The Duluth model - fighting back against domestic violence

Domestic violence has been back in the news recently, amid the high-profile divorce case between former Spice Girls star Melanie Brown and estranged husband Stephen Belafonte.

I felt it important to offer an informative perspective alongside the sensationalism, so have revived my 2013 long read on the Duluth model of domestic violence prevention, and its revolutionary impact on services in London.

When Maria Stubbings’ abusive former partner Mark Chivers came to persuade her to take him back, having served time for her assault, she told police she feared for her safety. The panic alarm police had installed in her home had been deactivated on his release.

Five years ago today, she was found dead – strangled with a dog lead, under a pile of coats in the downstairs toilet – leaving behind two children. Chivers already had a 15-year conviction for killing a previous partner.

This year’s report into the case found a “a catalogue of errors” made by Essex police. Maria was badly let down in the weeks and months leading to her death; her case once again pushed the everyday reality of domestic violence to the forefront of public consciousness.

In some areas, there are multi-agency approaches to supporting women in such tragic circumstances. Hammersmith has been instrumental in dealing with domestic violence by embracing the Duluth model, an approach which aims to put the woman first through special interagency partnerships between the police, the courts and advocacy workers, giving victims the personal support and institutional protection needed to break free from the cycle of abuse.

This begins with the police prioritising domestic violence and understanding it, so that the mistakes of the Stubbings case are not allowed to happen. As Anthony Wills, the now-retired CEO of Standing Together, and former senior police chief at Hammersmith and Fulham tasked with implementing Duluth, explains: “if Maria Stubbings had been living in Hammersmith, it is more than likely she would still be alive.”

A united attack

The Duluth model, named after the city of the same name in Minnesota, was formed out of the grassroots women’s aid and refuge movement of the 1970s, recognising the need to step beyond simply offering the women somewhere to go, towards providing effective intervention. In the words of its founder, the women’s rights campaigner Ellen Pence, “we got tired of patching women up and sending them out again.”

In response, she began to formulate domestic violence intervention programmes throughout the early 1980s. The results were impressive. By getting the agencies working together, in conjunction with a rehabilitation programme for offenders, 69 per cent of victims reported no physical abuse during the education phase and a similar number reported the same three months after the programme. Mental abuse statistics were weaker, but the model acted as a clear framework for a united, community reaction to an issue that had otherwise remained ignored.

Ellen Pence in the 1970s

Ellen Pence in the 1970s

Pence later released a manual, Education Groups for Men Who Batter, which explained the ideology and profile of abusers, as well as the two-pronged attack. It was as simple as it was complex. Domestic violence operated around the desire for power and control, not just physically but mentally, emotionally and beyond. Pence visualised this through the power and control wheel, now a staple of domestic violence prevention methods.

However, it was not the theory that convinced Standing Together’s Beryl Foster to bring the model to Hammersmith. Rather it was the hands-on approach toward influencing practices that really convinced her. Beryl explains: “the Duluth activists took these two ways of doing things and applied them to actually looking at what agencies were really doing, instead of telling them what they ought to be doing, and why.”

“Although we’d always fashioned ourselves as a crisis intervention response charity, working across the criminal justice and voluntary sectors, we had never worked like this.

“We wanted to look at each person in the chain of a case, from the call out to the court room, to see how things could be altered to make sure that the context and history made it to the case file. The reality is that unless information makes it onto the case file, it doesn’t exist.

“It was all well and good us sitting separately around the table in Hammersmith talking to other agencies and authorities about what we did – but we were not looking at how it interlocked and how we could make specific changes. “

The biggest challenge in creating these links and building a coordinated community response to domestic violence came from the police force itself. Prior to the 1990s, police response reflected the prevailing attitude found: ambivalence and confusion.

Anthony echoes this sentiment: “Prosecution never got past first base because, until Beryl and Ellen arrived with Duluth, the police had no understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence.”

Often the officer would advise the woman against making a statement, so as not to waste court time, since women frequently withdrew their evidence. The most forward-thinking police officers wanted to do something but couldn’t see how.  Social workers saw domestic violence as “the moving wallpaper” behind their work, but it was a catch 22 situation – there was very little reward seen professionally for them, as police did not value it.

“Police officers are all about prosecution, so what was the point in arresting someone if the woman would then withdraw her evidence?”

One victim, Joyce Guttridge, explained tearfully how her husband, Paul, branded both herself and their son Kevin with an iron in the 1970s, but she did not do anything because Paul “was friends with police”.

“I do sometimes feel I failed my boy, but people would never have believed me; domestic violence didn’t exist.”

Hearts and minds

Essentially, a mentality change was required – but as Anthony admits, it is “a nightmare” trying to alter police attitudes. His quip “just remember Steven Lawrence”, is the first sign of a refreshing honesty not always found from those in the higher echelons of the Metropolitan Police.

The key to achieving agreement was to make the deal attractive in police terms. Beryl explains, “We located it as a violent crime rather than social crime. If you can come at the police with ways in which they can reduce violent crime, you will get a hearing”. And that is exactly what happened.

It became “almost immediately apparent” to Anthony during the meetings “that myself and the police service had been doing a pretty terrible job around domestic violence,” largely due to the “ignorant culture, especially towards why a woman wouldn’t prosecute”.

The two sides came away in agreement about turning the current outlook on its head. Instead of the victim taking responsibility for the prosecution, it was the job of the state to take responsibility. Especially given the unique dynamics of domestic violence; in no other crime did the victim have to consider going back to live with the perpetrator.

Or, in the words of Anthony: “we don’t say to a murder victim who’s lying on the ground dead with a knife in her chest, ‘do you want to prosecute’? We say ‘you’ve been assaulted, murdered and someone had broken the law, we’re going to deal with it, we’re going to gather the evidence, build the case and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), is going to prosecute if there is enough evidence, with the court dealing with it effectively’.”

Painting the bigger picture

In 2006 Standing Together appointed Anthony to help achieve “the full monty”, as he calls it. This meant stepping beyond, by trying to incorporate other sectors into the system, such as health and childcare.

“Domestic violence is the pivot around which everything else forms – until the same approach is taken to domestic violence across the board, there will always be holes. The victim always finds the gap,” he says.

A fear of this system gripped Helen Barton*, who suffered a vicious attack when her partner attempted to strangle her whilst she drove home from a break with his parents. Although she managed to pull over and kick the door open, the beating continued outside on the motorway layby.

Later that night, Helen called her father from hospital. As a barrister, he advised her to go to the police. “My mother was different, she told me not be silly and keep quiet, but I pushed ahead,” she remembers.

“When I heard social services were coming, I was really scared because I thought they were going to take my son away. I scrubbed my house thinking they were just going to categorise me as a bad mum.”

Those particular fears proved unfounded because, even though Helen lives outside Hammersmith, elements of the Duluth model had filtered through.

“When the social worker arrived, she assured me that everything was going to be ok and that she was on my side. The next day police came round and took pictures and a statement.”

Yet the further you stretch outside those agencies directly involved in the Duluth framework, the more the experience differs.

Another survivor, Lauren Foster*, remembers a particular instance which made her understand “how much better things would be if everyone had the same understanding.”

“The health visitor would be drawn in by my ex. He would take her to one side – as part of the control – and she’d come back and say ‘your boyfriend is worried about your mental health at the moment’.

“He would be an angel in front of everybody but a devil behind the scenes,” she says.

Lauren’s local GP was even more unaware: “When the abuse started I was going to the doctor’s regularly due to the birth. They thought I was self-harming and diagnosed post-natal depression – ‘you’ve had a baby, here are some anti-depressants’. I was in and out of there in a few minutes.

“If they had an understanding and background knowledge, perhaps they could have spotted the signs and saved years of pain.”

Refuge agree. Sandra Horley CBE, chief executive of national domestic violence charity, Refuge says: “A coordinated community approach is vital to keeping women and children safe from violent men. When agencies don’t join up their actions and their thinking, victims can fall through the gaps. In many cases, this can be fatal.

“Refuge runs services across the country and we work hard to create strong relationships with our partner agencies. Multi-agency working saves lives.”

Of course, the cuts have had a huge impact on services across the country; research shows a national 31 per cent cut in domestic violence spending. That’s despite research suggesting the current cost of domestic violence equates to £15.7 billion annually.

Two women a week are killed at the hands of their current or former partner – around 460 since the death of Maria Stubbings. How many more will it take?