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Can abusers break their patterns?

Batterer intervention programs believe they can stop domestic abuse, but the data behind them is far from conclusive

ROSEVILLE, California — In a church basement about 20 miles northwest of Sacramento, a man who asked to be called only Sam told a circle of a dozen men about his latest arrest. That was the one that landed him in Manalive (Men Allied Nationally Against Living in Violent Environments), a batterer intervention program that meets for three hours every week over the course of a year. The facilitator, David Morton, who is well over 6 feet tall, broad-shouldered and bald, with white whiskers, sat in the circle in front of a dry-erase board with a diagram drawn on it.

Morton was using it to take Sam through his decision-making process during a moment of fatal peril — the Manalive term for the crucial period between a negative experience and the reaction to it. In this case, the instance of fatal peril occurred when Sam’s wife’s ex-husband arrived to pick up Sam’s stepson for a mandatory visit.

Sitting quietly with his hands in his lap and a red baseball cap shielding his face, Sam, who is in his mid-20s, said that every time this happens, his stepson cries. “What’s wrong with the guy that he makes him cry every time?” he said heatedly. He described telling his wife’s ex to “get off his property,” which prompted the other man to exit his car.

The situation escalated from there, as Sam began to punch his stepson’s father and the boy’s mother screamed in the background. Neighbors called the police, who arrived at the house with sirens blaring. Sam resisted arrest and was restrained; eventually he bashed his head against a police car window so hard that blood ran down his face. “No one should threaten me,” he said.

This was not Sam’s first encounter with the police. He has spent time in jail, and his arrests, which have been so numerous that he has lost count of them, always stem from fighting — with police, other men and his partners. “It’s worse in the spring,” he said. As Sam spoke, Morton sat silently, speaking up only to remind the other men to do the same.

Batterer intervention programs (BIPs) like Manalive claim that they can help abusers break patterns of violence. Many of the men in that church basement were there because they had to be, as a state-mandated parole condition for people convicted of domestic violence or, at judges’ discretion, other offenses. An estimated 1,500 to 2,500 BIPs operate in the U.S., though because parole is monitored by counties rather than states, the number of men who enroll in or complete them is not comprehensively tracked, and there is little consistency in how they are administered and operated. Proponents argue that BIPs are the only real way to change a batterer’s behavior patterns, but the question remains, Do these programs actually work?

David Morton in front of a Manalive class.
Courtesy David Morton

Domestic violence is a serious problem for families, law enforcement and courts. Women are three times as likely to be victims of domestic violence as men are, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The Department of Justice estimates that nationally, police receive more calls related to domestic violence than any other category of crime — up to 50 percent of reports. The actual number of women affected by domestic violence may be much higher than official statistics suggest: A National Violence Against Women Survey found that from 2003 to 2012, only about half of victims reported domestic abuse to the police. Many women stay with abusive partners for financial or emotional reasons, and most long-term studies find that abusers reoffend at some point in their lives.

BIPs were developed in the 1970s with the support of battered women’s advocates as a way to acknowledge and address cycles of domestic abuse. Ten years later, when states started legislating against domestic violence, the number of BIPs grew as judges began making them mandatory. One of the earliest programs was developed in Duluth, Minnesota, through the not-for-profit organization Domestic Abuse Intervention Project. The Duluth model established many of the techniques and beliefs that were later adopted by BIPs such as Manalive. That program, which is still in operation, promotes self-awareness and behavior modification to stop patterns of violence and maintains that domestic violence stems from internalized gender roles.

Manalive was launched in 1984 by Hamish Sinclair, who was at the time working with battered women’s shelters in Marin County, California. The program is now run by Sinclair’s disciples, including Morton. As a boy, Morton said, he was taught to “be tough.” He struggled with cycles of violence, drugs and emotional abuse before he joined the program and cleaned up his life. He now mentors 35 to 40 men in his four Manalive classes each year, and believes that “society teaches men to be violent.”

This perspective on domestic abuse, however, is not universally accepted. One of the main critics of the Duluth model is Donald Dutton, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, who argues that gender paradigms are not the primary cause of domestic violence. His research posits that violence stems from an individual’s psychology; he does not think it is embedded in the general culture. Via email, he said bluntly that the “Duluth model is ignorant of psychology of abuse.” A 2012 report he helped compile for Washington state found that most Duluth-based programs resulted in the same or worse recidivism rates than no program at all. He believes that these alternative methods have not been studied sufficiently and that any effective domestic violence intervention program must take into account underlying factors such as pathologies and substance abuse.

There are a number of pragmatic factors that make it difficult to objectively evaluate treatment programs. For starters, every state has different requirements. In California, BIPs must be 52 weeks long, and all facilitators must complete 40 hours of basic training plus hands-on training and continuing education each year. Other states acknowledge that a yearlong program is best but don’t require it. Texas, for example, requires convicted batterers to participate for just 18 weeks. Moreover, there are no agreed-on ways of measuring success and perhaps little incentive for states develop any, since all court-mandated anger management classes, including Manalive, are paid for by participants. Compounding all this is the problem of high dropout rates. Only about half of men enrolled in BIPs complete their courses, according to a 2006 report on programs in California.

When it comes to results, empirical data about the effectiveness of batterer intervention programs has been inconsistent. Most studies on BIPs find the advantages insignificant or only modestly positive. A 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Justice into Florida and New York BIPs found that “attending the program had no effect on the incidence of physical violence.” However, a 1995 study by the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse concluded the opposite, saying that “batterers’ programs do appear frequently successful in ending violent and the most threatening behaviors among the majority of participants who complete a prescribed program.” There is little research into victims’ perception of these programs. A finding from the National Institute of Justice is perhaps most telling: Summarizing the last decade of research, it­­­­­­ confirmed that there is simply “no consensus” on these programs.

Researchers share this ambivalence. George Anderson of Anderson and Anderson Anger Management, a company that runs various types of anger-management programs, said that most BIPs “basically don’t work.” Alyce LaViolette, a domestic violence counselor for survivors and perpetrators, said that BIPs can catalyze small changes but that success has “a lot more to do with the person … than the program.” Dave Adams, a psychologist and the founder of Emerge, a Boston-based 52-week BIP, pointed out that the efficacy of these programs depends on what behaviors are being examined and said that men who are guilty of emotional abuse do not always respond well to treatment.

Recent studies on the efficacy of the Manalive program, however, have been generally positive. James Gilligan, an expert on men and violence, examined a Manalive program run in the San Francisco jail system. He found that men who participated in the program for at least four months showed a 79.7 percent decrease in rearrests during the year after release. Morton said that “about 25 percent” of men who enroll in Manalive complete the 52-week program. 

“[The success of batterer intervention programs has] a lot more to do with the person than the program.”

Alyce LaViolette

Domestic violence counselor

Each three-hour weekly session of Manalive begins with a check-in. Participants reaffirm their commitment to the program and describe a moment of fatal peril. As men in the Roseville session talked, they learned about one another. Two men were there for abusing their dogs. Several were arrested multiple times for drugs and fighting. Most were in or had gotten out of relationships that involved, as they put it, “drama.”

Everyone who leads a Manalive class is someone who has been through the program. Ryan, a graduate of Manalive and a facilitator, had been an amateur boxer. “I began when I was younger as a way to deal with anger,” he said. He eventually got in trouble with the law and a court ordered hi­m to take part in a Manalive program. He had seen psychologists and been on medication before the program but hadn’t noticed results. He believes Manalive thoroughly changed the way he sees himself. “If I had the opportunity to see [the people I hurt] again, I would absolutely go back and apologize and try to make it right,” he said.

During the session, men took turns describing moments when they felt tempted to react with anger. One young man told his girlfriend he was cheating, and she asked a mutual friend to beat him up. Instead of fighting, he called the police. Most of the men agreed that turning to police to solve a problem was extremely difficult, since they felt that they should take care of it themselves. They offered their own experiences as support. Manalive emphasizes group bonding, but because of concerns that participants might encourage one another’s bad behavior, there are ground rules. Morton will kick people out of the program if they injure children or repeatedly misbehave.

As the session drew to a close, Sam, the man arrested for fighting, talked about how his violent behavior always seemed to get worse in the spring. “I wrecked my car,” he said, describing a horrific highway accident years earlier in which a father and toddler were killed. That accident, he said, happened in March.

“The wife told me that she wouldn’t press charges. She said her husband had worked his whole life to help kids like me.” Another man’s shoulders shook. Sam paused. “And look what I’ve become.” He had never told anyone this story before, he said. This was the first time he admitted his trauma to anyone, even himself. His face remained passive as he wiped a tear from under his eye.

The room was silent. Everyone felt the immensity of this moment, the heaviness of loss and the weight of unfulfilled expectations. “You’ve done it,” Morton said. He described the moment later as a gift. “This is why I do this job.” His face assumed a glow. “It’s beautiful.”

Sam’s reward was to join the advanced class for men more than halfway through the program. After the session ended, the group approached Sam for hugs and shoulder pats. He nodded at the praise but stood motionless, as if numb from thinking about all the work that remained ahead.

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