‘Domestic violence prevention course was no cure, but a salvation’

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent
Domestic violence prevention courses are controversial, but one formerly abusive husband says a programme changed his behaviour for good. Photograph: Dominic Lipinski/PA

Gareth Jones once held his wife against a wall with her feet off the ground and screamed at her. For years, he abused Bronwyn, his wife of 15 years, and was twice convicted of offences linked to violent outbursts against her.

But Gareth, 46, is still with Bronwyn. He describes his relationship with her as “wonderful” and she says she is looking forward to the future.

The optimism is a result of Gareth spending two and a half years voluntarily attending a domestic violence prevention programme. “It was my salvation,” he says.

“I walked in there thinking it would be some sort of back-slapping exercise, but it wasn’t. It completely turned my world upside down.”

Bronwyn says the programme gave Gareth the tools he needs to cope with the issues behind his devastating behaviour. “The programme was about changing core beliefs of how they perceive women, or perceive their role within a family,” she says. “Or in life. It literally rocks you to the core.”

On Tuesday, probation inspectors expressed concern that the number of perpetrators being referred to the only course to be accredited by a public authority, Building Better Relationships, was falling, as was the completion rate.

Violence prevention programmes are hugely controversial. This was recently underlined by fierce reaction to a social media campaign by Essex police and county council that many accused of encouraging survivors to stay with perpetrators.

Campaigners and charities cautiously welcome schemes that are appropriately accredited, but said they are concerned they could be used as quicker, cheaper solutions at the expense of safe and effective practices, such as providing refuge to women fleeing abuse. Refuge, the domestic violence charity, has previously said there was a lack of evidence the programmes worked and questioned funding support for “violent men”.

But research into the impact of such programmes has produced broadly supportive findings.

Cambridge University researchers found that a two-session counselling programme for low-level, first time domestic abusers cut re-offending rates by a third, while an earlier groundbreaking study, Project Mirabal, led by professors from Durham and London Metropolitan universities, found far fewer women reported being physically injured after their partner had attended a programme, with 61% before compared to 2% after.

Gareth, who lives in North Wales, said he always had a temper but his behaviour spiralled shortly after the death of his 14-month-old daughter.

“I was a very arrogant person,” he says. “I always saw everyone else’s problem as their problem, not my problem. But I was living a lie.”

He first physically assaulted his wife, who at eight stone was half his size, about six years ago. She had just come off a Skype call with her parents, in which he wrongly thought she had said something derogatory about him.

“I just basically exploded. It was awful,” he says. “I pushed her with such force she went over the double bed and over the other side.”

He was charged and convicted of common assault but after moving out of the home for about six months returned to the family to find nothing had changed. “The arguments were getting worse and getting physical,” he says.

Bronwyn, 47, a nurse, recalls how Gareth’s behaviour deteriorated after he lost their child. “I’ve been pushed to the floor and he has stood over me and spat at me when he’s been drunk,” she says. “It’s been as bad as that.”

About three years ago, estranged from his wife, Gareth started attending Choose2Change, the violence prevention programme run by the relationship counselling organisation Relate Cymru and accredited by the domestic violence charity Respect.

Based in a North Wales community centre, the meetings are similar to those of Alcoholics Anonymous. Men who have been abusive in variety of ways, physical and emotional, get together under supervision, discuss their experiences and use a variety of interactive exercises to help them understand the impact of their behaviour.

“The reason I changed was listening to other men in my position, realising it’s not everyone else around you – it’s you,” Gareth says. “You’re the reason everyone is suffering here.”

Bronwyn was astounded by the change in her husband. “He went on the programme and it’s like being with the man I met again,” she says.

The courses require attendees to remain for a minimum of six months and are voluntary. Gareth admits he signed up with a degree of cynicism and arrogance.

“Initially, I was going through the motions,” he says. “I went with the ‘well it will look good in court’ type of attitude.”

But after two to three months, the programme started to have a life-changing impact and he continued to attend. About 12 months after he started the programme, Gareth moved back home with his wife.

He last attended a session four months ago and now talks about his marriage with enthusiasm and pride. “It’s wonderful, wonderful,” he says. “We talk – there are no barriers there. One thing it has improved more than anything is communication in the relationship.”

Gareth now works as an advocate for Choose2Change at fundraisers, sharing his experience with others, and calls for violence prevention programmes to be offered as soon as a perpetrator is identified. “The programmes are not funded enough or publicised enough,” he says.

“When I was in the jail cells, they were my lowest moments. At that point to have people who’ve been through it, have an ex-perpetrator come in and say: ‘This isn’t the way, talk to me.’ If someone had done that to me, I would have been all over it.”

Research has shown that the majority of recorded male perpetrators (83% in one study) had at least two incidents of recorded abuse to their name and, on average, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales.

Provision of safe spaces for women – 1.2 million of whom experienced domestic abuse in the last year, according to official estimates – remains a priority for charities and campaigners.

With funding for refuges under threat, as the government proposes to cut their only guaranteed source of income, Katie Ghose of Women’s Aid cautioned that programmes like the one Gareth attended must never be seen as a substitute for real support for victims.

“Perpetrator programmes must be Respect-accredited and must also be underpinned by a national network of specialist domestic abuse services for survivors,” she said. “If we fail to give the necessary support to survivors, women’s lives will continue to be at risk.”

Gareth and Bronwyn agreed for his name to be changed for this piece to protect his identity.