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The CARA effect: How a trauma-informed early intervention for domestic abuse offenders opens the space for behaviour change

April 17, 2023

When Adam arrived at the CARA workshop, he was certain that he shouldn’t be there and that this was all a waste of time. He had been arrested for a domestic abuse offence and, as it was his first offence and considered low level, had received a conditional caution. Whilst this meant he wasn’t prosecuted, it was under the condition that he attend a pair of CARA workshops.

Project CARA, which was developed by Hampton Trust in 2011 in partnership with Hampshire and Isle of Wight Constabulary, stands for Cautioning and Relationship Abuse and is an awareness-raising early intervention targeting alleged first-time offenders of domestic abuse. Originally conceived as an alternative to a simple caution with no further action, under the new two-tier out of court disposal framework coming into force soon, it can be offered as part of a diversionary caution to support rehabilitation and change.

Following police involvement in a domestic abuse incident, suitable offenders are identified and referred through clear eligibility criteria. They attend two full-day group workshops delivered one month apart which take offenders on a journey to understand the wider context and devastating impact of domestic abuse and support them to explore, understand and manage their own personal risk factors. Through this trauma-informed approach combined with meaningful engagement and skilled facilitation, offenders are encouraged to reflect on their behaviour, attitudes and assumptions, and are supported and motivated towards change through signposting to wider support services. The group setting offers valuable opportunities for peer challenge and peer learning.

In Adam’s case, the CARA facilitators, who are trained to anticipate resistance, responded with encouragement. When Adam started to engage, he disclosed his own challenges in processing his emotions following a recent loss and made connections between his feelings of grief and his mental health and use of alcohol. He left the first workshop indicating he had a lot to think about and having identified a personal goal: Starting to go to the gym to manage his built-up energy, and to explore grief counselling.

At the second workshop, Adam reflected that he had previously not wanted to even think about his own grief and was focused on being angry with the world, but that he now understood that dealing with grief was a journey, that he wanted to learn more about local support available, and that he already feels lighter and more able to deal with lifes’ stressors. Adam also reflected that he could see how his previous attitude had been impacting his partner, and that he wanted to change that.

Since it was launched in 2011 in Hampshire, CARA has helped thousands of first-time domestic abuse offenders like Adam. More than ten years later it is delivered in nine police regions in England: In Hampshire, West Midlands, Dorset, Avon & Somerset, Leicestershire, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, and Thames Valley it is delivered directly by Hampton Trust; in West Yorkshire we have partnered with Restorative Solutions to deliver CARA through our new licenced model for replication. This allows commissioned organisations with knowledge of their local areas to deliver CARA in their region with training, guidance, materials and quality assurance provided by Hampton Trust. (see image above)

We have also developed a separate workshop for female offenders with adaptations that respond to the unique vulnerabilities of female offending, including gender dynamics of domestic abuse, retaliatory violence, and unique risk factors.

CARA is proven to reduce reoffending

The evidence that CARA works is compelling: Since the initial pilot evaluation through a randomised control trial there have been several further evaluations demonstrating the effectiveness of this intervention. Clearly shown benefits include a reduction in reoffending, victims reporting positive changes, and offenders reporting a change in attitude towards partners and children.

“I’ve cut down drinking considerably and am committed to being a better father and husband.” - CARA participant

A Hampshire & IOW Constabulary internal evaluation in 2021 saw a 81% reduction in future domestic abuse offending and a 55% reduction in future violent domestic abuse offending, and an evaluation in the same year by the University of Birmingham evidenced a 56% reduction of reoffending within the first 12 months and also showed that for every £1 invested, £2.75 is gained by that police force area. An evaluation of CARA across all nine police regions is currently ongoing - initial findings show evidence of positive reflections and change from the interviewed participants.

And it’s not just the offenders who are positively impacted by the intervention: More than 60% of victims who are still in contact with the offender report a change in the offender’s behaviour after the first workshop.

“More communication since the CARA intervention. Things are better than they have ever been. We are dealing with things together and talking things through.” - Adam’s partner

CARA was developed based on input from domestic abuse victims which has challenged assumptions and reinforced what we know and what colleagues working directly with families affected by domestic abuse see every day: Many victims don’t want to leave their partners, especially when children are involved. They want their partners to change. Therefore, involving victims is crucial to a successful intervention - not only prior to issuing the caution, but also between the workshops to ensure the intervention remains safe for the victim and is indeed an improved criminal justice response.

As in Adam’s case, one of the biggest issues we encounter when trying to work with perpetrators of domestic abuse is what we call MDB: minimisation, denial, and blame. Many perpetrators are initially unwilling to engage because they don’t see anything wrong with their behaviour. However, the more engaged an offender is, the more likely they are to successfully complete the intervention and go on to take up further opportunities for support to tackle some of their underlying issues.

Instead of shaming offenders for being in a space of MDB, our CARA facilitators anticipate this resistance and work with them to help them see that a different way is possible. Empathy and accountability are not mutually exclusive. As a result, in almost every cohort we have offenders telling us that this was the first time they’ve ever spoken like this, thought about these things, felt comfortable to share, and hear that other people have these issues too.

Personally, I have been delivering CARA for many years and have seen the power of the space to open up conversations as crucial to guiding towards change. It’s what we at Hampton Trust call the CARA effect: The shift between workshops from resistance, challenge, and anxiety to openness, reflection, and planning for a more positive future.

Emma Hazan

Emma has been working in domestic abuse and gender-based violence for over 10 years. She has a Masters of Social Work in policy and intervention to help further her work in ending domestic abuse and has worked with victim services in South Korea, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. Emma joined Hampton Trust in 2015 as a sessional facilitator for ADAPT (Accredited Domestic Abuse Perpetrator Training) and began delivering CARA (Cautioning and Relationship Abuse) in 2016. Since 2021 she supports Hampton Trust as CARA Development Manager.

Hampshire-based Hampton Trust was founded in 1996 to address the gap in domestic abuse perpetrator programmes within the criminal justice system. The award-winning organisation’s mission is to design and deliver innovative interventions, training and education to break the cycle of abuse and rebuild lives. 

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