openDemocracyUK: Analysis

The question should be ‘Why doesn’t he stop?’ Not ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’

The UK's new Domestic Abuse Act puts the focus on changing perpetrators’ behaviour, but that’s not enough: major cultural change is needed

Marisa Bate
27 July 2021, 8.24am
More than 70 domestic abuse charities and organisations have launched a public call to action
Illustration by Inge Snip. All rights reserved

Despite the alarming prevalence of domestic abuse in the UK – an average of two women are killed each week by a former or current partner – there is very little investment in challenging perpetrators or trying to transform their behaviour.

This is something that domestic abuse charities and organisations are trying to change.

Historically, time and money have been spent on the victims, mostly women and children, and the much-needed crisis response, creating refuge spaces for those fleeing abuse. Any attempts to rehabilitate abusers, so that they are less likely to reoffend, have been deprioritised and underfunded.

However, the Domestic Abuse Act 2021, which became law at the end of April, states that the government must have a perpetrator strategy. This is why more than 70 domestic abuse charities and organisations have launched a public call to action, urging the government to ensure its plans are ambitious and wide-reaching enough. Instead of asking ‘Why doesn’t she leave?’, charities are demanding a shift in focus to ‘Why doesn’t he stop?’.

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A chilling short film called ‘Helen’s Story’ was released last month by Drive, a partnership project working with high-harm offenders, which was developed by the charities SafeLives, Respect and Social Finance, the leading forces behind the call to action. ‘Helen’ believes she would have been killed by her partner or would have killed herself had it not been for the intervention of the project, both to help her leave and to tackle her ex-partner’s behaviours.

The film, which features figures from leading domestic abuse charities, makes clear that intervention should always prioritise a victim’s safety, not encourage victims to stay with abusive men, and aim to reduce the chance of violence and abuse in future relationships.

This summer also sees the first-ever strategic gathering for England and Wales on perpetrators. The government’s domestic abuse commissioner, Nicole Jacobs, will bring together leaders from health, housing, probation and other areas, to focus on how their professions interact with perpetrators, underscoring the idea that perpetrator accountability is a society-wide issue.

“The conversation has got louder,” Jacobs says. “COVID and the Domestic Abuse Act have opened up the conversation to say we can't only have funding for the crisis anymore. And that's what people have said for years and years. But there's just been a lot more conversation with the government, and with ministers, about the wider breadth of work.”

A criminal justice system that repeatedly fails victims with low conviction rates, a police force that isn’t fully trained in coercive control, and a family courts system in need of desperate reform may also explain why the sector is trying to find accountability in other ways.

Perpetrator programmes

The UK domestic abuse sector was born in the 1970s out of the women’s liberation movement. It was a crisis response, offering refuge to women fleeing violence. By the late 1980s, perpetrators’ programmes began as an “experiment in whether men can be engaged in a process of change”, according to two domestic abuse experts, professor Liz Kelly and professor Nicole Westmarland. Initially, these programmes offered group sessions on behavioural change to straight men who were violent against women, before individual counselling sessions were developed. Over time, these became mandated by the courts. The categories of both abuser and victim were also expanded.

The courses that exist today, known as Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes (DVPPs), tend to use either cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), often over 24 weeks, to try to challenge learned patterns of behaviour, or the Duluth Model, a proto-feminist system from the US that looks at domestic abuse in a wider societal and patriarchal context.

Perpetrators can self-refer or are referred by the police, the courts or social services. The charity and national umbrella organisation for perpetrator intervention, Respect, which recognises domestic abuse as a gendered crime while also providing support to male victims, has developed an accredited set of standards for how these programmes should operate. Number one: ‘Do no harm’.

Perpetrator programmes do achieve results, according to some evidence – including Project Mirabal, an award-winning, six-year research project into the effectiveness of 11 DVPPs in the UK.

Researchers from the University of Bristol also evaluated Drive, a pilot DVPP used in parts of the UK between 2016 and 2019. They found that high-risk physical abuse was reduced by 82%, high-risk sexual abuse was reduced by 88% and jealous and controlling behaviours were reduced by 73%. The researchers concluded: “As a result of Drive, victims-survivors were safer and more likely to be free from abuse.”

If we can get men to change meaningfully, properly, sustainably… then we've stopped future victims from experiencing harm

Despite this glowing report, there is often hostility from feminist and women’s groups to perpetrator work. Many question whether abusers can ever change, and also believe that, in a consistently unfunded sector, any money there is should go to women and children. Respect’s founding CEO, Jo Todd, was one of those people. “Before, when I worked in women's refuges, I would have been the person asking these questions,” she says.

“But at Respect we have a pragmatic approach, which is that we should offer the opportunity to change to anyone who wants it. But we're not rose-tinted. There's no sense that ‘these poor men need help’. We’re survivor-centred, we believe funding for perpetrators should come from a separate stream […] if we can get men to change meaningfully, properly, sustainably, that's the end game. Because if that happens, then we've stopped future victims from experiencing harm.”

For some perpetrators, however, a DVPP is simply something else to exploit in order to control and harm a victim. Todd remembers a phone call from a woman whose partner had attended a programme. He’d told her that they were asked to bring in photos of their wives, and the whole room had agreed how fat she looked.

Todd is also cautious about the innovations that Respect pilots, including current work around housing. “If you remove him [from the home] and you're not putting him in prison, […] you've got to be sure he's not going to be kicking the door in at two in the morning. You’ve got to have a really good risk assessment about who is in which scheme.”

Changing masculinity and culture

“Programmes are not a cure,” according to Professor David Gadd, a professor of criminology at Manchester University and an expert in domestic abuse, and in masculinities and crime. But, he says, they reduce risk and that “saves lives”. Gadd, like Todd and Jacobs, thinks that DVPPs should be only one element of intervention.

Attention needs to be turned to bigger cultural problems, such as messaging around masculinity, which is increasingly insidious, according to Gadd – giving as an example the entitled behaviour of Boris Johnson over Brexit. Instead, he praises the vulnerability of ex-footballer Ian Wright, who recently made a documentary about growing up around domestic abuse.

Gadd also underlines the role that popular entertainment (Netflix, for example) could play, and stresses that politicians of all stripes should be doing more. “Public discourse about men and intimacy needs to happen, but it’s not a vote winner. It’s much harder to talk to men.”

Respect’s Jo Todd knows this only too well. “You go to a local football team and say, ‘Hey, we want to do some work around domestic abuse’, and they're not interested. You go to a gym or a working men’s club or union, and they’re not interested. So what do you do? People don't want to invite a reflection upon their community that they might not like.”

The unanimous consensus is that the earlier the intervention, the better – although Gadd says it shouldn’t be a problem that schools are left to solve. If a child or youth starts displaying troubling behaviours, perhaps because of the violence he is experiencing at home, currently little, if anything, is done. The system may not reach him until ten, 15 or 20 years later and, crucially, two, three or four victims later.

It can’t be only about programmes or only about the criminal justice system. We need a fundamental shift in social policy

Perpetrators are hard to reach at the best of times; victims don’t report abuse to the police until they’ve experienced an average of 50 incidents of abuse. Also, new data has found that three in four domestic abuse cases reported to the police in England and Wales end without charge.

Dr Nicole Renehan has recently completed a PhD at Manchester University, studying domestically violent men on the Building Better Relationships programme in probation. She agrees that a programme can only go so far. “Some of these men had extremely difficult, violent, abusive childhoods. Which is no excuse – but when you open that up, you can't put the lid back on. They can’t process it productively. So the cognitive behavioural approach is pretty superficial.”

She argues for a much more holistic attitude. “It can’t be only about programmes or only about the criminal justice system. We need a fundamental shift in social policy,” she stresses. And that starts with sustainable funding: “I read job adverts for facilitators on programmes and it's £21,000 or £22,000. Who on earth is going to work for that? These are highly skilled therapeutic tasks, working with some of the most complex, violent, hostile men.”

Clearly, the perpetrator intervention landscape is vast and there are fires to fight on all sides. For a social problem of this magnitude, which has historically focused all its attention on the victim (both supporting and blaming them), a radical overhaul is long overdue.

Yet it is also important to remember the basics. “We try to put the M [for ‘male’] in front of VAWG [Violence against Women and Girls],” says Todd. “Currently, we all use a little acronym that suggests somehow violence happens with no agent.”

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