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Beating the rap

Julie Bindel shows how abused women are being let down by domestic violence perpetrator programmes

This article is taken from the November issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


As Stephen Marsland was screaming at his partner and threatening to throw her down the stairs, he didn’t realise that the landline was connected to the emergency services. When he shouted, “Want me to punch your fucking face in?”, his victim feared for her life.

It is rare for domestic violence perpetrators to end up facing the consequences of the law, and, ordinarily, Marsland’s conviction at Dumbarton Sheriff Court in 2019 of threatening and abusive behaviour would never have been reported in the press. But unluckily for him, two things made it newsworthy: every word of his threats had been recorded, and he had only just completed a perpetrator programme for domestic violence abusers at the time of the attack.

Domestic violence perpetrator programmes (DVPPs) emerged in the UK in the late 1980s — in Scotland with a programme named “Change” and in London with the Domestic Violence Intervention Programme (DVIP). Course conveners in the UK took their lead from a programme in the US known as the Duluth Model, developed by Ellen Pence, a feminist activist and expert in domestic violence.

Many of the most dangerous individuals seem to be heading towards a voluntary course of treatment

The idea behind DVPPs was that men would be held to account without clogging up the criminal justice system, and women would be offered support at the same time. The domestic violence programme advocates were well aware that the vast majority of perpetrators were not even reported to the police let alone processed through the system, so they pretty much gave up.

Here lies the problem. Whilst many victims and survivors of domestic abuse refused to give the men a get-out-of-jail-free card by endorsing what appeared to them to be “treatment programmes” as opposed to jail, well-meaning advocates believed they had hit on a solution. If the police and Crown Prosecution Service wouldn’t deal with these dangerous men, perhaps they could be sufficiently rehabilitated so that they reform their behaviour.

Current calls in the light of police violence and intimidation towards black men and women in the US and UK to defund the police and abolish prisons pose a challenge to feminists such as myself who campaign to end male violence. Community resolutions tend not to work for serial rapists and domestic violence perpetrators because so-called “community leaders” are often conservative patriarchs and usually reinforce the messages that give men permission to abuse women. As a prison reformer, I would empty jails of all but the most dangerous individuals. Many of those are the serial abusers of women and children, and these men seem to be heading towards a voluntary course of treatment as opposed to a custodial sentence.

Police in England and Wales receive half a million complaints of domestic violence a year but prosecutions are sparse. Police consider it almost impossible to get such cases to court because the victim so often decides to withdraw charges against a partner, whether voluntarily or as the result of intimidation. And, of course, many more incidents are never reported.

Every three days, a woman dies at the hands of her partner or ex-partner, and under the Covid-19 lockdown that number has dramatically increased. Five weeks into lockdown, the number of women killed by men was almost twice that during the same time period in the past 11 years. The UN was so concerned that it referred to domestic violence as a “shadow pandemic”. Even once lockdown lifts, things will “go back to normal”, which means a return to almost one in three women aged 16-59 experiencing domestic abuse in their lifetime.

The control group reported a significant reduction in violence from the men

In order for a man to be accepted onto a programme he will need to demonstrate a genuine motivation to change and show personal accountability for his behaviour. He must also agree not to interfere or try to prevent contact between partners or ex-partners and the Women’s Safety and Support Service.

There are many obvious advantages for the offender to opt for doing a course, including avoiding court, a criminal record, and, for the dangerous and repeat offenders, prison.

According to the Office for National Statistics, 1.3 million women aged between 16 and 59 suffered domestic abuse in the 12 months up to March 2018, an increase of 23 per cent from the previous year.

Claudia, co-founder of Veritas Justice, a support and advocacy service for the victims of stalking, told me: “Before prescribing any treatment, we need to know what we are dealing with. Some men are just out to hurt those women so why would a course to challenge their behaviour work?

There have been so many dangerous stalkers sent on these courses rather than being sent to prison. These men just learn how to manipulate better and operate under the radar, which stalkers are already brilliant at. Sending these men on a course can mean that they are still stalking the victim because she is consulted about what he is saying and doing when this is the very last thing she needs or wants.”

An evaluation of DVPPs in England and Wales entitled Project Mirabal was published in 2015 by Durham and London Metropolitan universities. One key research question was whether there was “an improved relationship underpinned by respect and effective communication” after the programme. Some 90 per cent of the men interviewed had, prior to the course, attempted to justify their abusive behaviour. After the course, this tendency had barely reduced at all, with almost three-quarters of the men still making excuses.

More than half of the women reported feeling “very safe” after the programme, compared with less than one in 10 before it. But that leaves almost half of the women still in fear. One major tactic used by violent men is to control the household finances so that the woman is totally reliant on him and has no means of escape. But the men’s behaviour changed “only marginally” following attendance on a course. Meanwhile, 23 per cent of the men involved continued to punch or kick walls or furniture, slam doors, smash things and generally act aggressively.

All the perpetrator has to do to get contact with the women is to pass the course and talk the talk

To compare results, the researchers used a control group of women who were accessing support for domestic violence but whose partner was not attending a DVPP. The control group reported a significant reduction in violence from the men, but they were more likely to have ended the relationship with the abuser than the women whose partners were attending a DVPP.

I would have thought that the best way to end relentless domestic violence in any relationship would be to encourage women to leave. Doing this whilst the perpetrator serves a prison sentence would ensure the woman’s safety.

Some family courts impose mandatory attendance on a DVPP for men seeking to maintain contact with children who have witnessed their violence. This means that all the perpetrator has to do to get contact with the children and the women he has abused is to pass the course and talk the talk.

Allowing violent men contact with children can keep his ex-partner in a state of terror. As one woman said: “The thing I struggle with is, yes, he might get supervised contact with [child] in a couple of months after this course has finished but the supervised contact isn’t going to last forever.”

I spoke to Nancy*, whose violent and abusive ex-partner, Paul*, was ordered by the court to attend a programme called Building Better Relationships. This is described on its website as designed to “promote lifelong changes in behaviours and attitudes which, in the past, have resulted in male service users being convicted of intimate partner violence”.

“Violence is trivialised because of these programmes,” she said. “I think giving these men a prison sentence is a bloody good idea.”

Nancy was with Paul for three years during which time he subjected her to violence, sexual abuse and psychological torture. Eventually his behaviour became so out of control that Nancy managed to escape but he began to stalk her.

“I had a mental breakdown, crawling around retching with fear,” she said. “My daughter was a teenager and living with me. I was afraid that he was going to do something to harm her. He always told me if I left him, he would kill me. The police had me on what is called a ‘high risk of homicide’ list.“He turned up at my house, persistently ringing the doorbell. I really thought he was going to kill me. He was shouting ‘Open the fucking door because I’m going to fucking come and get you now’.”

“He came after me with a machine that cuts through metal and he was put on a course. It is beyond belief”

Paul had been approaching Nancy’s door carrying an angle-grinder and yelling into the intercom. “He was arrested and the police assured me that this time he would get a custodial sentence. But in the end, he wasn’t even convicted of threats to kill. He was only done for criminal damage and given a restraining order.

“I was told not to worry because he would be made to go on a perpetrator programme for 18 months,” says Nancy. “When they told me the name of the course, it made me feel physically sick. It was the most insulting response to what had happened. He came after me with a machine that cuts through metal and he was put on a course. It is beyond belief.”

Nancy was told by the course coordinators that Paul would be made to take responsibility for his behaviour, and that the courses were extremely effective.

But nothing of the kind happened. A mutual friend told Nancy that Paul was incredibly angry with her for making him go on the course, because it disrupted his life. “He said the course was a waste of time and that he was forced to do it otherwise there would be repercussions. He said that the women delivering the course understood him and believed him when he said that I was a difficult woman.”

Paul soon started stalking her again, which Nancy reported to the probation officer. “She told me that if I reported it to the police it wouldn’t go anywhere because I had no evidence. I told her that my daughter had seen him, and she seemed to doubt me. It was as though she was on his side. I was feeling suicidal at that point. I felt so let down.

“One day, I saw him in the street but instead of running away, I walked straight past him and held my head up. I felt absolute rage. I stared right at him and said, ‘You come near me or mine I will fucking slay you.’ Three days after that I got a phone call to say he had hanged himself.”

Jo Todd is the founding  CEO of Respect, the leading organisation in the UK promoting perpetrator programmes for domestic violence offenders. Respect takes the line that if run ethically, responsibly and with the safety of the victim at the centre of any initiatives, such programmes can increase the safety of women and their children.

“We want solutions that work. Sometimes these men need prison,” says Todd. “But just locking them up is not going to help when they are then let out.” For her, the existence of these programmes puts the spotlight on the perpetrator, which sends the message that they will be held accountable.

“At the moment they are not held accountable and women are expected to manage their own risk and to keep their children safe, and to modify their own behaviour in order to placate him.”

I ask Todd about Nancy and Paul being put on a Building Better Relationships course. “He should never have been on that course in the first place,” she says. “He was never going to make use of it and was taking up a place on the course that someone who wanted to change could make use of.”

In 2017, Essex police and county council defended a social media campaign on domestic violence after critics accused it of encouraging survivors to stay with perpetrators. The police force came under fire on social media after posting a tweet about a woman called “Sheila”, who “knew that the abuse in her relationship was wrong”. But the couple had been supported and “stayed together but safely”.

Essex police attracted further criticism after writing on their Facebook page that the stories included people who had left abusive relationships and those who “wanted to stay in a relationship where less harmful abuse was taking place” and had “found safety and happiness doing that”.

The Drive Project runs a perpetrator programme for “high-harm and serial perpetrators”. Kyla Kirkpatrick, its director, says that with a “robust focus” on the perpetrators, the programme “challenges them to change and disrupts their behaviour when they will not. We can turn the tide on domestic abuse.”

Although she declined to be interviewed, Kyla said in a statement: “We support calls for a full spectrum of interventions for perpetrators, including behaviour change group work programmes. With a robust focus on the perpetrators who are causing the harm that challenges them to change and disrupts their behaviour when they will not, we can turn the tide on domestic abuse.”

Jane* has worked in the domestic violence sector for more than a decade and is furious that despite losing 70 per cent of refuge space under the direct support for domestic violence victims in the past 10 years, perpetrator programmes seem to be in abundance. “There is a lot more attention at the moment on the men and boys issue as if we’ve sorted out the problems that women face, but now we have a situation where there is a real focus on working with men.”

The Mirabal evaluation found that the women reported very little sexual violence despite it being widely known that the majority of domestic violence relationships involve rape.

“When I would run the courses it was rare for the men to admit to it, or for the women to speak openly to us about that aspect of his abuse,” says Jane. “But the relationship was still being completely controlled by him, even when he was on the programme. I used to sit there in the session and think, ‘You lot have done so much that you’re not even admitting to’.”

The black cab rapist Worboys used his attendance of the sex offender course to present himself as a reformed character

Sex offenders are also offered such courses in prison, including those who have raped very young children. Some sex offenders are also mandated to attend some type of “rehabilitation” programme as part of a non-custodial sentence. The former Labour MP Eric Joyce was recently ordered to attend an 18-day rehabilitation activity requirement, which is an activity to “reduce the prospect of reoffending”. Joyce had accessed a film in which a 12-month-old baby and six other children between one and seven were subject to horrific sexual abuse by adult males.

Issy Belstaffie is a retired prison probation officer who worked with male sex offenders for 20 years, including on the sex offender treatment programme. “Something had to be seen to be done about them because they couldn’t just languish in their cells,” she said. “But all that happened was that they learned how to commit offences better.”

Belstaffie described how many of the prisoners, immediately following a treatment session, would rush back to their cells to watch children’s TV. “One of the men openly admitted to me that they were getting sexually excited at seeing children on TV, and also sharing the victims’ depositions for masturbatory material. They would then attend the courses and pretend to comply.”

One prolific sex offender who completed a treatment programme in prison is the black cab rapist John Worboys. Jailed in 2009 for sexual assault, rape and drugging offences, Worboys somehow managed to convince the prison parole board in 2018 that he was no longer a danger to the public. When it was revealed that he was due to be released on parole, there was a public outcry and lawyers representing two of his victims launched a judicial review, which they won.

Worboys, to the relief of his victims and women everywhere, remains in prison. Worboys used the fact that he had attended the sex offender course to present himself as a reformed character. This is a man whose modus operandi consisted of lies, manipulation and charm.

The 2017 Ministry of Justice report Impact evaluation of the prison-based Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme confirmed that such programmes can actually increase the likelihood of reoffending among participants.

Over a period of eight years, a number of convicted sex offenders who had completed the Core course were monitored for reoffending. It was found that more treated sex offenders committed at least one sexual reoffence during the follow-up period than offenders who had not done the course (10 per cent compared with 8 per cent). And more treated sex offenders committed at least one child image reoffence during the follow-up period compared with the matched comparison offenders (4.4 per cent compared with 2.9 per cent).

Michael Conroy is the founder of Men at Work, an organisation that helps combat sexism among boys and men. For Conroy, there is a logical imperative to work not just with those men who escape the CJS but also those few that end up in prison. “These men will, in most cases, be released from prison,” he said. “Their values and beliefs about women need profound challenge. This work should be part of a holistic national approach to prevention, founded on developing empathy and delegitimising the misogynistic messages which influence.”

Karen Ingala Smith spends her life supporting women who have suffered male violence. In 2012 she began documenting the women who die at the hands of men, and set up the charity Counting Dead Women. She knows the result of extreme male violence, and recognises that women’s lives are in danger from men who may be deterred by the prospect of prison.

“The system is failing women and children,” she said. “We have not even got one of the most basic things right. Most sexual and domestic violence is never reported and when it is, the criminal justice system usually spectacularly fails to hold perpetrators to account.”

Perpetrator programmes for men who abuse women and children are not the panacea that some appear to think they are. There is evidence that the best — but not all — help some men to make some changes to some of their behaviour for a limited period of time. Evidence that they change the attitudes that underpin men’s sense of entitlement is less convincing. 

Men that physically and sexually abuse women they profess to love, and keep them in a state of coercive control, are very clever at gaslighting both their victims and professionals who attempt to intervene. The idea that they will change their outlook because programme course leaders tell them that their behaviour is abusive and unacceptable is ridiculous.

I want to see a change in men who have abused women and children, if only in the interests of any woman and child they may have access to in the future. But until men’s capacity for violence and abuse can properly be measured and the wellbeing of potential victims prioritised, these men need to be held accountable in the true sense of the word.

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