January 21 2022

Punishing domestic violence, criminalising social failure

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Punishing domestic violence, criminalising social failure

Broken window, from Flickr by Lynn Friedmann

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Broken window, from Flickr by Lynn Friedmann

Broken window, from Flickr by Lynn Friedmann

This week, our Home Secretary, Theresa May closed her public consultation on strengthening the law on domestic violence. There seems to be a wish to create a specific offence that captures patters of coercive and controlling behaviour in intimate relationships. I continue to cast doubt as to whether penalisation and criminalisation of social justice failures, such as domestic violence, will provide us with answers.

Domestic violence and abuse in intimate relationships are complex phenomena that are often motivated by our hidden, or sometimes overt, biases, cultural and societal tendencies to interpret the world in a certain way. They are also expressions of our need to exercise power and control others, especially those closest to us.

Is the criminalisation of domestic violence our society’s easy way of shaking off our responsibilities by throwing even more people in prisons?

Domestic abuse is defined by our government as ‘any incident or patterns of incidents of controlling, coercive, threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality’. The behaviour captured in this definition includes a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten their victim. Domestic abuse can destroy the lives of many victims and indeed offenders, and it is a phenomenon that impacts on many families, their children and friends. In fact, the latest statistics reported in the Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) suggest that 30% of women and 16.3% of men will experience domestic abuse during their lifetimes.

The definition and our collective determination to root out the causes of domestic violence are not the problems. I argue that our taxes, resources and energy should be put into eradicating a culture of processing individuals through the criminal justice system as if it is a ‘sausage machine’. By treating those affected by domestic violence as individuals and not as numbers, by removing the labels of ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’, we might stand a chance of reducing the ever increasing numbers of abuses and the declining numbers of reported incidents.

Let me give an example. Jodie is 26 years’ old. She is a migrant and has two children. She comes from a minority background and lives with her partner, Colin, a 35-year-old Black British man. They are faced with a number of challenges such as a low income, alcohol addiction and mental health problems. Colin has never cheated on Jodie and he loves their children of three and five year old. Colin often hits Jodie and her family and friends are aware, but do not intervene. They know she loves him. One night, Colin is extremely angry and drunk and starts hitting Jodie with his belt. Jodie gets scared and calls the police. The police want to press charges, but Jodie declines.

This is not a one off case. It provides the basic ingredients of most domestic violence cases. How can I judge Jodie? More importantly, how can society, or Ms. May, label Colin as an offender and throw him in prison?

Jodie knows the deficiencies of the criminal justice system when it comes to race equality. She also loves Colin and wants him back home. What about her migrant status? What about her children? Now, turning to Colin, will imprisonment make him a better man? Will he shake off his drinking addiction and will prison help him address his mental health problems? When he comes out, where will he go? Back to Jodie? How will they get on, if she is the one who put him in prison?

It is about time that policy makers in Whitehall started developing laws and policies on the back of evidence. Academics and NGOs, such as Howard League, Prison Reform Trust and others have produced enough reports to answer the above questions. They are the real problems, not Colin.

And I am not writing these thoughts from theory. Independent Academic Research Studies (IARS), the charity that I run, has been leading on a gender violence project for three years working directly with migrant, refugee and minority women who have been abused. With funding from Comic Relief, our ‘Abused No More: The Voices of Refugee and Asylum-seeking Women’ has constructed an evidence-based, user-led training and awareness raising programme for professionals and service providers focusing on the impact of gender-related violence on refugee and asylum-seeking women and the need for a gender-sensitive treatment of this group. The project aims to generate institutional change and increased gender sensitivity in the treatment of refugee and asylum-seeking women, both by harnessing existing research and by allowing the women themselves to identify the problems they currently face through community-led action research. Research findings have been published in the IARS 2013 book Abused No More: Voices of Refugee and Asylum-seeking Women.

In her consultation, our Home Secretary is asking how to do operations better. I have an easy answer: by bringing police officers and her agents, face to face with the realities and complexities of domestic violence, by culturally educating them and by allowing them to learn from ‘victims’ and ‘offenders’ of abuse. This shouldn’t be done through ready-made training packages delivered by big corporations. It should be done by allowing the women, the victims and the offenders to teach them.

I invite the Home Secretary to attend our women’s training. I ask her to listen to their stories and maybe she will understand that reporting domestic abuse of the person that you love is not an easy task. Seeing them behind bars is even more difficult especially when you know that you will end up with no money for rent and food, no visa or without your children.

I would also ask our Home Secretary to seriously take into consideration the new EU law on victims expanding legal definitions such as that victimhood is not necessarily a consequence of prosecution or arrest (Victims’ Directive 2012/29/EU). I would urge her to stop spending our money on pulling us out of our European family and try to learn from our European cousins a bit more about culture and the complexities of violence and gender inequality.

The Home Secretary is also welcome to review the evidence that is emerging from the EU programme that we are running with a number of European partners titled Restorative Justice in cases of domestic violence: Best practice examples between increasing mutual understanding and awareness of specific protection needs This project aims to generate and pilot new knowledge on practices of restorative justice and domestic violence, and to identify criteria for offering restorative approaches to such cases, in accordance with the Victims’ Directive.

The consultation notes that the Home Secretary is particularly interested in listening to victims. But how genuine is this wish? Is the criminal justice system ready to move victims from the margins to the centre? I invite May to our Annual Conference A Victim-led Criminal Justice System? on the 19th-20th November.

I am aware that a superficial analysis of my comments will make me rather unpopular. But winning the battle against inequality, whether gender or race related, is not a populist contest. It is a matter of evidence and a genuine wish to allow our communities’ voices to be heard raw and through bottom up structures.

4 responses to “Punishing domestic violence, criminalising social failure”

  1. Hello Theo,

    We have had some constructive dialogues before, but I’m truly alarmed at the headline of your article.

    The fist half goes:

    “Punishing domestic violence”.

    Let’s start with the unqualified version of this, which goes:

    “Punishing violence”.

    In my view, in any civilised society, violence towards another human being simply is punished, appropriately, especially if the inflictor of the violence is unambiguously an adult.

    It is expected and demanded of an adult that he or she does not resort to violence on another human being, adult or child, for no legitimate reason.

    In my view there are some legitimate reasons to resort to violence towards another, when that other person is himself of herself inflicting violence on one, or very seriously threatening to do so.

    This is at least theoretically covered by the true notion of “Self-Defence”.

    I get up a lot of criminal noses, and they try bogus professional or “Harassment” stunts on me, that I have fun turning back on them…. However if anybody tries to kill me, or just to break my legs, then I will retaliate with all of the force at my disposal, seeking to disable them from what they are trying to do to me.

    I will disregard any human rights that they might try to imagine that they have in seeking to attack me, with the same abandon with which they are trying to violate my human rights – but I will not, except in extremis, try to kill. I will stab in muscle bulk, rather than in blood vessels – I will go for soft tissue if need be, to preserve my own life and health.

    Returning to the main theme, how come somebody is seeking to qualify any notion of punishing violence because it is “domestic”?

    In my view “domestic” violence is an even greater betrayal of trust than any other form of violence, especially when a strong adult assaults a less strong adult, or an intrinsically less strong, or much less strong, child.

    We have an attitude problem here in the UK; Pete Saunders observed on the evening news a little while back that we have an epidemic of child abuse here, as perhaps even justified above, when “other considerations” are deemed more relevant than the protection of children.

    The absolute obligations of the adult to protect children are conveniently forgotten about. The adult is blameless, rather that the child who actually is…

    “Criminalising social failure”…..

    In my view ALL CRIMINALS are examples of “social failure”.

    Those who inflict unjustified violence on others are abusers, criminals once convicted, and social failures.

    We lock them up accordingly, to punish them, and to communicate to them and to others that society regards their violent behaviour as utterly unacceptable.

    Here are the words on an individual that accepts that necessary and appropriate reality. They come from NAPAC Annual Reports, where they have been repeated in successive editions, such is their power.

    “The abuse started when I was 11. The worst thing was the confusion. My family, our society, and the church, they all held this person in high esteem. Yet he was hurting me. I didn’t know what to think, or who to believe, and as an adult I never learnt.

    I am a qualified accountant with a young family of my own. Yet things kept going wrong for me, and despite my efforts at making life “work out”, my entire life I have been struggling emotionally. Now I find myself in prison; never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that it was a place I could end up.

    I know so many people in here are weighed down by the deep secret of abuse. I am therefore so grateful to you for targeting prisons. NAPAC will be of great help for those who, when they are ready, want to share their past and begin to heal. Finally, after 42 years, there is somebody out there who gets me.”

    George weeps, and carries on: I have no idea of what was the offense of this man who wrote these eloquent words.

    But being held accountable for his actions was a turning point for him. It confronted him with his own problem – otherwise he would have continued to be confused as to what was right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable.

    When he gets out he will be far better equipped to serve as, and be, a dad; his values will no longer be confused. He will be able to pass on a clear view to his children, rather than a mass of confusion.

    But he does not complain about his conviction and imprisonment.

    My values were initially confused by my very own original mother’s abuse of me, and assaults on me. They rendered me vulnerable for the attention of two further female psychopathic abusers during my childhood and youth.

    But I was blessed by three rocks of care in my first seven years; my dad, until he was defeated by what was going down, and two surrogate emotional mothers; my nanny, until I was 18 months or so, and a neighbour in smart Wimbledon.

    My biological mother savagely separated me from both of them, along with separating me emotionally from my dad. I never recovered my relationships with my dad and the neighbour in their lifetimes; but my mother never succeeded in killing, destroying my love for them; I hid it from her.. I tricked her; I conned her; I hid my good aspects from her, so that she could not attack them as well. I hid them in a snow and ice field near the top of a Himalayan peak, until it was safe for them to come down, after I knew that it was safe… because I could accept somebody’s care and affection for what it really was – just care and affection – and not distort it.

    They, and others later, helped me, just, avoid crossing a Legal, Society, line, although I sailed very close to the wind, in my imagination and mind.

    I was once a qualified accountant with two young sons; they are now in their 30s. I am now, among other things, a Forensic Accountant – I go after frauds and abusers.

    I will forever remember when I first read the dear man’s narrative above – I was waiting in the NAPAC office for Pete Saunders to come back from lunch, to show him “The Auschwitz Umbrella” painting, that a dear artist friend and I arrived at, from my initial imagery, to testify as to my own mother’s abuse of me.

    If we do not properly respond to, and punish, domestic violence, as all violence, then we betray our society, and especially our children; and instead of deeming unjustified violence utterly unacceptable, we endorse it.

    No thanks; I’m not on for that.


    George Gretton, eventual Survivor, after 50 years living in the darkest shadow of abuse and assaults – I emerged about three years ago…

    • Thanks, Jon, for publishing this; I am very moved that you chose to do so.

      The most critical observation for me, and the most compassionate and potentially healing observation above goes:

      “NAPAC will be of great help for those who, when they are ready, want to share their past and begin to heal. Finally, after 42 years, there is somebody out there who gets me.”

      NAPAC is one leading route to the possibility of finding that elusive healing, and works and stands alongside other organisations and responsible and properly qualified Psychotherapists and Psychoanalysts, who usually have a Doctorate in something, generally in Psychology.

      The NSPCC, in John Cameron, then Head of Child Protection, recently denied me the recognition of maternal sexual psychopathy, since it was “Outside of their scope”; so it presumably denies children that as well.

      Psychologically-Unqualified “Psychotherapists” also denied me that same recognition; one such “Consultant”, in response to a statement of likely, and sadly standard, such facts in this area by me, whispered to me: “It’s unspeakable..”.

      So an Unqualified “Consultant” Psychotherapist, that I was referred to by one of her “Membership” Organisations, responds to an account, of admittedly very severe maternal sexual abuse, inflicted on a young girl, and penetrative, by saying that to talk about it, think about it, is off-limits….

      That’s why I refer to this issue as “The Last Great Taboo”.

      When a Psychologically-Unqualified Consultant “Psychotherapist” does NOT say

      “How dreadful that must have been for that person”

      but instead declares the subject “Unspeakable”, then we STILL have a problem of the HUGEST sort in our Societies.

      Yours, George Gretton

  2. Ian says:

    You make a lot of good points here:

    – specialist training for justice agencies should be inclusive of dealings with the “service users”.

    – domestic violence is social failure – it is possible to teach nonviolence, and therefore our society needs to build and retain the capacity to do so.

    – criminal law, as typically developed and implemented, is not a very effective way of regulating or changing people’s behaviour!

    I think a similar article could be written about hate crime – rather than criminalising ignorance, it should be educated out of people!

    • Hello Ian,

      I’m gob-smacked about the contrasts in what you say, as well as in the thoughts themselves…

      “Criminal law, as typically developed and implemented, is not a very effective way of REGULATING or CHANGING people’s behaviour!”

      I had really thought that the Immortal Stanley Kubrick had nailed this one comprehensively in “A Clockwork Orange”…

      SHIT! And I’m being polite here.. NOBODY in this more respectful and compassionate age (perhaps….) seeks to REGULATE or IMPOSE CHANGE on another human being’s BEHAVIOUR.

      It is widely recognised that such attempts are themselves profoundly ABUSIVE, and destructive in turn.

      The wondrous Alan Turing, who had such a massively positive impact on the Battle of the Atlantic, at least, according to Sir Winston Churchill [where my dad Peter was also closely and beneficially involved, and received the benefits of Alan’s work, via Alan’s cracking of the codes in the Enigma machines], was injected with female hormones so as to “REGULATE” his homosexuality; he died from what is regarded as self-inflicted cyanide poisoning, that may have been ingested via an apple, as a result, it is thought, of interfering with his body chemistry, and the resulting confusion, and perhaps disgust.

      Gordon Brown apologised on behalf of the State for that, but it is not certain if he apologised too all homosexuals….

      I’m very glad that criminal law is NOT an effective way of “REGULATING” and “CHANGING” behaviour… it treats individuals, including criminals, with more respect than that. They are not toys, or guinea pigs….

      You make two references to “education”.. and “teaching”; Wow.

      Do you NOT recognise psychopathy, and ingrained and enduring anti-social behaviour, for its own sick-sweet pleasure? Do you only recognise the existence of Goodness, and Deny the existence of Evil@

      Would you have set out to reach out to, teach and educate Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Pol-Pot, Mao? Would you sort out the Problem of ISIL with kind and caring teaching?

      Psychopaths and other grossly anti-social individuals laugh themselves sick at the thought of others “educating” or “teaching” them to be more socially responsible and caring members of society.

      I refer you to the Hare Psychopathy Checklist; but it only seeks to address convicted Prison Inmates, and ignores the Sociopaths wandering around all over the place; including as Captains of Industry… in the Statutory Authorities.. in Health…

      Please… remove the rose tinted spectacles…


      George Gretton

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