Derry and the North West is leading the way on tackling the issue of domestic violence with an innovative, collaborative approach between a number of agencies.
The city became the first in the north to have a specialist domestic violence court and last year the domestic violence perpetrator programme was launched.
A further programme for men who are not before the court, funded by the Department of Justice and run by Probation Board of Northern Ireland, in conjunction with the Western Trust and Women’s Aid, aims to prevent abusive behaviour.
The Promoting Positive Relationships Programme (PPRP) has proved to be so successful it is likely to be rolled out across each Trust area.
The programme is aimed at males, aged 18 years and over, who have demonstrated the potential to be abusive within intimate relationships and whose children are assessed as at risk by Social Services.
It aims to ensure the safety of women and children and to hold abusers accountable.
In the Western Trust area, 33 people were referred to the programme and completed it last year.
Derry has among the highest number of domestic violence reports in the North.
The PPRP was established after agencies recognised they could not solve the problem individually, but by working together they could offer services to the victim, children and the perpetrator.
Gillian Montgomery, Assistant Director of PBNI, said that often the immediate reaction of the community is that people should be jailed for domestic violence.
“If these people are jailed and serve a short sentence, they will walk out of prison and nothing will have changed. The likelihood of that person behaving in the same way again is not reduced.
“Going through the different modules of this programme will reduce the risk. The men will learn what is a healthy relationship, how to respond to different situations to help them avoid this kind of behaviour again and learn the impact of their behaviour on their children.”
Suzanne Mahon, Assistant Director of Safeguarding and Family Support, Western Trust, said that in the North West those working within domestic violence prevention are ‘pushing against an open door’.
“We have a specific domestic violence team within the Trust, plans to establish a justice centre and a specialised court. We have also been very fortunate with the District Judge, Barney McElholm who is pushing boundaries and is not afraid to stand up and be counted.”
Ms Mahon said the agencies became aware of an ‘increasing need’ for a programme for men who display concerning behaviour within their family.
“There are a significant proportion of incidents of domestic violence which never see the inside of a courtroom, for a whole host of reasons.
“We have to recognise there are a huge amount of families who wish to be helped and supported. They also wish to maintain their relationship, but recognise the need for change.”
She said that the collaborative approach taken in Derry and the North West has assisted in the rising number of reports of domestic violence.
“It is a good news story. More people are coming forward because they are aware of the support available and that there are people here to work on this really nasty problem.”
Gillian Montgomery agrees, stating the ‘innovative programme is problem solving at the earliest opportunity through collaboration between justice and health’.
The Promoting Positive Relationships Programme consists of 30 sessions and will take between six and nine months to complete. Referrals are made through social work staff and there are also meetings between all the agencies involved throughout the process.
Jonnie McDevitt, from the Domestic Violence Specific Team, Western Trust, explained that before a man begins the PPRP he must sign a contract.
“He must acknowledge that his behaviour impacted negatively on his partner and accept that it wasn’t right. There are a lot of men who genuinely want to change. They don’t like their behaviour and that is the whole concept of the programme - it is change not blame.”
Mr McDevitt said one of the modules the men complete ‘strikes home’ the effect of domestic violence.
“The men learn about the impact of their behaviour on their children and is has a profound effect on them. A lot of them want to change to be better dad’s.”
Domestic abuse is a societal issue and Marie Brown, of Women’s Aid, said there needs to be a cultural change in how we view the issue.
“No one walks away from a relationship lightly. Many women want the violence to stop, but don’t want relationship to end and they are welcoming of programmes like this. Not every woman who has gone through domestic violence wants her partner criminalised.
“We have a lot of victims, more victims than perpetrators. We can’t go on working just with victims, we need a joined up approach.”