Hard Lessons

Ten years ago, Colorado began to force batterers into treatment programs. but do they work?

Eleven men sit in a circle, giving each other the feather.
Three feathers, to be exact--stiff, brightly colored plumes that are passed from hand to hand, twirled and talked about. Each man says something about the person who is to receive the feather and then passes it on, until it reaches the grateful recipient.

"This is the most important thing I've ever done," says one, a blond, damp-eyed salesman. "I'll never forget what I learned in here."

The feather ceremony is a solemn moment for these men, who've had certain problems dealing with the women in their lives--problems that led to their arrest on charges of harassment, assault or worse. Ordered by a judge to attend 36 weeks of domestic-violence counseling, every Tuesday night they come to an office building in the Denver Tech Center to meet with Nancy Lantz, a therapist who works for AMEND (Abusive Men Exploring New Directions). The feather is their diploma, their ticket out.

With twenty therapists and hundreds of clients, AMEND is one of the oldest and largest organizations working with batterers in Colorado. However, there are now nearly fifty state-certified domestic-violence "treatment providers," mostly private agencies, operating in the metro-Denver area alone. All of them are engaged in an experiment in social engineering spawned by state legislators ten years ago, when Colorado became the first state in the nation to require mandatory treatment programs for anyone convicted of charges related to domestic violence--an ambitious attempt to curtail the violence by fundamentally changing the behavior of the perpetrator.

Tonight three men in Lantz's group have completed their nine months of court-ordered therapy. The first to get his feather is a square-jawed, broad-shouldered bodybuilder; call him Jake. (Because the treatment sessions are confidential, Westword agreed to protect the anonymity of participants.) Jake has been seeing Lantz since last summer, ever since his wife got in his way for the last time. "I bench-pressed her across the hall," he explains.

The second feather goes to Gary, a tall, soft-spoken suburbanite who's been through a painful weaning from drugs and the pushing-and-shoving craziness he had going with his wife. "We had an abusive relationship for years," he says. "All the other times, the windows were closed and the neighbors didn't hear."

The final feather belongs to Sam, the misty-eyed salesman. As the feather passes around the room, the tributes pour forth. Like every other man in the room, Sam did a terrible thing, but everybody really likes Sam. His honesty. His willingness to share his feelings. His hunger to change. Salesman of the Year Sam. Good Neighbor Sam. Sensitive Sam.

"You taught me a lot," Gary says. "A lot. You know, you just don't seem like the kind of guy who would bite someone in the ass."

No, Sam doesn't seem like that kind of guy. But then, who does?
Sam came home drunk one night, threw his girlfriend on the bed and sank his teeth into her behind. Fred, the quiet, gray-haired guy wearing a T-shirt that says "I do whatever the voices in my head tell me to do" has been arrested several times in incidents involving guns, booze and the throttling or beating of girlfriends and ex-wives. Peter, an avuncular, good-humored immigrant from a Middle Eastern country, has been in jail several times for roughing up his girlfriend of five years. Brad, a feisty bantamweight with an admitted gambling problem, says he didn't hit his wife, but he did threaten to kill her, ripped a phone out of the wall and, when the police arrived, made the mistake of getting tough with them, too.

All of the men in Lantz's group readily admit to behaving badly. But all of them insist they've changed. They've learned new coping skills, they say, new ways to manage their stress and anger and to exorcise the demons within. In some cases, the conversion has been dramatic: Fred, for example, finished his court-ordered program and got his feather three years ago but has continued to come back to the group voluntarily, finding that it reinforces his sobriety and his determination to be a better man. But in other instances, it's too soon to know how effective the program has been. Who can tell?

In the secret world of intimate violence, nothing is quite what it seems--and that goes for the treatment programs, too. Although 31 states have adopted treatment standards for domestic violence and 8 have followed Colorado's lead in creating statewide mandatory programs, there is little solid, scientific evidence that the programs do much to alter violent behavior. Nor is there much agreement in the therapeutic community about whether one approach to treatment is inherently better than another.

Colorado's system has undoubtedly saved lives; if nothing else, the treatment requirement allows professionals to monitor high-risk, violent offenders more closely than they ever could before. But the programs have also been plagued by high dropout rates and delays in getting offenders into treatment in the crucial weeks following an arrest.

Batterers who fail to complete the program can have their probation revoked and be sent to jail. But therapists say that overloaded probation officers--in Denver, the average caseload for a member of the probation department's domestic-violence team is around 180 cases--are often slow to respond to reports of dropouts, while probation sources say some therapists don't bother to report noncompliance unless they're owed money. And the final decision concerning jail time is still at the discretion of the judge, who may simply refer an offender (even a multiple offender) to another program; since most of the underlying offenses in domestic-violence cases are misdemeanors or municipal charges, actual prison sentences are rare.

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