Support groupOne out of ten women in France in the age 18-59 has been victim of domestic violence. In 2008 no less than 156 women died as a result of violence inflicted by their partner. The French Ministry of Justice and Liberties set up a pilot project to prevent domestic violence and to combat recidivism in this area. The core of the project was the establishment of support groups for the perpetrators of domestic violence. Eight questions to Mr. David Gorecki, Special Adviser to the cooperation Office of the French ministry of Justice for the STARR Project. (updated)

How did the idea of working with support groups come up?
By the end of 2007, the Ministry of Justice launched a new programme focusing on recidivism mitigation called Recidivism Prevention Programme (PPR in French). The programme was designed around the idea that individuals have a better understanding of their behaviour and its consequences if they are confronted with similar experiences. The logic was therefore to create groups of 8 to 12 probationers supervised by a probation officer and a psychologist. This approach was first introduced in the US and Canada. It covers methods from the systemic and psychodynamic therapy as well as cognitive behavioural approaches. Reports, such as the one delivered to the Ministry of Justice by dr. Roland Coutanceau, also influenced the decision to implement this new policy. (French Report)

How does it work?
The decision whether a probationer can participate in the group is taken by the probation officers. They base their decision on a set of several criteria. Does the probationer present serious pathological problems? Is he denying the facts? Does he have the linguistic and intellectual capacities to understand the discussions and to participate? Probation officers try to ensure a minimum of cohesion within the group, as to create the necessary dynamic. Of course, they also monitor the sessions. They can be supported by a psychologist, but his presence is not mandatory. [See also the text below on the programme itself.]

Which results have been achieved?
The results of the Mulhouse group were overall positive. Our findings showed that half of the probationers fully complied with the measure (a rate that is higher than the average for other types of measures). The probation officers also reported that 75% of the probationers demonstrated a positive development as they were going through the programme. This strong sense of commitment from the probationers was highly appreciated. However, we can not precisely measure recidivism as the group only existed for two years at the time the study was carried out.

Why is this approach more successful than individual monitoring by probation officers?
As mentioned before, probationers show a much stronger commitment, as well as much more respect during the group meetings than they are during the individual meeting. The dynamic created by the group is extremely decisive. One other advantage of the groups is that they can serve as a ‘springboard’ for voluntary psycho-therapy after the programme.

How did the probation service react on the new approach?
The new approach was well received by the probation officers. They reacted enthusiastically to the idea of having in-depth meetings with probationers and being able to offer a comprehensive programme to them. The probation officers voluntarily underwent specific training on group monitoring. The briefing sessions with a psychiatrist, that were also been part of this training, have been highly appreciated by the probation officers. The programme created a new internal dynamic.

Is this approach approach especially suited for perpetrators of domestic violence, or can it be applied to other criminal offences that are usually punished by a probation sentence?
No, this approach is being followed in other types of offences as well. In 2010, 71 probation and penintentiary integration departments (SPIP’s – services pénitentiaires d’insertion et de probation) established 156 Recidivism Prevention Programmes. They were targeted at the following topics:- 47 on family and domestic violence, of which 26 were on domestic violence – 50 for perpetrators of sexual offences – 22 on violence other than domestic and family – 16 on road traffic offences- 21 on other issues

Is this approach unique in Europe?
I have no specific information on the situation in other countries but I think that the Spanish Ministry of Justice is running a lot of these programmes.

Will the support group approach be spread in France? Will this approach be ‘normal’ in ten years time? Indeed, the support group approach should be spread in France and should become ‘normal’ in the next ten years. This can be achieved by spreading brochures and booklets to all services concerned, and by ensuring that all integration and probation officers and all penitentiary staff follow training programmes about this approach.

What is the link with the STARR project? STARR aimed at identifying original and efficient tools for reducing re-offending. Hence, the groups formed in Mulhouse clearly relate to the project, and more broadly to the PPR programme, which ambition is to achieve recidivism prevention using new methods.


Mulhouse pilot project

Recently the French Ministry of Justice published a report on supportgroups for perpetrators of domestic violence. The study focuses on a pilot project in the judicial district of the Tribunal de Grande Instance (Regional Court) of Mulhouse in 2009. In three different groups 28 men who were convicted for domestic violence attended seven sessions, that were organised every two weeks. The programme was as follows:

–  First meeting: presentation of the support groups
A quick introduction of the participants. This meeting is dedicated to presenting the ‘ethical framework’ (the participants contract of commitment and the rules of operation).

–  Second meeting: law
This meeting is dedicated to law, its supervisory role on human behaviour and what it prohibits. Consideration is also given to reasons why violence may develop within a couple.

–  Third meeting: the context of the domestic violence
The participants outline the context and the circumstances of the domestic violence that they have committed. There is also discussion on the motives ‘at the root’ of the conflict (money, jealousy, the education of the children, etcetera …).

–  Fourth meeting: couple and family
Focus on the role of woman and man within a couple. Distortion between representation and reality. Parenthood and the position of the extended family (parents, grandparents, …). What is a couple that works? The objective is to encourage the participants to contribute.

–  Fifth meeting: the position of the other party
Trying to imagine what the other party is feeling, empathy for the victim. Attention is given to the other party’s behaviour, her interpretation of what happened and the topic of violence, pressure and manipulation in a relationship. When does the other party feel herself in danger?

–  Sixth meeting: avoidance mechanisms
How to spot the moment when you tip into violence? What useful actions can you take to avoid violence?

–  Seventh meeting: assessment
Drawing conclusions. Various methodological support methods are used during the programme, in particular role play and support videos (documentaries and films on domestic violence).

Download the full report.

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