I was asked to review this conference for British Psychology Society’s ‘Qualitative Methods in Psychology Bulletin’ so I thought I would share my review here too.
The University of Northampton
Northampton 24th – 26th June 2015
This three-day conference provided an interdisciplinary forum to explore the impact of violence on children, families and society. Taking a multi-professional approach, interventions and responses to violence were considered at individual, interpersonal, community, social and political levels. As a researcher-practitioner with an interest in domestic violence, this conference offered an impressive selection of talks and events pertinent to my research and practice so I was fortunate to be able to attend.
There was an absorbing range of professional, high quality keynote presentations over the three days. Professor Liz Kelly from London Metropolitan University in London shared lessons learnt from the Mirabel Project on perpetrator programmes. She talked about how women were able to have more ‘Space for Action’ when male partners attended perpetrator programmes, which led to the creation of space and freedom in addition to decreased violence. It was stressed that survivors live in a pattern of coercive control – the familiar description of ‘walking on eggshells’ – rather than living with physical incidents and, therefore, the focus of perpetrator programmes should not just be about safety but also about freedom.
There was a stunning keynote presentation by Carlene Firmin MBE from MsUnderstood Partnership and University of Bedfordshire. She talked about an exploration of the nature of violence and abuse between young people. Carlene’s work draws on research into teenage relationship abuse, child sexual exploitation, harmful sexual behaviour and serious youth violence. Carlene talked about the individual agency of young people and how they were not just passive victims. Case file evidence and young people’s voices brought this presentation to life and effectively illustrated how young people can simultaneously be powerful and powerless when they take their power back to abuse others in an effort to resist being victims themselves.
Dr Jane Callaghan from the University of Northampton – who was also our host – talked about children’s experience of domestic violence in her keynote presentation. Reporting on her two-year project, ‘Understanding Agency and Resistance Strategies’ (UNARS), Jane talked about young people’s capacity to have resilience in a context of domestic abuse and how their sense of resistance and agency helped them to keep themselves safe. The absence of children from the UK Government’s definition of domestic violence was called into question and how this might impact on children who are not perceived as victims but as “collateral damage” was discussed. Jane called for an understanding of children from “the position that they are in rather than a fantasy of how children’s lives should be” and recognition that children are not just passive witnesses to domestic violence but are actively involved with agency, resistance and resilience.
Polly Neate, the Chief Executive of Women’s Aid spoke about ‘Change that Lasts: A new approach to ending violence’ in her keynote presentation. This is a new multi-agency model that takes a strengths-based, needs-led approach to domestic violence. Polly stressed that while the need for safety was an important element of surviving and recovering from domestic violence it was just one need of many that are not currently being addressed – including longer-term goals such as independence. Polly talked about how the current system fails to support survivors when it is too narrowly focussed on high-risk cases, which only addresses the tip of the iceberg and wastes money due to this imprudent focus. It was argued that ‘Change that Lasts’ is cost-effective compared to the current situation that “depletes survivors’ resources and fails to provide support in the long run”. Polly announced that the Model is due to be piloted in the coming year in the next phase of this new approach.
Dr Ingrid Palmary from University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa gave a paper on ethnographic research into how children navigate South African borderlands in her keynote presentation. In this fascinating talk, Ingrid explained how child protection concerning child migrants crossing borders in South Africa was at odds with how people live their lives. Ingrid used her research to show how the current model of child protection not only fails to protect the migrant child but also sets up danger for children when crossing the border. She explained how borders are not natural things that exist as unsafe entities in the context of children’s lives but are made unsafe by laws that restrict their behaviour such as when they cross the border to see friends unaccompanied, for example. Ingrid’s talk highlighted how children’s lives can be pathologised when they don’t live up to ideals and how global and local forces impact on children’s everyday lives when child protection systems skim over the complex needs of child migrants.
The final keynote presentation was from Professor Arlene Vetere from Diakonhjemmet University College in Oslo, Norway. Arlene is a professor of family therapy and she talked about the systemic approach to safe therapeutic practice with couples and families used in her ‘Reading Safer Families’ domestic violence intervention service, which she established twenty years ago. Arlene talked about the intergenerational and developmental impact on children and described how systemic thinking and practice places families at the heart of therapeutic work when there is domestic violence, which was positioned as a mental health issue. Arlene shared her experience of early resistance from local services to an independent family violence intervention practice. She recalled they were suspicious that couples’ therapists would blame everyone equally, would be easily manipulated because they were “nice women”, and would not report domestic violence as a safeguarding issue. Despite these reservations, Arlene reported that her service was promptly used by the local services shortly after opening and has been thriving ever since.
In addition to this impressive range of keynote presentations were two symposiums, and a formidable choice of papers and posters. I attended the symposium convened by Jane Callaghan on children’s experience of domestic violence and abuse that extended her keynote presentation where she talked about UNARS (see above). This symposium included a wonderfully creative element where drawings and photographs supported children’s articulations of domestic violence. The method of photo elicitation used with the one hundred children interviewed for this project not only enabled children to express their experiences of domestic violence but also resulted in a powerfully emotive dissemination of the research findings. Jane talked about how children’s verbal expressions of violence and abuse were often perceived as risky when the key lesson learned is the danger of speaking out. She explained how this potentially draws unwanted attention from the abuser, from social services, from bullies and from unwanted helpers. Jane gave the example of Paul (pseudonym) who said that he “told his social worker things but dad found out and he went mad”. Also in the symposium, Joanne Alexander talked about the ethics and practicalities of doing research with vulnerable families and about the reflections of the six researchers who took part in UNARS. Finally, Lisa Fellin talked about a most interesting group based intervention for children and young people that was developed out of the UNARS project. This intervention drew on creative, systemic and feminist approaches – moving away from an individualising, ‘overly-therapeutised” deficit-model to a more relational, embodied and resource-oriented approach. Lisa talked about how the group therapy drew on the embodied accounts of the children and young people’s experiences of domestic violence and their ways of coping through the use of space, objects, materials and games. The Conference included a fascinating exhibition of the artwork produced by the children and the researchers through UNARS. Judith Sixsmith, Claire Harrison-Breed and Stavroula Mavrou made up the full complement of researchers on the UNARS project.
I convened the other symposium on ‘Professional responses to mothers, with and without their children, when there is violence and abuse’. This was a cross-disciplinary panel of independent researchers exploring interactions between mothering, mother-child relationships, abuse and violence. The overarching connecting theme was professional involvement in circumstances where mother-child relationships can be threatened, interfered with and affected by abuse and violence. I presented on Maternal Alienation by talking about the accounts of six women who described strategies that included exploitation of institutions and manipulation of professionals who collude with perpetrators when mother-child relationships are targeted. Ariane Critchley from the University of Edinburgh talked about social work practice in pre-birth child protection through an ethnographic study where issues of power and control were identified when there is familial violence. Siobhan Beckwith from University of Huddersfield spoke about a mental health and wellbeing project for women in the North of England. Drawing on mothers’ experiences of separation from their children, Siobhan talked about the book, ‘In Our Hearts’ produced by the Mothers Living Apart from their Children Project. The book is a powerful resource for both mothers apart and the professionals who work with them. Dr Emma Katz from Liverpool Hope University talked about her research, which examined how professional responses may help or hinder mothers and children to attain a life free from abuse. Emma offered insights into the important matter of how professionals enable survivors of domestic violence who are mothers caring for children to promote each other’s long-term recoveries.
I very much enjoyed all of the key presentations and symposiums. It was hard to choose which individual papers to listen to though when preferred presentations coincided. I listened to Anthony Collins from Durban University of Technology in South Africa talk about sexual violence and institutional culture at two South African universities. He gave a chilling account of how one university’s response to rape was to silence and threaten by attacking the feminist population and closing down women’s and gender studies courses. Annemarie Millar from Queen’s University in Belfast gave a paper on emotional intelligence for social guardians, in which she highlighted the need for professionals to develop skills such as self-awareness and empathy when responding to children and young people experiencing domestic abuse. Jo Neale from University of Bedfordshire explored the ways that professionals respond to women seeking help for domestic violence and how their choices are affected by self-perceptions. Jo talked about positive interventions being identified as those that help women to increase their self-efficacy and unhelpful responses as including professionals’ active, if unwitting, collusion with the perpetrator. Suzanne McKenzie-Mohr from St Thomas University in Canada gave a beautifully eloquent paper on what she called the ‘tell-ability’ and ‘hear-ability’ of intimate partner sexual violence. Suzanne spoke about how dominant discourses diminish and “delegitimise women’s experiences of sexual violence” when this type of violence is denied or women are blamed for it. Suzanne suggests that practitioners use meaningful questions with survivors of rape and be mindful that tone and manner are crucial. There were so many more papers that I would like to have listened to. I heard that Craig Newnes from Shropshire NHS Psychological Services gave a superb paper on violence in child services. I was sad to have missed this amongst others but you can’t listen to everything.
The key themes that I heard over the three days included: how survivors of domestic abuse are pathologised, the prevalence of professional collusion – both knowing and unwitting, how the needs of survivors are more than safety alone, how children’s lives are idealised instead of addressing their realities, and the importance of survivors’ agency and resilience – in particular, that of children and young people.
I hope that I have managed to convey what an excellent conference this was and certainly unmissable if this is your field of research.