As the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence Campaign has just started, David Gadd, Professor of Criminology (The University of Manchester), Juliet Henderson (King’s College London), Polly Radcliffe (King’s College London), Danielle Stephens-Lewis (University of Worcester), Amy Johnson(University of Worcester) and Gail Gilchrist (King’s College London) discuss the research they have been undertaking as part of NIHR ADVANCE project, which looks at males in substance misuse treatment who perpetrate intimate partner violence.
- The government is considering introducing court orders that will require domestic abuse perpetrators to abstain from consuming alcohol and drugs or receive treatment.
- Models of drug treatment that assume a degree of ‘relapse’ are hard to reconcile with domestic violence policy that promises (often falsely) ‘zero tolerance’ of reoffending.
- Changing what the courts can require of domestic abusers could transform the lives of victims/survivors in the long term, but probably only if investment is made in both housing provision and specialist service provision.
The government is considering introducing court orders that will require domestic abuse perpetrators to abstain from consuming alcohol and drugs or receive treatment. Transforming the Response to Domestic Abuse highlights an ‘association between complex needs’ and ‘drug and alcohol misuse, offending, mental illness and poverty’ and advocates a departure from the ‘simplistic’ ‘stereotype’ of the ‘drunk’ in favour of rehabilitative policies responsive to the ‘dynamics of power and control which are present in many abusive relationships’.
The scale of this challenge should not be underestimated, however, since the dynamics of power that pertain in abusive relationships can sometimes be imperceptible to victims, offenders and criminal justice practitioners alike. The 2016 Crime Survey of England and Wales revealed that ‘adults…who had taken illicit drugs in the last year’ were three times more likely to report ‘being a victim of partner abuse’ than those who had not. Yet why this should be is unclear, for illicit drug consumption does not invite victimisation. The problem, of course, lies with perpetrators, a significant subgroup of whom are drug or alcohol dependent. But the relationship between substance use and violence perpetration is also complicated. Low levels of empathy and heightened sensitivity to insult can follow alcohol and cocaine consumption. But violence does not always occur when one party is intoxicated. Many perpetrators pose greater risks to their partners when they feel irritable, are withdrawing, or need to finance more alcohol or drug purchases.
The ADVANCE project
Research being undertaken for the NIHR ADVANCE project* suggests tackling this latter dynamic may be as important as curtailing aggressive behaviour among men who are intoxicated. The project conducted life-history interviews with 37 male heterosexual perpetrators of domestic abuse who were in treatment for substance use, together with 14 of these men’s current and former female partners.
Most of the men interviewed used heroin alongside crack and cocaine, and/or were ‘heavy’ drinkers. While all the men’s stories were biographically unique, they invariably described ‘fights’, as they saw them, as isolated incidents that followed arguments connected to their alcohol and drug use, withdrawal symptoms, financial pressures, moments of jealousy, and arguments over domestic chores accentuated by being intoxicated. Most of the men also let slip how fears of dependency – on both drugs and partners – evoked feelings of worthlessness. These feelings were often displaced onto female partners as distrust and blame – buttressed by sexism, reinforced by threats of violence and articulated in accusations that implied that these women had ‘driven’ them ‘mad’.
The women, by contrast, tended to describe accumulating patterns of coercive control, responded to variously depending on their own familiarity with drugs and heavy alcohol consumption.
- Women who had never been substance dependent were typically confused as to why relationships that had started out well deteriorated as their partners engaged in peculiar behaviours, such as accusing them of unfounded infidelities while lying about their own whereabouts or criminal activity. When perpetrators confessed to drug use, abused women with little knowledge of drugs could be persuaded to wait for their partners to complete drug treatment in the (typically unfulfilled) expectation that the violence would stop.
- Women who had previously been substance dependent typically recounted how sharing feelings and traumas that motivated drug use or made it difficult to give up had generated understanding and closeness when the couple first met. Conflicts developed when the men resumed drug use or drinking, putting pressure on the women to do the same and sometimes evoking retaliatory violence, only later to use the threat of exposing the women as ‘addicts’ or ‘abusers’ when they tried to leave or call the police.
- Women who were co-dependent drug users faced similar pressures, though often more acutely. Some explained their persistence with relationships that were highly abusive in terms of daily needs for protection, somewhere to live and the sharing of drugs. The women in this group were encouraged into shoplifting, petty frauds and prostitution by male partners who relied, to some extent, upon the income the women generated and who shared with them, not always equitably, a mixture of illicit and prescription drugs to moderate withdrawal symptoms. Criminal justice intervention was often greeted with trepidation by women who had used drugs, who had hit back, or who were fearful of being presented as neglectful mothers. Some had feared they were ‘going mad’. Many found it easier to attribute ‘difficulties’ in their relationships to drug use that was derivative of childhood traumas – these forming part of the story of shared emotional intimacy in many of our participants’ lives – than walk away, call the police or contemplate social services intervention.
Deescalating power dynamics that pertain in abusive relationships compounded by substance use will require enduring strategies that are sensitive to the intimacy, loyalty and money that binds some couples together and the fears of criminalisation, homelessness and of losing children that make it especially difficult for victims/survivors to seek help. Whether this can be achieved through compelling abstinence or treatment is debatable. Models of treatment for substance use that assume a degree of ‘relapse’ are hard to reconcile with domestic violence policy that promises (often falsely) ‘zero tolerance’ of reoffending. Both sectors within the UK are currently struggling to maintain service standards as competitive tendering processes – that favour more generalist and less specialist provision – have been used to enforce deep cuts to budgets. Changing what the courts can require of domestic abusers could transform the lives of victims/survivors in the long term, but probably only if investment is made in both the housing provision needed to enable couples to separate without risking impoverishment and the professional service provision needed to surmount the limitations of ‘incident-focused’ policing responses that can be subverted by perpetrators motivated to disempower victims/survivors with complex problems of their own.
*This blog summarises independent research funded by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) under its Programme Grants for Applied Research programme (RP-PG-1214-20009).
The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the NHS, the NIHR or the Department of Health and Social Care. The named authors submit this blog on behalf of the ADVANCE research programme investigators: Professor Liz Gilchrist, Professor Mary McMurran, Professor Gene Feder, Sara Kirkpatrick, Professor Louise Howard, Professor Sir John Strang, Professor Sabine Landau, Professor Caroline Easton, Steve Parrott, and Eleanor Bateman; and members of the research team: Dr Beverly Love and Dr Fay Dennis.
If you wish to cite this blog, please references as: Gadd, D., Henderson, J., Radcliffe, P. Stephens-Lewis, D., Johnson, A., and Gilchrist, G. (2018) ‘Transforming the Response to Drug and Alcohol Dependent Perpetrators of Domestic Abuse’, Policy@Manchester, University of Manchester.