An Audit of Independent Sexual Violence Advisors (ISVAs) in England and Wales published last month by Kings College London and LimeCulture CIC, identified that nearly a fifth (19%) of the ISVAs that took part in the survey remained untrained. This is extremely concerning.
The ISVA role has evolved significantly in the last few years and there has been a rapid increase in the number of ISVA posts across England and Wales. This is due, in part, to the Home Office providing some funding support to Voluntary and Community Sector organisations and indeed Sexual Assault Referral Centres (SARCs) for ISVA posts. The ISVA role is now broadly very well supported and most agencies can see the value of having an ISVA involved to provide practical and emotional support. As a result, there has been a huge number of ISVA posts created up and down the country, without any further central funding support.While this in itself is excellent for the ISVA workforce, who are finally having the importance of their role recognised, sadly, it is a double edge sword.
There is no regulatory framework in place for ISVAs, nor any method of identifying how big the ISVA workforce has actually become. ISVAs do not have to be registered and they are not monitored (although some may be locally). However, most worrying of all is that it is in fact impossible to guarantee the safety of services provided by ISVAs up and down the country.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some absolutely brilliant ISVAs out there doing some invaluable work with some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They are the very reason that the ISVA role is recognised as being an invaluable resource to invest in. They are the very reason that ISVAs are thought of as a vital service by a whole range of professionals and agencies supporting child and adult victims of sexual violence. But, there is also a fair few people out there, calling themselves an ISVA, who are not so great. They are the dangerous ones. Dangerous for themselves as professionals, dangerous for their clients and potentially disastrous for the ISVA workforce. They are the ones that will potentially muck it up for all and compromise an entire workforce.
Sound dramatic? Well let me give you a few examples. There is the ‘ISVA’ who attended the ABE interview with her client- just being there hearing the details of the case is a no no – but in her wisdom (and probably because she intended to help) she answered one of the questions put to her client by the police. Case over before it evens starts. Then we’ve got the ‘ISVA’ who works as an ISVA on a Monday and Tuesday, and a counsellor Wednesday to Friday and is also a Crisis Worker as and when needed. When asked if she has ever performed all 3 roles for the same client, the reply was ‘oh yes’. She thought it was a good thing for the client to have her involved in all aspects of her support, never having considered that any defence barrister could accuse her of coaching a witness. Case over. Then there was the ‘ISVA’ who supported her client so well, so well in fact that the client depended on her for everything and could not live without her….so she temporarily moved in with the ISVA and her husband. Marriage over (?!).
The ISVA role spans a whole range of different areas, including health and well-being, social care, police investigations and the criminal justice process. Some cases will involve all of the above and some will involve only some of the above. We have heard some people say the ISVA role is ‘not just about a court case‘, and they are quite right, it is about so much more than that. This makes ISVAs jobs so much harder, more complex, not simpler. In fact, An Audit of ISVAs identified for the first time the very complex nature of the clients that ISVAs are supporting, and their wide range of needs. I don’t think anybody quite realised the level of risk that ISVAs are dealing with – often at any one time, with high case loads of clients with a high level of support needed from them. ISVAs frequently find themselves as the only professional supporting their clients, particularly where there is gaps in service provision or where other services operate waiting lists. It is vital that ISVAs understand the professional worlds that they operate in, and across, realising that their actions in one area can have an impact in another area. And it is this, exactly this, that makes their roles complex.
So how do we make sure that ISVA are doing a good job in all the aspects of their role? Well, we believe that training is the key. Just like it is for any other professional role. Yes of course, operational experience in doing the job is important, and of course there are some aspects of the job that can be taught. But that is the same for any professional role. We would not appoint somebody and expect them to get on with being a doctor, a lawyer, a counsellor or surveyor. We would expect them to be trained and if they were not, we would not allow them to practice. So what is different about ISVAs? Why are we allowing ISVAs to work untrained? Why is it that nearly 1/5 of the organisations that employ ISVAs across England and Wales think it is ok not bother to provide their staff with any training? Why are untrained ISVAs not demanding that they have access to training?
We’ve discussed this a lot on the Network of ISVA forum over the years and there have been a few people who say that their organisations simply can’t afford to send them on the training. In our view this is an unacceptable answer. If services cannot afford to send their staff to professional training, then they should not appoint to the post. They are doing themselves, their staff and their clients a disservice. Furthermore, the Home Office has funded ISVA training places for the last 3 years, so these services don’t even have to find the money themselves- merely submit a persuasive business case! Incidentally, we’ve also been informed that the Home Office’s training fund for ISVAs has had an underspend for every one of those 3 years, so the available funding pot has not even been appropriately utilised by the services that can’t afford the training!
We’ve also heard a lot from untrained ISVAs who bravely proclaim they don’t need to be trained as they have been doing the job for so many years. We are sure that, yes, some of them will be wonderful ISVAs, but some of them will be shockingly bad. We know because we’ve met some of them. LimeCulture has now trained over 160 ISVAs on the ISVA Development Programme, and while we are satisfied that the ones who have successfully completed the full course, are now providing an effective and safe service for their clients, we could not say this categorically about all of them at the beginning of their training. In fact, the ISVAs that we have been most concerned about are the ones who have been doing their jobs for years!
So how do you tell the difference between the untrained ISVAs doing a fantastic job, and the untrained ISVAs doing a dangerous and unsafe job. You can’t. That’s the point. So what is the answer? Well we think training is a good first step. The dangerous and unsafe ISVAs will either not pass the training or will learn through that training that they need to change, adapt and get better in providing safe support. That is the point of good practical training. It brings people together, it makes them think about the way they do things and it supports them to do it in a more effective way.
Interestingly, an Audit of ISVAs identified that the ISVAs themselves, ‘strongly supported the need to train their workforce’. This means that ISVAs are beginning to understand that in order to protect their own workforce, ISVAs really do need to be trained. In fact, one of the Key Recommendations of that report is to:
‘Ensure that all ISVAs are trained to a minimum standard and can access Continuing Professional Development. Employers and Commissioners should ensure that accredited professional ISVA training is provided to all staff employed to undertake the ISVA role. It is further recommended that in order to protect (and improve) the professionalism of the ISVA Workforce, the title of ISVA should not be used by staff until they have successfully completed (and passed) accredited professional ISVA training’. There should be an increased focus on (CPD) and the availability of on-going training for ISVAs. This is particularly important for those who undertake specialist roles or provide specialist support’.
The good news is that LimeCulture has seen an increase in the number of people who are booking to attend the ISVA Development Programme, and indeed the Continued Professional Development training that we have developed in the Advanced Development Programme. This is excellent as we need to ensure that ALL ISVAs are properly trained and have access to on-going professional development, just like other professionals roles do.
Last year, we successfully trained nearly 70 ISVAs and had to put on 3 separate courses to meet the demand. This year we expect to train a similar number of people. Our next course (starting in May) was fully booked within a couple of weeks. A further course will start in September (and run through till February 2016) and we have plans to add a 3rd course if the demand is there. The ADP, which we launched in July 2014, has been delivered to nearly 40 ISVAs. The next 3 day course will take place at the end of September 2015. We are also planning to develop further CPD events to support ISVAs over the coming months.
At LimeCulture, we believe it is time for the ISVA workforce to stand up and say that all of their professional peers must be trained before they can give themselves the title of ISVA. Those untrained ISVAs who have been doing the job for years (or even just months) should be pushing their organising to invest in their training, using the points raised above to support you. Your argument will be a strong one.
LimeCulture CIC is the leading provider of training for ISVAs (including Children and Young Person’s Advocates) having now successfully training over 200 ISVAs across England and Wales.