By Lundy Bancroft
* Note: I intend this article to be an evolving draft. Please send comments, suggestions, and criticisms to me at P.O. Box 253, Northampton MA 01061
Battered women’s advocates and other community members who are part of the movement to end the domestic abuse of women struggle with a mixed outlook on intervention programs for abusive men. A well-run program can contribute in many ways to the movement, while a poorly-run program can actively endanger abused women, shelter batterers from accountability, and be tools of a batterer’s manipulations. It is becoming increasingly important for battered women’s programs and coalitions to be able to assess and monitor the quality of programs for abusive men (usually called “Batterer Intervention Programs”), in order to avoid supporting a destructive program and to be able to put pressure on courts not to refer men to it. It is unfortunate that advocates need to take this monitoring function on, given how overworked and underfunded victims’ programs already are; however, given the huge growth in the past 10-15 years in the number of batterer programs, and the serious harm that is growing out of the actions of some of those programs, I believe that it is essential to allocate some resources in that direction.
In order to get an in-depth view of the program’s work, I recommend that the following monitoring and assessment take place:
- Each group be visited by monitors at least once a year, who sit in on at least two consecutive meetings of the group
- That the monitors observe a number of intake sessions to see how they are carried out
- That the monitors examine a number of case files to see the quality of record-keeping that is taking place, particularly with respect to acts of abuse that clients admit to.
- If the program contacts victims, that the monitors listen to a number of those contacts.
The sections below will guide the monitors in knowing some important elements to be watching for and evaluating while going through the above steps.
Before agreeing to form any kind of working relationship with a batterer intervention program (BIP), the women’s program needs to collect basic information about the BIP including:
How does the program understand the nature of domestic violence perpetration and where it comes from? As 30 years of clinical experience and a huge collection of research studies have demonstrated, battering is primarily a cultural problem, not a psychological one; that is to say, battering is a learned and socially reinforced behavior used to exert power and control in an intimate relationship, tightly linked to the history of male domination. A BIP needs to understand from the outset that battering behavior is mostly chosen, goal-oriented behavior, used to enforce the abuser’s will and intimidate the victim. If program personnel take the view that battering is largely a product of stress, low self-esteem, substance abuse, mental health problems, or bad relationships dynamics, the program will end up contributing more to the problem than to the solution.
Does the program plan to do “therapy” with men who batter? A properly run batterer program does not devote more than a small percentage of its time to psychotherapeutic work. The lion’s share of group session time has to be focused on the subject of abuse itself, and not on peripheral problems, self-actualization, sensitivity training, or any other theme not directly related to abuse. (I will discuss below what the bulk of counseling time should be addressing.)
Who is going to be leading the groups? What is those people’s training in domestic violence? Does the program make the mistake of requiring counselors to have a mental health credential or a Master’s Degree? A person with a mental health credential, with or without a Master’s Degree, is neither more nor less prepared than anyone else to lead groups for men who batter. Meaningful measures of preparedness would include:
- Does the person have any course work on domestic violence?
- Has s/he done research on domestic violence?
- Has s/he received training specifically on working with men who batter through the Emerge model, the Duluth model, or other nationally-respected pro-victim approaches to working with perpetrators?
- Is s/he sympathetic to the plight of battered women and their children, free from victim-blaming tendencies? Does s/he stay away from overidentifying with men who batter (through such statements as “the batterer is a victim too,” for example)?
- Do personnel in the women’s program find that s/he listens well, is always interested in learning more about trauma and about battered women’s experiences, and is respectful in conflicts? Do program personnel feel confident that this person’s own ego issues, arrogance, or problems with women are not cause for concern?
What appears to be motivating the people who are creating the BIP? The best results come when the people creating the batterer program wish above all to contribute to stopping violence against women. Less helpful contributions come from programs that are created to try to bring extra income to a clinic, or to try to better meet the needs of men.
What services will the program provide? Batterer intervention needs to be kept separate from other services. Specifically:
- If the program reports that it will also be providing couples or family counseling for men in the program, the program is not appropriate, even if personnel say they will only do so “if the man is making good progress”. Huge safety concerns exist regarding conjoint counseling work with batterers; moreover, a batterer program that also offers couples counseling is sending the message to the battered woman that she can share responsibility for the batterer’s change, which is false.
- Groups should not attempt to address substance abuse and domestic violence in depth in the same program; batterers who have substance abuse issues need to be in recovery and to be receiving separate services for their addiction.
- The program should not claim to decide which men need batterer intervention and which need “anger management”; if the man is in the program because of any degree of violence, threats, sexual assault, or chronic verbal abuse toward an intimate partner, he is not appropriate for anger management.
How does the program intend to make itself part of the movement to end the domestic abuse of women? A wide array of research studies examining the effectiveness of programs for men who batter have found, at best, a limited impact on changing the behavior of clients. Studies also indicate that the impact of batterer programs on the victims is very mixed. Therefore, if program personnel believe that they are doing enough by simply providing counseling groups, they are mistaken. The program should be planning to:
- Participate in community task forces on domestic violence
- Support the efforts of its local battered women’s program through attending events, helping with fundraisers, and participating in community campaigns (e.g. purple ribbon campaigns)
- Offer public speaking to educate the community on men’s abuse of women
- Support efforts to improve state laws to increase accountability for men who batter and increase rights and services for victims and their children.
Will the program allow advocates from the women’s program to sit in on groups periodically to monitor the BIP? If the program won’t permit monitoring, don’t support it. The program should welcome monitoring and be eager to hear your feedback. Additionally, it should view monitoring as a valuable service, and be prepared to pay the women’s program a fee for the monitoring service.
The Structure of the Program
A number of structural questions are central to assessing a batterer program, including:
- Group size
- Intake process
- How the program intends to address client confidentiality
- How the program will arrange for advocacy for partners and former partners of its clients (“partner contacts”)
- How the program intends to hold clients accountable for unacceptable behavior or attendance, inadequate progress, and reoffending, including how the program will inform victims and courts about these kinds of problems.
- What the program’s curriculum will cover
- Whether the program makes the mistake of advocating for its clients
I examine each of these areas in depth below.
Managing a batterer program is a delicate business. Groups that are too large create the potential for dangerous oversights on the part of program personnel, while also allowing clients to complete the program with minimal evaluation and confrontation. I recommend that groups that are 90 minutes long not have more than eight clients enrolled, and groups that are 120 minutes long not have more than 14 clients enrolled. (The number attending on a given evening will usually be a little lower, as one or two clients will be absent on a typical evening.) Groups that are led by only one counselor (as opposed to two counselors, which is more typical and is better for a number of reasons) should have even smaller numbers.
It is essential that the program obtain each client’s criminal record at intake. The simplest way to do so is to require the client to provide a copy himself. If the client has been arrested, he needs also to provide the arrest report from his most recent incident, and from the incident that led to his participation in the program if that is a different one.
At intake, the program should get a complete history of the violence, sexual assaults, and psychological abuse that the client admits to toward his current partner, toward the woman he assaulted in the arrest incident (where applicable), and toward any past partners. These admissions need to be carefully documented.
The program needs to collect name, age, and latest contact information for the man’s current partner, the woman he assaulted in the arrest incident, and any past partners with whom he has children. Names, ages, and addresses of all his minor children should be obtained.
The program should collect a complete substance abuse history from the client, and a history of any mental health problems he has had. The program should also collect information relevant to evaluating the client’s dangerousness (for more information on this assessment, see my guide “Assessing Dangerousness in Men Who Abuse Women” at lundybancroft.com).
When a man wishes to join a program for men who batter, he should be required to sign a contract prior to participating. This contract should explain to him that he is joining an educational program, not a therapeutic program, and that therefore he will not have the same level of confidentiality that he would be guaranteed in mental health services.
The program WILL NOT promise him confidentiality with respect to:
- his current partner
- the woman toward whom he was violent in the incident he was prosecuted for (who may not be his current partner)
- any past partner with whom he has children
- his court’s probation department
- his state’s child protective service, if his participation in the BIP is mandated or requested by that service
- his local police department
- the program for battered women serving the area where he lives or where his current or ex-partner lives
- any individual to whom we believe he is an imminent danger of serious harm
The contract should inform him that with respect to the above individuals or institutions, the program will release information as it considers it necessary to do so to promote victim safety and abuser accountability, and to avoid any harm coming to the victim or her children.
The program WILL promise him confidentiality with respect to:
- the general public
- news media
- anyone else not covered in the exceptions in the previous list
Within these limitations, we will take his confidentiality very seriously in order to protect his privacy, the privacy of his current or past partners, and the privacy of any children who are involved.
Some batterer programs require clients to sign releases of information. However, such releases can, by law, be rescinded any time the client chooses to do so. Therefore a contract should be used instead of releases.
The above guidelines present a problem for mental health centers that offer batterer programs, because a service that is under the aegis of the mental health center may be required to be confidential or even privileged (meaning that even a judicial order cannot require a break in the confidentiality). For this reason it is best that a BIP not be formally linked to a counseling center, and be considered an independent educational program.
Guarantees of confidentiality end up at various times putting the interests of the abuser ahead of the interests of the abused woman. I have, for example, been in situations where a former client sued the battered woman for custody a year after he left my program, and denied to the court that he has ever hit her. I had records of important violence toward her that he had admitted to me, but he was insisting on his legal right to keep me from providing that information to the court, and saying that I shouldn’t have even been talking to the abused woman, since his release had expired months earlier. A batterer could potentially succeed in taking a woman’s children away from her (as many do) while the BIP stood helplessly by, unable to tell the court what it knew. This kind of manipulation cannot be permitted to occur.
Advocacy for Current and Past Partners (“Partner Contacts”)
A batterer program has a responsibility to make every possible effort to contact the current partner of a client, his former partner (if he is in the program because of violence toward her), and any past partners with whom he has children, and ensure that those women receive accurate, empowering information about the batterer program and appropriate referrals to battered women’s services. These partner contacts should include the following elements:
- The woman should be informed of any limitations of confidentiality that apply to the program’s contacts with her – in particular that the program may be obligated to report child abuse to authorities if she discloses such abuse during partner contacts. She should be assured that nothing she says in a partner contact will be disclosed to the abuser except at her request, and this commitment must be very strictly adhered to by the program.
- The woman should be informed of the full range of services offered by her nearest program for abused women, and be given the contact information for that program. She should be told which of those services are free (usually they all are). She should be encouraged to use the hotline whenever she feels the need to do so, and should be encouraged to consider participating in a support group for abused women. Perhaps most importantly of all, she should be encouraged to work with an advocate, in person or by phone, on creating a safety plan for herself and for her children. All batterer program personnel should read the book Safety Planning With Battered Women (cited at the end of this article) so that they fully understand this process, even though they should generally not be the ones to do that work with the woman.
- She should be informed of her legal rights, including her right to seek a protective order, her right to seek restitution, and her right to seek criminal charges against the abuser. If the abuser is on probation, she should be informed of her right to speak to his probation officer.
- If she has children, she should be asked if there are any pending legal proceedings regarding custody or visitation. If so, she should be offered assistance in locating a lawyer to represent her in those proceedings. She also should be asked about any ways in which the abuser may be using those proceedings as a way to continue abusing her or harming the children.
- She should be informed of the limitations of what a batterer intervention program can be expected to accomplish. Specifically, she needs to know that multiple research studies have demonstrated that a majority of participants in a BIP will not make large lasting changes in their behavior. Many participants actually increase their level of psychological abusiveness during the time they are in the program. She should be asked to contact the program if his treatment of her is getting worse, or if he appears to be responding in any other dangerous ways to group meetings.
- She should be informed of the rules for the man’s participation in the program. Specifically, she should be told: 1) That the program does not impose any rules upon her, and that if the abuser tells her that the program has certain expectations of her, that is false; 2) That he is expected by the program to stop all verbal, mental, economic, and sexual abuse of her, not just physical violence; 3) That he is not to use any program techniques as a way to harm her – for example, he is not to apply any concepts he learns in group to her behavior, and he is not to use a “Time Out” as a way to avoid listening to her; 4) Any restrictions that the program is placing on his use of drugs or alcohol, or other individually-specific rules that the program is establishing for his conduct. It is not her responsibility to monitor the abuser’s compliance with program’s rules, but it is important for her safety and empowerment that she be aware of any ways that he is not in compliance.
- She should be informed of the location, times, and cost of his group. (Program participants sometimes lie to women about these facts.)
- If she is the man’s current partner, she should be told that the program would like to call her any time he is absent from a meeting, and ask if she feels safe to have the program do so. Ask her what telephone number the program should use to give her that information.
- The program should ask her permission to call her if: 1) He leaves a meeting seeming especially agitated or inflamed; 2) He expresses his intention to do her harm, such as by emptying joint bank accounts; 3) He reveals other information that the program believes is important to her safety or well-being; 4) He quits or is kicked out of the program.
- The program should inform her of any specific concerns it has about the conduct, attitudes, or escalation of this particular abuser, based on the program’s experience with him so far. (Such concerns should continue to be shared with the woman throughout the man’s participation in the program, if she is open to receiving this information.)
- She should be offered a meaningful and detailed checklist to use to help her in assessing whether or not the abuser is making real changes (such as the one offered in the article “Guidelines for Assessing Change in Abusive Men” available at LundyBancroft.com).
- She should be encouraged to call the program any time she has concerns about the man’s behavior during the week, and any time she is uncomfortable or unsure about things he tells her about what the program is telling him.
- The woman should not be told that the client is making changes or is serious about trying to change, or that she should consider remaining in or return to the relationship. She should be told that her own observations of whether or not he is changing are the only ones that matter, and that the program fully supports any decision she chooses to make about that relationship, whether to continue it, separate, or end it permanently.
After these essential points are covered, the woman should be asked if the would like information about the how the program works, what topics are covered, what assignments are given to the abuser, and so forth.
Next, the woman should be asked if she is comfortable giving the program a brief history of the man’s violence (including violent or coerced sexual contact), threats, and psychological abuse. This history is helpful to the program in assessing the abuser’s dangerousness.
Last, she should be asked what particular issues she would most like the program to focus on in addressing the abuser’s behavior and attitudes. She should be asked whether she wants the program to reveal to the man that these issues are being addressed at her request; if she answers yes, the potential risks to her involved in having the program do so should be explored with her. [i]
After the partner contact is completed, the person performing the partner contact should debrief the man’s BIP counselors in detail, except in cases where sharing certain information would not be safe (such as in cases where it not known whether the BIP counselors have entirely trustworthy judgment, and thus might reveal the information to the batterer). Although the partner contact information should never be revealed to the batterer except in the specific and limited cases discussed above (where the partner is specifically requesting that he be confronted about a particular issue, and she feels the risks involved are worth taking), the content of that contact should nevertheless guide the counselors work with that man. This includes that the counselors should strive to focus on the woman’s primary concerns, even where those do not match the primary concerns the counselors may feel about the case.
Who should do the partner advocacy?
It is best that partner contacts be carried out by trained battered women’s advocates rather than by the batterer intervention counselors themselves. Women whose partners are in batterer programs tend to be in crisis, and it is easy for people without adequate experience and sensitivity to give a woman advice that can interfere with her progress toward healing and self-determination, or that can even place her in severe danger. Her traumatic experiences can also make her vulnerable to subtle forms of pressure from the batterer program; she may, for example, get the message from program personnel that they believe the man is going to change and that she should give him another chance.
However, the local battered women’s program should not be expected to take on performing partner advocacy for the batterer program without compensation, on top of everything else the women’s program is already doing. Therefore the batterer program should contract to pay for the advocacy services, or should hire experienced battered women’s advocates onto the BIP staff.
There are some BIP counselors who have been in the field for years, who are wholehearted advocates for battered women, and who have good personal skills in speaking respectfully and sensitively with battered women, and in these cases I think there are actually some advantages to having these people conduct their own partner advocacy; direct communication with the counselors can sometimes be very helpful to the abused woman, while simultaneously educating the BIP counselor and guiding his or her work with that particular man. However, given the extremely rapid rate of creation of new batterer programs over the past 10-15 years, some of them with minimal training and little connection to the battered women’s movement, the ideal case that I have just described appears to be more the exception than the rule.
Communications with Clients Regarding Partner Contacts
It is best that clients not be informed that partner contacts are routine, as they will then be on the lookout for those contacts and may try to monitor, prevent, or interfere with the conversation. I recommend using wording that the program “reserves the right to contact current or former partners should it decide to do so.”
Men should be informed that they will be terminated for any effort to interfere with a partner contact that does take place, and that they are not to discuss the contact with their partner in any way, including asking her whether a contact has occurred.
Clients should be informed that if the program discovers that a client is concealing the existence of a current partner, a past partner toward whom he was violent, or a past partner with whom he has children, he will be terminated from the program. The program should give a specific definition of current partner to him, which would mean any women with whom he is having even occasional sex and is seeing on a regular basis.
Accountability for Clients
The program should have clear written policies about how the man’s partner, past partners, and referring agency (such as the court or the child protective service) will be informed if he:
- commits new offenses, including any new physical or sexual assaults against his partner or threats of harm
- misses a meeting
- has repeated poor attendance leading to his termination
- behaves inappropriately in meetings
- expresses an intention to do harm to his partner, or program staff have other reasons to believe that he is an impending risk to harm her (not just through assault, but through other means such as child abduction, court actions for custody, underhanded economic maneuvers, or exposing her to risk of sexually transmitted diseases)
There is occasionally some controversy among BIP counselors about reporting new offenses to the court. I have heard it said, “What incentive is there for him to tell us about new incidents of violence if he knows he may be jailed for it? We can’t help him if he can’t tell us the truth about what is happening.” I have several responses to this view. First, we cannot afford the impact on the other group members of seeing that a man can report new acts of violence without experiencing legal consequences. Second, the stopping of all physical and sexual violence has to be a given for men in batterer programs. The clients are supposed to be working on eliminating their verbally, economically, and mentally abusive behaviors, and they certainly won’t make progress on those if they haven’t even stopped the outright assaults. I consider the situation parallel to a detox that kicks someone out because it has been revealed that he or she is continuing to use. Third, batterers only change when they accept the consequences of their actions; in other words, a batterer who is concealing his new assault to escape the consequences is a batterer who is not changing anyhow.
A program that expresses any reluctance to hold clients accountable for their actions is a program that is going to slip into collusion of various kinds, even if doing so is not its intention.
Both verbal and written notice should be given of program termination, and this notice should include a description of any new offenses.
Documenting the Client’s Admitted History of Abuse
Upon the man’s termination or completion, or earlier if she requests it, the abused woman should be provided written documentation of the range of abusive behaviors toward her that the man admitted to while he was in the program, including specific history of physical and sexual assaults, child abuse, and patterns of psychological abuse. This report could be crucial to her in the future if she needs to seek a protective order, or of she ends up in custody and visitation litigation with the abuser.
The program’s curriculum should be laid out in detail in writing. It should include the following elements in some form:
- Many weeks of material on abuse and violence as a form of control, and an explanation of the need to give up all forms of controlling behavior.
- The above weeks should include detailed explanation of the range of behaviors that are abusive and coercive, including verbal abuse, economic abuse, sexual mistreatment (of the partner), psychological/mental abuse, physical abuse, and use of the children as weapons.
- The effects of abuse on men’s partners
- The effects of partner abuse on children in the home
- Respectful, appropriate behaviors in a relationship, including sharing of household and childcare responsibilities, being economically fair and open, sexual fidelity, respectful conduct in conflict, and non-abusive ways to deal with a relationship that comes to an end
- Many weeks of material on the abusive attitudes and values that drive abusive behavior. The discussion should include examinations of such attitudes as: entitlement to service and to deference; lack of respect for the partner and for women in general; double standards; sexual ownership and possessiveness; refusal to recognize the female partner’s right to freedom of movement, freedom of expression, and other basic human rights; viewing the partner as inferior to him; and many others.
- Examination of male socialization and positive and negative social messages about what it means to be a man, with primary emphasis on how men are socialized to view and treat women in relationships.
- Explanation of the fact that in adults, feelings do not directly cause behavior, and that therefore feelings are not an acceptable excuse for inappropriate actions. Explanation that in adults, behaviors are determined primarily by values, attitudes, and habits, and that these are the key elements that will need to change in order for his treatment of female partners to improve. Explanation that his partner’s behavior does not justify his own.
- The process of accepting responsibility for one’s actions and what that involves, including the need to make reparations and pay damages
- Overcoming denial, minimization, and shifting of responsibility
Many programs have interesting or creative additions to the above elements. Some, for example, include explorations of men’s childhoods, to help them gain empathy for their children’s feelings. For those men who had fathers or stepfathers who were abusive, discussions about how that paternal behavior affected them as children can help motivate men to make changes in their own conduct. However, these discussions need to be carefully structured to avoid being used by abusers as an excuse for their own abusive behavior.
In considering a curriculum piece that is novel or unfamiliar, the monitor should reflect carefully on the question of how the proposed discussion could negatively backfire against partners or children of men in the program, particularly of those clients who are the most dangerous or manipulative, and who may be skilled at covering up how they are intending to use the material that has been discussed. For example, it is common for men in abuser programs to use material learned from curriculum presentations to become more slick and sophisticated abusers, to find more reasons to criticize the woman’s behavior rather than his own, or to identify strategies to strengthen his hand in attempting to take custody of the children away from her.
Inappropriate or Questionable Curriculum Items
Curriculum items should be avoided that place extensive focus on the men’s own feelings, particularly where the program is describing the man’s violence as being a reaction to his uncomfortable or angry feelings. He should not be taught that managing his own emotions differently would make any significant changes in his abusive behavior, and he should be firmly discouraged from using his feelings as an excuse at all.
Some programs have clients identify what their “triggers” are, meaning situations or feelings that tend to be the most likely to send them into acts of violence or abuse. These discussions are risky, because they lend themselves easily to strengthening an abuser’s excuses, and to keeping him focused on his view that his partner needs to change the things that she does that “set me off”. If the program is going to discuss “triggers”, the monitors should pay particularly careful attention to how this discussion is carried out, and be alert for any way than the issue is framed that will appear to feed excuses in this way, or that take too much focus off the men’s attitudes as being the underlying problem in their behavior patterns. I’m not sure these “trigger” discussions are a good idea at all. Perhaps similar discussions could be carried out by dropping the term “trigger,” which appears to relieve the man of responsibility, and replace the it with something like, “areas about which you tend to be particularly abusive, bullying, or unfair,” If the goal is to get the man to be aware of the aspects of life where he needs to watch his own behavior the most closely, this frame seems like a better way to do it.
Any curriculum time that is not directly related to abusive behaviors, abusive attitudes, and changing those behaviors and attitudes to respectful ones, needs to be kept brief in batterer programs. Long discussions of other topics let abusers off the hook, send them the message (however unintentionally) that their battering behavior is not that serious, and waste precious time that the program needs to spend on the central issues in abuse. Until we have courts willing to require men to be in batterer programs for 18-24 months, we need every minute of every meeting to zero in on each man’s behaviors and attitudes, and to help him understand how his behavior has harmed his partner, former partners, and children, and what his responsibilities are currently to address the harm he has done.
Most batterer programs need to greatly expand the amount of time they devote to parenting issues. Three sessions on this issue per six months are a minimum. These presentations/discussions should include:
- Child abuse prevention. Topics under this part include: what physical abuse is and why it’s harmful to children, including reference to the research; alternate approaches to gaining children’s cooperation; what sexual abuse is and why it’s harmful to children; what proper respect for children’s boundaries looks like (the opposite of sexual abuse); what psychological abuse is and why it’s harmful to children; what respectful communication with children looks like.A certain amount of education on children’s developmental stages can be helpful under this heading, because abusers often have behavioral expectations for children that are completely unrealistic for the children’s ages, and these unfair expectations can contribute to their abusiveness toward children.
- Education on the effects on children of exposure to a man who abuses their mother. This section needs to include a detailed presentation on what the research shows on how children are affected by living in homes with a batterer. Clients need to be pressed to admit to and identify specific effects that they have observed in their own children or step-children. Clients need to be reminded that they are 100% responsible for how their own behavior has affected their children, and cannot blame the mother “because she pushed my buttons” or similar ways of shifting responsibility to her for the children’s distress.
- Education on their proper role as co-parents. This section should include: behaviors that undermine the mother’s authority and the psychological harm that this causes to children; how to respect her as a parent; how to properly make parenting decisions with her instead of bullying or controlling her parenting; proper post-separation parenting behaviors.
Men who abuse women tend to be manipulative and psychologically destructive as parents, and have much higher rates than other men of overtly abusing children (approximately seven times the rate of physical abuse and six times the rate of sexual abuse). Therefore a number of subjects typically addressed in parenting courses should be avoided when working with men who batter. These include strategies for earning children’s trust, strategies for getting children to open up emotionally, and discussion of the importance of fathers in children’s lives. Abusive men have too much potential to use these insights for purposes opposite to the ones for which they were intended. In particular, they are a risk to use their insights about children’s psychology to turn children against their mother or against each other. This type of divisiveness and deliberate alienation is the most common and serious problem in the parenting of men who batter. Similarly, emphasizing to batterers the importance of fathers in children’s lives will be used by many clients to justify seeking custody, to vilify the mother for her efforts to protect her children from him, or to criticize her for her supposed failure to recognize his importance.
It is impossible to distinguish in any reliable way between clients who will appropriately apply program concepts and those who will twist material to their own purposes. There is also no reliable way to distinguish clients who are psychologically, sexually, or physically dangerous to their children except by extensive investigation, which is beyond the capacity of a batterer program. Therefore, batterers should not be given general parenting education, or pressed to develop close relationships with their children, until they have 18 months or more violence-free, show dramatic progress in the concrete measures of change discussed below, and the children’s mother concurs that it would be beneficial for him to receive this type of training.
In the mean time, the focus of parenting work with batterers should stay focused on making them aware that their abusive behavior as partners is harming their children, challenging them to stop mistreating children, and pressing them to support and assist the parenting work of their partners.
The program should specifically address post-separation parenting issues, including the importance of not speaking badly to children about their mother, not undermining their closeness to their mother, and not using a lack of discipline at his home as a way to undermine her parental authority in her home.
Clients should not be encouraged to go to court to seek visitation, and in fact should not be informed by program personnel that they have the option to do so, as this could be against the children’s interests. Clients who are seeking custody, or who are seeking a visitation plan that the mother opposes, should be confronted by the group for this behavior, and the program’s advocate should keep in touch with the victim about these legal proceedings.
Additional Issues Related to Children
At check-in each week, men should report the names and ages of all children that they have, and the names of those children’s mothers (without last names, to protect confidentiality). This exercise brings the children symbolically into the room each week.
Every time an incident of violence is described by a client, whether the incident is recent or not, he should be required to describe where any children were during the incident, how they reacted, and any later effects that they manifested. If he denies that the children were affected, the group should remind him that they were indeed affected, whether he noticed the impact or not.
Programs should not, as a general rule, make a child abuse report against a victim of a client based on statements that he makes. These statements are inherently unreliable, and in some cases the abuser is actually looking to get the program to make a report against her. If the program is concerned, it should arrange for the advocate to contact the woman, and the advocate can make a child abuse report after talking to the woman if she feels it is warranted. I do not believe that mandated reporting laws require professionals to report allegations that they do not believe or find likely to be maliciously motivated.
Advocating for Clients
The program should be advocating for victims and children, not for the abusers. It should not assist the abuser to escape criminal consequences, nor should it assist him with custody or visitation matters. The program should never write any letter on behalf of its client. If the client states, “I need a letter for my attorney,” the program should inform him that it does not provide such letters. If he needs a letter for a court, child protective service, or other referring agency, the program will provide a report directly to that agency, where the client does not get the opportunity to review the letter first to decide whether it serves his interests or not. (I find that when I explain this to clients, they generally change their minds and decide they don’t want the letter after all.) Attorneys who call asking for the program to report verbally on the man’s progress should be refused, with the explanation that the program only provides direct reports which are intended to be used in their entirety, and not to have selected pieces taken out of context.
The only appropriate advocacy for clients is to help them to seek services to overcome their additional problems, such as mental health or substance abuse issues, and to assist them in finding job training or placement assistance if they are unemployed. (Unemployment can contribute to a batterer’s dangerousness, and also leaves him with too much time on his hands, which he may spend monitoring and controlling his partner, or abusing substances.)
The Nature of Group Sessions
In monitoring group sessions, monitors should evaluate the following concerns:
- How well the time is used
- The tone of meetings
- How well leadership is shared between male and female co-leaders
- Whether men’s behavior and attitudes is being appropriate challenged
- How Well Time is Used
The group session should be used entirely for the group process, not for handling payment or other logistics, which need to be taken care of before or after the scheduled time of the group meeting. Meeting time is too short and valuable to let any of it get frittered way. Men should not report on “what kind of week they had,” which eats up time on their discussions of their experiences, turning the session into a men’s support group, They should report on any abusive or controlling behavior or attitude that they exhibited toward their partner, ex-partner, or children during the week, and any complaints or criticisms about the man that were raised by the woman or by their children. He should not describe at length the content of conflicts between him and his partner. He needs to keep it succinct, with the focus on his behavior and her concerns.
Men should not spend time reporting on their conflicts with other individuals outside of the family, except where those conflicts have a bearing on the family (e.g. where he is in conflict with his partner’s friend or relative, or where his public behavior has an impact on his family, such as an incident of violent or inappropriate behavior at work that could cause him to lose his job and jeopardize the family economically, or where family members witnessed his abusive or intimidating behavior toward another individual).
Any time that is not needed for the curriculum discussion should be focused on “turns” for individual men, where they describe recent or past incidents of violent or abusive behavior on their part, and receive critical feedback from group members and counselors about those incidents. During those turns, attitudes should be identified that the man needs to change, and goals should be set for his future behavior. Men’s counseling turns can also be used to give critical feedback about inappropriate or abusive attitudes that have been revealed by statements they have made during group meetings.
Each participant should get a counseling turn every few weeks, receiving 15 or 20 minutes of critical feedback. If the group is too large for this to occur, the size of the group needs to be reduced. Many abusers can be stellar participants in curriculum discussions, but nonetheless fail to apply any of the insights to their own issues, and thus can coast almost meaninglessly through an abuser program if they are not periodically given focused counseling time for the group to confront the man’s own abusiveness and denial.
The Tone of Meetings
Counselors should be respectful at all times toward clients, and clients should be required to speak respectfully to one another. It is fine for debates to become heated or vociferous at times, but statements or actions should not be tolerated that are insulting, demeaning, ridiculing, or in any way could re-create (and therefore reinforce) behaviors that the abusers use with their partners at home.
The atmosphere in the room should be serious, but a certain amount of humor should be permitted, as long as it doesn’t involve joking that puts women down or that makes light of abusive behavior. Constructive statements that men make in the meeting should be acknowledged and validated; when clients find that they are criticized for the destructive statements they make (as they should be), but never acknowledged for their helpful statements, they begin to lose motivation to try to head the discussion in a positive direction. Many participants in abuser programs have histories (as any group of people would) of having been made to feel stupid and inferior when they were in school during their childhood, and I have seen some of those dynamics re-created in some batterer groups, where clients end up struggling to “get the right answer” and to try to win the teacher’s approval. Counselor should avoid quibbling with clients over minor issues in word choice, for example, and keep focused on the far more important issues at stake.
Clients should receive normal human sympathy for the injured legs and bad colds that they may come to group with, but should never receive sympathy for any of the complaints they make against their partners or former partners. At times these complaints may appear justified (or may truly be justified, for all we know), but it is counterproductive for an abuser to be able to use his abuser program to maintain or reinforce his focus on his partner’s shortcomings. He needs to be consistently reminded that he is there to work on his issues, not to focus on hers. Programs should not believe men’s reports about their partners’ behaviors or personalities anyway, because abusers are so very unreliable in their characterizations of their victims.
Counselors are most effective when they can accomplish the tricky task of making clients feel liked and cared about, yet not colluding with the client in any way or sending him a message that minimizes the destructiveness or cruelty of his actions in relationships. This requires counselors who can blend a firm, tough tone with a tone that is at the same time caring and humane. Counselors should not express sympathy for a client’s excuses or appear to be drawn in by his manipulations, but at the same time need to communicate to the client that the counselors believe that he has a human side, and that that side could ultimately triumph over his abusive aspects if he shows enough commitment to facing what he has done and addressing his issues.
How Well Leadership is Shared Between Male and Female Co-Leaders
Whenever possible, batterer groups should be run by male-female teams. This is valuable in many ways. The presence of the female counselor brings an awareness into group meetings of issues and perspectives that male co-leaders, however sensitive or aware, will not notice. Group members benefit from being required to interact with the female leader in a respectful way, and to learn to accept criticism from a female. Relationship between the co-leaders gives the group members a model of respectful male-female interaction, decision-making, and sharing of leadership.
However, these benefits can disappear if the female co-leader is relegated to an “assistant” status, or if there are other unequal or worrisome dynamics between the male and female co-leader. We do not want clients’ sexist beliefs to be reinforced by seeing an unhealthy power relationship between their group leaders.
Whether Men’s Behavior and Attitudes Are Being Appropriately Challenged
Any time a client reports an abusive behavior, exhibits an abusive attitude, or makes an anti-woman or pro-abuse statement in the group, it is essential that his statement be confronted. Similarly, men need to be called on all excuses, victim-blaming, and minimizing that they do. If it is not challenged, men in the group could interpret that silence as accepting the man’s action or minimizing the seriousness of it, and thus could have the effect of colluding with their issues. This has an important practical application for group meetings: A client should not be allowed to say more than can reasonably be challenged in the time available in that session. Once a man has made three or four objectionable statements, for example, he should be stopped from talking further until the group has had time to unpack the things he has already said.
Where time simply runs out before counselors have been able to address all of the necessary issues, the remaining themes need to be noted, and counselors should follow-up on those themes at the next meeting, so that inappropriate behaviors do not fall through the cracks unchallenged, This is one of the reasons why it is important for monitors to observe at least two consecutive meetings of the same group; monitors need to observe how well issues are followed up on the next week, and how well counselors maintain the thread from meeting to meeting.
One problem that arises in this area is that some clients come to enjoy being criticized by the group, because they like to create a stir, make the counselors angry, and keep themselves at the center of attention. Such a client will sometimes deliberately make provocative statements that counselors will object to, in order to derail the curriculum piece that was scheduled for that session and to keep the focus on him. How can counselors meet their curriculum goals, but still not leave this client’s behaviors unchallenged? The solution is to simply name his behavior as seriously inappropriate, declare that it will be addressed later, and then require that client to listen quietly without participating in the remainder of the meeting. The client should then be asked to remain after the meting is over and challenged privately, at which time he should be informed that if this kind of disruptive behavior does not cease, he will have to be terminated from the program.
When time comes to give a man a “turn” for critical feedback, some group members will bolster the man’s excuses, criticize his partner, or in other ways make colluding, pro-abuse statements. This should not be permitted. Clients may become irate when they are informed that they are not allowed to make colluding statements, but this rule needs to be enforced. Again, such problems are often best addressed outside of the session, where the client can be told privately that he will not only have to stop making enabling comments, but will actually have to replace those comments with critical feedback or be dismissed from the group.
Some clients never make critical comments to other group members and do not participate in holding others accountable. This should not be permitted. Some clients will say, “Well, I’m just a quiet guy,’ or “I’m not the kind to speak up in a group.” This client needs to be informed that giving appropriate feedback to other group members, challenging abusive behaviors and attitudes and holding one another accountable, is a requirement of group participation, and that if he continues to go week after week without offering critical feedback, he will have to leave the program.
This last requirement will involve a dramatic change in how some programs operate, but I believe it is as essential as any other rule to making abuser groups be places where participants actually feel that the other group members, not just the counselors, are demanding that they change. I do not believe that batterer groups can be effective in the absence of the creation of this sort of group dynamic. Giving appropriate critical feedback to other men will not come easily to many clients, especially in geographical areas where the overall culture is highly supportive of abuse towards women. Counselors will often have to act as trainers for their own clients, guiding them in how to give helpful critical comments to other batterers in their group. But this training, however difficult, is an essential aspect of the counselors’ role. And in fact, it is precisely in those geographical areas where this sort of dynamic is the most difficult to create in a group – where guys really start to challenge each other to change – that it may be the most important to do so, because outside of group men will receive such heavy enabling from most or all of the other males in their lives (and perhaps from the females as well).
Criticism of clients should be direct, respectful, and as non-inflammatory as possible. Abusers who are unduly inflamed by the criticism they receive at a batterer program may be an increased danger to their partners and children in the aftermath of the group. When a client shows signs of becoming overheated by feedback that he is receiving, the group should back off somewhat and give him time to relax, continuing the counseling at a later time or even waiting until a later meeting. Any current or past partners of the man who may be in danger from his reaction should be contacted immediately or as soon thereafter as possible to discuss his escalation at group and the state of mind that he appeared to leave the group in. Counselors should also be aware that some clients do a “slow boil” to hide their intentions to retaliate at home, and therefore the program needs to be vigilant for subtler signs that a man may have vengeful intentions when he is angry about his experience in the group.
As you can probably see from a collection of points that I have made so far, the safety of women and children can be compromised when we underconfront abusers or when we overconfront abusers. Counseling work therefore requires a balancing act that needs to be carried out with great awareness.
Counselors have a responsibility to explain concepts and criticisms to clients in terms that the clients can understand. Sometimes a client who appears quite defensive turns out to be misunderstanding the discussion or is having trouble following what is being said.
Finally, monitors should be alert for times when counselors are accepting at face value the client’s description of what his partner is like or how she behaves. For example, if a client reports that his partner is abusing alcohol, the program should not launch into telling him that her alcohol abuse could be a reaction to his abuse of her; this is a well-meaning but mistaken intervention, because he may be inventing or greatly exaggerating her alcohol problem, as abusers commonly do. (So, for example, I would begin my comments to the man by saying, “I don’t know if your descriptions of her drinking are true, but if they are…” and continue from there.)
It is easy for even the best counselors to slip unawarely into colluding with clients. Monitors can play a valuable roll in making program personnel aware of this kind of error.
At this point in time, we do not have reliable measures of which abusers have made the kinds of changes that will make them unlikely to abuse women psychologically, physically, or sexually in the future. Outcome studies of abuser programs, almost without exception, have found very high rates of repeat offending by program completers. Therefore no client should be said to have “successfully” completed the program – it will take years to know if his completion was a successful one or not – and completers should not be given certificates to use as they please.
Clients should be armed only with a closing evaluation, which needs to discuss in detail: the full history of violence, psychological abuse, and other abusive behavior that he admitted to while in the program; the specific pieces of work that he did (following the “Guidelines for Assessing Change in Abusive Men”, posted at LundyBancroft.com); and the specific pieces of work that he did not do. The letter should specify that even if he took all of the expected steps, this is not a guarantee that he will not reoffend.
I believe that the proper length of an abuser program is probably in the range of 18-36 months, with structured “aftercare” for years afterwards. I hope that final reports from programs will start to use wording along the lines of, “John Doe has completed the 40 weeks in the abuser program required by the court, out of the 100 weeks that is recommended for participants.”
Termination and Re-Enrollment
Court-ordered clients who are terminated from the program for inappropriate behavior in group, lack of progress, or reoffending, should not be readmitted to the program unless they have experienced additional legal consequences and/or have had additional conditions placed on their probation. Allowing a client to simply have another try ends up leaving him with no consequence for his previous action, and thus enables him. Programs should not accept clients who were terminated by other programs for any of the above reasons without discussing the case with that program, and meeting the condition that the client have additional legal consequences.
Clients who are terminated for poor attendance or for failure to pay should in most cases also be subject to the above requirement, but in some cases the program may want to make exceptions if it finds that poverty was a major obstacle to the man’s participation.
Programs can perhaps be somewhat more flexible with clients who are voluntary or who are sent by child protective services regarding the granting of second changes, but should always be on the alert that the abuser not be using the program in a manipulative way.
Serving Diverse Populations
Monitors should examine the question of whether men of color and men who are low income are receiving services from the program that show race and class sensitivity. Where possible, men should have the option of attending groups that are specific to their racial background (African-American, Latino, tribal), with counselors from their group. Programs outside of urban areas often will not have resources to provide this service, but should be pressed to do so as soon as they reasonably can. Program personnel should be trained on racist attitudes and how those could be exhibited, even unawarely, in their interactions with their clients and with victims. Further, program personnel should be trained on class attitudes, and monitors should observe whether blue-collar, unemployed, and poor men are being treated with respect and with sensitivity to the realities of their lives.
Same sex batterers, gay male or lesbian, should not have to participate in groups together with heterosexual male batterers, as it may not be safe for them to do so. Same-sex batterers may have to be served in individual counseling in many geographical areas, although this should be avoided whenever possible. Counselors should be from the same group (gay male or lesbian) whenever possible. Programs need to be sensitive to the fact that victims of same-sex battering are sometimes mistakenly identified as the perpetrators, and proper assessment needs to be made.
Women who are court-mandated to batterer programs as perpetrators of heterosexual domestic violence should not participate in a group with male batterers, nor should they be expected to follow the same curriculum. Eight to ninety percent of these women are incorrectly prosecuted, and should be receiving victim services only. The remaining percentage who truly are perpetrators of violence do not entirely fit the profile of the domestic batterer, and tend to have trauma histories that are playing an important role in their offending. Most practitioners believe that these women therefore need a hybrid service, where they are treated as perpetrators to some extent, with their attitudes and behaviors being confronted by the group, but that they simultaneously need attention to their own victimization and trauma issues, in a way that is not generally considered appropriate for men who batter.
There are an increasing number of men seeking abuser counseling who claim to have no history of violence, and who assert that their abuse is purely psychological. Many of these men have used lower levels of violence that they are denying, or have threatened violence, or have committed sexual assaults, and therefore properly belong in the regular abuser program. There is a remaining percentage, however, that appears to use only psychological abuse. These men will generally refuse to participate in the batterer program. Even if they agree to do the regular program, it may be counterproductive, as they may focus on how much worse the other men are, and actually use that awareness to minimize or justify their own destructiveness. Therefore, program should consider creating separate groups for psychologically abusive men who are not mandated to attend by the courts. These men should be switched to the batterer program any time violence, threats, or sexual assaults are revealed, whether recent or not.
Essential Reading for BIP Personnel
Safety Planning With Battered Women by Eleanor Lyons, Jill Davies, and Diane Monti-Catania. Sage Publications
Why Does He Do That? by Lundy Bancroft, Berkley Books
The Batterer as Parent by Lundy Bancroft, Jay Silverman, & Daniel Ritchie, Sage Publications
[i] Standards in some states prohibit programs from revealing any information to the abuser from the partner contact. While I essentially agree with this safety precaution, I believe exceptions should be made where the woman specifically wants the man to be talked to about certain issues or behaviors. I have found that this process can be an empowering one for the woman, where she is able to advocate for herself by having the program challenge the man about issues that she feels unable to push him on, or that he refuses to allow her to talk about. Certainly there is a risk that the abuser will retaliate against her, and this risk should be reviewed with her. But if, after this safety discussion, she still wants the issue brought up with the man, she should have the right to this. I believe that to deny her that voice is ultimately patronizing; abused women have to make decisions every day about which risks are worth taking and which are not, and I would not choose to take that decision out of her hands. (I would make exceptions, however, in cases where I believed the man was particularly dangerous and I believed the woman was severely underestimating that danger.)