Male power, privilege drive most abusers
At the root of most perpetrators’ decisions to abuse are deeply held beliefs about male power and privilege.
“The primary drivers are values that they’ve learned growing up about male entitlement and what kinds of service females are obligated to give males, and what kinds of enforcement strategies they then are permitted to use to require women to provide that service,” said Lundy Bancroft, author of “Why Does He Do That?” who has worked with more than 1,000 abusive men.
The vast majority of abusers are male.
“I’ve never met a woman offender who wasn’t also a victim,” said Stephen Lanza, a University of Connecticut lecturer and former executive and clinical director of Family Re-Entry, which runs batterer treatment programs.
The male role models who abusers grow up with can be crucial in determining how they treat the women in their lives. Having a family history of abuse dramatically increases chances that a child, too, may abuse. Ideas of male privilege can also stem from movies, music, media, culture and gender socialization.
“People are going to come to a relationship with varying degrees of power,” said Lanza. “Ideally, what we are trying to do in society is equalize people’s access to power … Generally speaking, in societies where women have more power, there is less domestic violence.”
Fully eradicating the belief in male privilege from society would eliminate most domestic violence, but not all of it, Lanza said. Some 5 to 10 percent of domestic abusers can be categorized as socio- or psychopaths.
Most experts recognize that many other factors can contribute to abuse, although they are not causes. Perpetrators may have experienced childhood trauma, they might have mental health issues, abuse drugs or alcohol, lack conflict-resolution skills or have poor ability to manage their emotions.
Stressors like poverty or unemployment can increase the likelihood an abuser will lash out, said Angela Medina, director of Domestic Violence Programs for Family Re-Entry in Connecticut.
The exact reasons behind each abuser’s actions will vary widely from individual to individual, experts emphasize. Most agree domestic violence is always a choice, and abusers need to be taught why their behavior is unacceptable and, in many cases, illegal.
Reforming the abuser
To change abusive behavior, experts say domestic violence perpetrators need to be held accountable for their actions, rid of ingrained ideas about male privilege and taught to regulate their feelings.
“The actual intervention itself is really about changing offender behavior, thinking — their thoughts, their beliefs, their values, their attitudes — and about changing the way they process their own emotions,” said Lanza, who helped developed Connecticut standards for batterer intervention programs.
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Convincing abusers to change requires a treatment tailored to the individual. Thorough assessment is necessary to pinpoint the causes of abuse and multiple therapeutic approaches — such as mental health treatment, substance abuse programs and batterer intervention — might be necessary.
“There is clearly the more antisocial, sociopathic, narcissistic offender and it’s to some degree a continuum,” said Lanza, who in his private practice works with some pretrial abusers. “As you get to that end of the continuum, the interventions have to be different, (and) the expectations for outcomes are going to be different.”
Many batterer programs are group sessions led by mental health professionals combining education with therapy.
“Abusers need to be in a program that is respectfully confrontational,” said Bancroft, former co-director of Emerge, the nation’s first program for abusive men, located in Cambridge, Mass. “They have to be pressed to look at the harm that they are doing to their victims and their children. They have to have their excuses confronted. They have to be taught empathy.”
Most perpetrators will not seek help voluntarily. Instead, most will receive treatment after being arrested for a domestic violence crime or the intervention of the Department of Children and Families.
In 2016, 24,291 individuals were arrested for a domestic violence crime in Connecticut, according to the state Judicial Branch. Some 7,116 were diverted to batterer intervention programs that year. Judicial officials said they did not have numbers for how many individuals went to jail or had their crimes dismissed in 2016.
Connecticut criminal court refers offenders to three programs depending on the severity of their charge and whether they are a repeat offender. In Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport, these programs are run by the nonprofit Family Re-Entry with court supervision.
First-time offenders with misdemeanor crimes, such as disturbance of the peace, disorderly conduct or threatening, may enter the Family Violence Education Program. FVEP is a nine-week, pretrial diversionary program that teaches abusers how to develop violence-free relationships and understand power dynamics. An offender’s charges might be dismissed if they complete the program. A victim can object to their partner’s participation.
“Most individuals aren’t serial batterers who get arrested,” said Joe DiTunno, deputy director of Family Services for the Connecticut Judicial Branch.
The next level up is Explore, a 26-week, group-based intervention for men convicted of domestic violence offenses. A perpetrator may be referred to Explore if his charges are more severe, he failed to complete FVEP or he re-offended after FVEP.
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Both Explore and Evolve, an even more time-intensive 26-week program for high-risk convicted offenders, are focused on behavioral interventions plus education.
“Those are the individuals for whom we are looking to put an intensive intervention in place,” said DiTunno.
The groups teach abusers interpersonal and communication skills and new ways to manage conflict. Male and female facilitator teams show abusers what an egalitarian relationship looks like and challenge the beliefs they held at the time of arrest. The groups role play, watch videos and hold classroom discussions. Sometimes they have homework.
At first, many abusers come in and stare at their feet, trying to avoid eye contact, said Phil Hamilton, a Family Re-Entry facilitator. But if persistent counselors can get through to them, often they can’t stop talking.
“Seeing people transform keeps me going,” he said. “No evening is the same.”
Crucial to getting results is the connection of the programs to the court system. Facilitators are regularly in touch with offenders’ probation officers. Attendance in the programs is mandatory, and failure to attend or a re-offense during a program can result in jail time.
“Judicial oversight is a critical part of the accountability scheme,” said Derrick Gordon, associate professor of Psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine and a Judicial Branch-contracted clinical supervisor. It is a “necessary part of the stick.”
However, Carla Stover, associate professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Yale School of Medicine, said the courts’ “one size fits all” approaches do not serve all offenders.
“The programs all tend to have the same approach, which is thinking of domestic violence as an issue of power and control, which for some perpetrators that is absolutely what it is about,” she said. “But there is a whole group where that is not what it is about so much … Most of the men that I have worked with — these are the men who are usually concurrently abusing substances — have a very significant trauma history. They have very terrible affect regulation skills, which means they can’t manage their emotions.”
Stover founded Fathers for Change, an abuser intervention program that targets men with substance abuse and domestic violence problems who are motivated to change their behaviors by their desire to be better fathers. Men are recommended to her program by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families if it identifies domestic violence in the household but there are no pending charges.
Her model frames intervention around the question, “What do you want your kids to say about you?” After a clinical assessment, abusers undergo individual counseling, practice co-parenting with their partner if the clinician determines it is safe and participate in restorative parenting sessions to repair their relationship with their kids. About 75 Connecticut men have completed Fathers for Change in the past two years.
“My belief is that violence and substance use and child maltreatment come from the same kinds of problems: affect regulation problems, hostile thinking,” Stover said. “So Fathers for Change tries to target those things in the hope of improving those three outcomes.”
But therapist and author Bancroft disputed the theory that out-of-control emotions are a leading cause of abuse.
“Compulsiveness seems to play hardly any role in domestic violence,” he said. “There is a lot of confusion created here by the fact that abusers claim all the time to have lost control. But when you take them back through incidents point by point, which is one of the step by step jobs of the abuser counselor, you find they almost never committed violence that was in severe conflict with their own values.”
While program strategies vary, studies have shown that domestic abusers can reform.
A study funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and summarized in 2004 in the journal “Aggression and Violent Behavior” found men who completed batterer intervention programs were less likely to abuse their partners. The study, which followed 618 men and their female partners over four years, found 30 months after exiting a program, 80 percent of abusers had not assaulted their partners again in the previous year. Four years after the program, 90 percent had not assaulted their partner in the past year.
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Family Re-Entry measures the effectiveness of its program through recidivism rates. In 2016, out of the approximately 130 people who completed FVEP and about 43 who completed Explore in Stamford, only 9 percent were again arrested for a domestic violence crime the following year.
Experts concede, however, that it can be difficult to fully measure the effectiveness of intervention programs.
Even if abusers are not arrested again, DiTunno said it does not always mean their treatment of their partners has improved completely.
“The thing that usually gets flagged by our police and judicial systems is physical violence,” said Gordon. “But we recognize that there is also emotional and psychological violence that goes along with that, and it’s harder to police that than it is to police physical violence.”
Bancroft suggested effective programs should rely on victim feedback about whether an abuser’s behavior has truly changed.