Facilitators of probation-based domestic violence perpetrator programmes: ‘Who’s in the room?’
Introduction to the article, the wider research, and relevant criminal justice setting
This article, published open access in the Probation Journal, explores the experiences of facilitators who delivered domestic abuse perpetrator work within the criminal justice system in England and Wales. The findings are part of a much wider study that sought to reveal new insights into how domestic abuse perpetrator programmes (do or do not) work to reduce domestic abuse, and what might facilitate or hinder the process of change.
Funded by an Economic and Social Research Council PhD studentship, the research explored the experiences of programme practitioners and those of a cohort of male perpetrators of domestic abuse whose journeys were followed from inception to programme end; and (where possible) the experiences of men who dropped out before completing the course. This entailed in-depth interviews, observations, informal discussions, and document analysis of pre-sentence reports and programme reviews. The overarching aim was to identify what perpetrators of abuse need to help them Build Better Relationships.
Building Better Relationships (BBR) is a Home Office approved domestic violence perpetrator programme in England and Wales for heterosexual men who have been convicted of a domestic abuse-related offence against a female partner and deemed to be at medium-high risk of reoffending. Premised upon a general aggression model, BBR succeeded the pro-feminist Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme in 2012 and was established across all probation areas by 2015. BBR teaches abusive men emotion management techniques and cognitive skills to avoid incidences of domestic abuse and challenge pro-violent attitudes. Ultimately, BBR aims to reduce repeat offending of intimate partner abuse.
The rollout of BBR coincided with the part-privatisation of probation services in England and Wales in which private companies were awarded contracts to supervise low-medium offenders in the community. The day-to-day delivery of (most) accredited behaviour programmes was transferred to the private sector and delivered by programmes teams in Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs). The story of the failed Transforming Rehabilitation agenda is now well known[i]. Under recent reforms, in June 2021, ‘unification’ has now brought all supervision activities and accredited programmes back under the remit of the new public Probation Service. Welcome as this may be, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP) cautioned that without adequate staff training and resources, unification would be no ‘magic bullet’ in itself[ii], not least due to high rates of vacancies, high caseloads and the need for sustainable funding to ensure the continuation and quality of service provision[iii]
Facilitator’s: the forgotten variable in programme evaluation
What is less known or documented, however, are the experiences of facilitators whose role it is to undertake the complex and therapeutic work of supporting desistance amongst (more often) high-risk perpetrators of domestic abuse. The year preceding the demise Transforming Rehabilitation, HMIP undertook a thematic inspection of domestic abuse work within CRCs. Concerns were raised around high attrition rates of BBR and lack of evaluation of its effectiveness. But it also reported that, while some facilitators of BBR were experienced and knowledgeable, others lacked confidence and felt unsupported.
This article is an attempt to address a gap in knowledge about the experiences of facilitators who have all but been forgotten within a ‘what works’ era of evidence-based practice; where the technicalities of implementing cognitive behavioural programmes as intended, superseded a discussion on the skills, knowledge and enthusiasm of those tasked as the key agents of facilitating change amongst programme participants.
The research insights lend support and expand upon the findings of the thematic HMIP report by exploring the emotional and practical difficulties facilitators experienced within their roles. New insights were revealed which uncovered a lack of meaningful training, support, time and resources to work with domestic abuse perpetrators in ways that were commensurate with their own professional values. Ultimately, this impacted their own wellbeing, professional identities, and practice – all of which had been exacerbated within the context of Transforming Rehabilitation.
The article concludes with implications and suggestions for how to improve practice, and the wellbeing of facilitators as the new probation reforms take shape. Although the research was undertaken at only one research site within the criminal justice system in England and Wales, the findings will be internationally relevant and of interest to policymakers, practitioners, and organisations alike; within the wider and beyond the criminal justice system where there is a commitment to tackling men’s violence against women, and driving forward workforce development and wellbeing.
Click here to access the research.