Sunday, 13 July 2008

Rehabilitating domestic abusers?

I applaud the men who appear in the Family Commission's 'It's not OK' ads, admitting to having abused their families and exhorting other abusers to change their behaviour. It can't be easy facing up to the nation and confessing you've done something morally repugnant. The message these men put forward is both powerful and pragmatic: if you're a domestic abuser, you can and must seek help to stop your behaviour. These ads, fronted by ex-abusers, form part of a broader series which urges us to view domestic violence as a community problem, not dismiss as something private happening behind the closed doors of an unfortunate few.

So far, so good. But if we want men to stop abusing, to take responsibility and seek help for their behaviour, we must consider carefully how we treat those who do come forward. Tony Veitch is at the moment being publicly vilified, and I don't have huge amounts of sympathy for the guy. Even Matthew Ridge, noble champion of feminist causes, has denounced him. Veitch offered his victim compensation and sought counselling for his violence, and may have had genuine remorse for what he'd done; but ultimately, he was trying to conceal his violence for the sake of his career.

What if Veitch's circumstances had been slightly different? What if, instead of saying 'I'm sorry, but...', he'd simply said 'I'm sorry'? What if he had turned himself in to the Police? What if he and his victim had children together, and she and the children were dependent on Veitch for their financial wellbeing? How, as the general public, would we have reacted to him, and how might his employer have reacted? We are faced with serious practical problem heres: vilifying men who are violent may discourage abusers from coming forward. Faced with potential loss of employment and the means of supporting their families, both abusers and victims may be reluctant to admit violence. In a previous job, I worked with a woman in this very situation. She and her children lived with her violent husband - but because a criminal conviction would have prevented her husband practicing his profession and thus supporting their family, she felt she could not have him charged. You'll say that this dilemma is the product of a patriarchal society which makes women financially dependent on men, and you'd be right. Nonetheless, that's what we're stuck with for now.

Of course, there are philosophical as well as practical issues with how we treat perpetrators of domestic violence. Most feminists take a leftist, liberal view of crime, pointing to the way in which individuals are influenced by cultural and socioeconomic factors. It's problematic to on one hand allow that a patriarchal, violent culture may affect the actions of men, then advocate a response to offenders which is only punitive. Some sort of 'reform' or 'rehabilitation' - both of abusers and the social forces which perpetuate abuse - is surely needed.

I'm not sure where this namby-pamby woolly liberal leftist reflection leaves us in terms of practical responses to domestic violence and those who perpetrate it. I know it won't offer much comfort to a woman recovering from spinal injuries. But, as always, I welcome the thoughts of readers.


Anonymous said...

but because a criminal conviction would have prevented her husband practicing his profession and thus supporting their family, she felt she could not have him charged.

I have been in this situation. The police said that he could be charged and convicted by "probably" would be eligible for diversion and so he could go on working. However I was unwilling to take the risk AND make him angrier by laying charges. Not very feminist of me but the alternative of raising several small children on the DPB seemed worse at the time. There was also an element of shame in it for me. I do wonder if that was something behind this particular woman's desire not to press charges

stargazer said...

sorry, i don't think the liberal view is to absolve offenders of the responsibility of their crimes. yes, we accept that there are societal factors involved, and that as a society, we are required to recognise and address those factors. but at the individual level, we have a justice system that requires a plea, a trial if required, and a conviction. rehabilitation and mitigating factors are taken into account at the time of sentencing, as is the impact on the victim.

so as a namby-pamby liberal feminist, i expect men to take responsibility for what they've done, to recognise that they could have done things differently and to acknowledge the impact their actions have had. i also expect that we provide support systems, rehabilitation programmes and the ability for offenders to be welcomed back into society as fully functioning members once they've served whatever sentence was required of them. on top of all that, we work on changing societal attitudes and structures to prevent the incidence of such crimes. hence the families commission campaign, which is a good place to start.

Anna McM said...

Agreed, stargazer. I don't think anyone would argue that the individual offender bears no responsibility, but the philosophy behind how the offender is dealt with - whether it's punitive, rehabilitative or whatever - can have a big impact on a bunch of things, including recidivism and social attitudes to crime.

Anonymous said...

Are all the guys on those ads people in that situation?? Because Russell Brown from Public Address is on it isn't he? I'm fairly sure he mentioned the police ensuring that he didn't have any dodgy history before he was allowed to be a aprt of it.

Danielle said...

I'm with stargazer. They should go through the justice system in some way. But I do believe in rehabilitation for most people.

(I must say, I do rather wonder why some of these guys who 'lose control' on their partners have the ability to *not* 'lose control' at certain other times. Like, say, when they're surrounded by big brick-shithouse dudes in public somewhere. Hmmm...)

Anonymous said...

I think the big thing for me is that Tony Veitch hasn't actually apologised. He's stood up and covered his ass and relied on all the good old myths about why domestic abuse isn't that bad. He was tired, he was stressed, he was on medication, it's not like he's a thug, see, because he was in a bad situation and it was a rough time ...

Which deserves all the vilifying it can get, since it's basically excusing putting a woman in a wheelchair and propagating the idea that it is OK as long as you've got a good excuse and a new partner standing behind you in wonderfully stereotypical silent support.

Anonymous said...

"I'm not sure where this namby-pamby woolly liberal leftist reflection leaves us in terms of practical responses to domestic violence and those who perpetrate it."

Being as biased as your language implies you are, it seems unlikely that you would see the benefits of a leftist viewpoint. Of course, not all of us lefties want to be completely soft about the issue. I, myself, have been in an abusive relationship, but I have also had several relatives who have been the abusers in their own relationships. Based on what I've seen and what I know, rehabilitation is possible. Granted, there are certainly those who can not be rehabilitated, but some are simply young or misinformed. By example, some can be lead to a way that will allow them to treat lovers with respect, or perhaps some therapeutic response will allow them to work through the things that caused them to react to lovers in an abusive manner. I find that many times the abusers were lead by example, being raised in households that did not promote the respect of the significant other, or any others for that matter. For some therapy and reality and talking can help them to rehabilitate, but I know that there will be those who can not change. I may be liberal, but I'm not loose. I would not stand for an unrepentant abuser to go free without any form of punishment. I think that if one makes a mistake, they must learn from it and then do something about it, or else deal with the more sever consequences that are dealt to them.