Treat perpetrators of domestic violence, not just victims

For a long time, Swiss authorities have been reluctant to consider therapeutic treatment for perpetrators of violence. Things are changing. In 2020, a change in the law allowed courts to order mandatory treatment for defendants when a case is suspended. A man required to attend group therapy shares his experience.

Treat perpetrators of domestic violence, not just victims

Illustration by Benjamin Tejero for Le Temps

The first program for perpetrators of domestic violence was launched in Switzerland in the late 1980s. It wasn't until the early 2000s and the creation of seven programs in five years that anything could be said about momentum.

Today, almost all cantons have a unit dedicated to treating those who have committed family or intimate partner violence. But their treatment has remained a blind spot in the fight against violence.

“Given the lack of resources, protecting victims takes priority. This makes sense, when you know how much associations had to fight, at the beginning, to obtain funding. Government authorities are struggling to come to grips with the issue. From a political point of view, it’s not a vote winner. But if we don't do more for perpetrators, we're not getting to the root of the problem,” says Anne Le Penven, Secretary-General of the Association Professionnelle Suisse de Consultations contre la Violence (APSCV), a violence counseling organization.

A reluctance that she explains is fueled by a form of taboo: “There is fear of giving too much space to perpetrators. But the goal of treatment is not to give them a platform, but rather to get them to take responsibility and, ultimately, to avoid recidivism.”

For a long time, treatment for perpetrators was rarely considered by the courts. Out of 10,879 people registered by the police in 2020, only 8.4% were ordered to undergo treatment, says the APSCV.

But the lines are shifting. The revision of the federal law on improving the protection of victims of violence, in effect since 2020, has led to an increase in referrals to domestic violence education programs.

Previously, authorities could suspend a case for bodily harm, threats, battery or coercion between spouses or partners at the victim's request. And that was the outcome of the majority of domestic violence cases, which then ended up being dismissed.

Since the law was amended, the criteria have become stricter: In order for the court to suspend proceedings, the victim must not only request it, but the decision must be aimed at stabilizing or improving the victim's situation.

In addition, judges may require the perpetrator to attend a “prevention program” aimed at reducing the risk of further violence.

“For a long time, it was wrongly believed that psychoeducational or therapeutic care had no effect if it was imposed. This is changing. Feedback from the field indicates that the courts are making greater use of this tool,” Véronique Jaquier Erard, professor at the Centre for Criminological Research (CRRC), reports. And when used more often, programs for perpetrators of violence become more professionalized.

Several cantons, including Vaud, Geneva and Valais, also provide for a mandatory socio-educational interview whenever a perpetrator is expelled from the common residence. Logically, this has led to an explosion of initial consultations. However, long-term therapeutic commitment is rare. Figures presented in the canton of Vaud in early 2021 show that only 30% of individuals accept a second or third session. Fewer still attend a full program.

Yet studies tend to show that these programs pay off, even when they are imposed. The latest of these studies comes from Zurich. In June 2021, the Zurich Sentence Enforcement Office presented the results of a comparison between men who had participated in at least 10 sessions of a prevention program between 2011 and 2016 to those who had received no measures and to a third group who had left treatment prematurely.

During the two years following the measure, recidivism among participants in the violence prevention program fell to 4.7%, as compared to 17.4% in the group of individuals who did not participate in treatment. This assessment only reflects incidents recorded by the police and, therefore, does not include any unreported instances of assault. However, the results of the assessment are clear: The Zurich program reduces recidivism by more than half, at least initially.

The same study also calculated the cost-benefit ratio of this type of preventive measure. A case of recidivism amounts to 150,000 francs (just over 150,000 euros), according to an assessment by the Federal Office for Gender Equality (BFEG), which takes into account the direct and indirect costs of an act of domestic violence. A therapeutic program costs between 3,200 and 4,100 francs. Conclusion: The participation of 100 people in this type of measure would result in savings of around 1.4 million.

“Making the program compulsory eliminates dropouts, which are frequent among voluntary participants,” stresses Véronique Jaquier Erard, who studied the evaluation of these measures on behalf of the BFEG. Her conclusions? “Groups for perpetrators of domestic violence are effective. But they are not suitable for everyone. Participants need to be properly selected and services need to be evaluated to ensure they meet participants’ needs. Professionals often don't have enough resources to analyze the work they’re doing,” says Véronique Jaquier Erard.

Using the police as relays

In Neuchâtel, a canton of 176,245 citizens, the Service pour Auteurs de Violence Conjugale (SAVC), a unit dedicated to perpetrators of domestic violence, constitutes one and a half positions shared by four people. As is still the case with many of these programs, financing for this unit was initially private: It was provided by Loterie Romande and the Philip Morris tobacco company. Since 2011, the unit has been affiliated with the Neuchâtel Psychiatric Centre (CNP) and its services are reimbursed by health insurance.

Providers’ main challenge is getting in touch with those needing their services. The SAVC works in collaboration with the Neuchâtel police: During interventions, law enforcement officers send them the contact information of perpetrators of domestic violence, with their consent.

Psychologist Hilde Stein helped found the SAVC in 2006: “There is, on average, one police intervention per day for domestic violence in the canton of Neuchâtel. We should be seeing more than 300 people a year. However, the vast majority of perpetrators refuse to be contacted. In 2022, we met with 99 people. It's a drop in the bucket, but I think it’s still very important. Every time we have someone in front of us, we plant a seed.”

Regardless of the reasons that lead them to therapy, participants must all meet one condition before they can join the group: They must admit responsibility. “We will not work with a person who's in total denial. At the very least, they must acknowledge that they are involved in the issue. At the beginning, many of them say that their being here is a misunderstanding.”

The vast majority of perpetrators have lived in an abusive family environment. “It’s a defense mechanism. But in the group, we don't dwell on that victim status. We focus on their behavior,” says Hilde Stein. In this context, group therapy is a powerful confrontation tool, observes the therapist. “Participants realize that what they have done is not acceptable. They progress by listening. They reflect on their actions without necessarily having to say so. They also find support and people to celebrate their progress. They're not all going to leave transformed. But the group creates a dynamic of self-healing.”

'I have tools to help me take a step back'

Forced to participate in group therapy following violent behavior toward his partner, Thierry initially thought he had nothing in common with the other participants.

If Thierry* went to SAVC group therapy every Monday night, it was only because a prosecutor ordered him to attend the program and because he stood to lose a lot by not complying, after a second “episode of domestic violence,” as he called it.

The first happened four years ago. “I slapped my wife during an argument. She filed a complaint with the police,” says the mechanic in his mid-forties. The authorities at the time directed Thierry to therapy. He didn't feel he needed it.

The second time, he didn't have a choice: Sentenced to 4 months in prison and 4 years of probation, the program for perpetrators of domestic violence was no longer an option. It was now an obligation, along with other rules of conduct, such as giving up alcohol. “I had been drinking when it happened,” he explains.

It was the beginning of winter. His wife suspected him of being unfaithful, and Thierry had felt “pushed to the limit” for several weeks. He brought up the monitoring of his cell phone and being criticized in front of his children and friends. As the couple returned home from an aperitif, a new fight broke out. He struck his wife in the mouth. During the fight, she ended up on the ground.

At first, he attended the group therapy sessions with reluctance. Resigned, he tried to “take away what he could,” but he couldn't shake the feeling that he didn’t belong there. “Some of these people are sick. They break everything and often hit their wives. I was nothing like them. Then other men arrived, with a story similar to mine. I felt I was there by mistake. Our problems could have been resolved between us, at home, instead of calling the police.”

The sessions didn't result in a fundamental change in his mentality. He still thinks his wife should go to therapy, too. “She knows what to say to hurt me. And I take it,” he says. But, in the long run, he ended up finding something he could take away from the program. “Now, when things get heated with my wife and children, instead of yelling, I try to take a step back. I have tools.”

* Name changed 

The first program for perpetrators of domestic violence was launched in Switzerland in the late 1980s. It wasn't until the early 2000s and the creation of seven programs in five years that anything could be said about momentum.
Today, almost all cantons have a unit dedicated to treating those who have committed family or intimate partner violence. But their treatment has remained a blind spot...