A Police Response to Parent Abuse

When I undertook my Masters study in 2004 – 6, one of the people I interviewed was a police officer, who described his sense of frustration at the difficulties in responding to incidents where parent abuse could be clearly identified. Pretty much everything I had read online or in the literature had suggested that the police hadn’t a clue, sided with the young person, maybe arrested the parent and certainly had nothing useful to offer; so it was interesting to sit down with someone and hear the other side. He identified a system of adhoc responses depending on the awareness of the individual officer, and then nothing concrete to offer, nowhere to refer on to as there was no agency taking responsibility for meeting the needs of families where children’s violence to parents was an issue.

Nearly ten years later, I have had the privilege of talking with another police officer. Clearly some of the frustrations remain, but it has been encouraging to hear of real progress in some areas in that time. While specific provision is still patchy – but definitely growing – a focus on awareness raising, training and further local research brings hope that the situation will improve in line with developments around the country and across agencies and services. So why the continuing bad press? Is it that we only report the bad news? Do we need to redress the balance when it comes to writing about parent abuse? Or are there actual structural reasons why it is difficult for the police to move forward with this?

DCI Simon Retford has kindly responded to some questions about his experience of parent abuse, as an officer with the Greater Manchester Police.

In your experience are officers generally familiar with the issue of parent abuse?

Depends who you mean by officers. Response officers (those who drive the panda cars and first “respond” to incidents, Public Protection Officers / Domestic Violence Unit ). These officers tend to be aware that such incidents happen; but only a small proportion will know it as “parent abuse”. As the definition is not set in stone, and all too frequently there are similar problems caused by the parents towards the children, officers may only think of the situation as one of a “domestic” within a problem family. It has been surprising how often officers have acknowledged the problem to me, once having heard of my research and my defining the problem. If we could better define the problem, raise awareness, and then provide an agreed multi-agency policy, the responses could be much better; and in these austere times, more effective to families, whilst being more efficient to services.

Do officers have a good understanding of the issue or would there be confusion around fault and blame?

Officer tend not to have a good understanding of “PA” (as above), but this could easily be remedied. There is significant confusion around fault and blame, because of the reciprocal problems in many families (see above re the “problem family”). Sadly there are occasions when parents are blamed; but there are many instances where officers are prepared to take positive action, and if necessary arrest the children or seek their temporary removal to friends / other family. All too often many parents are reluctant to support any police intervention, because (as parents) they do not want to criminalise their child. We are fortunate in Manchester in that we have some excellent multi-agency relationships and good referral processes to other agencies. However the mediation / support / intervention arrangements for child perpetrators is not there. Agencies (Youth Offending Services / Children’s Services) will do their best to respond to the problem; however were we to have better defined processes and strategies, this could improve the responses significantly. This in itself is not easy in these austere times, which is why it is essential to include the third sector in developing any intervention activity.

Police recording of crime is generally portrayed as very bureaucratic, with the need for codes and categories for everything. Is there a code for parent abuse, or how would it be recorded?

Crime categorisation is set by the Home Office. No there is not a code for Parent Abuse; nor is there for domestic abuse. There are “Domestic Abuse Markers”, and there could be “Parent Abuse markers”. I raised this in my previous research paper; but this is likely to be difficult to implement. It was interesting in some recent interviews I conducted, in preparation for my Doctorate Thesis research, that several professionals believed PA should be linked to DA, so as to overcome any further bureaucracy.

It is said that some people call the police because they want their children to be made to think about the seriousness of what is happening (an old fashioned talking-to), but do not want their child prosecuted. Is there a mechanism for this sort of response at the moment or is this a vain hope?

This can and does happen, but tends to be ‘ad hoc’, where the parent may contact police. It is a huge step to take, in case they are in fear of the police taking further action. I would suspect this may be difficult action to generate, were parents to speak to Social Workers / Teachers / GPs. This is because professionals have to consider the likes of the Human Rights Act and a positive obligation to parents and children, (as well as teachers, doctors, social workers etc  etc). Nowadays professionals tend to ‘systemise’ responses and follow protocols, not least because society want to blame someone if something goes wrong. If a ‘talking to’ failed to stop the abuse and then the parent was subsequently seriously hurt, the parent would be likely to complain / seek litigation etc, and no doubt the professional could face disciplinary action. What would you do? This, in my opinion, is a really sorry state of affairs, and is why professionals do things ‘by the book’.

Some people may have genuine fear for the safety of themselves or others in the home. What can the police offer in this situation?

In emergencies the police will respond, and will deal with incidents, but (as above) face reluctant parents all too often. For less urgent cases, parents should contact Children’s Services in the first instance who can make the necessary safeguarding referrals. They could also contact their local police Public Protection Teams / Units for advice, their child’s school or GP.

Is there anything that can be  done to overcome the difficulties when parents say that the police response made the situation worse?

These incidents tend to relate to first responding police officers. It’s difficult to give a ‘generic’ answer, as there could be many reasons for causing a loss in confidence / trust. Parents, as any member of the public, always have the option of speaking to officers’ supervisors; and, although they may not want to formally complain, they have every right to voice concerns and seek a “service recovery” by the supervisor, to enlighten officers as to their conduct. Clearly such issues could be minimised by the roll-out of training to officers, and this is something which we are considering.

How does parent abuse sit with the requirement to take positive action on every report of domestic violence? 

The notion of positive action has changed over the years. It used to mean “arrest the husband / partner”; then changed to “deal with the incident positively to prevent any repetition”. This could mean taking the perpetrator / victim out of the home to stay somewhere else. It does already happen with parent abuse cases, but as above, sometimes the parent (at their wits end) call the police to make the incident stop, and then once the police arrive they may refuse to cooperate with officers. It could mean making safeguarding referrals for the family. It should be no different for PA cases; as the main objective is to stop the incident and then seek help for the family to break the abusive cycle.

How much is action driven by national guidelines and how much room is there for local responses to develop? 

Police and statutory partners follow both national guidelines and local policy. There are already local processes for DA, and this is something I am looking at to improve responses in Greater Manchester, although it is a difficult process. For practitioners reading this I would suggest they first seek to define the problem and raise awareness; only then can they begin the process of developing and implementing strategy.

Would this happen in conjunction with other services?

It has got to happen with other agencies and the third sector. One agency cannot do it on their own. Research has suggested this, and in the current economic climate and with a reduction in public services, I would suggest collaboration between agencies offers the best opportunities for effective and efficient responses.

Will cases be sent to MARAC?

Some boroughs have sent cases to MARAC; however others have had to decline PA cases, because they are already too busy with adult abuse.

Is DASH relevant to parent abuse?

Parts of DASH are relevant, but when Dr Laura Richards developed this process, she was focussing on adult abuse. Although many suggest it is too bureaucratic, is there anything better which delivers such a consistent means of assessing risk?

What is the one thing in your mind which would make a difference to the way the police respond?

Sorry, 3 things for me! 1) Define, 2) Raise awareness (with the public and professionals, 3) Have a process / strategy to deal in a multi-agency manner.

Is this down to individual areas or forces to move forward or is there a place for a national response?

Two years ago, when I wrote my Masters Dissertation, knowledge and awareness on PA was minimal. A few months ago you and I had the pleasure to speaking to about 200 delegates from all over the country. What is it going to be like in two years time? I am excited about the prospect. 
In answering your question, I go for the good old “pincer movement”; I would say begin the process of raising awareness in local areas and counties, and simultaneously seek a national platform of awareness. More and more research is taking place now and in the future, including my own; and this can only contribute to the debate on PA.

Simon Retford is Detective Chief Inspector with Greater Manchester Police, with over 22 years experience in the Service, mostly as a detective. He has worked in Divisional and Neighbourhood Crime investigation, Serious and Organised Crime investigation and also Homicide investigation.  His interest in parent abuse spans several years during which time he has undertaken study and research at the University of Portsmouth, published a paper concerning his findings with Dr. Amanda Holt, and spoken at a national Parent Abuse conference in Nottingham in March of 2013. Highly committed to grounding his research in practice, between April 2011 and September 2011 Simon was engaged in exploring organisational responses to Parent Abuse across Greater Manchester, pitted against other forms of family violence. His findings will be circulated to local agencies to inform future responses to this problem, and have now been published. In October 2012 he returned to study and began working on a professional doctorate in criminal justice studies, which has continued this local focus, looking for correlations between parent abuse and those identified under the ‘Troubled Families banner’.

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