Working with Men to Stop Domestic Violence at its Source

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Among advocates who work with victims of domestic violence, there is a parable that’s sometimes called “The Upstream Story:”

You’re standing on the banks of a fast-flowing river when you see a woman struggling in the current, yelling for help. You jump in to rescue her, and she tells you someone upstream pushed her in. As soon as you’ve pulled her to shore, another woman comes downstream, hollering and waving. Just as you rescue her, another woman comes along, and then another, until finally it occurs to you that instead of pulling victims from the river, maybe you should go upstream to find out who is pushing them in—and why.

In much the same way, some organizations that work with survivors are beginning to look for solutions to violence against women at its source: the men who inflict it.

“We can help one woman and keep her safe, but her abuser will very likely hurt someone else. So how can we stop triaging?” asks Jennifer Rose, co-executive director of Walnut Avenue Women’s Center (WAWC) in Santa Cruz. The WAWC already takes a family-centered approach to domestic violence intervention. With victim advocacy at its core, the organization offers an early childhood education program, youth programs for children and teens, a food pantry, temporary emergency housing, and support for household re-establishment. But one thing is missing: working with batterers who want to change.

“While we do a lot of work to help women and children stay safer and make the best decisions, we’ve really missed intervening with men who use violence,” says Rose, explaining that the traditional community response to domestic violence has focused on intervening with high-risk, lethal abusers from a criminal perspective. “Accountability and taking responsibility are really important, but, at the same time, there is another population [of lower-risk men] that, given tools of change, would be able to make changes and take a path towards healing.”

While their primary goal is to support survivors, the WAWC hopes to begin working with men who desire to change, offering tools to help them transform. Taking steps in that direction, Rose recently started a conversation about collaborating with Deutron Kebebew, project director of PAPÁS, a Watsonville-based nonprofit organization that supports father involvement. Though not specifically a batterer intervention program, PAPÁS works with families to teach positive parenting and communication skills that reduce incidences of domestic violence and child abuse.

“The cycle of violence is taught through abusive behaviors at home,” says Kebebew. “If we want to stop domestic violence, we need to involve men in the solution—because they’re causing it, and you have a better outcome if you include them rather than exclude them.”

The idea of including batterer intervention in programs that serve survivors, however, is rife with controversy. In a field traditionally divided by the “silo approach,” where men, women and children receive services from separate organizations, many advocates for battered women are outspoken against the notion that domestic violence organizations on shoestring budgets could provide services to help men change. They fear that by supporting abusive men, they would not hold them accountable—and that abusers belong in prison rather than in counseling.

“Early on in this work, I was one of those ‘Put ‘em all in jail’ advocates,” says Rose, who was working with the WAWC 12 years ago when they opened a supervised visitation center as part of a national demonstration. Interacting with men, women and children, Rose saw new possibility.

“I found an opportunity to plant the seeds,” she recounts. “It wasn’t just about maintaining safety during those two-hour visits, but how we modeled relationships, and how we really supported victims of violence. I saw that those seeds we were able to plant could have a long-term impact.”

Research on batterer intervention programs (which traditionally are separate from programs that serve victims) shows mixed outcomes. Still, a few studies have shown that batterers who complete an intervention program are less likely to reoffend than those who are sent to prison. A study looking at batterer intervention programs in California found small, positive changes in attitudes and beliefs, as well as a lower re-arrest rates, among men who completed a program.

But one of the problems with evaluating batterer intervention programs and their effectiveness is a lack of standardization, says Casey Corcoran, program director for Futures Without Violence. “Across the country, each program is different. They range from 10 weeks, to one year or more … from individuals making it up as they go, to established programs.”

Even in California, where batterers on probation for domestic violence offenses must complete a 52-week program, each jurisdiction manages offenders differently—and programs within each jurisdiction are widely disparate. Some programs use a cognitive-behavioral model that’s designed to change abusers’ thought processes and expose cultural beliefs underlying abusive behavior. Others focus on the traumatic experiences that lead to an individual learning to relate to others abusively.

“We need both [methods],” says Corcoran. “It’s very true that we need to recognize men’s trauma, but we also need to deal with their issues of power and control.” He adds that, even though there is room for improvement in adopting evidence-based practices to guide programs, batterer intervention has an important place in stopping the cycle of abuse. “These men are going back to their homes—we want the violence to stop.”

The fact that many abusers do either go back to their homes, or never leave in the first place—and many women choose to keep their families intact despite the abuse—is a clarion call for domestic violence agencies to reconsider their approach to working with men.

Caminar Latino (based in Georgia) is one of the few organizations in the nation that works with battered women, their abusive partners and their children. “When we first started in 1990, the idea was to use the mainstream approach, working with women only, and the goal was to get them to leave their partners so they would be safe,” says Jessica Nunan, executive director.

But the problem was that while women were inside receiving support, their partners and children were often waiting for them outside in the car.

“What we thought women needed wasn’t what they were looking for,” says Nunan. “They didn’t necessarily want to leave their partners—they just wanted the violence to stop.” By working with women only, there was no way to really stop the abuse. So Caminar Latino took the lead from the victims they served and began working with entire families.

This survivor-centered approach is one of the main reasons Rose plans to develop a program at the WAWC for men who use violence. “We can’t ignore that this is about people who love and care about each other,” she says. “Often violence doesn’t happen all the time. Often there are good times intertwined with the bad. People have kids together, businesses together—their lives are enmeshed.”

In addition, working with men who batter takes the responsibility off of women, says Rose. “The more opportunities we can make for change, the more men can make the changes—and the more women can be safe.”

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