Implementing research findings in a practitioner setting and an ‘austere’ landscape: The thesis was the easy bit!

Dr Simon Retford

Over recent decades the availability of professional doctorate degrees has surged in the United Kingdom, as if meeting the needs of an ‘unsatisfied market’. The 2002 UK Council for Graduate Education Report  suggested that professional doctorate degrees were more suited to  “doctoral level study in a professional field rather than academia per se…[aimed at] students who are working in a professional environment to further develop their skills, knowledge and professional practice” ’. It was such thinking that appealed to my own wish to test myself and seek to achieve such academic attainment. Thus, the path to pursuing a professional doctorate was chosen, as opposed to the traditional PhD route. An important part of this choice was a real wish to not only contribute to knowledge, but also to contribute to professional practice, an issue deemed important in such doctorate degrees.

Fast forward four years, and a police colleague and I were the first of our 2012 cohort to successfully submit our Theses and ‘survive’ the dreaded viva voce. The graduation, as enjoyable as it was, came and went, and for me, I believed the difficult part was over.

The subject of my own research was ‘parent abuse’ (that is abuse, and violence perpetrated against parents, by children). I sought to specifically contextualise the problem in Greater Manchester and develop recommendations to generate improved collaborative responding, in an increasingly austere landscape. I had pursued a qualitative paradigm, conducting in-depth and semi-structured interviews with a range of practitioners across three central Greater Manchester boroughs; each with a range of diverse communities spanning cultural and social spectra. Purposive sampling was the chosen method of gathering the research sample, so that a broad range of agencies and hierarchical roles were involved.

The research findings broadly mirrored that of existing published data. Those facing and perpetrating abuse were found to be from across the social and demographic spectrum, although many who were known to services came from underprivileged backgrounds. Many of the families involved had a range of existing complex needs, which included both the parents and the children involved. My research with practitioners, in keeping with existing studies, that found certain key ‘aggravating factors’ added to the extent and severity of abuse. In many cases, families were known to have experienced domestic abuse between the adults in the family, and a belief that the behaviours exhibited by the abusive children had likely developed as a result of ‘learnt’ experiences. Poor parenting skills were also a common concern, where parents encountered difficulties in effectively managing the behaviour of their children. This was not, however, the case with all families. Other findings, which contributed to knowledge, focussed on the extent of cannabis use and mental health issues experienced by young people perpetrating the abuse. My key argument was that parent abuse is a unique problem in its own right; a range of complexities exist specifically within the ‘child-parent’ relationship. In light of the findings a ‘toolkit’ of responding was proposed, which sought to better define and understand the scale of abuse. Furthermore, the raising of awareness with families and practitioners was proposed. This would involve training, policy-setting and implementation of responding programmes. Governance that could generate collaborative and bespoke support for the families involved was seen as essential to disrupting the abuse. Longer-term gains were put forward, to develop ‘up-stream’ intervention, that could, with the right agencies involved, see such abusive relationships disrupted. Short-term investment was argued to be a necessary commitment to deliver longer-term problem solving for families, reduced calls for service, and an effective disruption to recurring familial cycles of violence and abuse.

In keeping with my wish to ‘contribute to practice’ I then set about marketing the findings within and outside my own organisation. I fully understood the unlikelihood of all the recommendations being successfully implemented, not least given the recognised absence of policy pertaining to parent abuse. I believed, however, that it was important to focus on the raising of awareness of the problem and cascading training to partner agencies, so that practitioners could better understand the complexities of the problem, and develop an understanding of responding opportunities.

It is fair to say that some agencies were more receptive than others in discussing the research findings, and in being amenable to making staff available for training. ustained lobbying on my part within the police has led to limited, but useful support, allowing me to gain access to the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) Lead for Domestic Abuse. As a result, I will soon be presenting my research findings to NPCC Regional Domestic Abuse Leads in London.

I have found that a constant and sustained process of lobbying key agencies and practitioners has helped me get a ‘foot in the door’ with agencies, and I have delivered several training events to practitioners dealing with such abuse. This has frequently led to a ‘snowball effect’ where further training for individual teams has emanated from training inputs, where managers have asked me to further present to their teams. This activity continues in earnest.

The implementation of other recommendations has very much stagnated. I believe that this has been exacerbated, ironically, by the lack of policy on responding to parent abuse. Accordingly, I have felt like the ‘lone voice’ trying to engage with a multitude of agencies. This has been extremely difficult, as I have had to do this in my own spare time, when holding down a very busy ‘day job’.

Conversely, my experiences of engaging with academics has been completely opposite to my experiences with practitioner organisations. I have been widely supported and encouraged by those in academia, and have provided training inputs to undergraduate and postgraduate students as well as academics and teaching staff. Some of this training has targeted those on Masters Level Social Work programmes, which has also supported my wish to deliver practitioner training.

So, what can we learn from these experiences to maximise practitioner researcher opportunities in influencing future change? It has been recognised that doctoral-level research can positively influence and develop both the researcher and organisations. However, it is also recognised that sometimes the appetite to implement research recommendations are completely outside the control of the practitioner-researcher. This, I believe, is and has been particularly relevant in the public sector, and with regards the huge areas of safeguarding and criminal justice. Clearly, the ongoing pressures of austerity play a significant part in the willingness or capacity of agencies to take on further responsibilities for emerging problems, such as parent abuse. That said, some organisations have demonstrated a willingness to adapt to such new threats. I believe these agencies have all had senior level buy-in, to enthusiastically engage in change activity. Therefore, sponsorship and support for the research from the very early stages is essential, to get organisations involved, and to maintain an interest in the evolving research process. Sadly, as austerity and cut-backs took hold, I found that such key people moved on or left organisations. It was then difficult to generate new ‘buy-in’, particularly in the face of continuing cuts to services.

Would I do anything differently? No, I do not think so. I have done my utmost to generate interest in this problem, and to cascade my findings. In doing this, I have been partially successful, in what has been a very austere landscape. I will continue to lobby those prepared to listen and seek to publish my findings, an issue that is somewhat overdue.

I would encourage others to follow their aims and attain the same sense of achievement that I have.

Dr Simon Retford is a Detective Superintendent with Greater Manchester Police. Email: Simon.Retford@gmp.pnn.police.uk

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