Effective and proven interventions being replaced by untested, shorter and cheaper alternatives, according to survey
Men found guilty of domestic violence are being returned home, free to continue abusing their victims amid "dangerous trends" in the provision of community programmes designed to rehabilitate abusers, the probation and family court union has warned.
The first comprehensive survey of courses for perpetrators of domestic abuse, released exclusively to the Guardian, has discovered that effective and proven interventions are being replaced by untested, shorter and cheaper alternatives, potentially putting women and children in acute danger.
There are two domestic killings of women each week on average, accounting for about 40% of all female murders.
The study by the union Napo found that more than half of all probation areas were introducing unaccredited domestic abuse courses as an alternative to Ministry of Justice-approved interventions.
"There is a real fear that reducing the number of courses and opting for cheaper alternatives ? despite there being no evidence that they work ? will result in more serious violence and homicides," said Harry Fletcher, Napo assistant general secretary. "In the view of staff, non-accredited programmes can make matters worse."
The probation service in England and Wales has been running offender behaviour programmes for more than 20 years. Shown to be highly effective, reducing reoffending by 35%, the accredited courses are increasingly popular with judges. Varying in length and complexity and targeted according to risk and need, the programmes teach cognitive-behavioural techniques based on rigorous evidence of what works in reducing offending behaviour.
As a result, courts strive to avoid sending offenders to prison, sentencing them to community orders instead, with the condition of a domestic abuse programme.
One probation officer in Yorkshire, speaking on condition of anonymity, described working with a 26-year-old man with a personality disorder and entrenched violent behaviour. The man had been allowed by a judge to return home with an order to take part in a violence intervention. He was put on an unaccredited course and reoffended within weeks of its completion, which the officer claims could have been avoided.
"Because he had done an unaccredited course that was not effective, he was left frustrated and disillusioned with the service," said the officer.
Another probation officer in the north-west said she considered a perceived lowering of standards to be a "highly dangerous practice". She said: "I am concerned that the development of [non-accredited courses] has resulted in a serious breach of treatment integrity towards securing and providing services for the protection and safety of women and children."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: "Not all domestic abuse offenders will be suitable for, or benefit from, the accredited domestic abuse programmes. Domestic abuse offenders have diverse needs, some of which can be met by other interventions."
Napo found that even when the approved courses were available there were often waiting lists of up to a year. This delay means courts are releasing violent men back into their communities on the mistaken belief that they will immediately commence treatment.
"These men are often highly manipulative and have no real desire to change," said Fletcher.
"Research shows that delays in courses' commencement increase the risk of violence and can affect what little motivation they might have to change."
As well as putting past and future partners at risk, the delays also mean that perpetrators' community orders often end before their delayed courses have been completed.
The survey revealed a rationing of participation in programmes, so that only offenders thought to pose very high risk to their victims were accepted. These barriers to being accepted on to a course were being introduced as a way to "ration a scarce resource", said Fletcher.
The consequence of the rationing was, said a third of probation officers who responded to the survey, "an escalation of violent behaviour" among abusers thought to be of low to medium risk to partners.
"Those with a long history of abusive behaviour are not getting into group programmes due to low scoring," said a probation officer in Greater Manchester. "This is in spite of the fact that we know that victims may experience domestic violence an average of 35 times before they contact police.
"These are complex offenders, many of whom are in denial and who are extremely difficult to work with. Many fail to attend after just one or two sessions, and intensive work has to be done with them to persuade them to re-engage," he added.
The study was completed by teams in 26 of the 35 probation areas in England and Wales, covering 668 men sentenced in 2011-12 to participate in programmes as part of a community order.
Delays of up to 12 months were found in 70% of the teams surveyed. The survey revealed similar delays in prisons where, it found, courses were often no longer available.
In the past six years there has been a sharp rise in the numbers put on community orders, from 20,361 in 2005 to 25,065 in 2010.
The probation service must find cuts of 20% by March 2015. The cost of an individual being supervised and participating in a domestic violence programme over a year costs ?6,288, compared with ?45,000 in prison. The reduction in reoffending rates for participation in community programmes is greater than those for custody by about 20%.
"Napo believes that a combination of fewer interventions and various rationing techinques will compromise public protection and inevitably and unfortunately lead to more victims, more misery and more violence," said Fletcher.
The MoJ spokesperson said: "Public safety is a key priority for the national offender management service. During the waiting period offenders are being supervised. [In] exceptional circumstances when domestic violence courses are not available before the end of a short sentence, in all cases where domestic violence offenders pose a higher risk they will be subject to stringent conditions and monitoring by police or probation."
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said (NOMS) said:
"Offenders who present the greatest risk of harm will always be
prioritised. We do not expect that offenders sentenced to attend domestic
violence programmes will start them immediately because there is
preparatory work that needs to be done by the offender with the Offender
"Public safety is a key priority for NOMS. During the waiting period
offenders are being supervised by offender managers (and possibly under
MAPPA arrangements), may be subject to other requirements and are usually
engaged in preparation work for the programme they are required to
"Probation areasand prisons are delivering a significant number of
domestic violence programmes. In addition, NOMS is currently piloting a
new domestic abuse programmes, rolling out nationally this year."