Twice as many victims of domestic violence in Iceland are reporting incidents and accepting help, thanks to a new police strategy of offering all available support immediately. The idea is that there is a small window of opportunity after the assault, during which victims are most likely to accept that they need assistance from social workers, lawyers, doctors, and child protection services. While half of female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, domestic violence also affects everyone in the house: children can face serious trauma, even if they don’t actually witness the events.
Results & Impact
The number of cases of domestic violence reported to the police has more than doubled since the project began; in the capital, reported cases have increased from 20 to 56 each month in just a couple of years. This indicates that victims are aware of the increased support available and more confident that their complaints will be taken seriously. In Reykjavik's new one-stop-shop for supporting domestic violence victims - Bjarkarhlíð, built in 2017 as part of this project - 193 victims of violence have been cared for (of which 175 were women). After interviewing victims, the police followed up 106 of these cases. In Iceland, there are now around 650 cases of domestic violence a year, and in 61% of these the victim suffers an injury. Furthermore, half of all Iceland’s female murder victims are killed due to some form of domestic violence, a statistic that also holds in the US and elsewhere.
Reykjavik Metropolitan Police, Reykjavik municipality, Suðurnes district
If the police are called to a domestic violence incident, they now arrive with a team of social workers, lawyers, doctors, and child protection services. There are follow-up visits a week later, and data is collected from these interactions to help identify women at further risk. The project is now running all over Iceland, but began with a pilot in the district of Suðurnes in 2012. In Reykjavik, the initiative has involved building a new centre for victims of violence - Bjarkarhlíð - in which all services are available under one roof. Iceland is now also implementing the “Austrian model” for domestic violence, in which authorities are allowed to remove offenders from the home (rather than the victim having to leave) and can use a restraining order when domestic violence is suspected. Furthermore, in the case of minor assaults, Iceland’s police can now take the case to court, even if the victim does not want to press charges. A final element to the initiative is public awareness about the dangers and prevalence of domestic violence: social workers visit schools, there have been public lectures, and police have distributed a brochure titled “Is Domestic Violence a Part of Your Life?”
Women and girls, children
Cost & Value
In the Reykjavik area, the budget for the initiative is currently around $200,000 per year, although a higher-than-expected caseload means that this figure will likely have to increase.
Running since 2012
When the initiative was moved from the small pilot district of Suðurnes to the capital, procedures had to be adapted to the larger city. In a small area, it is easy to have good cooperation between police and social services, with meetings held every two weeks to discuss progress, see the caseload, and work out who is at risk. This is harder when the different agencies aren't as familiar with each other. Another challenge has been resistance from the police to the extra meetings involved, and concerns from the social and child protection services, as well as NGOs, about the extra caseload and need for more resources.
In Iceland, twice as many women are reporting incidents of domestic violence to the police than they were two years ago. This is due to an ongoing police initiative to provide women with better-timed and better-located assistance, which is bringing the problem out of the shadows.
Each year, around 650 people in Iceland are victims of domestic violence, and 400 of them are injured in the assault. Half of all female murder victims are killed by an intimate partner, a statistic that also holds in many other places, including the US.
But it is not just the victims that are harmed: domestic violence affects everyone living in the household, particularly children. Research shows that children exposed to domestic violence are six times more likely to be subject to similar circumstances in adulthood.
“The impact on children is so harmful. According to research, a child living in a home with a cycle of domestic violence is affected just the same, whether or not they ever see the violence, and it also affects the child in the same way – as if they had been beaten up themselves. So we should interfere in those cases – if only because of that,” said Alda Hrönn Jóhannsdóttir, Chief Attorney of the Reykjavik Metropolitan Police.
“We can see the big impact and we can also hear it from the survivors; they care very much that people really want to help,”
Iceland’s ongoing efforts began with a 2012 pilot in the small district of Suðurnes. Police had noticed that victims of domestic violence are most likely to accept authorities’ help immediately after the incident, when they call the police.
When police are called, they now attend to incidents with a whole team, including social workers, lawyers, doctors, and child protection services. Each of these follows up again a week later, and data recorded from these interactions helps identify women at further risk.
Now rolled out across the country, the scheme has shown significant results. In the capital, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the police has increased from an average of 20 to 56 each month in just two years, indicating that victims are now aware of the support available, and confident complaints will be taken seriously. “We can see the big impact and we can also hear it from the survivors; they care very much that people really want to help,” said Jóhannsdóttir.
But implementing the project in larger cities has also involved significant challenges. “Initially, the police in the capital were resistant, but after the new Chief of Police Guðjónsdóttir was appointed in Reykjavik [the first woman ever to hold the role] we started the project there,” said Jóhannsdóttir.
In small districts, police and social services cooperative more easily, with meetings every two weeks to discuss progress, see the caseload, and work out who was at risk.
“Replicating it in the larger capital city has, of course, been harder. In smaller districts, cooperation is good, everyone knows everyone. But we are also lucky because Iceland is small; everybody knows somebody that knows somebody,” said Jóhannsdóttir.
“In cases of domestic violence the perpetrator is someone who they love and are living with – it’s a very big decision to press charges, and the responsibility for that decision shouldn’t be the victim’s,”
Another challenge in Reykjavik is addressing the higher caseloads for social workers, NGOs, and child protection services. As a result, a new centre called Bjarkarhlíð was built in 2017.
“It is a one-stop-shop; the idea is to put all services for victims of domestic violence in one building together. It has been helping a lot; it doesn’t make sense for a vulnerable person to have to travel around to meet all the various stakeholders and ask for assistance in many places,” said Jóhannsdóttir.
So far, 193 victims of violence have been helped in Bjarkarhlíð, of which 175 were women. After interviewing 144 victims, the police also followed up 106 of these cases. “Within six months we can see that this new method at Bjarkarhlíð is so needed – to have a kind and warm place where victims of violence are able to go,” said Jóhannsdóttir.
Iceland is now also implementing the “Austrian model” for domestic violence, in which authorities are allowed to remove offenders from the home (rather than the victim having to leave) and can use restraining orders when domestic violence is suspected.
“It’s not rocket science. It’s just a matter of willing to do something faster; in these cases, you only have this short window to have some influence in this relationship,”
Furthermore, in the case of minor assaults, Iceland’s police can now follow the case through the court system even if the victim does not press charges. “Victims of violence are in a very vulnerable position, and in cases of domestic violence the perpetrator is someone who they love and are living with – it’s a very big decision to press charges, and the responsibility for that decision shouldn’t be theirs to deal with,” said Jóhannsdóttir.
There have also been efforts to improve public awareness about the dangers and prevalence of domestic violence. Social workers are attending schools, there have media campaigns and public lectures, and the police have distributed a brochure, “Is Domestic Violence a Part of Your Life?”
“We are having all kinds of discussions in the media about how dangerous domestic violence is, and how it affects all the people living in the home,” said Jóhannsdóttir.
In the Reykjavik area, the overall budget for the new procedures is currently around $200,000 per year, although the higher-than-expected caseload and expansions to Bjarkarhlíð mean that this figure will likely have to increase.
While nowhere else has replicated the model so far, Jóhannsdóttir is confident that it could and should be spread. “I’m sure it could work in other places – and it should. It’s all about the people who need the service, it’s not about the district. It’s not rocket science. It’s just a matter of willing to do something faster; in these cases, you only have this short window to have some influence in this relationship.”
(Picture credit: Flickr/Laura Smith)