Summary of the main discussions

4th regional seminar on Protection and specialised support by the police, health care professionals and social workers for victims of domestic violence, Skopje, 11-12 September 2007


Background to the seminar 

During the Third Summit of the Council of Europe in May 2005, the Heads of State and Government of the Council of Europe reaffirmed their commitment to eradicating violence against women, including domestic violence. In adopting an Action Plan envisaging the launch of a Campaign to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence, and the institution of a Task Force on the same topic, they defined future activities by the Council of Europe in this field.

The Task Force, consisting of a group of eight international experts in the field of preventing and combating violence against women, developed the Blueprint for the Campaign. This document serves as a roadmap for the implementation of the Campaign and was approved by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. It contains a definition of violence against women, as well as aims, objectives, messages and activities to implement the Campaign.

Following the approval of the Campaign Blueprint by the Committee of Ministers, the Campaign was launched at a high-level conference on 27 November 2006 in Madrid. The Campaign incorporates three closely linked dimensions: governmental, parliamentary and local/regional. It is carried out by the Council of Europe as well as its member states, in partnership with international intergovernmental organisations and NGOs involved in the protection of women against violence.

The Campaign will end with a closing conference to be held in June 2008. On this occasion, the Council of Europe Task Force to Combat Violence against Women, including Domestic Violence, will present its conclusions and assessment of measures and actions taken at national level to combat violence against women, including domestic violence as well as its recommendations to the Council of Europe for future action in this field.

The intergovernmental Campaign activities carried out by the Council of Europe include five regional seminars - in co-operation with the requesting member state - devoted to one of the Campaign objectives as laid out in the Campaign Blueprint.

The Seminar on Protection and specialised support by the police, health care professionals and social workers for victims of domestic violence was the fourth such seminar. It was held on 11-12 September 2007 in Skopje, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.

Around 90 government and NGO representatives from Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” and Turkey gathered in Skopje to share information on and discuss the responses of the police, health care professionals and social workers to combating domestic violence

Keynote speeches and presentations on national experiences identified the roles that these professions play in preventing domestic violence and protecting and supporting its victims. In addition, a large part of the seminar was devoted to ways and means by which to increase not only co-operation among these professional groups but also with other service providers, public authorities and non-governmental organisations.

Introduction: Approaches to effective intervention by the specialised service sector 

Domestic violence is a multifaceted phenomenon which requires attention by various service providers, professional groups and public authorities. The key to effectively combat violence against women and to ensure the safety of women victims is close co-operation between different professionals and public authorities.

Various state agencies and service providers approach domestic violence from different perspectives. For example, the police response to domestic violence focuses largely on investigating a crime which can be brought to court and will lead to conviction, whereas the support services such as shelters for victims of domestic violence primarily aim to ensure the protection of the victim. When children are involved, the social services are alerted to ensure the child’s welfare and right to remain in contact with both parents.

The different approaches of service providers, which focus on either the victim, perpetrator or the child, often collide in the implementation of joint custody when the right of the child to a father jeopardises the mother’s right to protection and safety.

To guarantee the victim’s safety and empowerment it is of utmost importance that the different service providers share a common understanding of domestic violence and they adopt co-ordinated approaches to deal with the victims, children and perpetrators.

Police responses to combating domestic violence: towards effective intervention through proactive action and specialised training 

During recent years, increased attention has been given to combating domestic violence within the police. The police has an important role in providing front-line services to victims and preventing further violence as they come in contact with domestic violence in carrying out their duty. In many member states of the Council of Europe, police officers receive special training on domestic violence and they have adopted protocols for co-operation with other public authorities and service providers.

Some countries such as Sweden have set up special units within the police structure to investigate cases which involve battered and raped women. The police officers working in these units are specifically trained for this purpose and they co-operate closely with other public authorities and service providers such as crisis centres for victims, medical forensic examiners and social services. Practices to collect evidence such as taking photographs and video recording the injuries of the victim and the premises of the incident have proved to be important for introducing ex officio criminal proceedings as the victim is often reluctant to press charges against the perpetrator.

Depending on the legal system, the police also has an important role in issuing a restraining order and implementing it. The aim of the restraining order is usually to protect victim and children from further violence. The police can also be obliged to offer help and assistance to the victim as well as direct the perpetrator to an intervention programme for perpetrators of domestic violence.

Even though in many countries the police are trained to identify domestic violence at an early stage and are obliged by law to take a proactive role, assuming this preventive role in situations which do not yet qualify as a misdemeanour or crime can be difficult for police officers as the results from the pilot project carried out in the Netherlands demonstrate.

Health care professionals: identifying and responding to domestic violence 

As the victims turn to medical professionals for their physical injuries or on any other health-related matter, health professionals are usually among the first service providers who come in contact with the victims of domestic violence. For this reason, health professionals such as nurses and medical doctors are well situated to identify high-risk profiles for domestic violence and prevent violence at an early stage.

At international level, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued guidelines for medical staff in order to identify and prevent sexual assault and domestic violence and to raise awareness of health care professionals on violence against women. Within the Council of Europe member states, there are no examples of nationally adopted comprehensive approaches to preventing and identifying domestic violence within the health sector. However, some successful initiatives have taken place in some of the member states. Finland has carried out a successful project on screening domestic violence within the maternity and child health care clinics where pregnant women and women with small children were asked routine questions with regard to intimate partner violence. In Slovenia, guidelines for treating domestic violence within the health sector have been issued and nurses and midwifes receive regular training on family violence.

During the discussions, the participants stressed the importance of close co-operation between health professionals and the police in setting up systems for recording the injuries of the victim. As victims might be reluctant to report to the police immediately after the incidents, it is important that the medical records can be used as evidence in court when legal protection is sought later on.

The traditional approach in health care to treat injuries but not their causes and insufficient legal authorisation to intervene in the patient’s situation remains as the major obstacle to more effective measures to prevent domestic violence. Furthermore, securing confidentiality and the protection of patient data present additional challenges in finding the appropriate means to prevent and combat domestic violence.

Linking professional groups, state agencies and non-governmental organisations: examples of multi-sectoral approaches 

Co-operation among different state agencies, professional groups and service providers is considered a key element to effectively prevent and combat domestic violence and protect the victims. Even though many Council of Europe member states report having adopted co-operation models at regional and municipal levels, the efficient implementation as well as the comprehensive evaluation of such models are still missing to a large extent. Urban areas remain better equipped with co-ordinated support for victims, whereas rural areas are lacking basic support services.

Among the remaining obstacles, the participants identified the lack of clear policies and protocols for action for service providers, authorities and NGOs to act and co-operate, lack of systematic data collection and lack of continuity in training public officials and service providers.

Systematically setting up effective systems of multi-sectoral responses to domestic violence remains to be tackled in most Council of Europe member states. Evidence shows that most successful examples of co-operation rely heavily on good personal relations between different public authorities, service providers and NGOs.

The social services’ response to domestic violence: gender specific training and assistance to victims 

The traditional approach of social services focuses on the family as a unit and stresses the responsibility of both parents for the upbringing of their children. From the point of view of family policy and law, mothers and fathers are expected to share the custody of their children even after the break-up. Against this view, violence within the family poses a challenge to the family-orientated approach of the social services as the mother (and sometimes the children) need protection from the father.

Increased gender sensitivity of social workers and close co-operation between social services and support services for victims in order to better respond to the needs of victims of domestic violence are among future challenges within this field. Emotional support and comprehensive assistance to victims when contacting public authorities and institutions and providing information on the social rights of the victims as well as assisting her to realise her rights should also receive more attention within the social services.