Daily group collaborates to reduce family harm in the Top of the South
Every day a group of people are working behind the scenes in Nelson to ensure that vulnerable families in distress don’t slip through the cracks and become further victims of family harm.
Staff members representing SVS – Living Safe, NZ Police, Oranga Tamariki, the Department of Corrections, Womens’ Refuge, Nelson Marlborough Health’s mental health and addiction services, Whakatū Marae, and
others participate in daily meetings where they track family harm reports that come into NZ Police. They discuss each situation and determine a lead agency who will reach out to the person or family and put in place the services required to help.
These Safety Assessment Meetings, SAMs for short, are led by Police from the Tasman District. They follow a model common around New Zealand through an effort initiated by NZ Police to reduce serious family harm interventions and engage support service specialists. The programme is called the Family Violence Inter-Agency Response System.
Police find better ways to help distressed families
NZ Police Senior Sergeant Hamish Chapman oversees the Nelson Bays family harm team responsible for prevention activities.
“All of the family harm reports that come through the Police in the last 24 hours are discussed at the SAM meetings,” he says. “We talk about each family in as much detail as possible so we can paint a full picture of what’s going on in the home. It helps us stay on top of the situation and it helps us get the right organisations in place to support them.”
Hamish says the team spends a lot of time talking about immediate needs to make people safe, the need for safety plans for the future, and strategies the family can adopt to become self-supportive.
Any family can find itself in difficulty for any number of reasons, SAM attendees say. Drug and alcohol situations are what most people may think of, but there are all kinds of issues that arise in to put a family in crisis: a financial difficulty causes a parent to slip up, a medical problem is adding stress at home and causing a young person to act out, or sometimes there is real family violence at the core.
“We have experienced members of our social services around the table or on call who can deal with all of these circumstances. Together we find the best way forward for that person or family,” Hamish says.
“From a Police perspective, having all of these partner agencies around the table helps us better understand what is going on in our community. Harm or violence doesn’t just spring up out of nowhere, it’s more likely that there are tell-tale signs along the way that we can identify and deal to ahead of time.
“Ultimately, we want to prevent these families from becoming a family that Police has to visit.”
Focussing on safety and risk
One of the agencies sitting around the table every day is SVS – Living Safe, the specialist family violence organisation. Specialist clinicians attend SAM meetings in Nelson, Motueka, and Kaikoura. In Nelson, clinician Joelene Whitfield has spent more than seven years attending the SAM meetings.
“It used to be a weekly meeting for three or more hours and it was heavy, it was a lot to take in. Many families in our community are being challenged in different ways and it can really get to you. Even with a lead agency in place, all of the agencies are touching the family as it moves through the process in some way. It’s smart to do it this way because there’s one meeting where we coordinate everything, so we are all in the loop.”
Joelene says the team works through a process that is focused on safety and risk above all.
“We know we can’t solve every problem, but I feel strongly that the point of this group is to assess risk,” she says. “As we put together the picture and we do our regular check in on families we are working with, we are always asking ourselves: what is the risk to this family right now? Are they safe, or can we make them safer? Every whānau has a different solution and it’s our job to piece together that puzzle for them at this time. Even if things change, safety is the first box to tick.”
Whether the team from Women’s Refuge has a mum and her kids under their watch or SVS – Living Safe is working with the perpetrator of the harm, the group’s discussion is ongoing throughout the time this family is being monitored to assess the best fit for what is going on at that moment.
Joelene says when Police issue a Police Safety Order (PSO), the path for help is made available.
“When suspected victims of harm are not feeling able to come forward and there isn’t enough evidence of a crime, Police can issue a police safety order. This means either the suspected aggressor of the incident or another person can volunteer to leave the home and is issued an order of non-contact that lasts from 24 hours to 10 days. This allows for a cooling-off period and gives space for services to reach out to every member of the family.
“It’s important that we reach out to everyone who was affected by the incident if we want to effect change that is lasting.”
If the Police don’t issue a PSO, SVS – Living Safe is often the starting point for those families because SVS – Living Safe conducts assessments in person before identifying the best path
forward. The organisation offers a variety of interventions, including adult safety and non-violence programmes and programmes for children and youth.
“Our mission is to involve the entire whānau whenever possible both to ensure individual and family needs are met but also because we know that when everyone is involved, there’s a better chance for lasting change.”
The most difficult cases and the one-offs
One of the more difficult parts of the meeting is reviewing progress of the families that are frequently discussed around the table.
Joelene says, “With all the experience around the table, it can be frustrating to see some of the same families over and over where attempts to create longer lasting safety and change have not taken hold. Those families may get added to a high-risk list where we discuss additional support strategies and monitor them on a weekly basis until those risks have been adequately managed.”
Hamish adds that the SAM group makes follow-up calls and checks in from time to time with these families. Check-ins even go back a year when the group takes time each month to review families it has helped in prior years to see how they are doing.
Last year during the COVID lockdown, many new families were added to the SAM database and there was a lot of ongoing follow-up for these whānau.
“Thankfully for most of these families, it was a one-time concern around COVID and they appreciated when we checked in on them,” Hamish says. “Many were finding their way with the help we offered and further interventions weren’t required from us after that initial check. The SAM team was really attentive to the details during that time when extraordinary times put quite a few new families in distress.”
Measuring the impact
Is the group is making a difference? Some family events are one-off and other families come to Police attention more frequently. “More often than not, we are seeing families get the help and move on successfully. That’s a great feeling,” Hamish says.
“If a family doesn’t come to our attention again, then that is a success. If a couple decides the relationship that has been violent needs to end, without any issues, then that is a success. If a couple that has been arguing about money gets help from a budget service to set them on a better path, then that is a success.
“It’s about connecting people to the wider group of support services and extending that circle of support. Then, if the calls for service to Police go down from that family, we know we’ve connected the right dots together.”
The smaller number of families who are repeatedly discussed at SAM meetings is disappointing at times, Hamish admits. These families usually have multiple concerns and addressing these takes time. For the Police, knowing more about the recurring families allows them to have a better overview of what is going on in the community at large. For the support agencies, they can focus in on each of the issue areas one at a time.
Hamish says, “With these families, over time we mostly see the number of Police events decrease to a manageable level. This by itself is a good thing as those families are able to manage themselves. But sometimes families need to split up and go their separate ways to start fresh. Our partner agencies can help and have helped when this is the outcome. And to be honest, ultimately we are looking to stop that cycle of harm and violence from repeating itself, so that fresh start can be the best outcome.”
Hamish says he also likes to look at success in another way, the success of the collective group to hold families up during difficult times.
“When we can point to a family we helped who hasn’t come back again, that means all of us around the SAM table have done a good job as a team. It’s not what one agency does that keeps a family on a better path, it’s the collective work that we all are doing.”
Joelene agrees about being the collective effort. “One of the best things to come out of these meetings has been the growth in the relationships between each of the services. We are stronger together, supporting families with a holistic, responsive service. That’s an amazing outcome for our communities.”
More help is here for Nelson Tasman
Meetings like SAM in Nelson Tasman take place in different forms all around New Zealand. In the Tasman District, SVS – Living Safe attends meetings in Nelson, Motueka, and Kaikoura, while a sub-contractor agency participates in Blenheim. In the last year, the Ministry for Social Development has committed to investing more in the Tasman District’s SAM meetings, funding a dedicated specialist clinician from SVS – Living Safe to attend the meetings and manage their organisation’s cases.