Working with Perpetrators of Domestic Abuse: Interview with George Walker

By Paige Hughes
15 May 2019

At TLC: Talk, Listen, Change, we work to promote safe, healthy, happy relationships. One area of our work focuses on domestic abuse prevention.

We do this by working with the perpetrators of abuse in order to increase the safety of victims and children. We offer behaviour change programmes which aim to replace abusive patterns with new respectful and caring ones. Alongside this, we offer integrated support to the partners, ex-partners and children of the men on our course. More recently, we have also started working with female perpetrators.

Our latest data report, gathered over the last 10 years, shows us that this approach of dealing with the causes and effects abuse is working - 100% of partners reported a decrease in violence and 78% said they now feel safer in their relationships.

We decided to interview experienced Programme Facilitator, George, to find out about this life-changing programme.

Content Advisory: This article contains descriptions of domestic abuse.

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George, can you tell me a bit about what you do at TLC?

I work on the Bridging to Change programme. For the men who have expressed an interest in changing their behaviour and acknowledged some responsibility for this and the harm that’s caused, we offer a programme that consists of 1-2-1 sessions and group work to help them change this behaviour. Our referrals come from Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service, social services and self-referrals.

Men refer themselves in?

Yes.

How long have you been doing that work here?

About 4 years, I’ve done similar work with Yorkshire Children’s Centre which is also a Cafcass provider. I’ve also done similar work for Relate Lancashire and going back a few years when I worked in probation, I moved from generalist probation to specialise in domestic abuse – that must have been about 15 years ago.

What did you do before that?

There is absolutely no link, I worked in an industry in Human Resources and when I left, I was employee-relations manager in the chemical manufacturing side

Wow, that’s a big change!

It was the right thing to do.

Why this then? What is it that inspires you to do this job?

Fundamentally this is about the safety of women and children, that’s the bottom line. I went into probation with a view of helping others, that is what the job is really about – supporting people. Within this, it became clear when working with men who were subject to orders of the court that many of them were controlling their partners in some way.

So you started to see patterns and understand…

Yes but I was also fascinated by it. I was fascinated by the power dynamic, which is something subconscious, being a man in this world you can’t not be aware of it - male privilege. When I was exposed to the effects of it on a daily basis and I saw how it impacted on children, I decided I was passionate about increasing the safety of women and children and helping men who want to change.

Can you tell me a bit about the perpetrator work? It’s your day to day but a lot of people aren’t even aware this sort of work is happening.

The programme is between 35-40 sessions. It starts with a suitability assessment because not everybody who applies or gets referred is suitable. We ask them – “Do you accept that you and only you are responsible for everything you say and do?”. The programme may seem like a long time, but if a man is 60 years old, it’s taken him 60 years to get where he is. The work doesn’t stop when you finish the programme either, you have to carry it on for the rest of your life. Anybody can say “Oh yes, I understand, I’m sorted now” but it’s very difficult. They have to ask themselves difficult questions and get up in the morning and look at themselves in the mirror and not like what they see. It’s hard work.

So what’s a suitable person? Can you give me an example of somebody that would be accepted onto the programme and an example of somebody who wouldn’t?

I suppose the simple answer to that is we’ll accept somebody who takes some responsibility and has some understanding and we wouldn’t accept somebody who doesn’t. However, we very rarely say no, we offer them something to think about and tell them to come back. We want to give them an opportunity to reflect and see if time gives them a different take on it. One guy we’re currently working with has dropped out twice before and is now back for the third time.

Is he now on the programme?

Yes, he’s doing better. He left on his own accord on the previous two occasions because he found it too difficult because he had to look at himself. Every time something went wrong he externalised it, he blamed everybody and everything except himself. You have to look at yourself. 

What happens in the 1-2-1 sessions?

Ultimately, we work with what each man brings and don’t have a set agenda, other than risk management. We’ll look at negative emotions and feelings and strategies to deal with them. We look at calming exercises, breathing and a basic Cognitive Behavioural Therapy model of thoughts and feelings. They have a choice, every action we take is a choice. We also look at the individual – their history, background, experiences.

We’re not an anger management programme but we look at the difference between expressive anger and instrumental anger. Expressive anger is an inability to manage their emotions and is often seen in younger men, it’s uncontrolled. Instrumental anger is like a tap which you can turn on and off. A lot of men say things like “I’m a really nice guy, I’m not abusive all the time!” Of course they are, most of the time they’re getting what they want, it only happens when they don’t get what they want. So we’ll explore that with them.

We also look at male socialisation. It’s seen as not masculine to say – I’m hurt, anxious, upset or concerned. We’ve been socialising boys like “big boys don’t cry” and “hit them back harder than they hit you”. What is that teaching them? Domestic abuse as instrumental anger, tends to take place in the home where it’s behind closed doors and there are unlikely to be any consequences for the perpetrator.

The whole purpose of the 1-2-1 work is really to prepare them for the ongoing group work.

Moving on to the group work, why do you choose to do group work, why is not all 1-1 work?

All of the evidence and research in domestic abuse from Canada and the USA in the early 90s suggests that learning is more effective if it comes from a peer group. I can tell them what they’re doing is wrong until the cows come home, but peers can challenge them like - “I used to think that until I realised. Why do you think this is okay?” Being in the room is sometimes phenomenal, you can sit back and watch them respectfully challenge each other, it’s really powerful. It also helps that our programme is rolling so not everyone is starting on day one together, you’ll have other men who are on their 10th or even 25th week there too.

We facilitate the groups, rather than running them. We provide them with an opportunity to explore what’s going on for them, why they behave the way they do and how they can manage their feelings and think differently. We’re different from any other programme I’ve worked on, as others focus predominantly on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, whereas we look at the heart. How can they keep their hearts open to the other person they are blaming for their behaviour? This is serious relationship stuff – these men will say they’re in love with the person they’re abusing and often deny any impact on the children. The children know what’s going on. Recent research on the unborn child suggests when the dad shouts at the mum, the child reacts to that in the womb.

Wow.

Yes, so after birth, the child is hearing that voice… they’re already tuned in to something being wrong. They’ll argue that the child isn’t affected because they aren’t around for the abuse, or the children are resilient and can bounce back. Looking at the impact on children is very important and we spend about 5-6 weeks looking specifically at this.

Do they all have children and partners?

In the last year I’ve only had one man, that didn’t have children and most of them have a partner of some sort, whether it’s the partner they’re been abusive towards, or a new partner.

Do you see men in the groups that are there because they’ve previously been abusive to an ex-partner but that they’re being healthy with their current partner? Or are those tendencies still there and that’s why they’re in the group?

That’s an interesting one because it’s quite often that they’ll evidence that it was the previous partner’s fault and not his because he’s not abusive in his current relationship.  I don’t believe that for one minute. Another thing we look at with them is shame and guilt – working out the difference between the two. They are making these choices and they know exactly what they’re doing.

Even in 2019, it’s arguable we are still fighting the prominent discourse that domestic abuse is always physical violence. Are all perpetrators physically violent?

Not all. When the men say to me “but I’ve never laid a hand on her”, that suggests that they’ve got what they wanted by other means – potentially threats and intimidation. We do a checklist with everyone we meet very early on to identify the level of abuse. We’ll look at emotional and psychological abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, threats and intimidation and physical abuse. In my experience, it only results in physical abuse if other means aren’t working – so again, that’s a choice. Even men who acknowledge multiple types of abuse, in my experience, rarely acknowledge any sexual abuse at that stage.

Do you find some men on the course are sexually abusive?

The majority will be. Even if it’s as simple as getting angry if they don’t get sex when they want to.

What about financial abuse?

Again, that’s something men rarely acknowledge or admit to. Legislation around coercive control is still fairly new and the original models in the 90s were based around power and control. That’s moved on a bit now – it’s more than just that. It’s actually about looking at what’s going on for the perpetrator.

In their life?

Yeah. We have themes in the programme not modules as such, so we don’t go in saying today we’re doing x y and z. To reduce the risk of them being abusive, we have to respond to what they need and what’s going on for them right at that point in time and support them through the change.

Do you think they’re are aware of their behaviour?

Totally. Everything we do is a choice. Although it is not unusual in the early stages to blame others for their behaviour.

Coming back to the idea of the popular discourse on domestic abuse - is there a standard perpetrator profile?

No, I don’t think so. The youngest men we work with are 21 and we look very carefully at anybody that age – ensuring they’re sufficiently mature and self-aware enough to be able to undertake the nature of the work. We’ve had people in their late 60s and we live in a multi-cultural society, the group reflects that population. It’s not cultural or class driven either. Just because he’s a Managing Director, doesn’t mean he’s less prone to being abusive than someone on benefits. There is no “type”.

Domestic abuse has also been around for a long time. Research tells us it takes 36 incidents for the victim to pick up the phone and call the police. Because her partner will say sorry, buy flowers, promise not to do it again. Historically speaking, the consequences of this behaviour were zero and the risk of getting caught was minimal.

What about today then? Because it’s still happening today, so why do you think people become perpetrators of abuse?

If I had a pound for every time a man has said “My dad used to beat up my mum and I saw it and look at me now I’m sat in this room”. It’s cycles of abuse and if you work on the idea of learned behaviour – if that’s what you’re exposed to as a child, you learn violence gets you what you want and it’s unlikely you’ve been exposed to alternative methods of conflict resolution.

Are the men on the programme just abusing their partners or are they abusing their children or is that completely different?

Again, it’s quite complex. Some of them have also abused children, not always, but some of them have. In these cases social services are involved and we do weekly risk reviews.

Do you think this programme works? Do you think perpetrators of abuse are capable of change?

Fundamental to what we do is the belief that everybody has the capacity to change and we do see massive change on the programme. If men are not motivated to make real changes and attend only because they want to save their relationship or see their children, they usually drop off. However, in others we see real, positive, sustainable change.

When is it that you start to see a change? Obviously it’s different per person but is there some sort of point in the programme where they’re getting it?

Our experience suggests somewhere around 20 weeks, although everyone is different.

There is a critical narrative of perpetrator programmes. Why invest in them? Have you got an opinion on that?

Very simple response – why would you not? Victims are the priority. But if you don’t work with the men and you chuck them in prison, they’ll come out and just do it again.

What advice would you give to somebody if they were concerned that their friend or family member is a perpetrator of abuse? How could they begin that conversation?

That’s a difficult one, I think it’s a lot easier to start the conversation with the victim. The man has to come to it himself and this is the really tricky bit, we can offer all the advice but if he’s not interested in changing - it’s like drugs and alcohol, it won’t stop it. If you don’t recognise there’s a problem, you’ll never get past stage one. I would look at the behaviour and ask questions like “where have you learned this? Why are you doing it? Are you interested in changing?”

What advice would you give to somebody that is concerned about their behaviour, that they might be abusive?

Come and talk to us. We would encourage them to self-refer, unless there is agency involvement. If there is social care involvement, we need the social worker to contact us.

What else in general do you think can be done that can help tackle abuse that you think isn’t being done or isn’t being done in the right way?

Start in schools. I’m very concerned about what’s going on with young boys and their expectations of women, their ideas about consent and boundaries. We need to be teaching what is and isn’t okay. We also need positive male models who can provide examples of healthy masculine behaviour.

What have you learnt working with men who commit domestic abuse, what do you think those things are?

That people can change if they want to and to not be self-righteous.

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If you are interested in accessing our Bridging to Change Men's Programme, please click here for more information.

If you have been affected by any issues within this blog post, please visit our Useful Links page which provides more information that may be helpful.

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