Texas Judge Meets With Offenders In Unusual Program

State District Judge Rick Magnis congratulates a graduate of his Felony Domestic Violence Court Program. Photo by Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer, Dallas Morning News

State District Judge Rick Magnis congratulates a graduate of his Felony Domestic Violence Court Program. Photo by Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer, Dallas Morning News

In February, three high-risk offenders in Texas graduated from a yearlong program that included GPS monitoring, classes to prevent abuse, and regular meetings with a judge. Despite limited evidence of the success of batterer intervention programs, the initial success of the Texas program provides a potential model for other communities.

State District Judge Rick Magnis launched the program in January 2014, and about 36 offenders who “showed signs of deadly behavior, such as strangulation or stalking” have participated, the Dallas Morning News reported. It’s thought to be the only program of its kind in Texas.

Magnis described his role as expanding beyond disciplinarian and including an interest in the men’s lives. “I want to have a relationship with them because I think some of them want to and sincerely can change, and I want them to know I’m here,” Magnis told the Dallas Morning News. But, he added, “I want them to know if they hurt someone, they’re going away.”

The judge praised the three men for sticking with the program and staying out of trouble. The men will have to report to Magnis quarterly for the next year. They will also meet regularly with a probation officer. The judge ordered their names withheld to protect their identities as an effort to allow them to keep jobs and avoid violence. (We wrote about identifying offenders on April 2, and we’ll write more about the issue in future posts.)

Magnis conceded the program was not easy – or fun. “But I do want all three of you to stay out of the penitentiary, and I do want people you’re with to feel nurtured and loved, and not hurt,” he told the paper.

The graduates received medallions and certificates. “It wasn’t easy, but this is a reward,” one graduate told the paper. “I feel like we’ve all become better men for it.”

Batterers’ Intervention Programs Address Root Cause of Domestic Violence

bangorDespite claims that batterers’ intervention programs (BIP) fail to change offenders’ attitudes toward women or domestic violence, the facilitator of a long-running program in Bangor, Maine, remains convinced they can make a difference.

Kathryn Maietta and her husband facilitate the only batterers’ intervention in their county. She thinks it’s a mistake that domestic violence offenders in her community must receive psychological counseling and anger management courses, but are not required to attend a BIP. That failure means offenders do not learn how to change their behavior, according to a Bangor Daily News story. (The writer spent several months observing Maietta’s program. It’s a deep dive and worth a read.)

Although the National Institute of Justice says such programs have “a modest affect,” the article cites a 2004 paper that shows that offenders who attend a BIP are less likely to offend. Retired Bates College psychology professor Robert Moyer reviewed 300 studies that compared re-offense rates of those who completed batterers’ intervention programs with the rates of program dropouts. “… dropouts are more than twice as likely to re-offend as completers are,” Moyer wrote.

The Maine program follows the model of Emerge, created in 1977 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Among Emerge’s goals for offenders are to immediately stop physical abuse and intimidation, understand the harm this behavior has caused; and develop an understanding of how you have benefited from your behavior in the past and how you can benefit from changing your behavior now

Skeptics of BIPs cite their ineffectiveness, lack of availability, and cost. But Maietta, who runs the program in Maine, cites the misperception of domestic violence as an anger management problem as a major barrier to faith in BIPs. “Domestic abuse,” she told the Bangor paper, “is about power and control.” Understanding that core truth could change the way communities respond to offenders.

More than Half Of Colorado Offenders Did Not Complete Mandated Treatment

coloradoA team of academics recommended changes to Colorado’s domestic violence offender treatment programs after a study found that more than half of the state’s domestic violence offenders at significant risk of re-offending failed to complete their assigned treatment. The findings were the result of a yearlong study of more than 3,000 domestic violence cases in Colorado.

The recommendations, outlined in a 20-page report released in February, include more cautious reassessment of offenders over the course of treatment; continued research on the effectiveness of batterer treatment models; standardized tools to demonstrate treatment milestones and success; and development of best practices with co-occurring disorders. The research was done by Tara N. Richards, assistant professor in the University of Baltimore’s School of Criminal Justice in the College of Public Affairs; and Angela Gover, professor in the School of Public Affairs at the University of Colorado Denver. They spent a year evaluating how organizations were implementing the Domestic Violence Offender Management Board’s state Standards policy on responding to domestic violence.

Press releases summarize the policy as including the use of multidisciplinary treatment teams consisting of a probation officer, treatment provider, and victim treatment advocate to supervise domestic violence offenders, and the assigning of offenders to differentiated treatment intensity levels based on their criminogenic risks and needs.  The report notes that Colorado has mandated court-ordered treatment for domestic violence offenders since 1987. Although most states have such policies, “Little is known about the extent to which these standards are implemented as intended and if so, whether they are effective in reducing recidivism,” the report says.  In addition to increased safety for the victim and the community, treating offenders “provides the offender with the opportunity for personal change by challenging destructive core beliefs and teaching positive cognitive-behavioral skills,” according to the report.

Researchers found that almost half of the domestic violence offenders in the study were placed in high-intensity treatment (rather than low or moderate intensity) because of “significant criminogenic risks and needs, such as prior domestic violence or non-domestic violence crimes, substance abuse, or the use or threatened use of weapons against their victims.”

Richards and Gover will continue to work with domestic violence treatment providers in Colorado to improve ways to engage offenders in treatment, the universities reported.

Another Domestic Violence Treatment Shows Promise

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.

facilitators of domestic violence treatment groups in the offices of the Fifth Judicial District in Des Moines

Brian Moffatt and Elaine Bales, facilitators of domestic violence treatment groups in the offices of the Fifth Judicial District in Des Moines, sit Nov. 25 inside the room where group sessions with offenders take place. (Photo: Charlie Litchfield/The Register)

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 meeting room at the Fifth Judicial District

The meeting room at the Fifth Judicial District where group sessions with domestic violence offenders take place is seen Nov. 25 in Des Moines.(Photo: Charlie Litchfield/The Register)

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.”

Results of the program to date

  • 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).

Two Programs Show Promising Results in the Fight Against Domestic Violence

It’s hard to fathom that in 2014, Domestic Violence, or Intimate Partner Violence (IPV), in the United States is still an epidemic. Intimate partner homicides make up around 40–50 percent of all murders of women in the United States. If that statistic didn’t disturb you, The Huffington Post noted the difference between American troops killed in Afghanistan and Iraq between 2001 and 2012 and the number of American women killed by current or ex male partners during the same time frame,  6,488 and 11,766 , respectively. IPV homicides are practically double the amount of casualties lost during war.

It’s quite clear that something is seriously not working with how the U.S is addressing domestic violence.  While domestic violence committed by intimate partners has declined by more than 60 % since Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, since then, the numbers have stayed “relatively flat.”

High Point Police Detective J.W. Thompson waits as a person is processed before entering the city’s jail to serve a domestic violence prevention notification to an offender, in High Point, N.C. (AP Photo/Lynn Hey)

Thankfully, programs like the High Point Police Offender-Focused Domestic Violence Initiative and Futures Without Violence’s Coaching Boys Into Men are starting to put a dent in the dismal statistics. Both programs focus on preventing domestic violence by concentrating on the offender and their behavior instead of the victim. Most traditional IPV interventions have been victim-focused, having a “heavy emphasis on helping victims avoid patterns of abuse, on disengaging from abusers, and on physically removing themselves from abusive settings.”

In 2009, The High Point Police Department asked,  “What if, in addition to providing services for the victim, we used very focused formal and informal sanctions against the offender? Can the IPV offender be held accountable with real predictable consequences without creating additional harm for the victims?” Thus, after consulting with researchers, practitioners and community members, the High Point Police Offender-Focused Domestic Violence Initiative was born. The initiative was implemented in 2012 and “targets the offender with a strategy of aggressive deterrence.”

Since the implementation of the program , the recidivism rate for domestic-violence offenders in High Point has been cut to about 9 percent, which according to the police department, is about one-third the national rate.

Over in Pennsylvania, the Coaching Boys Into Men program engages young male athletes to practice respect towards themselves and others by learning how to build non-violent relationships from their coaches. The curriculum based program feeds on the premise that young athletes view their coaches as role models and take their advice seriously.

The  Coaching Boys Into Men curriculum is broken down into a series of “training cards” and addresses issues such as “catcalling and demeaning boasts about girlfriends.”  The curriculum is usually given before practices. Wendell Say, head football coach for 35 years at Aiea High School, has been using the program for over five years before practice.  Say told ABC News, “The curriculum is simple — it just takes 15 minutes at most, unless you let the kids talk…I sometimes take 45 minutes.”

The philosophy behind the program is evident in the pledge taken by players and coaches:

“I believe in treating women and girls with honor and respect. I know that violence is neither a solution nor a sign of strength. I believe that real men lead with conviction and speak out against violence against women and girls. I believe that I can be a role model to others by taking this pledge.”

Offender-based programs are the vanguard in the fight against domestic violence.  As National Hotline CEO Katie Ray-Jones reminds us, “Like all  domestic violence cases, there is one person to blame: the abuser.”