A Sobering View of Valentine’s Day

It being Valentine’s Day today, I suppose it’s as good a time as any to think about healthy and unhealthy relationships. In that vein, I give a brief overview below the fold of some recent developments in European domestic violence perpetrator rehabilitation.

Practitioners and social workers in Europe have known for quite some time that a complete response to domestic violence requires addressing the problem from both angles: victims need resources for when they feel vulnerable, but perpetrators can also feel an important kind of vulnerability – not feeling in control of one’s anger and aggression, for example. Choosing to allocate all of our resources to making sure that victims feel safe, without attending to people who struggle to control their anger, is about as productive as hanging laundry outside in the dead of winter.

Victim’s rights advocates were one of the first groups to recognise this imbalance. They mobilised in the 1980s and persuaded interest groups and stakeholders to secure sufficient funding with which to begin building a co-ordinated response to domestic violence. In addition to mounting large-scale awareness campaigns, they set up some of the first services specifically for perpetrators of violence.

Unfortunately, more than 30 years later we still don’t really know how well those services work. There are countless reasons why that might be the case: for example, there really isn’t much money to investigate these sorts of services; it isn’t easy to agree on what the best outcome measure would be to capture service effectiveness; domestic violence isn’t a particularly ‘hot topic’ in most circles; and there’s an abiding – and as yet unsubstantiated, as far as I know – belief that politicians aren’t interested in what research has to say about domestic violence perpetrators.

The consequence is that European research on perpetrator rehabilitation remains largely theoretical. What little empirical work exists is under-developed, and we have limited means of establishing how much of an effect extant services really have. A systematic review of programme evaluations on the topic revealed that outcomes were typically measured by attendance rather than behavioural or attitudinal change, follow-up measurement periods were small or non-existent, comparison/control groups were almost entirely absent, and there was almost no documentation of the proposed mechanism by which services were supposed to effectuate positive change.

This isn’t to say that there are no services in place to assist perpetrators in dealing with their aggression. On the contrary, services are delivered in almost every European Union country, and in the few countries that lack such services, most are beginning to put them in place. The concern, however, is that there isn’t much of an evidence base to guide what form those services should take. In the absence of a clear set of guidelines about what works, the possibility that many services are wasting precious resources on ineffective programmes is considerable. The conclusion is that the ‘recent developments’ I promised earlier were something of a deception on my part. There have been no recent developments, and that’s frustrating to say the least.

8 thoughts on “A Sobering View of Valentine’s Day”

  1. “…, is about as productive as hanging laundry outside in the dead of winter.”

    When I was a kid, we hung laundry out in freezing weather to freeze dry.

    1. That can work pretty well in cold, sunny, dry winter climates like Montana or Utah or eastern Oregon. Don’t try it in places like western Oregon though, unless your real aim is to dye your clothes green rather than to dry them. I hear Germany and England have similar issues but I’ve not lived in either of those places in the winter.

        1. Also works on dry cold nights.

          I’m interested and saddened by the actual topic; especially as one would think that police records would give some really good numbers to start evaluating interventions.

  2. A key reason why programs work (or don’t) is whether they address substance use. 24/7 sobriety has reduced domestic violence arrests in South Dakota for example, simply by removing alcohol from the picture.

  3. The One Billion Rising “flashmob dance” dance protest against violence against women (supported by Anne Hathaway and Thandie Newton among other eye-candy celebs) deserves a welcome here. Gandhi in the social media era.

  4. Choosing to allocate all of our resources to making sure that victims feel safe, without attending to people who struggle to control their anger…

    Like taking away their guns?

    Homicides involving guns have declined in South Africa in the past decade, Ms. Kirsten said, a development many here attribute to the Firearms Control Act of 2004. It restricts South Africans to one gun, either a handgun or a shotgun, for self-defense. Exceptions exist for regular hunters, but all weapons must be licensed, and gun owners are required to demonstrate that they are trained in gun safety and are free from mental instability and substance abuse. The overall murder rate has dropped by 50 percent since its peak in the late 1990s, and the number of women killed by intimate partners using a gun has also dropped. In 2009, 17 percent of such intimate partner killings were gun-related, down from nearly 31 percent in 1999.


  5. There was a piece in the LAT a while back, about a new(ish) checklist or questionnaire that could be used to predict which abusers would kill their spouses. The article said it had good results. I can’t find the article now though.

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