NEW CITY, N.Y. (WOMENSENEWS)–Phyllis B. Frank founded a program in 1978 to counter domestic violence through workshops for men. It was the first batterer-intervention program in the state and among the first in the country.
Thirty years later, the director of the VCS Community Change Project, located in New City, a suburb about 45 minutes north of New York, finishes off the opening paragraph of a grant application and spins in her chair to face a reporter’s question about such programs.
“Batterer programs are a dumping ground,” Frank says flatly. “We send men here, and we think we’re doing something. I decided at one point the best possible thing I could do would be to close.”
But Frank did not shut down the program.
Instead, during the 1990s she redefined its goals–aligning it more with sentencing and court-order enforcement than rehabilitation–and began to develop what would become known as the New York model.
“The original model, which we were making up as we went along, was a six-week program,” she says. In group sessions, the program aimed to stop men from being abusive through stress-reduction techniques and “time-outs.”
Today her group operates 12 sites, to which courts can send men with misdemeanor domestic convictions. They attend classes for an hour and 15 minutes once a week, for six months to a year.
Rather than trying to address the behavior of the individual men, trainers discuss key tenets of the battered women’s movement. The uniting principle of the curriculum is that domestic violence is couched in a history of oppression and male privilege; the sessions are dedicated to unpacking and presenting that history.
The program also imposes its own rules, requiring, for example, that men arrive on time, with full payment for the session (no change is made), and stay awake throughout the sessions.
Since altering the behavior of the men is not a goal–and good performance in the course is no indicator of whether men continue to abuse intimate partners–the program does not measure its success on how it is received.
Keeping Court Contact
Jim McDowell, the program’s court liaison, keeps in close contact with court officials. If men fail to meet program requirements such as regular attendance, payment and respectful behavior, staffers can send them back to court to face official sanctions. That may mean being ordered back to the program for another 26 weeks, or even jail time.
“On our end, we hold men supremely accountable for what we can hold them accountable for,” says Frank.
In 1977, New York changed its laws to permit battered spouses to pursue criminal charges. Prior to that change, domestic violence cases were heard exclusively by family courts. Over the decades, the state has gradually shifted domestic violence matters to the criminal courts, although the family courts still hear many cases.
But Frank says judges are often reluctant to impose maximum sentences and may not always impose sanctions when sentencing orders are violated.
“In the state of New York,” she says, “traffic tickets and speeding tickets get more serious attention than domestic violence cases.”
In New York state–where much of the research on batterer programs is focused–many courts and service providers agree with Frank’s shift away from rehabilitation and toward accountability.
Robert Davis, a senior research analyst at the Rand Corporation, the government policy-focused think tank in Washington, has extensively researched batterer programs and domestic violence prevention. Most recently, he studied offenders in a Bronx, N.Y., program and found that men who had gone through the court-ordered program were as likely to re-offend as those who had not.
“I think the whole idea you can re-educate people is wrong,” says Davis. “I don’t think in 26 hours or less, you can change the way someone thinks about something.”
Michael Rempel, an author of several leading studies on batterer programs, says studies focused on whether batterers re-offend are bound to turn out badly because they are looking for an outcome for which the programs were not designed.
‘Sanction in Lieu of Nothing’
“The original rationale for these programs wasn’t necessarily rehabilitation,” says Rempel. “It was to provide a sanction in lieu of doing nothing. What happened was that people pinned their hopes to batterer programs, that they could also be rehabilitative, and began studying them for their effectiveness in that way.
“It gave courts something to do with domestic violence cases where legal methods couldn’t elicit a jail sentence,” says Rempel, research director at the Center for Court Innovation, a New York think tank that studies courts and criminal justice agencies. “They turned to batterer programs as better than nothing.”
States around the country have been moving toward harsher punishment for domestic violence since the 1980s. In the mid-1990s, states also began developing specialized domestic-violence courts, where judges and lawyers are attuned to the issues facing victims. There are now about 300 of these around the country.
The roots of many intervention programs begin with service providers in Duluth, Minn., who in 1980 teamed with battered-women’s advocates to develop a curriculum for counseling and educating abusers.
Using a group-therapy format, they aimed to teach men about the framework of sexual and social politics that informed their behavior, and their responsibility for the choices they made. This style, now known widely as the Duluth model, spread in the early 1980s.
In her research, Frank has identified 2,600 batterer programs nationwide, although she thinks the actual number is much higher. “I think you can double that number. These programs are springing up left and right.”
Rempel said the group therapy format spawned by the Duluth model is attractive to cash-strapped agencies because it is relatively inexpensive and “easier to implement on a large scale.” But while such groups may be helpful in other situations, such as substance-abuse treatment, Rempel said they did not translate well to batterer programs.
“You have men inclined toward violence in a room talking to each other about what they do,” said Rempel. Instead of producing positive change, Rempel found the sessions often led to men reinforcing their violent tendencies toward women.
“Unstructured self-help groups have actually been shown to produce worse outcomes,” he said. “You just have the men in there talking, and you can imagine the kind of counterproductive results that produces.”
In New York, because of their exposure to recent research, Rempel said many programs are increasingly being treated as one of several sentencing options, a form of punishment rather than rehabilitation, in other words.
Elsewhere in the country, however, many courts still hope they will prevent or cure family violence.
“Nationally, I think judges think batterer programs work,” says Rempel. “It’s not that these people are silly thinkers, it just takes time for research to disseminate.”
Francesca Levy is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has appeared in New York City newspapers including the New York Press, the West Side Spirit, the Villager, Chelsea Now and the New York City News Service.
This story, part of our New Writers Program, was funded by the McCormick Tribune Foundation.
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