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Perpetrator Intervention Programmes – a mechanism to effect positive change?

In the preamble to the Istanbul Convention, the Council of Europe recognises “that violence against women is a manifestation of historically unequal power… and is one of the crucial social mechanisms by which women are forced into a subordinate position compared with men.” The long-standing legal response to relationship violence is to safeguard the victim, typically by removing the victim from harm, or alternatively removing the source of harm from the victim. Such protective sanctions react to incidents of violence by restricting the actions or living arrangements of the abuser and by imposing criminal sanctions where orders are breached.

However when the court orders the perpetrator not to reside with the applicant, historically it has not been empowered to require him to proactively improve his behaviour. The ongoing prevalence of domestic violence, and the evidence of repeated applications by individual applicants demonstrates that there are fundamental failings with these traditional forms of intervention. Against this backdrop, there is a growing acknowledgment of the capacity for direct intervention with perpetrators to serve as an effective means to bring about behavioral change that ultimately protects the victim by tackling the source of the abuse. Justice for victims requires not only an end to violent events but also the securing of a safer environment in the longer term.

There has been a steady momentum internationally in support of perpetrator programmes, with the United Nations and the Council of Europe calling for domestic measures of intervention for perpetrators in custody and more broadly within the community including public information and education programmes, in order to effect social change. The UN Commission has called for those with responsibility to “increase awareness of men’s and boys’ responsibility in ending the cycle of violence, inter alia, through the promotion of attitudinal and behavioral change, integrated education and training which prioritize the safety of women and children, prosecution and rehabilitation of perpetrators, and support for survivors, and recognizing that men and boys also experience violence.”

Data from UK based perpetrator programmes is positive but limited. In England/Wales programmes exist as both court-mandated processes within the criminal justice system and coordinated community responses both seeking to address continued patterns of male violence through a multi-agency approach. The limitations of such interventions are acknowledged by a recent assessment report which notes whilst the results are promising, many men who undergo treatment do go on to re-offend. The final report of the Mirabel Project found that both the “quantitative and qualitative data showed steps toward change for the vast majority of men attending DVPPs.” The quantification of the success of non-court mandated community based perpetrator programmes quite correctly looked beyond repeat offending and includes broader social benefits post intervention included improved relations, safe and positive parenting, and enhanced self-awareness by perpetrators in order to better capture the scope and possibilities of perpetrator interventionist programmes. Thus success is identified in a more holistic manner, seeking to more comprehensively understand and measure the impact on the behaviour of the perpetrator, the safety of the woman, as well as the woman’s capacity to assert and safeguard herself.

The Caledonian system in Scotland adopts a community coordinated response, within a court mandated context, requiring engagement by approved persons convicted of domestic violence offences. It is premised upon three guiding principles; a cross systems approach that works with the whole family, a focus upon positive change away from criminal behaviour, and an expectation that participating men explore their own behaviour and its broader cultural and social influences. Whilst acknowledging the need for greater development and investment, early reviews also demonstrate evidence that “women feel safer and the men who complete the programme pose a lower risk to partners, children and others by the end of the programme.”

The capacity (but not obligation) for a perpetrator of domestic violence to be referred to a perpetrator intervention programme has only recently arisen under Irish law, as included in the still pending Domestic Violence Bill 2017, and only then in response to its signatory obligations under the Council of Europe Istanbul Convention. Whilst such measures have been included in the Second National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based violence, greater political will and financial investment is needed.

Limited empirical research conducted with perpetrators of domestic violence in Ireland has demonstrated evident benefits. Participants spoke of the positive impact of the shared forum for talking, the benefits of engaging with peers in similar circumstances; and the ability to identify with a capacity for change that provides a real sense of hope. In their own words the perpetrators interviewed regard this service as a touchstone for sense and reflection, and a means to encourage and develop better versions of themselves. Whilst far from definitive, these results provide an impetus for further investment in perpetrator intervention programmes, which can positively improve the behaviour of abusers, and in turn the lives and well-being of their victims.

The success of perpetrator intervention programmes depends on a coordinated and comprehensive community and criminal justice based response that places responsibility with the perpetrators and reinforces the message that violence towards women and children will result in serious sanctions for the perpetrator. To give meaningful effect to protecting victims of relationship violence as well as fulfilling international obligations, it is time to recognize the immediate need to invest in, and develop comprehensive laws and structures for domestic violence perpetrator programmes.

Featured image credit: People Man Guy Frustration. Photo by StockSnap. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Ian M. Evans, PhD FRSNZ

    Excellent article–it is so important to recognize that effective intervention programmes do exist, as this would encourage both perpetrators and “victims” to seek therapeutic help after the first incident and not to apologise or accept events passively.

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