Domestic violence perpetrator programmes
Akoensi et al. (2012) carried out a systematic review of the effectiveness of European domestic violence perpetrator programmes. Our summary of the review highlights that whilst positive effects were found to be associated with the reviewed programmes, it is not possible to draw firm conclusions that the programmes wholly caused these outcomes. This is principally due to the research designs used in the original studies, and the potential for bias in the self-report methodologies and interviews with victims who are still under threat of violence.
What is it?
The domestic violence perpetrator programmes reviewed were implemented to reduce reoffending in people who are identified as having committed some form of physical domestic violence. The systematic review included both male and female perpetrators, and individuals did not need to have to have a criminal conviction, as some of the programmes targeted people who self-reported abusive behaviours. Programmes of this type are purported to have been in place for over 30 years, but the work of Akoensi and colleagues is the first systematic review conducted on European based perpetrators only.
Should it work?
Domestic violence perpetrator programmes are theorised to work in variety of ways (depending on the orientation of the programme), but aim ultimately to alter perpetrators’ attitudes and behaviours. Programmes based on a cognitive behavioral approach aim to teach perpetrators how to manage their emotions, and consequently their physical reactions to them. In addition, they emphasise criminal thinking and cognitive restructuring, which is a necessary element of desistence. Psychodynamic approaches are based on latent and unrecognised feelings of emasculation, which are believed to cause abusive attitudes and behaviours. Recognising these feelings and their place in the emotional nature and personality of the perpetrator is key. Programmes based on a pro-feminist approach focus on power and control as central themes, to help men understand these dynamics in their relationships with women. Pro-feminist programmes represent a gendered approach to understanding domestic violence, and view violence as originating from patriarchal values about women’s roles.
Does it work?
The systematic review identified 12 studies for inclusion, from an initial bibliographic database search which yielded 8325 discrete documents. Crude methods of analysing the combined results of the studies suggest overall positive outcomes associated with the domestic violence perpetrator programmes which were studied. However this finding must be interpreted cautiously; there is little heterogeneity between the studies, and only one employed a comparison group (i.e. of perpetrators who did not undertake the programme). The authors note that the quality of the evaluations means that the evidence is ‘insufficient to derive firm conclusions and estimate an effect size’ (Akoensi et al., 2012: p1206).
How strong is the evidence?
The evidence that has been summarised can be considered weak, in terms of offering a causal explanation. The review found 12 studies that took into account the applied treatment to 1,586 perpetrators. Each review was for a different programme, and only one programme had a comparison group. In terms of outcome measures, the studies relied on psychological assessments, self-report surveys and interviews with female victims of domestic violence whose partners were going through the programme. Each of these factors introduce the potential for bias and measurement error. In addition there are a number of other considerations pertinent to the reviewed studies which make it difficult to conclude that the interventions were responsible for the observed effect. These included the representativeness and characteristics of the sampled domestic violence perpetrators, and attrition from the studies (meaning that the individuals who completed the programmes were the individuals who were motivated to change their attitudes and behaviours – if this is the case, then the outcome cannot be confidently attributed to only the programme).
Is it worth it?
An economic analysis of costs and benefits was not undertaken by Akoensi and colleagues. The heterogeneous nature of the programmes means it is likely that they differ in terms of their economic impact, according to the resources required to run them, and their length and structure (for example, some of the programmes required a large amount of contact time, with two hours’ attendance per week for 27 weeks).
Can it be implemented?
Many domestic violence perpetrator programmes are well established, with routine practice taking place across Europe. It is reasonable to conclude therefore that there is sufficient structure and resource around the programmes for them to be effectively implemented. It is worth noting that the reviewed programmes differ and will require different levels of resources, including staff training to deliver the programmes. Practical considerations (such as implementing programmes in such a way as to minimise the potential for losing participants) are likely to be important. One of the points raised by the systematic review is that programmes need buy-in from the perpetrators, to the extent that those who attended the complete programme were the most motivated to change. Those who were not ready dropped out and their rate of recidivism was high.
What's missing from the evidence?
Further studies are required to establish the causal effect of domestic violence perpetrator programmes on recidivism. Such studies would employ a comparison group (e.g. a matched-pairs design) and the randomised allocation of participants to treatment (i.e. the perpetrator programme) and control (i.e. no programme) groups. Additional evaluation may look at specific aspects of domestic violence perpetrator programmes and their impact on recidivism. These may include an economic analysis, the reasons for perpetrators wanting to change their behaviours, female perpetrators and male victims, and people in same sex relationships that experience domestic violence.