‘I had to be broken to be fixed’: the courses trying to change abusive men

Abuse men can change

Reprinted from the Guardian, by Anna Moore – 2022-05-09

Can men who assault or intimidate their partners be taught to respect women? We talk to campaigners and perpetrators – and sit in on one of their classes

Next, they discuss why that may be. “It’s just how we operate,” says one, a man who is no longer living with his partner, but spending a lot of time with her and their new baby. “She loves cooking. I don’t iron. She does iron …” He runs out of steam.

“The way I look at it, I’ve been married 20 years and you evolve into what you do,” says another. “That’s how you decide what your jobs are. I do cook a meal occasionally but 95% of the time, she does the cooking and plans the shopping because she knows what she needs to feed the family. I earn the money to pay for it.”

The third man is currently single. “I used to take things for granted when I was in a relationship,” he says. “Dinner being on the table, having clean clothes, having ironed clothes. I never really thought about it when I came in the door. I’m not sure that was being abusive; it’s just the way things worked. Well … until we split up. Maybe that’s why.”

Only about half the men who start Lifeline stick with it to the end. There is no compulsion, it’s a long and demanding course, and it requires perpetrators to take full responsibility for their actions with all the emotional consequences this may bring. These four, however, have already come a long way. They have completed level 1, which takes about 10 weeks. They discussed what brought each of them there and unpacked the worst incidents of abuse, along with their feelings and thoughts at the time. It taught them some safety strategies and emergency techniques to help them de-escalate and step back when tensions rise. Now they are more than halfway through level 2, which takes 22 to 24 weeks. Today they are covering the role of gender in abusive relationships. Next week, it’s “healthy sexual relationships”.

Many of them found last week’s session particularly tough. It was on the impact on children, and began with the men listening to a recording of a terrified child calling 999 as her mum is being beaten up at home. Then Colette Foster, the course leader, laid out the effects for children of witnessing domestic abuse – the impact on their educational attainment and life chances, and their increased risk of suicide, cancer, heart disease and substance abuse.

She set out how it affects offspring of all ages, from babies to adults. She told the men what signs to look for and the men discussed their own children – and their own childhoods. Unsurprisingly, it became emotional: one man became so upset that Foster checked in with him the next day to ensure he was OK and would be coming back. Yet today he is here discussing housework, and how to show appreciation to a partner. (“This session hasn’t been as head-doing as some of the others,” he is relieved to say at the end.)

For decades, perpetrator programmes like this have been low profile and low priority. Spending scarce resources on abusers has been viewed with deep suspicion across much of the women’s sector, where the focus and the funding have, unsurprisingly, been on the survivors. In 2019/20, 64% of refuge referrals were turned away and the number of refuge bed spaces in England was 30% below the level recommended by the Council of Europe. Only just over a third of services were able to provide formal counselling to women in their refuges. Just over a quarter were running without a dedicated resettlement service. “Finding a refuge space is like finding gold dust,” is how Sandra Horley, former CEO of Refuge, put it in 2016. “How can we justify spending money on therapy for perpetrators when terrified and brutalised women and children have nowhere to go?”

Now, however, something is shifting. Respect, the UK’s lead organisation on perpetrator programmes, has firmly positioned itself as part of the movement tackling violence against women and girls. Some of its programmes are delivered in partnership with groups such as Women’s Aid, or the domestic violence charity SafeLives. And a six-year evaluation of 11 Respect-accredited UK perpetrator programmes by Durham and London Metropolitan universities found significant improvement over a range of behaviours. Interviewing partners, ex-partners, children and perpetrators, researchers found that reports of women being physically injured dropped from 61% before the programme to 2% afterwards. Cases of children seeing or hearing violence dropped from 80% to 8%. The results have been compelling enough for the Home Office to get behind them: in March, its Tackling Domestic Abuse Plan pledged £75m for perpetrator programmes – far more than it ever had before.

Saskia Lightburn-Ritchie, the CEO of My CWA, understands why it has taken so long to get here. When she introduced Lifeline more than a decade ago, she wasn’t convinced it was the right way to spend resources. At the time, My CWA provided support, including refuges, to survivors of domestic abuse, but many survivors said that even when they had successfully separated from their abuser, the abuse continued, especially if co-parenting was involved. “They were saying that no one at all was talking to the men about their behaviour, and it might help if someone would,” says Lightburn-Ritchie. “It seemed a reasonable and sensible request – but it opened a can of worms.”

Yet she also believed it made sense to try. “We focus all our efforts on victims and children, which is right,” she says. “But, by not engaging with perpetrators and trying to hold them to account in a way that they can make a change, all we are doing is condemning any new person in a relationship with them to the same behaviours, the same abuse. It’s just recreated in another family. It’s like tackling a huge problem by only looking at symptoms not the cause, and it makes you tired. Well, it makes me tired. I want that cycle to break.”

Lightburn-Ritchie has very clear memories of delivering the first programme. “I was very surprised at my own reaction,” she says. “I was able to see them as whole individuals whose behaviours were wrong but who had other positive features. There was one man who was really getting it, having lightbulb moments, so engaged. Then his child became very unwell, he wasn’t coping and he assaulted his partner. I was devastated. But, for the first time ever, he didn’t breach bail, he didn’t pressure her to withdraw the charges; he pleaded guilty straight away.” That was a breakthrough.

Lifeline is accredited by Respect – and the accreditation system couldn’t be more critical. Respect was formed 21 years ago when a handful of perpetrator programmes joined together, partly to raise the profile of their work, but also to articulate good practice at a time when they worried about perpetrators setting up self-help groups, or short interventions such as weekend courses, and simplistic “anger management” programmes. (Most perpetrators are already “managing their anger” very precisely. They manage not to explode at their boss or the big man at the gym, but still terrorise and control their partners.)

Ciara Bergman, Respect’s head of perpetrator services, cautions that programmes that don’t adhere to certain principles could make things worse. “When you’re delivering perpetrator work, the primary client is not the person in front of you,” she says. “It has to be focused on the adult and child survivors of that abuse. We don’t think any work should take place with perpetrators in the absence of parallel but separate support for survivors.”

“A lot of perpetrators are very manipulative,” says Bergman. “They may come home and say: ‘I’ve spoken to the facilitators, and they say it’s your fault. They say you need to do XYZ.’”

The Lifeline course leaders are also trained to recognise deception or “disguise compliance”, where a perpetrator may say all the right things, but mean none of them. However, Lightburn-Ritchie is convinced the courses can have real impact. “There are a few key sessions that astound me every time they are delivered,” she says. “One is impact on children. Often the men have an innate belief that, although their behaviours are harmful, they are still ‘good dads’. They manage to live with that dichotomy. When they start listening and making a connection with what they’ve done and their own children’s experience, I’ve seen men who have served prison sentences break down and cry.”

Another powerful session is around healthy sexual relationships. “I remember interviewing someone after he’d completed the course to see how he got on, four years later,” she says. “We’d never met before. He told me the hardest part had been to acknowledge that he’d sexually assaulted his wife – and that, actually, it was rape. Then he said he had to admit to himself that he’d always known, but just not listened to himself. It devastated him, but he said: ‘I had to be broken to be fixed.’

“He wrote his ex-wife a huge letter of apology, taking responsibility. She didn’t get in touch and he had accepted that he couldn’t make her and didn’t expect anything of her. He was in a new relationship that was running smoothly. There was a huge amount of growth. I was gobsmacked.”

John, 28, has been through a Respect-accredited programme and agrees to speak to me. Although he is quiet and cautious, his words are compelling. He found the programme – Route2 in Middlesbrough – through an internet search and referred himself. It is one-on-one, with similar content to Lifeline. (He had previously attended a group programme but walked out. “I just got sick of listening to people beating about the bush, saying it was their partner’s fault,” he says.)

Almost two years on, he still calls Nina every week, just to check in, and he is still single. “I’m not ready for any relationship; I’m focused on being better myself,” he says. For John, the programme feels worthwhile. “I’ll be brutally honest. You can’t help someone who doesn’t think they’re in the wrong. If you accept what you’ve done, if you really want help and you’ve stopped blaming everyone else, then anyone can change.”

For further information

If you’ve been affected by domestic violence, we can help. SD Law is a law firm in Cape Town and Johannesburg with deep experience of helping women escape abusive men and find peace in a new life. We will connect you to relevant support services and make sure you and your children are safe. At SD Law, we understand how deeply distressing gender-based violence can be, and we will handle your case with discretion, empathy and compassion. We are also willing to work with abusive men and connect them to appropriate rehabilitation and support services. Contact attorney Simon Dippenaar on 086 099 5146 or email sdippenaar@sdlaw.co.za for a confidential discussion.

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