see our children and me doing well without him, and so withheld child maintenance payments to get back at us.”

f)        “The whole process had a terrible impact on my children. They knew that my ex-husband was using the system to punish us, not just financially but also mentally. My children now feel less than because we are worse-off financially, and at the same time they are having to live with the reality of what our perpetrator has done to us. This has a significant toll of their mental health and wellbeing.”

g)       “Financial hardship occurs for victim’s families when they are denied full child maintenance – there needs to be considerations of the impact a lack of child maintenance has on our ability to pay gas, electricity, and other basic housing needs. Many victims of domestic abuse and their children have been through unimaginable trauma, and a lack of child maintenance is just one of a number of hardships that they face.”

h)     “My abusive ex-husband later had another partner and was paying child maintenance for the children in that relationship, which meant he was entitled to contribute less to his previous relationships. All this does is serve to punish the victim and their children – why should serial abusers be able to get away with this?”

i)         “The CMS would benefit from specialist support from Surviving Economic Abuse, as their policy and procedures does nothing to protect victims of economic abuse. I found their record-keeping to be awful, not one caseworker was assigned to me, but many. It was an overly complicated system that caused further stress at an already difficult time in my life – the online portal was not user-friendly at all. HMRC found records of my ex-husband’s employment, yet still nothing was done to retrieve maintenance from him. There was a lack of understanding of financial and post-separation abuse. Because of their negligence my children and I lost out on vital income, which had an impact on the rest of our lives. My children have been left knowing that their father doesn’t want to know them, and they don’t want anything to do with them. The process has allowed him to continue his coercive and controlling pattern of behaviour. When I appeared in the family courts, the courts did not see child maintenance as their problem – judges did not want to hear about it, and I felt that I would be chastised if I brought it up.”

j)        “Child maintenance payments should not automatically go down as direct payments. In my case, the CMS had been made aware after my initial phone call that a non-harassment order was in place against my ex-partner. Despite this, I was sent a letter by the CMS telling me my payments were to be paid from him directly. This made the situation extremely difficult, as a court-order was in place stating that there was to be no contact between us both. I wanted to go through the CMS as I was dealing with a man who had previously threatened to kill me, but their processes did not make this possible.”

 

These stories shine a light on the ways in which CMS procedures are negatively impacting the lives of victims of domestic abuse and their families. From these survivor stories, we can see a pattern of caseworkers failing to follow up important leads relating to victim’s maintenance claims, victims being routinely doubted, and children being used as a tool by perpetrators to control victim’s lives.

 

We know that perpetrators continue to inflict psychological abuse on victims, post-separation. Our research shows that abusers often target the vulnerabilities of victims of domestic abuse to present them as untrustworthy before public agencies, while at the same time elevating their own credibility and status.[5] The psychological tactics of abusers also include using the children to belittle and criticise the victim’s parenting, making use of accepted gender norms and stereotypes to depict female victims as unhinged and unreliable.

 

Recommendations

 

March 2022


[1] https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/Outreach%20Insights%20Dataset%20202021.pdf

[2] https://safelives.org.uk/sites/default/files/resources/CYP%20Insights%20Dataset%20202021.pdf

[3] https://gov.wales/sites/default/files/publications/2019-05/ask-and-act-role-frontline-practitioner.pdf

[4] http://clok.uclan.ac.uk/39447/2/Roadmap_Report_280921.pdf

[5] https://www.safelivesresearch.org.uk/Comms/Psychological%20Violence%20-%20Full%20Report.pdf