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Can perpetuators of domestic abuse ever change?

Panorama BBC

Every year more than a million people are victims of domestic abuse in the United Kingdom. There are many different organisations and charities within the United Kingdom who provide support to victims, however the BBC’s investigative Programme Panorama have recently examined the programmes that are available to perpetrators of domestic abuse and considered whether a perpetrator  can truly be rehabilitated.

In the United Kingdom there are many programmes available which provide assistance to those who have been abusive towards their partners or ex-partners. The aim of these programmes is to re-educate the perpetrators and change their behaviour. Such programmes include the Domestic Violence Intervention Programme, Domestic Abuse Perpetrators Programme and Domestic Violence Rehabilitation Programme. It is estimated that every year more than 3,000 people in the United Kingdom attend such courses, which is increasing in number every year. Cafcass, the Family Courts Support Service, made approximately 800 referrals in 2017, which is four times as many as in 2012. Statistics show that the vast majority of attendees are men.

Perpetrators of domestic abuse can attend these programmes which usually consist of group sessions. Some group sessions are discussion based but most involve a variety of interactive exercises to make the learning more realistic and relevant to the perpetrator’s own situation. There are many different programmes across the United Kingdom, and the content of the sessions vary, but generally the programmes aim to develop the perpetrator’s understanding of domestic abuse and increase their awareness of the effect the abuse has on their victims in order to try and prevent it happening again.

Panorama identified that there are many supporters of the programmes who argue that domestic abusers can change. Panorama spoke with an individual who has run a perpetrator programme for over 20 years. The individual argued those who want to change should be given the opportunity to do so. She said there are “some people out there who cannot change and will not change… But those that want to, those that are willing to give it a go need to be given the opportunity and I think those people, yes they can change.”

Research conducted by Durham University also suggests that the programmes can be effective. One case study showed that men using a weapon against their female partner reduced from 29 per cent to 0 percent following completion of the programmes. This would suggest that perpetrators of abuse can indeed change.

However, there is much debate as to the effectiveness of the programmes in successfully rehabilitating perpetrators of domestic abuse. Panorama recently investigated this matter and discovered many victims of domestic abuse take the view that the programmes have not changed their abusive partners, one victim commenting “if anything it made him angrier”. Another victim stressed that the programmes are not satisfactory and the perpetrator’s “whole brain needs unpicking. It’s got to be long-term mental health intervention, not a six-week course, because they are so manipulative they will pull the wool over people’s eyes.”

Panorama also considered the costs of a perpetrator attending the courses. On average, the costs of the course start at approximately £500 which is usually funded by local authorities or the individuals themselves. However, no costs are incurred if Cafcass make a referral to the Domestic Abuse Perpetrators Programme if attendance is ordered by the Court within private law children proceedings.

It is argued by victim support groups that these extensive costs are a waste of the public purse when they are not effective in rehabilitating domestic abusers. A survivor of domestic abuse has said that people do not understand how clever and manipulative abusers can be. She said to Panorama “we need to keep monitoring them. The only people who can tell if they have changed is their new partner.”

In light of these contrasting views, many experts are of the opinion that a joint programme for both victims and perpetrators is most effective. Dr Gene Feder has conducted the first clinical trial of a perpetrators rehabilitation programme. He stated “if you ignore perpetrators you’re really ignoring the upstream origin of the problem,” but “if you just respond to survivors you’re in some ways colluding in the repeated cycle of violence which goes on.” It is therefore stipulated that the most effective courses are those which involve both the perpetrator and the victim. However, these courses are limited throughout the United Kingdom and are not easily accessible.

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