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Hard Lessons

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.

At the same time, the nine-month courses have drawn fire from defense attorneys--who argue that the programs are too costly (they range from around $500 to $1,500, depending on the offender's income) and burdensome for minor cases--as well as from therapists themselves, who insist that their most troubled clients may need years of treatment.

The sheer proliferation of treatment programs has raised concerns, too, about the varying quality of the competing programs and authorities' ability to properly supervise them. Frustration with the inflexibility of the current system has even prompted a few judges to ignore state law and send offenders into "quickie" counseling programs that aren't certified and couldn't possibly comply with state standards. At the same time, some of the initial backers of mandatory treatment have become so keenly aware of the programs' flaws and loopholes that they've struggled for years to get the state legislature to agree to a major overhaul of the system, with little success.

"This was the first draft of standards in the United States," notes Steve Siegel, director of program development in the Denver District Attorney's Office and chairman of the state's commission on domestic-violence treatment standards. "We've learned so much since 1988 that those standards really need to be updated."

Siegel prefers the term "containment" rather than "treatment," since the primary goal of Colorado's system is to safeguard victims rather than to help perpetrators work out their problems. "It's really about offender containment, about behavioral change, about victim safety, more than it is therapy," he says. "The word 'treatment' is somewhat misleading."

But Jake, Gary and Sam don't see it quite that way. They've had their treatment and collected their feathers; all three vow to drop in on the rest of the gang from time to time, to help them however they can. If Lantz's group follows the statistical average, four or five of the men in this room will be involved in some act of domestic violence in the next year. But Gary says he won't be one of them.

"I was pitiful when I came in here," he says. "I didn't care much about life. It wasn't until I got the shit beat out of me here that I started to realize a few things. Nothing else made a difference, and this didn't for several months."

The feather spins idly between finger and thumb. "I feel confident I have the skills not to get arrested again. Do I have the skills to maintain a healthy relationship? I don't know."

In some circles, the idea of developing court-ordered treatment programs for batterers, most of whom are men, has always been suspect. Victim advocates have expressed concerns that such programs would end up competing for funding with battered-women's shelters and other badly needed resources and that the notion that domestic violence could be "cured" would give victims a false sense of security, encouraging them to stay with potentially lethal partners. A 1994 position paper issued by the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence raises the possibility that "as soon as services to men begin, the focus on safety and services to women and children will be diluted or lost."

Feminists have also questioned whether the programs have sufficient teeth or simply serve to keep convicted criminals out of jail. Many were understandably outraged when O.J. Simpson, convicted of beating his wife, Nicole, in 1990, was allowed to conduct his court-ordered counseling by phone. As rock star Tommy Lee and other celebrities have since discovered, California now has one of the longest court-ordered treatment programs in the country, extending over an entire year rather than nine months.

When Gary Gibbens began working with AMEND in the early 1980s, it was one of only a handful of organizations in Colorado focusing on batterers. Almost all of the clients were voluntary participants, driven to seek help because their partners were on the verge of leaving them. If the courts took any action at all, it was to refer offenders to what Gibbens calls "hot-tub therapy"--weekend outings for couples during which they were supposed to work on their "communication" problems.  

"It was very short-term--couples counseling, that kind of thing," recalls Gibbens, the coordinator of AMEND's Arapahoe County office. "There was no risk assessment or alcohol assessment, no independent evaluation of the victim or the kids."

Gibbens and other pioneers of the treatment movement pushed for longer, mandatory programs, first in Denver and then in surrounding jurisdictions. Initially they managed to secure a six-month treatment requirement; at the time, that was the maximum length of probation for most domestic-violence cases. As probation lengthened, they pushed for a full year and settled for nine months--the same term incorporated in the state standards adopted in 1988. (Since many batterers have substance-abuse problems as well, Gibbens notes, the first four to eight weeks of treatment are often devoted to detoxifying clients and breaking through "walls of denial.")

The state certification process for treatment providers was controversial from the outset. Although therapists aren't required to have even a bachelor's degree, they must have extensive, supervised training in working with batterers in order to be certified. That drew objections from licensed professionals such as psychiatrists and psychologists, who didn't see why they should submit to supervision by someone less credentialed than themselves. The standards also severely limited or banned certain traditional family-therapy practices, such as couples counseling (regarded as a way for offenders to coerce or intimidate victims) and "ventilation techniques" (venting anger by punching pillows or dolls, which for some clients becomes a rehearsal for future violence).

"Traditional mental health is centered around the patient--in this case, a convicted offender," Siegel notes. "We were seeking a forensic response rather than traditional therapy, because the real concern we have is not that he receive treatment but that he control his behavior."

Yet built into the state standards was a vexatious tension between different treatment philosophies and between state and local control. Although the standards outline the kind of content the programs should offer--training in anger management and conflict resolution, for example, as well as how to utilize "time-outs" to defuse potentially violent situations--there's actually considerable leeway in the methods and quality of various programs; some groups may take a primarily educational approach, with lots of videos, workbooks and quizzes, while others, like the AMEND program, are more confrontational, focused on group discussion of individual experiences and peer counseling. And while the state commission that Siegel chairs developed the standards, it has no authority to enforce them or to decertify programs that aren't working well; that task has been given to 22 locally appointed boards, one for each judicial district in the state.

The local boards range from the hyper-vigilant to the moribund. Some, like the one in El Paso County, require treatment providers to submit audiotapes of sessions for review--a sore point for many therapists, who regard such Orwellian intrusiveness as a threat to patient confidentiality. Others are all but defunct; even if they meet quarterly, as the law requires, they have few resources to investigate complaints or the qualifications of groups seeking certification. Out on the eastern plains, for example, the board for the 15th Judicial District hasn't met for at least three years. The person in the district attorney's office listed as the local contact no longer works there, and his replacement is unknown.

"Some boards aren't even in operation," says Laine Gibbes, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which conducted a review of the treatment programs last year. "That means treatment providers aren't being reviewed or authorized. Some people, when we contacted them, didn't even realize they were a certification-board member."

The lack of consistent supervision has been particularly troubling in light of the number of therapists clamoring to get into the field. "There's a whole lot of therapists who have entered domestic-violence treatment because you have a ready population of people who must seek treatment," notes Rob Gallup, executive director of AMEND. "Next to California, we've got more therapists per person than any other state. With managed health care, people are just dying in their practices, and they think this is an easy population to work with, and it's not. The whole competition factor, I think, doesn't lend itself to quality treatment."

Captain Miriam Reed of the Denver Police Department, a member of Denver's certification board, says her group routinely rejects applications for treatment programs that are little more than profit-making schemes. "Frankly, some of them are horror stories," she says. "They want to have a secretary running a VCR while the social worker or psychologist comes in once in a while--absolutely unacceptable treatment. We do site visits and inspect records, and when programs have fallen apart, we have weeded them out."  

But while big cities like Denver can afford to be discriminating, many rural areas and small mountain towns are wrestling with a shortage of treatment providers--which can lead to some tough decisions for local certification boards (assuming that they're even active) and for judges faced with the prospect of sentencing an offender to drive hundreds of miles each week to get treatment. In Lamar, therapist Sue Binder is the only certified provider in her entire district; she and a Spanish-speaking assistant see an average of eighty clients a month from all over southeastern Colorado--most of them indigent and undergoing substance-abuse counseling, too.

Binder was able to obtain a small federal grant under the Violence Against Women Act one year to help defray costs, but it wasn't renewed. "They made the decision that because we are primarily a perpetrator program, it wasn't appropriate," she says. "I have another job to keep things going. We hope we're making a little difference, even though we don't make the big bucks."

On the Western Slope, "there's not a lot of people stepping forward to do this sort of thing, and it's not the most lucrative form of therapy," says Bob Simmons, a Durango therapist and member of the state commission on treatment standards. "It requires a lot of case management. Many small communities don't have a lot of choices."

Inevitably, some of the choices turn out to be bad ones. Gallup says that a couple of years ago an offender who'd been through a state-approved domestic-violence program drew up some phony documents claiming that he was a certified AMEND counselor and persuaded a judge in Burlington to refer wife-beaters to him. Someone finally decided to check his credentials, Gallup says, after "people saw suitcases of beer going into his office on Monday nights. They were watching football games and drinking Bud."

More common than outright fraud, though, are reports of inadequate or dysfunctional programs. Attorneys say they've fielded complaints from clients about overcrowded classes of twenty or even forty people (the standards limit each group to no more than twelve clients), in which the primary therapeutic activity seems to be watching gooey, sensitive-guy movies such as The Prince of Tides. Yet even the most conscientious certification boards rely heavily on anecdotal reports from probation officers to determine if programs are working; there's no funding to track the reoffense rates of graduates or to evaluate the effectiveness of the various programs.

"What people put on paper and what actually happens in their program can be very far apart," says Daryle Woodward, director of Colorado MOVES (Men Overcoming Violence Effectively Services), one of the largest treatment providers in the state. "We need some type of supervision or involvement from the community to see that we're doing what we say we do."

The disparity in treatment has led to a phenomenon known as "program-shopping," in which offenders bounce from program to program, seeking one that suits their own expectations. It isn't supposed to happen. Probation officers make the initial referral to a particular program based on geographic considerations and their own estimation of which programs work well, and they say they rarely allow offenders to switch. Therapists, too, say they're obliged to report dropouts and to check with a new client's previous treatment provider before accepting him into their program.

But probation officers sometimes allow offenders to pick their own program, and followup can be erratic. One survey found that of 191 cases referred to treatment in the Durango area in 1995, 20 percent never completed an intake evaluation and another 40 percent took six months to get enrolled in a program. After eighteen months, only 12 percent of the offenders had completed the program.

AMEND's Gallup concedes that program-shopping goes on--people either quit going to their group or are terminated because of refusal to pay, drug or alcohol use or some other rules violation. Instead of going to jail, they're often allowed to enroll somewhere else.

"We have a dropout rate of probably about 40 percent," Gallup says. "These are people who don't like that we're serious about what we're doing. In many cases they can find another program where they won't be so serious about it."

But there's another side to program-shopping. For years, defense attorneys have criticized treatment providers for being too inflexible and high-handed in the treatment of their court-ordered clients; the programs, they say, simply aren't designed to meet the individual needs of such a large, diverse population of offenders, particularly minor, first-time cases.

"The problem I see is that everybody gets 36 weeks--the guy who beats his wife repeatedly and the one who grabbed her arm once," says attorney Rodger Daley. "There are a lot of bad people out there, but they throw the net and get a lot of people who maybe shouldn't be in there."  

Attorney Cris Campbell represents several clients who've complained about both the content and the cost of their treatment programs. "They don't realize the expense involved when they plead guilty to a misdemeanor," he says. "A lot of them don't have the money, and they just ridicule the classes. They think they're ludicrous."

One of Campbell's clients is now in his third treatment program. He was ejected from the first one after the group was instructed to recite a kind of mantra: "I will not drink, because when I drink, I beat my wife." "My guy said he never beat his wife and his case didn't involve alcohol," Campbell says. "They kicked him out."

In the second group, Campbell's client had to watch a film depicting certain extreme domestic-violence situations. He remarked, "If anyone did that to my wife, she'd kick their ass"--and once again was told his attitude was unacceptable. Campbell had to go back to court to find another placement for him.

"He got kicked out of the group for saying what he thought," Campbell notes. "That raises a First Amendment issue."

There are supposed to be safeguards to keep low-level offenders, including victims of domestic violence who may have been arrested in the act of defending themselves, from being enmeshed in the net of mandatory, 36-week treatment. Gallup says AMEND tries to screen out self-defending victims and remorseful, low-risk offenders--guys who break a vase, not a face--at the time of intake. Therapists have the option of referring such people back to the court if they consider them "inappropriate for treatment," and they can also discharge particularly well-behaved clients after only 24 weeks. But statistics supplied by Denver County Probation Services suggest that these lesser measures are rarely invoked; of the 2,206 domestic-violence cases referred to the agency last year, all but a few dozen offenders were required to take 36-week treatment programs.

Cynical attorneys claim that such insistence on the full treatment is proof of the greed of treatment providers, but it may simply be that therapists, trained to view any minimizing of an offender's behavior as a sign of denial, prefer to err on the side of caution. "Most of the guys who come in say, 'I'm not a violent person,'" notes therapist Nancy Lantz. "I have never found someone who couldn't benefit from treatment. If the police are called out to their house, there's something going on."

Obtaining a determination that you don't need treatment can be costly. Another attorney describes the plight of a client who cracked a window in the midst of a heated argument over child care with her ex-husband; she faces the prospect of going to trial or pleading guilty to a misdemeanor and entering a 36-week treatment program--or securing a recommendation from a certified therapist that she doesn't need treatment. "But no treatment provider will give that recommendation without a $300 evaluation," the attorney says. "It's a Hobson's choice."

Victim advocates tend to be skeptical of claims that people are landing in treatment over basically innocuous, isolated incidents, but even they concede that the standards need to be revised to provide for greater flexibility in the length and type of programs provided.

"There is a need to have levels of treatment," says Gibbes of the Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "There is research that shows that when you put a low-risk offender with a high-risk, there tends to be a movement toward higher risk. The low-risk ones tend to buffer one another."

Many of the complaints about the flaws in the system--a largely impotent state commission, weak or inactive local boards, inadequate rural services, one-size-fits-all treatment programs and so on--stem from a basic lack of resources. The Colorado General Assembly didn't see fit to provide any state funding for supervising the treatment process when it passed the standards a decade ago, and over time, the entire structure has begun to fall into confusion, from the state commission--which used to meet monthly but now is practically invisible--to the training and certification of local treatment providers.

Frustrated with the lack of state support, local jurisdictions have begun to devise their own solutions. In El Paso County, which handles around 5,000 domestic-violence cases a year, most of them from Colorado Springs, hundreds of offenders are now being funneled into six- or twelve-week counseling sessions rather than the 36-week programs required by the statute. The innovative program is the result of prosecutors' efforts to do something about domestic complaints that might otherwise go nowhere.  

Doug Miles, the county's chief deputy district attorney, says his office had been fairly successful at persuading many first-time offenders to accept a plea bargain that would require mandatory counseling. But in cases where the evidence was weak, offenders were often opting to go to trial rather than get stuck in the 36-week programs--and prosecutors were losing an incredible two out of three of those cases.

"I'd come to the conclusion that in some of these cases, the likelihood of succeeding at trial is extremely low," Miles says. "Not only do they not get a conviction, but now they think they've figured out how to beat the system. I wondered if we were doing more damage than good."

Working with local therapists, Miles came up with a compromise to offer first-timers in the shakiest of cases. Based on a referral made by the district attorney's office and an assessment by a certified treatment provider, some get a six-week class, roughly nine to twelve hours in all; it's a kind of "Domestic Violence 101" that attempts to educate participants about time-outs and anger management. No admission of wrongdoing is required, and the specifics of individual cases aren't discussed at all. Others get a twelve-week version, which requires more discussion of individual situations but still no admission of guilt. After successful completion of the designated program, the case is dismissed, showing nothing on the defendant's record other than that he'd been charged and completed treatment.

From a prosecutor's perspective, Miles says, the experiment is working. Since his office started offering the different treatment options nine months ago, the conviction rate on domestic-violence cases that go to trial has risen from around 35 percent to 60 percent. The county's willingness to develop a program "outside the statutory scheme" has raised eyebrows in the treatment community, Miles acknowledges--"The initial reaction is not a good one, until they understand what we're doing"--but he contends that it has resulted in at least some judicial action on cases that might not even be filed in other jurisdictions and would almost certainly be lost in court.

Colorado Springs isn't the only place the 36-week standard is being bypassed. A few judges and prosecutors in the Denver metro area have gone even further, diverting low-level cases to uncertified programs not unlike the weekend "hot-tub therapy" sessions of the past. A steady trickle of offenders have escaped the net of mandatory nine-month programs and wound up at the National Corrective Training Institute in Denver, which offers eight-hour courses in conflict management ($60) and twenty-hour courses in domestic-conflict management ($150 for an individual, $250 for couples)--as well as classes for traffic offenders, shoplifters and substance abusers. Ken Whitney, NCTI's director, says his organization handles about twenty domestic-violence clients every six weeks--primarily minor offenders from municipal and county courts in Denver and Adams County.

"We're kind of a step outside the courts," Whitney says. "It's not a certified program, but it was going on before those other programs came into being. It's basically a skills program, not therapy."

Whitney says that most of his clients were involved in cases so tenuous that prosecutors were reluctant to take them to trial, so both sides settled on NCTI as a compromise. "We get a fair amount of couples," he says. "We don't have perpetrators and victims. There's no real violence--a little shouting, maybe. Sometimes there's some restraint, which, I guess, according to the law, is domestic violence, but the law really says anything is domestic violence."

Judges' willingness to turn to uncertified programs such as NCTI troubles Laine Gibbes; she believes that they send the wrong message to offenders and their victims. "There are a lot of reasons why the system isn't complying with what the statutes say," she says. "It's a very big concern. Victims learn about the law, and then they don't understand why it isn't applied. And the perpetrator interprets that as, 'There are no consequences. I can do what I want.'"

On occasion, NCTI receives clients who clearly require more intensive treatment--or containment--than the program can offer; when that happens, Whitney says, he sends them back to court for re-evaluation. "I don't begrudge the strong feelings of the Colorado Coalition and those who've fought for years to get the courts and the police to recognize the issue," he says. "But I don't think it's all perpetrator-victim. I don't think it's all guys getting off beating up on women. I don't think one-size-fits-all is good for anything, but that's up to the court's discretion."

Recently, Colorado Supreme Court Chief Justice Anthony Vollack issued a directive making domestic-violence cases a top priority for the state's probation officers. Yet some local judges in search of quick solutions continue to turn to organizations such as NCTI.  

"We like to stay under the radar," Whitney says. "I'd be happy if you didn't even mention us."

Despite more than two decades of extensive studies on the causes, prevention and treatment of domestic violence, researchers still aren't sure if treatment programs for batterers work, particularly in the most violent cases. And the question of how you measure the effectiveness of such programs is trickier than it appears. Some studies have tried to track the re-arrest rates of offenders in the months after they complete a program; others rely on reports of further violence from the victims themselves; some do both.

Should a perpetrator's "outcome" be considered successful if there is no incident of domestic violence--which, according to some experts' astonishingly broad definitions, could include insults, emotional manipulation or "any behavior that exploits another's vulnerability, insecurity, or character"--for an entire year? What about two years? What about five? To accurately assess the effect of a given type of intervention, should you compare a group of wife-beaters in treatment to a similar population that received no treatment? And if such a control group is necessary, how do you justify putting victims at risk from those men who aren't in therapy?

Researchers have struggled with such conundrums for years. Recently a committee assembled by the National Research Council reviewed more than 2,000 studies of family-violence intervention programs and found only 114 that had "sufficient scientific strength" to provide credible data on the effectiveness of certain treatment methods; less than a third of those dealt specifically with domestic violence. The committee concluded that findings from small-scale studies were being adopted as public policy "without sufficient independent replication or reflection on their possible shortcomings."

One 1991 study in Baltimore raised concerns in the field when it concluded that men who participated in three different types of batterer treatment programs all reoffended at a higher rate than those in a control group. Still, a handful of credible, large-scale studies indicate that some domestic-violence treatment is better than none. Nationally, the average rate of reoffense of men who successfully complete treatment programs seems to hover between 30 and 40 percent, while recidivism among those who don't receive treatment is significantly higher--60 percent or more.

But success, some experts point out, is relative. For example, one major study found that two-thirds of the men who completed a court-ordered program were reported as nonviolent for periods of up to eighteen months after the program ended. But when you consider that nearly half of the men ordered into the program dropped out along the way--a dropout rate quite in line with the national average for such programs--then the results seem far more dismal: Only one in five of the men arrested and referred to treatment actually finished the program and stayed out of trouble.

By anyone's standards, a one-in-five success rate is downright pathetic; in fact, it's even worse than the recidivism rate for hardcore felons (studies show that from 50 to 60 percent of those offenders will be back in prison within three years of their release). The dropout rate is such a powerful factor in skewing results that some studies have suggested that the kind of therapy offered doesn't matter much; the key to the whole process is keeping batterers in treatment, keeping them in a situation where they can be monitored at least once a week--keeping them, in a word, "contained."

The surprising results of a recent extensive study of treatment programs in four cities, including Denver, appear to indicate that the length of treatment may not be a decisive factor, either. Funded by the Centers for Disease Control, the study compared the effectiveness of the 36-week AMEND program in the Denver area with that of shorter, less intensive programs in Pittsburgh, Houston and Dallas. Participants and their spouses were interviewed at regular intervals for more than a year after completing the programs; arrest records were also tracked.

The good news, from AMEND's perspective, was that all of the programs seemed to help control violent behavior in the short term and to improve victim safety. But the study also found that AMEND's nine-month therapy marathon--complete with substance-abuse treatment, individual mental-health counseling and related services--was no more effective than Pittsburgh's three-month dose of educational classes.

Indeed, despite key differences in length of treatment and the type of services offered, the recidivism rates of the participants in the various programs were remarkably similar. Close to 40 percent of the men reoffended over a fifteen-month follow-up period, and half of those were deemed serious assaults.

Yet Edward Gondolf, the principal investigator on the CDC study, sees cause for hope in the results. "Although not dramatically successful on the surface, the programs did seem to interrupt the violence for the majority of the men," notes Gondolf, associate director of research for the Mid-Atlantic Addiction Training Institute in Pennsylvania. "When you consider the problems these men bring with them into the program, that's probably an accomplishment."  

Unlike many studies, the CDC research was able to make use of a kind of control group. Judges in Pittsburgh would fine some domestic-violence offenders and refer other, similar offenders to treatment; consequently, Gondolf was able to track comparable populations and found that those in treatment were half as likely to be rearrested as those who were simply fined. That's pretty good evidence that, as he puts it, "something seems to be going on" in treatment. Why, then, was Colorado's comprehensive system no more successful than the short-term measures?

Gondolf notes that there were a number of confounding variables affecting the different programs, including the length of time it took to get offenders into treatment. Pittsburgh's court system moved offenders into programs within a couple of weeks of their first court hearing; in Denver the process took up to three months. That's a critical delay, he explains, because offenders are more likely to drop out of programs--and to reassault their victims--in the first three months after their arrest. In all, 15 to 20 percent of the men in his study reoffended early on and repeatedly.

"The real challenge is that we have a core of unresponsive men who need more decisive and constraining intervention," he says, "and we haven't figured out how to do that real well."

Funding for Gondolf's study has been extended, and it's possible that Colorado's AMEND system will fare better in long-term research. In the meantime, Denver probation officials have been working on ways to speed up the process of getting offenders into the programs. They say their officers can now refer offenders to therapists within a day of their sentencing and get them into a group within two weeks--rather than the average nine-week delay Gondolf found in his study.

"There was a period of time when there was a longer delay, but we've compressed that time," says Suzanne Sigona, head of Denver County Probation Services. "Three months would be an exception now."

Research indicates that with proper coordination, treatment programs can and do work as a form of hyper-probation. But if the goal is a fundamental change of attitude and behavior, forget the anecdotal success stories; chances are slim that many of the men who beat their wives or girlfriends will be joining a NOW rally anytime soon. Some studies indicate that men who do manage to complete the programs and remain nonviolent may be channeling their aggression into other areas--verbal assaults, for example. And it's difficult to determine if any shift in behavior should be attributed to the effects of therapy rather than, say, the effects of being arrested, monitored and stigmatized.

"Just sitting in a class and then going home may help some folks," says Daryle Woodward of Colorado MOVES. "Some folks--just an arrest without any treatment is going to change their behavior, too. Of course, we don't reach everybody."

Robert McBride is saying something nobody particularly wants to hear.
Taming the beast of domestic violence, he says, is going to take a lot more than nine-month carrot-and-stick treatment programs. The reason the failure rate of such programs is so high, he says, is that most therapists don't realize what kind of monster they're dealing with.

"I don't think they know who the men are," he says. "Many of [the therapists] are after money, and when you show these men Prince of Tides or something and just do the didactic stuff, that's not enough."

He sighs. "You can't get it done in nine months, anyway," he says. "We are vastly undertreating the men. And when we do that, we fail not only the victims, we fail the men. We fail the system. People don't want to believe how serious this problem really is."

McBride has been involved in domestic-violence treatment issues since the mid-1980s. He was drawn to the field, away from a successful career as a retail executive, through his friendship with Michael Lindsey, one of the founders of AMEND, whose take-no-prisoners approach to confronting batterers and stalkers earned him a national presence in the men's movement.

A few years ago Lindsey left AMEND to start his own perpetrator treatment agency, The Third Path, which is based in Englewood. He's since moved to Florida in the wake of a domestic-violence tragedy in his own family: In 1993 Lindsey's daughter Dianne was murdered in Colorado Springs by an ex-boyfriend turned stalker; Lindsey's ex-wife was also wounded in the attack. McBride, who came to work with Lindsey at the Third Path after Dianne's death, is now the director of the program.  

McBride sees a variety of court-ordered clients from Arapahoe County, but his primary clientele consists of high-risk repeat offenders from all over the metro area, men who've been in treatment before but have continued to get arrested for domestic violence--the same "core of unresponsive men" that Gondolf found in his study. McBride insists that his high-risk groups agree to participate in treatment not simply for nine months but for the duration of their probation--which, in the case of chronic offenders, could be years--or until he decides that they're "responsible" enough to leave.

"You don't change much in a violent offender in eight weeks or six months or even nine months," he says. "That's hogwash. Long-term therapy is a year or more, and most of these men need to be in treatment for one to five years."

Although chronic batterers are supposed to be the most difficult group to treat, McBride claims that 85 percent of his clients successfully complete the program--and that one in ten chooses to stay in therapy after the probation has ended because, he says, "their lives are different." (One Third Path client was just cut loose after a full two years of weekly sessions.) McBride won't take credit for the impressive retention rate; in many cases, he points out, the program represents a last-ditch effort to avoid prison time on the part of men who committed a crime while on probation or under a suspended sentence. That can be a powerful incentive. At the same time, he insists that the Third Path provides more "serious, deep treatment" than many 36-week programs--psychotherapy rather than mere containment and consciousness-raising. It's also based on the premise that chronic offenders are fundamentally different from the minor first-timers who get hauled into court, different in ways that test the conventional wisdom about the causes of domestic violence.

McBride is currently writing his third book on domestic violence, which is based largely on research he's compiled from evaluating hundreds of high-risk offenders. Demographically, the group doesn't appear to be all that different from other batterers. Out of the 300 men McBride has been studying, more than a third have at least two years of college. The median annual income is around $25,000, but a significant minority are corporate executives earning hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Only one in three will admit at intake to having a drug or alcohol problem, but two in three actually turn out to be substance abusers.

What separates the men of the Third Path is their family histories--and their emotional pathologies. Many of them were raised in single-parent homes or in chronically unstable living conditions, such as being shuffled between foster homes and various relatives. More than four out of five report some form of childhood abuse or neglect; by the end of the program, 16 percent claim to have been sexually abused, though it's impossible to evaluate the accuracy of those claims. And standard psychological testing reveals that more than half of the men in McBride's study have personality disorders--in some cases, substantial disorders that surface most obviously in their attitudes about women and their own fears of losing control.

McBride says he's not trying to "make excuses" for violent behavior but to refocus attention on the complexities involved in treating such clients. "Most of these men need to reinvent their lives," he says. "Violence is not the problem, it's the symptom. The problem is at the core of their personalities."

The notion that abusers are themselves the product of abuse is hardly new. Yet the legal response to domestic violence has been largely influenced by the feminist slant on the issue, which tends to regard wife-beating as a product of an oppressive, male-dominated culture, a socially acceptable skill passed on from generation to generation. That's an appropriate line of reasoning, McBride says, if all you're trying to do is re-educate unenlightened knuckle-scrapers. But as he sees it, the current system isn't designed to address the most dangerous, chronic behavior; that requires real therapy instead of indoctrination.

"The feminist movement had a massive social agenda, which I happen to agree with," he says. "They were correct about violence in the home and the need for intervention, but they laid it on the patriarchy and male sexual training. These things are factors, that's true; but I have come to realize, after working with these men, that there's more to it than that."

In fact, he argues, when dealing with hardcore offenders, "domestic violence is the wrong term to use. It's violence." At least a third of his research subjects have been involved in violent behavior outside the home--bar fights, traffic altercations, you name it. Almost all of them have admitted to some kind of additional criminal history, from garden-variety drug use to shoplifting and car theft. Sitting around talking about male role models doesn't begin to address the fact that these boys just don't play by society's rules, McBride says, "but the movement doesn't want to face psychopathology."  

McBride admits that the notion of addressing the needs of the perpetrator as well as those of the victim is bound to be an unpopular one. It was, after all, the distrust of traditional therapy that led to the current court-ordered programs, in which the victim's safety is paramount. But he contends that not taking the therapy component seriously enough ends up putting the victim at risk of further assault.

"A lot of people are afraid that if we label this as an illness, we won't protect the victims," he says. "I understand that. But I want to take this a step further--not just stabilization, but to help the men recover."

The court system has been generally unsuccessful in finding ways to identify batterers who pose the greatest risk to their victims and the community at large--until it's too late. In fact, one reason the system's net has grown so large is that it's difficult for court workers to determine in advance who is most likely to reoffend and wind up in prison, in a last-chance program like the Third Path, or dead. A victim's own reports of an offender's progress during treatment can be unreliable, therapists say, as can the standard tools for assessing potential "lethality" that have been developed over the past decade.

"There is a small population that will gain from therapy and make changes in their lives, but you can't predict up front who that is," says Eric Garcia Gillespie, supervisor of Denver County Probation Services' domestic-violence team. "They appear so volatile in some instances that you watch the news and hope they don't murder someone. But it's not always the guys with the huge record. You can't predict who's going to go off."

As part of a pilot program funded by a federal grant, Denver and three other judicial districts in Colorado--Adams, Weld and Larimer counties--are now subjecting everyone arrested for domestic-violence-related offenses to a more extensive screening process than ever before, a full background check that includes prior arrest record, drug and alcohol use, employment history and other factors. Those identified as at a high risk to reoffend are then put through a second evaluation using a tool known as SARA, or Spousal Assault Risk Assessment--which, if proven reliable, could lead to better identification and more intensive treatment of the most dangerous offenders.

"We're really trying to improve the supervision and monitoring of the offenders," says Amy Houghton, domestic-violence coordinator for the Colorado Judicial Department, which is overseeing the pilot program. Although it's too early to gauge the results of the study, Houghton says her research has uncovered a high number of repeat offenders in Denver's municipal courts, despite the mandatory treatment programs: "We've got a ton of people who are being arrested multiple times, and there's virtually no punishment going on."

Linda Ferry, a member of the Denver certification board who's developing a program for the county courts modeled after the Fast Track pilot program in Jefferson County, agrees. The system loads up the offenders with consequences at the front end--mandatory arrest, mandatory treatment and so on--but when they wash out of treatment programs or blow off other conditions of their probation, the followup is sometimes insufficient. "People get second and third chances," she says, "and they need a more severe consequence at some point to get their attention."

Probation officers aren't shy about filing for revocation of probation on those who drop out of treatment, says Suzanne Sigona, head of Denver County Probation Services. But though her officers may recommend that an offender go back to jail, she adds, judges don't always agree with her officers' assessment of the situation. On the bright side, she notes that sometimes the revocation notice itself can be "very motivating." "We're looking to make this a successful situation," she says. "Just because you've sent someone to jail does not mean you've intervened successfully in that behavior."

But a successful intervention may take more than the current setup can offer. McBride believes that therapists and court workers could benefit from more specialized training in dealing with high-risk offenders, particularly those who have figured out how to make their way through the system again and again without changing course.

Too many therapists, he says, "buy into what the guy looks like. They believe the facade. If they don't get better training for this process, then people will die. You need to know who these men are."  

Every year since 1991, domestic-violence counselors and other interested parties have tried, without success, to get the legislature to fix some of the more glaring problems with the system. This year's attempt sank a few weeks ago, barely two months before the present system was scheduled to be repealed under the state's legislative sunset process.

This year's bill would have effectively abolished the local certification boards as well as the state commission on treatment standards. The job of certifying and supervising therapists would have fallen to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies. The task of developing new standards--including, possibly, more flexibility in the length of treatment programs; more specific criteria for determining who belongs in the programs; new approaches to treating same-sex batterers and high-risk offenders; and other innovations, based on the most credible research on the subject that's surfaced in the past ten years--would have been handed over to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.

Past efforts to bring some consistency to the treatment system have been doomed by bickering between domestic-violence gurus and licensed professionals--not to mention some legislators' resentment of state efforts to horn in on local regulatory boards. This year the push for serious reform had backing from a wide array of therapists, prosecutors and law enforcement, all of whom were alarmed at the prospect of repealing the current setup without a ready alternative. The bill was torpedoed in the House Appropriations Committee, though, for reasons its backers are at a loss to explain.

"I don't know what happened," says Representative Mary Ellen Epps, one of the bill's sponsors. "It seemed like everyone was on the same page for once."

Epps, a Colorado Springs Republican, was able to salvage an extension of the current system for two more years, and she vows to return next year with another bill. In the meantime, Colorado remains the only state in the nation that has no designated state agency to supervise the quality of court-ordered treatment programs, and crusaders are faced with the challenge of trying to revitalize semi-comatose local boards that have been told for years that they were about to be phased out of existence.

In the absence of comprehensive change, the dithering over how to fix the system continues. Some therapists say the quality of care would improve if the state would certify only licensed professionals instead of allowing anyone who meets the state's current training requirements to hang out a shingle. Others believe the assembly-line quality of the 36-week programs should give way to more specialized treatment for different types of batterers. But it's also possible that such changes would simply hike the cost of treatment while widening the net--by, for example, dragging minimal offenders into six-week "Domestic Violence 101" classes.

"The overall problem is a lack of training," insists Gibbens of AMEND. "Are therapists able to differentiate between someone who can do well in 12 weeks instead of 36? Do we know? Is a judge really capable of evaluating who's a dangerous domestic-violence offender? How do we find out?"

Gibbens was an early supporter of the local certification boards and still thinks they could work--but not without some state assistance. When he first became involved in batterer treatment, he notes, the pool of voluntary clients was relatively small. Now, thanks in large part to the mandatory-treatment requirements, there are Spanish-only counseling programs, programs that cater to African-Americans or lesbians, programs for Christian wife-beaters.

"The client population has increased dramatically," he notes. "Given that we've mandated treatment for this huge, diverse population, why don't we provide the resources to make it work?"

But what works and what doesn't? Shortly before handing out the feathers in her Tuesday-night group, Nancy Lantz tries a little lesson in transactional analysis. What do you do, she asks her men, when you come home late from a bar and your visibly upset wife demands, "Where the hell have you been?"

"You say, 'Time out for an hour,' and then you go back to the bar," Jake quips. The room erupts in laughter. "And he's graduating?" Brad asks.

Lantz explains that in response to the wife "getting parental," you can assume the role of the child--making excuses, getting defensive. Or you can try to have an adult-to-adult conversation about the situation. Fred, the man who's been in treatment for four years, a man who clearly believes in the power of words to change behavior, nods knowingly.

"The thing is," he says, "it's so hard to stay on that adult level."

Rank of domestic violence among leading causes of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44, compared to car accidents, muggings and rape: No. 1.

Odds that a rape or sexual assault on a female was committed by a stranger: 1 in 5.  

Odds that it was committed by a friend or acquaintance of the victim: 1 in 2.

Odds that it was committed by the victim's current or former male partner: 1 in 4.

Estimated percentage of women who don't report being raped by a stranger because of fear of reprisal: 3 percent.

Estimated percentage of women who don't report being raped by an intimate partner because of a similar fear: 18 percent.

Likelihood that a woman who is attacked by a stranger will be injured: 20 percent.

Likelihood that she will be injured in an attack by a current or former male partner: 52 percent.

Average annual rate of "intimate-offender" attacks on women who are divorced: 23.1 per 1,000.

Average annual rate of "intimate offender" attacks for women who have separated from their husbands: 82.2 per 1,000.

Estimated percentage of women visiting emergency rooms who are there because of injuries from domestic violence: 25 to 35 percent.

Percentage of emergency-room visits by battered women that occur after separation from their male partner: 75 percent.

Percentage of battered women still involved with their abuser who have "experienced self-blame" for the violence: 53 percent.

Percentage of women killed in the workplace in 1992 who were murdered by their current or former male partners: 20 percent.

Percentage of female murder victims in the U.S. who were slain by their current or former male partners: 28 percent.

Percentage of male murder victims in the U.S. who were slain by their current or former female partners: 3 percent.

Number of battered-women shelters in the U.S.: 1,500.

Number of animal shelters in the U.S.: 3,800.

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey


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