The Controversial Program Tackling Domestic Violence by Reaching Out to Abusers

The Domestic Violence Intervention Project works with domestic abusers to rehabilitate them. But at a time of harsh government cuts to women's services, not everyone is happy with their approach.

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Apr 12 2017, 12:59pm

Photo by Briana Morrison via Stocksy

"How do you deal with a room full of violent men?"

I'm at an event run by a charity that works with perpetrators of domestic abuse, and an audience member has just directed this question to one of the program's female practitioners. Was she ever scared when she worked with these men?

Not really, she says. "We find that men who use violence in their intimate relationships are rarely violent outside those relationships."

Domestic violence cuts across all sections of society, all ages, races, and classes. While recent lone wolf attacks might have turned the spotlight on perpetrators of domestic abuse later committing acts of terrorist violence, most abuse remains hidden from public attention. One in four women in England and Wales will experience domestic violence in their lifetime, meaning that it's highly likely you know an abuser. Perhaps they're your friend, work colleague, or even your partner.

Domestic Violence Intervention Project (DVIP), a London-based community outreach program, sees abuse as a heightened and aggressive manifestation of the gendered power structures and rigid hierarchies that define what men and women should be.

"Thinking about gender underpins everything we do. A lot of the guys we see have ended up coming to us because they've bought into this very limited, oppressive idea of what masculinity is," says Liz Ostrowski of DVIP.

Perpetrator programs use group therapy, one-on-one teaching sessions, and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques to hammer home the consequences of abusive behaviour and help teach men to build empathy and healthy relationships.

Once known as "batterer programs," these programs have been around since the 1980s, but remain hugely controversial. Many in the women's sector object to the government supporting projects like DVIP while refuges turn away vulnerable women from their door in the struggle to survive funding cuts.

Read more: The Hidden Crisis of Domestic Violence over the Holidays

Not that you would know that from the enthusiastic audience tonight. At the Wellcome Trust's MACHO? late-night event, around 100 people have packed into a lecture theatre for a sold-out series of talks and events exploring modern masculinity. The gender balance is pretty much equal, but after Liz gets the ball rolling, it's the women in the crowd who are getting really animated about oppressive masculinity. Ostrowski is demonstrating an exercise that DVIP commonly uses in its outreach sessions with male perpetrators of domestic violence: the masculinity box.

A space on the stage is marked out—much to the amusement of the audience—with tape that reads, "FRAGILE." This space represents masculinity, we're told. We're asked to feed in some of the images and traits that underpin masculinity.

Men must be unemotional, assertive, and protective, audience members suggest. They must not be vulnerable. They should love soccer and garden sheds.

The "masculinity box" exercise. All photos by Camilla Greenwell, courtesy of the Wellcome Trust

We identify traits that might spill over into violence: entitlement, aggression, and the need to be in control. Of course, as DVIP counsellor Bhupinder Virdee explains, "the traits we've identified are not specific to clients that we work with." Then, we trace a line from society's expectations of what men should be to the endemic problem of violence against women.

"I've never said the word feminism in a session, but it comes up all the time," says Martin Okoli, a DVIP counsellor. "We look at tactics men use to assert control within an intimate relationship and how that need for male power exists in wider social contexts. It's not just about looking at relationships in isolation."

Over 26 group sessions, counsellors like Okoli teach participants to look at the gendered nature of their own behavior and their expectations of their partner. The program initially focuses on immediately ending physical and sexual violence, before moving into developing relationship skills and ending other forms of abuse, such as emotional abuse.

Okoli got into perpetrator work after a job as as a pastoral tutor in a local high school. Many of the students he worked with had baggage from difficult home lives, and ultimately, most were exposed to domestic violence in some form.

"It had such a profound impact on how they engaged with their education, how they acted in their own intimate relationships—it really was the undercurrent of their worlds," he tells me. "It made me realize quite how prevalent the problem was, and I wanted to address that."

Martin Okoli from DVIP.

But does addressing the problem by working with abusers get results? Critics argue that the evidence that perpetrator programs work is inconclusive. A 2013 study published in the British Journal of Social Work was positive about the impact of perpetrator programs, but concluded "closer links between child protection, adult safeguarding, and perpetrator programmes" were needed. And a 2004 study cited by UN Women found they were only "marginally or moderately" successful at preventing future violence.

But DVIP interviews with women whose partners used their services provide a pretty unequivocal answer: 65 percent of the women the program supports said they felt safer after their partners had gone through the program. Men can refer themselves voluntarily to the program, but this is fairly rare. Most often, they're referred from other agencies such as social services or the Family Courts, which handles disputes between between parents, child protection, and issues around family breakdowns.

As a result, Okoli says they encounter a lot of resistance and denial from men in their first few sessions. A key part of what they do involves working on empathy and placing the men in the position of the women and children they've hurt.

"It's natural to be in denial when you've done something wrong, it's natural to feel shame. So we try and channel that denial and guilt, and turn it into empathy."

The second strand of the project is the women's support service; partners or ex-partners of the men Okoli and Ostrowski see are actively involved in their rehabilitation. They receive regular feedback on the men's progress, can attend support groups run by all-female counsellors, and are notified immediately by DVIP if anything in their partner's behavior indicates they might be at risk. It doesn't matter whether they've been separated for years—the survivor's role is integral to the process. They would never work with men in isolation, Ostrowski tells me.

How can we justify spending money on therapy for perpetrators when terrified and brutalized women and children have nowhere to go?

But in spite of DVIP's claim to center the survivor in everything they do, some in the domestic violence sector are angry that the government is sponsoring perpetrator services at a time when funding for refuges and survivor support has been slashed.

"The women's refuge sector is being decimated," says Sandra Horley of domestic violence charity Refuge, highlighting that the sector has borne the brunt of government spending cuts."Refuge has experienced funding cuts to 80 percent of its services since 2011. Some of our services have had their funding cut by 50 percent. Finding a refuge space is like finding gold dust.

"How can we justify spending money on therapy for perpetrators when terrified and brutalized women and children have nowhere to go?"

I ask Ostrowski how she justifies spending money on abusers, when survivors of abuse are routinely failed because their support services are crippled by cuts.

A representative from the Wellcome Trust introduces DVIP.

"We work to increase the safety of women and children in the same way that places like Refuge and Women's Aid do," she says. "We believe every service should be properly funded, of course, but there's not enough money to go round at the moment, and that's not our fault, that's the economy. It's not as though we're taking money from the same pot—it's often coming from completely different sources."

(This is partly true: According to the DVIP's 2015 annual report, they secure the majority of their funding from local authorities, like most refuges do. However, they are also funded by charities like Children in Need and clinical commissioning groups.)

Horley argues that the most effective way to deal with perpetrators is "to arrest and charge them," and many survivors would absolutely want society to lock their abuser up and throw away the key.

But are prisons at all effective in stopping the cycle of violence which sees two women killed every week at the hands of a partner or ex partner? While authorities are taking greater steps to prosecute domestic abusers, this alone can't fix the problem of intimate partner violence. We know that domestic abusers frequently reoffend—more so than all other category of offenders, according to a 2016 report from the UK Ministry of Justice.

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Supporters of DVIP's approach argue that perpetrator-led work is a more effective way to safeguard women, and one that recognizes that victims of domestic abuse don't always have the capability to leave abusive partners. They'd also argue that a perpetrator-led approach helps reduce the likelihood of children being taken into care by the state: 78 percent of British social workers assessed that children were safer after their parents engaged with the service, according to the DVIP's own figures.

And abuse works in complex psychological ways. Victims of domestic violence might not have the money to leave an offender, a safe place to take their children, or they might want to stay with their partner. While the DVIP never tell a woman to stay with or leave an abusive partner, they work to ensure the women's safety, for example by putting together a risk management plan to mitigate future risks to her or her children.

Most of us agree that society needs to tackle the causes of abusive behaviour, rather than simply fire-fighting its effects. We should be getting out there and actively challenging the deep, dark roots of male violence: misogyny, aggression, and the oppressive ideals of masculinity. Perpetrators programs argue that they do just that.

"We don't work with perpetrators because we're offering them an easy ride, or because we're feeling sorry for them," says Ostrowski. "We do it because this is where the source of the problem is, and we need to address it."