Mark Hutcheon may have left the police force after 30 years but he will soon be bumping into his old colleagues again.
The former District Commander for the Tonbridge & Malling branch of Kent Police took up the role of Chief Executive of the charity Domestic Abuse Volunteer Support Services (DAVSS) on September 1.
Not only do the police provide a headquarters for the West Kent organisation, which covers Tunbridge Wells, Tonbridge and Sevenoaks, but they have liaised with DAVSS since its inception in 2009.
Mark said: “There’s a lot of synergy there. We used to work very closely with DAVSS when I was an officer and we were keen supporters because they offer a superb level of service for victims of domestic abuse, which the police and some of the other agencies can’t do.
“The police have to make a risk assessment to prioritise because their resources are rationed. In an ideal world they would like to give everyone the same level of service.
“But DAVSS is a voluntary organisation which doesn’t distinguish by risk. They can offer the kind of service which goes far beyond what public bodies can provide.”
One of the greatest achievements of DAVSS has been their success in stopping victims from falling prey to the perpetrators of abuse again after the first time they make a referral.
The repeat victimisation average across Kent is between 20 and 25 per cent, and yet where DAVSS has been involved it is less than nine per cent.
Janette Berry, Co-Chair of DAVSS, says: “Over the last year we have supported more than 740 victims of domestic abuse across the three districts. The low number of repeat victims is particularly reassuring. This is testament to the wonderful support provided by our volunteers.”
Mark takes up the theme: “It all boils down to preventing repeat Âvictimisation. With DAVSS the mechanisms are put in place to help Âpeople to change their lives and not become a victim again – at the hands of the same perpetrator, or a Âdifferent one.”
He has taken over from Sue Dunn, another former police officer who has stepped down after six years to focus on the DAVSS volunteers and her own training company, which also helps victims of abuse.
Sue said of her successor: “I will be leaving DAVSS in safe hands. Mark not only brings a wealth of experience of dealing with victims but also working with partner agencies.”
Mark also believes his experience on the force will stand him in good stead as he takes up the challenge.
“I’ve worked in public protection [PP] and that’s really what police work is all about. I have specialised in public protection arenas and run teams that are purely focused on that in the past.
“I was a detective inspector in the PP Unit, and one element of that was domestic abuse. The other element was the violent and sexual offenders register – so we were monitoring and managing the most risky members of our society.
“We did a lot of multi-agency work, which brings in psychiatry, probation and the like, to come up with plans around managing high-risk people in our communities.
“A lot of my role at DAVSS is about networking and who you know,” he adds. “A lot of the core people I will be working with, I’ve already been dealing with them day in, day out in my previous role. The police refer the largest amount of clients to us.”
Referrals for domestic abuse have risen inexorably over the last few years but Mark says that is probably more to do with a greater willingness to report incidents rather than an increase in the abuse itself.
“You could say that such an increase is a positive thing because it shows that people have got confidence in the police,” he says.
“It gives them the courage to come forward and say ‘this has happened to me’, and they know they will be taken seriously and get the support and protection they drastically need.”
Numbers are also bound to rise following the introduction of new legislation last December which saw ‘coercive and controlling abuse’ designated as a crime. So there is now scope to prosecute for psychological harm as well as physical violence.
It will take time for the results of this new law to become apparent, but Mark says: “I am personally a great supporter of it. I remember that I once went to the Crown Prosecution Service trying to get a charge for psychological assault. But there was no legislation so they wouldn’t authorise the charge. Eight years forward, there is now an offence.
“Domestic abuse can be controlling in many ways. It’s not just physical assault, it could be someone controlling bank accounts, or access to friends and family, or isolation. The new offences were set up to address all those points.”
One area where victims still need to be encouraged to seek help is when the abuse is against men.
Mark adds: “It’s not just female victims, there are male victims as well and that’s under-reported because they’re ashamed of coming forward.”
The charity reckons that men are twice as likely as women not to tell anyone about their suffering, and this summer DAVSS received a grant of £10,546 from Kent’s new Police & Crime Commissioner, Matthew Scott, specifically for a nine-month project offering support to male victims, including gay, transgender and disabled men.
Sue said: “Domestic abuse remains a taboo subject in our society, even more so for victims who are male. A year ago we were supporting seven male victims; today it is more than 60 per year.”
Last year, DAVSS held a conference entitled Men Standing Up Against Domestic Abuse, at which two victims spoke of their experiences.
“It was clear how much more difficult it is for a man to say, ‘I am being abused’,” said Janette. “If you walked past them on the street, you would never say they were victims. One of them was even an ex-SAS officer. And these men are survivors. That’s important.”
The Tunbridge Wells foodbank Nourish has seen a year-on-year rise in clients who are victims of domestic abuse, but pointed out that it is not a ‘poor people’s problem’ – a misconception that Mark is also keen to correct.
“I don’t think it ever has been like that, to be honest,” he says. “One hundred per cent it cuts across all spectrums of society, irrespective of income levels. It does seem that people think if you’re lower class, lower income, you’re more likely to be susceptible, but all our evidence suggests that’s not the case.
“For example, in a wealthy family where the wife doesn’t work, the children go to public school – nice holidays, nice cars, nice house – the female may have no control over the finances, and I’ve no doubt that some victims remain in a relationship because of everything that it offers, to retain a certain lifestyle.”
The domestic abuse landscape is changing in many ways, and the police and support networks such as DAVSS have to work hard to keep up. Not only is abuse of men on the agenda, but there is also the issue of cyber crime, which has introduced abusive behaviour such as ‘trolling’ – vitriolic abuse on social media – and ‘revenge porn’, publishing explicit images of partners.
The police have been criticised for failing to take such matters seriously, but there is a significant amount of training being provided on these topics – which have a technical complexity that can be hard to tackle.
After the police, the next largest source of referrals to DAVSS comes directly from the victims. “That indicates there are a lot of victims out there who don’t get want to get involved with the police as a personal choice, but they do need support.”
Coping with the rising demand for their services is a challenge for DAVSS, which is why they are conducting a recruitment drive for volunteers this month. One of Mark’s first tasks is to do that [see below] and also find extra funding.
“We’ve got many streams of funding from local councils, the police and other small donations. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence realistically. I’m exploring the possibilities of funding streams in the private sector, to make life a little more comfortable.
“The value for money that DAVSS provides is fantastic. For every pound they get in funding, it’s worth four to five times that if you pay someone for the services they deliver.
“Real success would be you didn’t get anyone ringing you up. It will never happen, sadly, because that’s not the society we live in.”
DAVSS is looking to recruit volunteers to help victims of domestic abuse. The charity provides individual advisors to support clients on a one-to-one basis because abuse can be complex and long-standing – and often cannot be resolved easily.
They will be hosting a seven-week training course from September 15, running two days a week. Volunteers will receive professional management, clinical supervision and mentoring training.
DAVSS is also looking for assistance with their helpline, administration, fundraising and publicity.
“Our volunteers are special people,” says Chief Executive Mark Hutcheon. “They give up their time to make a real difference to the victims and their families. The advisors don’t have to have any experience. They are mentored and fully supported because you are dealing with a very emotive subject.”
WHAT DAVSS DOES
- Helpline on weekday mornings, giving immediate safety advice
- Face-to-face support services at venues convenient to clients
- Free legal advice from a pro bono lawyer
- Referring children to social services for safeguarding
- Signposting to other agencies e.g. police, benefits, housing, health professionals
- Support for clients when they go to court – often a daunting and frightening experience
- Raising public awareness, including Domestic Abuse Youth courses for young people
- Delivering the Freedom Programme, a 12-week course for women to help regain self-esteem, improve quality of life and show the effect of abuse on children