Can Domestic Abuse Perpetrator Programmes Really Change Behaviour?
This post will explain what perpetrator programmes are and their effectiveness at reducing domestic violence and abuse.
Domestic abuse practice in the UK has primarily focused on the protection and support of women and children, with domestic abuse perpetrator programmes (known as DAPPs in the UK) working quietly in the background.
Domestic abuse differs to other crimes in that it rarely consists of one incident, it is an ongoing and repeated crime with the average victim living with abuse for three years and women more likely to suffer from repeated, high-risk, and sexual violence. Women are also more likely to suffer from violence that results in injury or death with two women killed every week in the UK by a current or former partner.
Contrary to the myth that women 'seek out' violent men, recent research suggests that while only a small minority of female victims have more than one abusive partner at least a quarter of high-risk perpetrators are repeat offenders with some having up to six different victims. As with most other crimes, it makes sense that we turn our attention to the source of the problem, the perpetrator, who often commits multiple crimes against multiple victims. These statistics drive the logic behind the need for gendered perpetrator interventions.
What are domestic abuse perpetrator programmes?
A review of 54 European DAPPs found that programmes are based on various treatment types including CBT, psychodynamic and pro-feminist approaches, with UK programmes heavily influenced by the Duluth model of power and control (https://www.theduluthmodel.org/). Accredited UK programmes are designed to be part of a holistic co-ordinated community response with accreditation standards including requirements for a gender-informed approach and an integrated support service providing pro-active support for ex/current partners of attendees.
Referrals come from a variety of sources depending upon the programme but the main referrers tend to be CAFCASS, social workers and self-referrers. Sessions are largely delivered in groups, with approximately 24 sessions attended weekly including topics such as:
techniques for de-escalation
the cycle of violence and abuse
attitudes to women
effects on children and parenting
It is important to make the distinction that these programmes are not therapy sessions, couples counselling, anger management or parenting programmes, although the DAPP will have an element of these programmes within it, a DAPP is something unique to domestic abuse. A DAPP is not an opportunity for abusers to support each other in their abuse, look for a reasons to justify their behaviour or find an easy way to satisfy the courts in order to gain contact, but challenging courses aimed at changing entrenched behaviour, for that reason they are demanding and lengthy with robust challenging of past and present behaviour by both the facilitators and each other. At the same time, their ex/partners are kept informed of their progress and offered support.
Perpetrators cannot attend instrumentally (in order to gain contact with children for example) so accredited DAPPs will only accept those that take responsibility for at least some of their behaviour and be willing to work on them. Behaviour that in the minds of the perpetrator did not happen, cannot be changed and so a significant barrier for perpetrators attending (let alone finishing) is minimisation and denial of abusive behaviour. Short untested programmes run a number of risks, they play into the 'instrumental' orientation of some perpetrators, and are unlikely to address the deeper issues that relate to risk.
How do programmes support victims?
Reputable programmes following the Duluth model will have an integrated victim support service that will proactively contact current and ex-partners to offer support. The service will offer a range of support options depending upon availability but usually including:
one to one, face to face support
or contact only if something is disclosed and they are concerned about safety
It is up to the ex/partner to choose how much support they would prefer and whether they want to engage in support at all. The support is usually voluntary, free of charge and confidential. Support is available for the time the attendee is on the programme and for some months following completion. An integrated service should ensure that the ex/partners views, fears and concerns about ongoing abuse are listened to and acted upon.
How effective are perpetrator programmes?
Perhaps the largest obstacle that programmes face is doubt over whether they actually work, with scepticism from both professionals and victims that any intervention can really change a perpetrator’s behaviour. Previous research and experiments have not helped, with mixed results and debates over how success should be measured.
However, more recent research has been more helpful with measures of a successful programme not just based on completion rates or reduction in physical violence but expanding measures to look at all forms of violence and taking evidence of change not from self report but from partners, children and MARAC reports.
In 2015, Project Mirabel (https://www.dur.ac.uk/criva/projectmirabal/), was published with the results of a 5-year investigation into the effectiveness of perpetrator programmes in the UK. The data collected came from: interviews with DAPP staff and stakeholders, programme data from 11 different DAPPs, surveys and in-depth interviews with male perpetrators, partners and children. Crucially, measures of success were not focused on just physical violence. The 6 outcome measures were: increase in respectful communications, reduction in physical and sexual violence, increased freedoms for women, increase in safe, positive and shared parenting, change in perpetrators understanding of the impact of their behaviour and improved childhoods.
Results for the impact of the programmes on physical and sexual violence were impressive, with positive changes in all 7 markers for physical and sexual abuse reported by women 12 months after the programme started. Those injured as a result of violence fell from 61% to just 2%. Two forms of abuse, use of a weapon (30%) and pressure to unwanted sexual activity (29%) stopped completely, potentially lethal behaviours (strangle, choke, drown, smother) dropped from 50% to 2% and lower risk violence (punch, kick, burn, beaten) also dropped to 2% from 54%.
The effects of abuse on children were also reduced with those seeing/overhearing violence dropping from 80% to 8%. Harassment and other abusive acts continued for over a quarter of women, but this did reduce for the majority of women with over half, 51%, indicating they felt very safe by the 12-month point compared to just 8% at the start. However, the areas that women were most eager to see change: financial control, sexual jealousy, positive parenting and restrictions on day-to-day activities, did not change as much as women hoped for, with only marginal positive indicators.
Why are there so few programmes?
Interviews with DAPP providers and stakeholders, showed a growing threat to programme integrity with the need to gain funding amidst sector budget cuts and challenges to the feminist model, straining against key requirements for safe provision such as programme length, expelling those that continue abuse and providing effective case management. The trend for funding evidence-based interventions also poses a particular problem especially when that evidence is confined only to completion rates.
Further evaluations of DAPPs continue to show that programmes can be an effective tool for domestic abuse work within the community. However, retention rates remain problematic and programmes show an inability to meet the needs of those perpetrators that do not fit into the typical mould with few programmes able to provide interventions for female, same-sex and high-risk perpetrators or those who require an interpreter. Patchy service across the UK also means some must travel long distances or join waiting lists of 3-6 months plus to start.
It is also vital that while there can be some optimism, expectations need to be managed, particularly if the courts or local authorities are considering completion of a programme to indicate sufficient reduction in risk to guarantee the safety of child contact. Innovation is required to reduce costs, increase engagement and allow programmes to continue through the pandemic.
Current problems and the future
Research into the effectiveness of these programmes, alongside information about how victims are supported is vital to their survival. The recently published call to action signed by major domestic abuse charities lobbying for a perpetrator strategy would suggest they have been successful in gaining more popular support. The success of the Drive project has fuelled this campaign with the University of Bristol’s evaluation of this ground-breaking project finding a reduction in risk to victims in 82% of cases.
However, while results from successful studies of DAPPs show that they can provide a positive move towards change, only 1% of UK perpetrators currently receive an intervention. Coronavirus restrictions have also had a massive impact on group work programmes, with the majority moving to limited one to one support.
Until perpetrators are held to account for their abuse the onus will remain on the victims to change their lives, often at great cost to themselves and their children. Last year just over 11 thousand women were supported by refuges with approx. 5000 turned away due to a lack of space. This is leaving women with the choice of either returning to their abuser or becoming one of the almost 24,000 made homeless every year directly due to domestic abuse (ONS, 2019). To address this in-equality we must hold perpetrators to account for their abusive behaviour.
Surely it is time that we stop asking ‘why doesn’t she leave’ and start asking, ‘why doesn’t he stop’.
For more information on perpetrator programmes you can visit the following sites:
A Call To Action A Domestic Abuse Perpetrator Strategy for England And Wales - http://driveproject.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/Call-to-Action-Final.pdf
Respect - http://respect.uk.net/
The Drive Project - http://driveproject.org.uk/about/research-evaluation/
Cafcass information on perpetrator programmes - https://www.cafcass.gov.uk/grown-ups/parents-and-carers/domestic-abuse/domestic-abuse-perpetrator-programme/
Helplines are available in the UK as follows:
National Domestic Violence Helpline – 0808 2000 247
The Men’s Advice Line, for male domestic abuse survivors – 0808 801 0327
Respect phoneline for perpetrators of domestic abuse - 0808 8024040
Childline - 0800 1111
Call the UK police non-emergency number, 101, if you need support or advice from the police and it's not an emergency.
Our experts have decades of experience working directly with domestic abuse perpetrators and victims, as specialist assessors and as expert witnesses in the family courts.
DV-ACT was formed with the aim of using our expertise to help safeguard children from abuse, this is at the heart of everything that we do. You can read more about us in our post Who are DV-ACT?