Domestic violence: Can a perpertrator change?
Colin Fitzgerald works for RESPECT, the National Associati on for Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes and Associated Support Services. To mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, which is on Sunday, Fitzgerald talks about whether a perpetrator of domestic violence can change.
I am walking through the floral marquee at Hampton Court Flower Show with my mother when I spot him. He is coming towards me from the opposite direction and hasn’t noticed me yet. I give a quick glance to see if I can back up discreetly but it’s too late. The marquee is packed and we’re in a bottle neck. Our paths are bound to cross. I instantly mentally flick through the ground rules, including “Don’t acknowledge him unless he acknowledges you first.” At exactly the same time I also notice he’s with his partner. I’ve not met her before, ever. I wonder if it’s still the same one. If not does this one know?
The man in question is Jason*. I know him because he completed a Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programme (DVPP) that I co-facilitated. The DVPP is community based, meaning it has no connection with the criminal justice system or anything to do with probation. The men who attend have either referred themselves (normally via the national Respect helpline) or they have been referred through social services or the family courts.
Jason sought help following an argument with his partner, Denise, in which he slapped her twice across the face and grabbed her by the throat. She told him to get help or she’d leave. The throat grabbing was concerning, although it’s not the way that the majority of women are killed in the UK by their (ex) partners, it is next on the list after death by a sharp object.
I remembered assessing a tearful Jason. He felt ashamed and guilty about his behaviour – his dad had abused Jason’s mum and he feared becoming just like him. At the same time he also wanted me to understand he wasn’t a monster. He, in common with many others, associated “wife beaters” with shaved headed, singlet wearing drunkards who beat their partners every night.
To this end Jason also wanted to give me context. He minimised his behaviour at times, finding it hard to recall details without prompting. Other times he blamed circumstance or his partner. I saw this as a natural human response. Most of us, if asked to describe a time we have behaved in a way we wish we hadn’t, will put some sort of spin on it E.G. “I drank vodka. I never drink vodka”.
Jason was no different. I assured him that men who used violence did not conform to a stereotype. Our groups were populated with men from across the spectrum of class, race and cultural background. I’ve worked with builders, police, street wardens, youth workers, solicitors, financial advisors, social workers and unemployed men. Their only commonality is that at some point they have felt entitled to use violence towards their partners.
In order for Jason to come onto the programme he had to give details for his partner, Denise. This is crucial as women are more likely to remain with their abusive partners if their partners seek help. Ensuring she receives a parallel support service is the only way to effectively manage safety. As an example, I once worked with a man who informed his partner that all groups began with men showing pictures of their wives. He then informed her that she was the only one who was fat! Fortunately her support worker was able to dispel this lie quickly, but without this support the lie would have persisted and this woman would have been further abused as a consequence.
Jason attended the programme once a week for 3 hours over an eight month period. We covered a variety of topics in addition to violence, including emotional abuse, sexual behaviour, jealousy, effects on partners and effects on children. The aim was to help Jason understand his behaviour, become accountable for his abusive behaviour towards Denise and learn non-abusive ways of communicating.
There is fallacy in some quarters that this process is designed somehow to “shame” men like Jason. It’s nonsense. If this was all we did, we’d quickly have no attendees.
Jason appeared to do well. He attended regularly, appeared to talk honestly and reports coming back from the women’s support service were generally positive. There were some moments where he was abusive again – but these were worked through in group. Importantly risk did not increase and he remained non-violent. You are of course never 100% sure that things have changed.
And now – two years on – we were facing each other. Jason did a quick double take – then there was the moment of recognition. He nodded and as we slipped past each other he silently shook my hand, unseen by anyone as it was so crowded.
I had not gone much further when there was a tapping on my shoulder. I nervously turned around and there was his partner (Denise as it turned out).
“Hello” she smiled.
“I just wanted you to know – that thing you do with men like him” she gestured towards Jason.
“It’s brilliant. He’s a changed completely. We got married”
I looked at Jason; he smiled sheepishly and nodded. The three of us spoke for about another 10 minutes while my mother looked on and Denise and Jason supplied details of their wedding. Then we parted. Afterwards the thing that struck me was how much calmer and happier Jason appeared in comparison to when we first met and also how much “space for action” Denise appeared to have. Of course none of this guarantees a golden future for them – but if Jason remains non-violent and maintains such change – then they definitely have a better chance of a happy future than they did before.
*All the names in this piece have been changed
For more information visit www.respect.uk.net
Respect’s National Helpline for men and women concerned about their behaviour towards a partner is 0808 802 4040Tagged in: domestic abuse, domestic violence, International Day for the Elimination of Violence, National Association for Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes and Associated Support Services, RESPECT, victim
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