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Domestic abuse programmes – are we running before we can walk?

Fionnuala Ratcliffe
12 Mar 2020

This week in the budget, the government re-iterated its commitment to supporting victims of crime. Specifically “the government will provide an additional £5 million to begin a trial of domestic abuse courts in England and Wales, allowing criminal and family matters to be considered together. To protect victims of severe domestic abuse and their children and reduce the number of serial perpetrators, the government will provide £10 million for innovative new approaches to preventing domestic abuse, working with Police and Crime Commissioners to expand projects like the “Drive” prevention programme”. This announcement comes hot on the heels of the re-introduction of the Domestic Abuse Bill, which has overwhelming support from charities and MPs. But missing from the budget or the bill, and from much or the discourse around it, are measures to promote alternatives to prosecution.

On prosecutions, unfortunately, the tide of police practice has shifted in the opposite direction. Recent research in Kent found prosecution to be the default in domestic abuse cases, with little consideration given to the victim’s wishes about whether to proceed. Caroline Flack’s management team criticised the CPS for pursuing a “show trial that was not only without merit but not in the public interest”. Unsurprisingly, given that the prosecution followed CPS policy to the letter, an internal CPS review concluded there was no fault in decision-making.

Valid reasons exist for prosecuting against the victim’s wishes in some cases, but international evidence has found that criminal sanctions don’t work to reduce domestic abuse. It’s therefore worth asking what purpose a blanket pursuit of prosecutions serves, and how victim needs can be met, and abuse reduced, through other avenues. One such avenue is perpetrator interventions, which can be used alongside, or in the absence of, prosecution.

Our 2018 report on domestic abuse highlighted that a paltry number of convicted perpetrators participated in behaviour change courses – only 3% of perpetrators started a course in prison or in the community 2017/18. More concerning is the alarming lack of recent evaluations of MOJ-accredited programmes.

So good news potentially comes from the budget announcement and the publication of the three-year evaluation of the Drive pilot scheme – “an innovative approach to responding to high-harm perpetrators of domestic abuse”. The programme works specifically with serial perpetrators and those who cause serious harm to reduce abuse and increase victim safety. Not so much a behaviour change programme, 80% of the work of Drive is ‘indirect work’ – information sharing by the Drive case manager with other agencies, as well as information gathering and multi-agency working.

The evaluation findings were met with much fanfare at a joint MOPAC/Drive event last month. The headline was that Drive works: the number of Drive service users perpetrating high levels of of physical abuse reduced by 82%, with the reduction as high as 88% for sexual abuse.

But looking more closely at the evaluation, I’m afraid Drive may be taking more glory than is due. Almost all (78%) of that 82% reduction in abuse also occurred for the control group. Credit for this truly impressive reduction seems to go to independent domestic violence advisors (IDVAs) to whom all Drive victims were given access. IDVAs provide a direct point of contact for the victim, offering independent support, assessing risk and working with the victim to develop a personal safety plan. As the evaluation itself says: “IDVA work is absolutely critical to the reduction in risk.”

A Trust for London evaluation of IDVAs attributed their success to their understanding of the complexities of domestic abuse, often missing in statutory agencies and the victim themselves: “Some statutory agencies displayed a concerning lack of understanding about the dynamics of domestic violence, women’s decision-making processes and the impact of coercive control. IDVAs carried out essential work with victim-survivors to enable them to recognise and name violence, and with other agencies to enhance their grasp of the complexities of domestic violence.”

It’s brilliant to see that it’s possible to reduce the most serious abuse by such a huge amount. The results from this pilot backs up previous evaluations of IDVAs where 57% of victims saw the abuse stop completely (up to 67% when considering those who received intensive IDVA support).

Drive appears to lead to a further reduction in risk for victims, and any reduction in risk is a good thing, but any specialist programme needs additional funding. The promise of a 4% extra reduction in risk (achieved by Drive) may lead some commissioners to ask whether money is better spent elsewhere.

Drive and a coalition of charities and academics are calling on the government to publish and fund a national domestic abuse perpetrator strategy. The mixed results from Drive show that perpetrator programmes aren’t a silver bullet, but they can play a role. (And that individualised support for victims should be an essential part of any strategy). Without pilots like Drive, and the commitment from the PCCs and non-government funders behind them, we would be making no progress in understanding how to change perpetrator behaviour. But central government needs to take a research lead, to take stock rather than creating more policies and making more announcements. If criminal sanctions don’t reduce abuse, we really do need to work out what does.