An innovative therapy program in the Iowa Department of Corrections, Achieving Change Through Value Based Behavior, shows promising results in changing domestic violence offenders’ behavior and rates of re-offenses in the state. The program, created by University of Iowa associate professor of psychology Erika Lawrence, is now being sought in other states.
Every week for six months, offenders in the Iowa program attend a group therapy session facilitated by Community Treatment Coordinators Brian Moffatt and Elaine Bales. The group therapy session emphasizes the recognition of angry feelings and encourages the offenders to sit with them, suffer through them, and not act on them.
It’s a less confrontational treatment method compared to the state’s traditional approach that coaches the offenders to get rid of angry thoughts. An approach Lawrence believes is not realistic.
Lawrence explains, “What we are saying is maybe you have those emotions, but you can still choose how to behave…You shouldn’t feel anger? Changing thoughts doesn’t work. But you can choose to change your reaction to them.” She continues, “A lot of what we do is slow down what is an automatic process. My wife is yelling at me, I get upset and it just happens. We take a step back and look at the emotions. When you get angry or anxious, you notice all that and take a moment to ask, ‘What are my options? What is important here?’ It might be their freedom, not going back to jail, or it might be their relationship.”
The program directly questions cultural norms of masculinity that deems violence as an appropriate response to anger. Another facilitator of the group, Karen Siler, clarifies, “When those things are challenged, it can be a direct cause of violence. We have a culture of violence against women and against people who are different…We have all these laws against it and all these punishments for these crimes, and it still happens. So what are we going to do?”
Moffatt was initially skeptical of the program but then he began to witness the change in the men.
Nick Ceretti, an offender in the program is an example of how the program is changing lives. Originally, Ceretti hated coming to the weekly sessions but by week seven, it clicked. Before the program, Ceretti said he wasn’t very good at expressing his feelings during an argument with his girlfriend and would turn to drugs and alcohol to solve the problem. Now he says he’s able to talk things out with her. “Every week I came home from class, I would talk about things with her,” Ceretti said to The Register. “She has way more respect for me. It came down to acting like a grown-up instead of like a child.”
- Men in the program had lower rates of physical, psychological and sexual aggression at week 24 compared with men in cognitive behavioral therapy models used in Iowa for decades.
- Men in the program had a lower rate of violent reoffenses one year after treatment or dropout (13.4 percent) than men in cognitive behavioral therapy (22.9 percent).