I was recently asked to speak at an RHE Global webinar, on the subject of ASB. As part of the early planning for the event, I met with the other speakers to discuss the topics that we would all be covering. During the course of the conversation, the phrase “harm centred approach” was mentioned on several occasions. Indeed, I have also worked with a number of clients recently who have been keen to ensure that the same is embedded within their ASB policy. For this reason, it made sense to me for the session to look at this approach to ASB case management: what it means, why it is seen as best practice and how we can ensure that it underpins the decisions and actions that we take when managing cases of ASB.
What is a harm centred approach?
Historically, we had absolute lists of behaviours that fell under the heading of ASB, with the most famous example of this being the Home Office typology of ASB table that we would often see cut and pasted into ASB strategies and policies. As human beings, we tend to feel most comfortable with clarity and black and white answers. Being able to use this table list as a checklist to decide whether the report we had received was ASB was therefore very comforting and desirable.
The problem with this approach is that the definitions of ASB (regardless of which tool you are considering within the ASB, Crime and Policing Act 2014) are all subjective, based on the impact that the behaviour has, rather than a set of actions. For example, and generally speaking, it is much easier to decide whether a criminal offence has been committed, given the definitions are usually objective, based only on whether someone has or has not carried out certain actions. Given ASB is defined on the impact that it has, It is pretty impossible to make an exhaustive list of what falls under its definition.
Further, different people will be affected by ASB in different ways. If I am isolated, without a support network in place, have health issues or other life challenges, such as financial hardship, then my resilience may be lower and my ability to deal with the ASB targeted at me is greatly reduced. Never has there been a truer example of this than during the pandemic – we have seen reports of ASB increase greatly, with many victims citing high impact. With money worries and concern for our own health and that of our family, our resilience is likely to be lower; things that may never have caused us much concern before suddenly have a much bigger impact.
A harm centred approach to ASB recognises and incorporates the above. It encourages organisations to define ASB, and categorise the severity of it, by way of looking at both the behaviour type and the impact that the behaviour is having. It promotes an approach where risk factors are identified and action is taken accordingly.
This should not be about unfairly raising expectations or taking on more work. We should still make a professional judgement on whether the behaviour reported to us is ASB. By professional judgement, I do not mean making the decision based on how we would respond to the same behaviour being caused to us, but by putting ourselves into the shoes of the complainant and taking into account all the relevant circumstances. If it clearly is not ASB, perhaps because it simply is not something we could consider to be unreasonable, then this should still be conveyed to the complainant. However, it might be that the complainant still requires a support referral or signposting to another team. Just because the behaviour they are reporting is not ASB does not mean that they don’t need some other form of service to assist them. Indeed, if a complainant seems disproportionately affected by the behaviour they are reporting, it could well suggest that they have unmet needs that may need to be explored, by the officer or the most appropriate, specialist team/service.
Why adopt it?
The clear and obvious answer to the question of why we should adopt case management processes that are focussed on harm and risk is to make sure that we are recognising vulnerable people and working to best support them and lower their risk of harm. We do this because it is the right thing to do; because as officers, we are likely to be working in ASB because we genuinely care and genuinely wish to make a difference.
It also helps us to prioritise the most serious cases and target resources most effectively. Budgets are not unlimited and officer time is often already strained; we need to make sure that the limited resources that we do have are being used in a way that has the most impact and makes the most difference.
Whilst it may feel a little “icky” to talk about the business needs when we are discussing the benefits of supporting victim, we must also recognise that if something does go wrong, it can have bring grave and enduring detriment to the organisation found at fault.
What can we do?
There are a number of different ways in which a harm centred approach can be embedded into practice, including:
- Considering harm as a key factor when making a number of different case management decisions, including:
- Whether a report is ASB in the first place
- How serious the ASB is and the speed of response/priority is should be given
- The type of action that is proportionate and necessary to bring the harm to an end.
- Ensuring psychological harm is appreciated and reflected in how reports of ASB are categorised. Organisations will often include physical violence or threats of within their most serious categories of ASB but will less often include psychological harm. Emergency legal action, such as the without notice injunction, make clear within the legislation that the tool can be used where there is serious psychological harm being caused.
- Ensuring that officers who take initial reports are trained to recognise the types of factors or the things that complainants might say that can suggest a high level of risk. The latter could include the complainant making statements that they cannot cope, or showing extreme emotions in the manner in which they present themselves. With regards the former, we know that factors such as age, health, frequency of the behaviour, how close they live to the perpetrator, the motivation of the behaviour and how isolated the complainant is can all heavily affect how vulnerable someone is.
- Using a form of risk assessment tool to provide a guide as to how vulnerable a complainant might be, which incorporates many of the factors identified in the bullet point above, as well as ensuring that there is a response to this assessment and that the score is kept under constant review, giving that it can vary based on a change in circumstances for the complainant.
- Working, and sharing information, with partner agencies to help understand the true extent of any support needs and to help put in place the assistance that is required.
- Ensuring that the complainant is never forgotten: sometimes, in a quest to ensure that the ASB is stopped, focus trails to the perpetrator, trying to gain them support to reduce the likelihood of further ASB being caused. As officers, we have long been trained that we need to offer the perpetrator support to ensure that our legal cases are as strong as possible and that we can overcome any Equalities Act challenges. Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead (unintentionally) to the needs of the victim being forgotten.
- Embedding all of the above into ASB policies and procedures to ensure that it is consistently adopted by all officers
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