While most domestic violence organizations focus first, and mainly, on the survivors of abuse, many do offer something called batterer counseling with the hopes that future violence can be prevented by stressing abuser accountability and education.
Jennifer Polzin is the CEO of Tubman, Minnesota’s largest domestic violence service agency. Based in the Twin Cities, it offers all types of family crisis and support services, including an 18-week therapy program for batterers, both male and female, who either have a prior history of abuse or who are nearing a point where they feel like they may become abusive, says Polzin. The program started in the ‘90s when Polzin says Tubman’s board of directors started receiving more and more feedback from survivors who said they didn’t necessarily want their relationship to end, they just wanted the violence to stop. “Many were asking for services for their abusive partner.”
The question of whether or not batterers can change their abusive ways has long been a hotly debated topic. Emerge, the first counseling and education program designed to stop domestic violence in the U.S., founded in 1977 by psychologist David Adams, even states that the question of whether or not batterers can reform “does not have a simple answer. Someone who truly wants to stop … will work to do so. Someone who doesn’t take such services seriously is at greater risk to re-offend,” they write on their website.
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Tubman’s stance is that “violence is a learned behavior, but we know it can be unlearned,” says Polzin. Plus, she knows couples will stay together or separate regardless of what a service provider advises them to do. “For years and years, if the survivors we were serving were trying to reconcile or go back [with their abuser] because they weren’t ready to leave, they were often reluctant to share that with us because they were fearful of more judgment.” They chose to work with, instead of against, the batterers. They also the hope that batterer counseling will prevent abusers from reoffending. “If they [batterers] don’t learn to change their behavior, even if they don’t go back to that same partner, they’re going to find another partner, and that relationship is going to have the same, abusive outcome.”
How It Works
The majority of the batterers that attend Tubman’s program are court-ordered, though some are voluntary. Polzin describes the counseling, which takes place once a week for two hours, led by licensed mental health professionals, as research-based and holistic.
“It’s about emotional regulation, behavioral management, communication and learning a new framework of relationships. Power and control is one topic, but we also talk about how to tolerate discomfort and managing one’s own anxiety in the face of someone else’s anxiety, and how to stand on one’s own two feet while also being close to someone.”
The counseling also focuses on revisiting past trauma. “We know there is a large number of participants who have been victims of abuse, whether as a child or through other violence, like gang violence, or other types of assault. And, a large percentage live with traumatic brain injuries. These are not excuses, but there is a correlation.”
While Polzin says many batterer counseling programs make it a point to hold the abusive person accountable for the abuse, Tubman’s program wants the abusive person to learn how to hold themselves accountable, “so, when the program’s done, they can continue in their relationship or with their parenting and know they can prevent violence.”
Polzin says the program initially served 20-some people a year at its inception, but now sees approximately 100 participants a year cycle through. Measuring its effectiveness is done in several ways. There are recidivism checks to see if the offender has offended since completing the program. This relies on the offender’s probation officer reporting any offenses, or through Tubman’s staff checking a statewide criminal database. So far, their checks show 90 percent of participants don’t reoffend within a year of completing.
But, they also know that abuse can happen behind closed doors, unreported to law enforcement. To track that, they rely on voluntarily check-ins from both the participant and survivors. “We don’t require the victim to participate—we’ve found that can increase the resistance on the part of the participant, and we don’t want to unintentionally put the victim at any more risk. But if there’s anything the victim wants us to know, we’re accessible.”
Relying on survivor input and police reports makes measuring the success of batterer counseling an imperfect science at best. For this reason, and the fact that most abusers aren’t interested in reform, advocates widely agree that batterer counseling is not a cure-all, but more so another tool in the movement to end domestic violence.
Polzin knows that, and says that while she hears anecdotally that their program helps better some relationships, she acknowledges, “It depends on how receptive the person is to it and what they stand to lose.”
You can find nine signs that indicate an abuser is more likely to reform in “Can Abusers Change?”
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