Developing Together Social Work  Teaching Partnership

Blog Post: The HALT Programme in Wandsworth


By Dermot Brady, Senior Lecturer in Social Work at Kingston University

The HALT Programme – Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.

As part of the Teaching Partnership’s Academics in Practice Workstream, staff at Kingston are encouraged to go into the workplace to identify good practice. This helps us with our teaching, keeps us in touch with the realities of practice and is often quite inspiring. Despite the difficulties of budgets, inspections, reorganisations and so on, excellent, thoughtful and considered relationship-based practice still takes place. We should celebrate these positives as much as possible.

HALT is a group programme for women who have experienced domestic abuse in their relationships. It was developed and is run by practitioners in Wandsworth and the acronym stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. We know that domestic abuse is a factor in a great deal of social work practice, and is complex and demanding to engage with. While it is a presenting issue in a large number of families that practitioners work with, domestic abuse raises many controversies and debates, which you will all know about and I won’t attempt to address here in any detail. Professor Jane Lindsay and I have been working with our colleagues in Wandsworth to develop their manual for some time now and I hope I will be able to come back to these pages to tell you about how things develop. We are trying to capture and support best practice, not direct how this should be done. 

We know domestic abuse is a significant issue, but we also know that domestic violence perpetrators and survivors (even the terms we use are contentious – myself and other colleagues wonder if we could just use the term citizens. Maybe people?) are not homogenous groups and that children are involved in numerous ways, respond in very different ways even within the same families and develop their own coping strategies and techniques. We also know that merely telling people to pull their socks up is generally not going to help people make the changes required to keep children safe, even though there are enormous time pressures on frontline social workers to get results and to get them quickly. 

HALT start with the question, who are we working with? It is clear that the target group here are women who have experienced significant trauma, often starting in childhood and continuing in various ways throughout their lives. Histories of childhood abuse, poverty, poor housing, substance misuse or other adversities co-exist with domestic and often sexual abuse. The women are often very wary of professional interventions and their children are often the subject of repeat referrals. Understanding the women’s lives is key to HALT’s practice and the way they go about building relationships with them. They are skilled and experienced workers, but what stands out is their ability to build and maintain meaningful relationships, which become the basis for real and lasting change. 

I will be reporting back on HALT so consider this an introduction and clearly we cannot cover everything about the programme in a short piece like this. But a couple of things stand out. One is that the women seemed to have had few, if any, opportunities to talk about the things that were important to them. Many have carried their stories of abuse for a long time, and these stories don’t go away. They spill over into other areas of their lives and of course into their relationships with their children. I think there are many people who would question the value of bringing these stories to light. I hope that as social workers we have a common understanding that what remains secret can be poisonous and shaming, and this drives much of what we are tasked to help people with. It is not naivety to gently and thoughtfully create spaces where people can share their stories and of course to know that they are not alone. It is also a pragmatic way to identify problems and address them.

Which brings me to my second observation; the third letter of HALT is L for lonely. The programme does extend the women’s networks and support structures and the act of talking about their experiences itself reduces their sense of isolation. But being lonely also creates vulnerability. In our risk-assessing modes of practice we may not pay sufficient attention to the way in which vulnerability increases risk. I have spent many years working with men and it seems almost ridiculously obvious to say that what the men have in common is that they are all in relationships with women. There wouldn’t be any domestic abuse otherwise. When we work with men who have beaten and abused their partners we are likely to have some received notions of what they are like. How could anyone want to be in a relationship with someone like that? We know it is not that simple. If social work was straightforward, then we could simply rely on telling people what to do, rather than engage in the more stressful, demanding and thoughtful practice that is required to make a difference. We all need affection and affirmation in our lives and must be wary of thinking in terms of “us” the professionals and “them” the service users. So it isn’t difficult to understand that L for lonely also translates into vulnerability for women who sometimes don’t value themselves, feel that little is going to change for them and services are not going to help. HALT is not a panacea and does not pretend to resolve all the difficulties that these women face. But it has a place within services and an important role to play.