A programme for couples who stay together, despite domestic abuse
‘What men find really hard to own is the physical abuse . . . There is a lot of shame in the room’
“It was like a slave and a ruler who stayed together,” says Sahila Ahmed, 37, describing her relationship with her husband of 14 years.
“As the kids got older, things actually got worse. I didn’t want them to see those fights, and ask, ‘Mummy why are you angry’?”
The 37-year-old, who arrives at the offices of Slough – a town just to the west of Greater London – children’s services trust looking calm, collected and wearing a delicately flowered headscarf, gives a tentative smile as she recounts fleeing with her children to a refuge hundreds of miles away, after more than a decade of conflict that included occasional violence.
“I was really suffocated in the relationship. I got to the point where it was affecting me mentally and physically. And then . . . my children: I thought, my boys will grow into that man, like my husband is.”
It might seem that Ahmed had taken a firm decision to leave her husband for good, but in fact, within weeks she opted to go back. This is a yo-yo pattern all too familiar to police and social workers – in Ireland and Britain – with domestic abuse victims often blamed as a result for failing to keep their children safe. But judging women in this way fails to address the reality that when children are involved, mothers will often want to keep the family together.
The programme acts as an early intervention, to help individuals address the relationship issues that are troubling them
Last September, the European Institute for Gender Equality said violence against women by their partners costs EU countries an estimated €109 billion a year, and all gender-based violence costs €226 billion annually.
The institute said the research highlights the economic case for Ireland and other EU member states for investing more in countering domestic violence.
“The usual response [to domestic abuse] from social services is ‘either you leave and we support you, or you don’t and we do something with the children’ – and that might be to remove them,” says Sue Penna, a psychotherapist specialising in trauma and recovery from domestic abuse.
And though some people do need help to leave, there has always been, she says, a complete lack of services for couples who, despite worrying levels of emotional and physical abuse, choose to stay together. It’s why Penna created a 10-week programme called Inspiring Families. It was piloted last summer by Slough children’s services trust, the vehicle set up by the UK government to run Slough’s children’s services department in 2014 after a critical Ofsted report and a review.
The programme is specifically aimed at couples who have chosen not to separate, and offers weekly two-hour small group sessions run by trained facilitators who are all qualified social workers and family support workers. The women’s groups take place separately to the men’s and the programme aims to give social work professionals a robust assessment of the current level of danger, the likelihood of future risk, and importantly, a detailed insight into the couple’s ability and motivation to change the dynamics destroying their relationship.
Couples then have “homework” to do: typically doing nice joint activities with their partners and any children, as well as keeping “reflective diaries” about their own and their partners’ behaviour, thoughts and feelings.
“If you look at serious case reviews [after child deaths] or domestic homicide reviews [after a domestic murder] what keeps coming up is that there wasn’t an understanding of the dynamics within that family,” says Penna. As well as being an assessment tool, the programme also acts as an early intervention, to help individuals examine and address the relationship issues that are troubling them.
“We do quite a lot about what the impact of domestic abuse is on children: that is something people often don’t realise, and it’s a big motivator [to take part],” says Penna.
Albert Ashton, the facilitator of the men’s group, says that participants are constantly challenged in the sessions. “What men find really hard to own is the physical abuse,” he says. “You see how they compartmentalise. They start with, ‘we argue, and it’s her as much as me.’ I say ‘yes, but let’s look at your behaviour.’ There is a lot of shame in the room.”
Participants on the Inspiring Families programme have been ethnically mixed; although only couples of Asian or mixed Asian/eastern European origins agreed to speak to the Guardian. Ahmed and her husband, Nasser Khan, (38), were referred on to the initial pilot by their children’s social worker on Ahmed’s return to Slough from the refuge. For both husband and wife, the process appears to have been transformative.
“Some of it is quite painful – it puts a mirror up to your personality,” says Khan, speaking to me separately from the interview I do with Ahmed. “Emotionally, it was draining. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching. It’s given me a new perspective on life.”
He agreed to go on the programme because he was worried he would lose contact with his children if his wife left again. Financial pressures have clearly had a major impact on this family’s wellbeing.
Of the 30 families who took part in the first cohorts, only two have so far been re-referred because of domestic abuse
“Working seven days a week, all I remember is being in a daze because you’re so tired,” says Khan. “It’s an absolute struggle: when you’re working all hours under the sun and still can’t make ends meet, you reach a tipping point.
“It’s not about pinning the blame on your upbringing, but seeing you’re stuck in a cycle and how to get out.” He has, he says, “had to do a complete relationship reset”.
Ahmed says that though she was “a bit scared” about rekindling their relationship, she has since gained “a lot of self confidence and courage” from working through the homework with her husband after each weekly session.
There have been no more violent episodes since they started on the pilot, and their case is now closed to children’s services. Ahmed looks happy and self assured – and not frightened any more.
But when I meet Deepa Kumar, 29, who has come into the trust for her final group session, it’s evident that the programme is not a magic wand. A violent incident leading to police involvement prompted her and her husband’s referral, but Kumar does not seem entirely confident that the improvement she describes in her home life will be sustained.
Does she feel she can trust her husband? There is a long pause. “He is not a bad person,” she says quietly. “I think I can trust him, but sometimes things go wrong.”
I interview her husband Nav Kumar, (33), separately. Does he still worry about violence? His tone is serious. “Yeah, because all couples fight. But it’s about how you deal with it. My wife and kid are my future and they’re the priority.”
Asked if the programme puts women in more danger, Penna replies: “We’re not making [the situation] any more dangerous, because that risk is there anyway, and we are seeing them every week. So we’re proactively managing that risk.” And there have been incidents where a decision has been made to escalate.”
Of the 30 families who took part in the first three cohorts, only two have so far been re-referred because of domestic abuse incidents.
And the programme is attracting attention from other charities and local authorities. It is already being implemented by an organisation in Wales and another in Sussex, says Penna, with six more interested, including four councils.
“My hope is that by better understanding the dynamics we can help families make better sense of what’s going on, and be active in managing their lives,” says Penna. Says Ahmed: “I used to be scared of my husband, but he knows how he has to behave and how he has to control his temper. Before, I wouldn’t want to say anything in case of an argument. Now we are more comfortable and we talk.”