Gradually changing ingrained attitudes to domestic violence

 Recent incidents in Summary Court focus attention on the issue of domestic violence in the Cayman Islands.

Incident One.
A man charged with assaulting his wife told the court the case should be dismissed because it had been brought too late. The magistrate explained that a six-month time limit does not apply to cases of assault causing actual bodily harm. She then asked him about an appointment he was supposed to have kept with a probation officer and he gave several excuses. When she indicated he should make contact again, he was quiet for a moment and then replied, “It’s a private affair.”

The magistrate said, “When a man beats his wife, it’s a public affair.”

She pointed to the potential impact on children of the family and on other members of the community.

“The whole system is a joke today,” the man said.

“Take him downstairs,” the magistrate told officers on the steps leading to the holding cells. She said he could spend the rest of the day thinking about what he had just said.

Five hours later, the man was brought before the court. He apologised unreservedly for his remarks and expressed willingness to attend the Domestic Violence Intervention Programme.

Incident Two.
A man stood in the dock charged with insulting the modesty of a woman and common assault against his wife. She stood up in gallery and told the magistrate she wanted to stop the proceedings. The magistrate asked why.

“Because I love him,” the woman replied.

Asked if she had lied to police when she reported the assault, the woman said No.

“Don’t you think he should love you back?” the magistrate asked. “Yes, ma’am,” came the answer.

The magistrate posed her next question: “Is this the act of a loving husband?”  “Yes, ma’am,” came the answer again.

“Is it?” the magistrate asked. “A man who loves his wife does not call her these names or raise his hand against her.”

Checking the file, the magistrate told the prosecutor it appeared that the wife wanted to withdraw her complaint because she was afraid of the consequences to her husband. “I can always deal with it in a way that allows him to maintain his good character,” she noted.

The man was asked to admit his behaviour and apologise to his wife, and then the magistrate referred him to the Domestic Violence Intervention Programme. If the man had pleaded not guilty, the matter would have been set down for trial in the usual way.

Keeping track of the true number of cases of domestic violence brought to court is not easy. Looking at a court list does not reveal whether an assault charge is based on an incident involving two men in a bar or a man and woman in their home. Further, many cases may never reach court.

What is DVIP?
The Domestic Violence Intervention Programme is meant to help men and women face up to their violent behaviour without a conviction. If a man admits his guilt, is of previous good character, and the assault is not serious, he will be recommended for a 32-session programme of group meetings. The programme examines various kinds of violence, what triggers it and how it can be avoided. It is designed to help families stay together in a healthy environment.

One of the problems with a more traditional punitive approach was that it would lead to a conviction and potentially result in the man losing his job. If the man is not Caymanian, he could lose his work permit. Chief Magistrate Margaret Ramsay-Hale observes that over the years there has been a reluctance on the part of victims to report violence because they fear loss of financial support for themselves and their children.

Further, whatever triggered the violence would not have been dealt with, and so the man might well offend again. By adopting a therapeutic approach and giving the offender some insight into his behaviour, the courts and Department of Community Rehabilitation counsellors work to provide offenders with tools to resolve conflicts in the future.

While attending the group sessions, the magistrate regularly checks up on an offenders’ attendance and receives reports about any difficulties and whether they have been compliant.

Domestic violence courts are held one morning per month. Magistrates withhold final disposal until the man completes the programme and a counsellor submits a final report. The successful defendant may have no conviction recorded against him. He may be asked to sign a bond that he will keep the peace and be of good behaviour towards his victim for a specified period. He may be asked to pay several hundred dollars in costs.

Half are Caymanian

The programme started in September 2004 and was specially intended for men, said Teresa Echenique-Bowen, director of the Department of Community Rehabilitation. The curriculum for the group meetings is based on a US model, but has been adapted to be culture-specific. The twice-weekly evening meetings are facilitated by probation officers, who, as of May, were running two groups. Each group has 18 to 20 participants, whose average age is 31 to 35. However, participants have ranged from 20 to 65.

Approximately 50 per cent of the participants are Caymanian nationals. “At the time of the incident resulting in the referral, most of the participants were married to the victim,” Echenique-Bowen said.

In December 2009, of the 162 participants in the programme, 62 met requirements for satisfactory completion.

In addition to this programme, probation officers run two courses in Anger Management, one for men and one for women. In conjunction with the Family Resource Centre, they provide a course in Healthy Relationships. On an as-needed basis, they also offer a Stress Management Group.

Informal observation of court proceedings indicates that women charged with domestic violence offences are referred to the Anger Management sessions. Victims of domestic violence may be referred to Healthy Relationships.

Zero tolerance
The Family Support Unit of the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service receives, on average, five reports of domestic violence every week.

“Domestic Violence is a serious crime which is not acceptable and should be treated as seriously as any other crime,” a spokesperson for the unit said in a prepared statement. “Consequently, the Royal Cayman Islands Police has adopted a zero-tolerance approach towards domestic violence. All reported matters should be prosecuted, and the victim should not be asked whether he/she wishes to press charge.

“The decision to prosecute is made by the Legal Department. The major concern is to ensure that the victim and children are not left at risk. Once there is evidence leading to the offence, the offender must be held accountable.”

The magistrates reinforce zero tolerance, repeatedly telling offenders that there is no excuse for violence. “You can’t control another person’s behaviour,” the chief magistrate is fond of saying. “Whose behaviour can you control?”

“My own,” a man will answer, if he has learned the programme’s lessons.

“What can you do?”

“Walk away,” he will reply.

Walking away is one strategy. Court reviews indicate that the men also learn listening skills and how to negotiate.

A probation officer stays in contact with the defendant’s wife or partner to monitor how things are going in the home. Sometimes the woman will come to court to report personally.

Court strategies
Some men do not immediately see the benefits of the programme and can be reluctant participants.

Recently one young man was charged with assault causing actual bodily harm to his girlfriend. He told the magistrate, “She pushed me, I pushed her back, we split.”

The magistrate asked what would happen the next time a girl provoked him. “You are the same man, you will make the same response,” she suggested.

“Some people you just can’t make it with,” he replied.

The magistrate agreed, but added that the right course, then, was to leave. She read the girlfriend’s complaint and asked if it was a lie. “Not directly,” he answered, repeating that some people you just can’t make it with.

The magistrate then said she was concerned that if he met another girl and he could not “make it with her” that he might resolve it with violence, but that she could not refer him to intervention without his consent.

“If I don’t have a choice, I’ll do the programme,” he said. Told he did have a choice, he still decided to go.

Another man complained that the programme requirements were interfering with his job. The magistrate remanded him in custody overnight. “If you think I’m going to put your job above this court and your wife’s safety, you are mistaken,” she told him.

In the same court session, another man was chastised because his report indicated he was not performing at the level expected in group sessions.

“I didn’t send you there to sit down and look at other people,” the magistrate said. “You either improve or you’ll spend your time somewhere else. I cannot force a man to change — you decide.”

It seems apparent that probation officers do take individual personalities into account. One man’s report praised the man for gaining insight about the effect of his behaviour on other family members. He even took notes and discussed his sessions with his wife.

Positive outcomes
Over the  months there have been numerous positive outcomes. One  man who was scheduled to complete his sessions the week after his court appearance told the court, “I’m grateful for the programme. I would recommend it for all young Caymanians.”

The magistrate agreed, saying she wished she could get all 17-year-olds into the  domestic violence intervention before they offend. She said it was kind of backwards because the programme is not available until a person offends.

“Teaching appropriate behaviour is the job of parents, the school and church, she said. “But often the lesson doesn’t fully take hold.”

Many of the participants in the Domestic Violence Intervention Programme have been exposed to negative and inappropriate behaviours from their childhood, said Mrs. Echenique-Bowen.  “With years of these learned behaviours, it is unrealistic to expect an immediate change. However, this programme will provide the foundation and awareness that is often needed to start to break the cycle of domestic violence.”