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“Suspecting and knowing are not the same.”
Origins of Domestic Violence
Domestic violence, which includes child abuse, is typically a learned behavior dynamic. It involves a way of thinking that has irrational beliefs that are used to justify being abusive to the victim. These irrational beliefs are learned. Irrational means that the topic is not based in reality. There is no rational justification for abuse/violence within a relationship (which includes parent/child) because no one has the right to abuse another and no one deserves to be abused.
Levels of Offender: Batter vs. Abuser
Batterer is a term that has been used to describe men who are domestic violence offenders. However, it is only applicable to some high level DV offenders. A batterer is a someone who uses an ongoing system to abuse to control their victim. This is a dynamic in which the victim is terrified to leave, typically afraid for their life, and have been chiseled to a state of learned helplessness by the offender. The abuse being experienced likely includes isolation, emotional and psychological abuse, intimidation, privilege, physical abuse, sexual abuse, economic abuse, coercion, spiritual abuse, and minimization. The offender believes that they are entitled and likely feel no guilt or remorse for what they are doing. There is no trust in this relationship. If there are children in this relationship they are being damaged by the battering. This offender wants power and control over the victim(s) and will continue to abuse in order to reinforce that dynamic. Things will not get better. The responsibility for the abuse is solely on the user of the abuse. No one makes them do it and no one can stop it but them. They won’t be able to stop it until they take responsibility for it and learn something different. Occasionally there are underlying mental health issues. Possibly addiction. This person might present well to others but be a monster at home. This is the most lethal of DV offenders.
When we use the term abuser, it is referring to someone who has committed intermittent abuse within the relationship. There might be times when the relationship feels fairly functional. The victim may want to stay in the relationship. If there are children in this relationship they are being damaged by the abuse. The perpetrator might be using abuse as a reaction to stress, anger, mental health issues, health issues, their own feelings – rational or irrational, which could be an explanation but not an excuse. They likely feel guilt and remorse for their behaviors. The responsibility for the abuse is solely on the user of the abuse. No one makes them do it and no one can stop it but them. They won’t be able to stop it until they take responsibility for it and learn something different.
Recognizing change: How do I know if they have made changes?
Treatment is no guarantee that an offender has made changes. However, if they are in our program you can be sure that they have been presented with the information and skills that if used, they can be healthier. Additionally, in our groups we challenge the participants to examine themselves and their behaviors honestly. Particpants are expected to participate to the best of their ability. If they are not able to function in a group setting, for whatever reason, we will work with them individually. Changes in knowledge and insight do not always reflect long-term permanent changes in behavior. Someone has to practice new behaviors in order for them to become a new habit. Change will be reflected not only in someone’s ability to take responsibility for their choices to be abusive, but also changes in their thinking patterns and behavioral patterns. Watch for changes in responses to heightened emotional situations. Look for an wareness of signals of escalation and the practice of new skills. People who are making changes will be integrating their new skills to situations that not only involve family members but also other life situations. Trust can only be built over time with consistent non-abusive behaviors and thinking.
Expert Witness Information:
Not everyone is qualified to be an expert witness on domestic violence offenders, offender treatment, effects of victims ect. Academic degree programs do not require mental health professionals to become educated in domestic violence - particularly in working with the domestic violence or child abuse offender. Most DV education is on defining domestic violence and the impact it has on victims. In order to become educated on working in the area of domestic violence, the practitioner has to seek out that education. One training is not enough. It certainly doesn’t compensate for the lack of experience of actually working with the offenders and victims of the crime.
When someone is being used as an expert witness on working with domestic violence offenders, it is important to know what trainings and education they have had, but also to what extent they have worked with the clients and in what capacity. How many clients have they worked with? In what context? What was their role?
Qualifications of Facilitators and Programs
In order to assess and work with DV offenders who are involved with the criminal justice system, only those state approved programs are accepted as appropriate. The risk being that if a program or individual is working with an offender, and they are not using best practice for working with DV offenders, and the staff are not specifically trained in working with this population, aren’t knowledgeable about domestic violence, and working with the offender in the most appropriate way, then the offenders irrational thinking could be validated rather than deconstructed. When offenders are validated, they can become more dangerous.
Surprisingly being a therapist, counselor, psychologist, and psychiatrist does not mean that one has knowledge of the dynamics of domestic violence, particularly of DV offenders. This is a specific area of work and requires ongoing training in the area, a specific approach of working with the offender, and depending on the level of knowledge – may require supervision. Domestic violence offending is not specifically diagnosable. It is a thinking and behavioral pattern that can be present along with any number of diagnoses, or none. Identifying a domestic violence offender is also typically unable to be done through quantitative testing. Qualitative methods are often the most effective to determine if someone needs our program because the provider has to be able to interact with the offender and engage them during the interview regarding their childhood history, their relationship history, criminal history, mental health history etc. If the assessor and/or treatment provider is not aware of the methods used by many offenders to present well, then they are unlikely to be able to be effective in identifying and treating offenders. If one is working with DV offenders and does not have that training, then they would be unethically working outside of their scope.
Therapy vs. Groups
Individual therapy is not a substitute for groups when working with domestic violence offenders. During individual therapy the client typically controls the content of the session and typically determines when they are finished with therapy. In a state approved program, there are specific lessons to be learned. Session content is controlled by the program. Ideally there is collateral contact regarding the participant’s behaviors and patterns. In the group, the client is with peers. Offenders know offenders best. The group allows for a level of accountability to the program but also to the group members. It also promotes the support of change by the members, respective group member confrontation, holding each other responsible for their use of abuse and making changes together.
Online vs. In Person
Online treatment is not effective and inappropriate for DV offenders. It does not allow for the observation of body language during the program, it is not in group format, and does not include interaction with a qualified facilitator.
Anger Assessment vs. Behavioral Risk Assessment
Anger management is an old term that used to be used for domestic violence offender treatment before people understood that domestic abuse was not an anger issue. Anger management is only appropriate for people who have rational anger and an inappropriate response. It is not effective for a domestic violence offender.
An anger assessment would be looking at how often someone feels angry, about what, how much anger do they have etc. Anger management treatment, would focus on an individual's feelings of anger, towards what, and then handling that emotion in a different way(s). Treatment providers who focus on anger in regards to any suspicion of domestic violence are missing the point, and that kind of focus can actually serve to validate some of the irrational thinking of the person being abusive. Validation of irrational beliefs enables the person to continue with their unhealthy patterns. This type of assessment would not be appropriate if there is any life history that includes the individual growing up with domestic violence and/or child abuse (DV and CA are a learned dynamic) or if there are accusations or suspicion of that dynamic going on in their relationships. It would be appropriate for someone who has a relatively healthy upbringing and who had healthy relationships with others that don't involve abuse.
An anger management/anger assessment would not look at behavioral patterns, lines of thinking going on that lead to the anger etc. Typically when people are acting out in inappropriate ways when they are angry, they have other issues that involve power and control, abusiveness etc. So the person should be screened thoroughly. Quantitative information doesn't show it all. Also, domestic violence and child abuse do not fall under a mental health diagnosis. Interviews with the client are best. If there is violent/abusive behavior happening, it's not an anger issue; it's a thinking error/irrational belief issue. Also, at times, the anger is not based in a rational way of thinking (ex: I'm angry because you looked me in the eye. vs. I'm angry because you stole from me). The irrational beliefs/thinking error piece is the offender justifying the inappropriate behavior(s) with their thinking. It's irrational because no one has the right to abuse another and no one deserves to be abused under any circumstances. Appropriate treatment with this population has to involve more cognitive behavioral work that includes deconstructing the underlying irrational beliefs used to justify abuse and learning new alternative behaviors. It involves shutting down the minimization, denial and blame. Treatment involves working with the person to take responsibility for the behaviors and being accountable for it. Best practice is a group format.
A person who does this kind of assessment and treatment must have an extensive history and experience of working with domestic violence offenders. Working with victims is not enough, nor is classroom or book knowledge because the practitioner has to be familiar with offenders, the language they use, the tactics they use to avoid responsibility, and their thinking patterns. They must be able to read the offender and to develop a rapport, to understand what is and isn't being communicated, how to see the patterns, the impact of them, understand how the irrational beliefs are developed and the impact they have on the individual, understand the other issues surrounding the offender's line of thinking etc. Most clinicians don't have this specific experience or skills.
The Behavioral (Risk) Assessment is something that we developed approximately 20 years ago. . It was always called a Behavioral Assessment, and then people started asking for information on risk as well. Office of Children’s Services had asked if we could do an assessment on people to examine what is happening with the individual, where it comes from, what are the contributing factors, the impacts of the behaviors, what the risks are to others and make treatment recommendations. This assessment involves at least one client interview, exploring the client’s present issues, family history, relational history, substance use history, criminal and civil legal history, medical history, mental health history, and gathering collateral contact from current and/or ex partners, adult children, other programs, current referral sources, civil and criminal complaints etc. It results in a multipage report that includes an evaluation/interpretation of the information that’s been found and treatment recommendations.
Content of Group
People who are in our group are going to learn about the dynamics of interpersonal abuse. They will not only learn about their adult relationships but also their relationships with their children, other family members, community members and themselves. We have particular emphasis on violence within the family because that can be ongoing and will have profound effect on the lives of the victims. Class topics include learning and defining the different types of abuse that are being used and identifying if that client has done that type of abuse, insight into the effects on the victims, how to take responsibility for what they have done, empathy, emotional regulation, behavioral regulation, deconstruction of irrational thinking, boundaries, critical thinking skills, problem solving skills, negotiation skills, non-abusive parenting skills, communication skills, balding a support network, non-threatening behaviors, and more.
Sessions are once a week and are in a group format because a group format is most effective for working with this issue. Groups are open so people can enter at any time upon completing an intake and orientation. There are people in group at different levels of change and different levels of awareness. The atmosphere in group is one of respect and honesty. Group members are engaged to the best of their ability. The group is dynamic and active. Homework is assigned and participation is expected.
Our program is different from many other programs in that we not only have group, but we also offer assistance with homework, individual assistance (if applicable and with staff availability) when a client has special needs, co-current therapy with interns when there are mental health issues or other things that might be presenting obstacles to being successful in program. This includes crisis support, referrals and collaboration with other involved agencies, institutions, providers etc.
Alaska State Guidelines
Every state, including Alaska, has guidelines that dictate some of the aspects of these programs. Alaska’s guidelines were written in the early 1990s. Most states have guidelines that are more recent and incorporate best practice.
We follow the State of Alaska Guidelines for BIPs, but in keeping with current research, client needs, and additional relative research we have continuously updated our program to make sure we continue to be effective.
People learn differently and each individual is different, so we must have the skills to work with people in different ways and at different levels. We cannot reach everyone, but we try. Into our lessons and our teaching we incorporate some things such as cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, mindfulness, dialectal behavioral therapy skills, motivational interviewing, behavioral therapy, play therapy techniques, art therapy techniques… We are trauma-informed and also incorporate our knowledge of domestic violence, sexual offending, how people make changes, how the brain works, child development, functioning relationship dynamics, human physiology, family systems theory, mental health disorders, and more.
Who our group is good for
Our group is good for anyone who has used abuse in a relationship and for those who have experienced domestic violence and/or child abuse. Our clients frequently say that they wish our program was offered to school age children. We agree. Our program is going to educate the client on why people use abuse, the impact on the victims and on ourselves when we choose to do it, how to control ourselves, how to develop new healthy thinking and behavioral skills, mindfulness, parenting, etc.
What Happens With the Victims?
The victims of the offenders in our program are contacted by the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent living and offered support and information on their services and other resources.
Effectiveness of These Programs
Over the years there have been some studies done to try to determine if these types of programs are effective for working with domestic violence offenders. Typically an institution that does studies comes in and looks at a particular program and then makes a generalization about all the effectiveness of all other programs. The problem with doing a study like this is that all batterer’s Intervention programs/Alternatives to Violence programs are different. Each one typically develops their own curriculum. They may be based on a common model, but the variables between programs are vast. Each program facilitator is different, each agency has different ways of working with clients, and each client is different. Therefore, a study done on one program’s effectiveness is not applicable to other programs.
Studies must be done to determine if a programs’ curriculum includes best practice components, and a study can be done on recidivism when the researchers can get a control group of clients who have the same characteristics i.e.: sober, ages 18-35, white male, college educated etc. and then also develop an operationalized definition of reoffense. Does reoffending mean when someone does any type of abusive behavior post program completion? Does it mean a less violent offense, does it mean they were not rearrested etc. What has happened is that the people who have done these research projects have published articles and announced that their particular study applies to all programs, which is simply not true.
If you have questions about our program or any of the topics on our website, please call us at 907.452.2473.