Daniel Sonkin, PHD. Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist HOME | CONTACT | ABOUT
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The Male Batterer: A Thirty Year Retrospective

Working for the past thirty years to stop domestic violence has been as much as personal growth experience as it has been professionally enriching. Although one could argue that my growth would have happened no matter what path I choose thirty years ago, I believe that I did chose to work in the field of domestic violence for more reasons than were obvious to me at the time. As a product of the post World War II era and coming from a politically active family, I believed working on the problem of interpersonal violence was a way of carrying on my family's tradition of social activism. Although I was somewhat aware at the time of my personal issues, working with perpetrators and victims of violence brought me face to face with myself in a way no other path may have done.

I remember the first time it came to me the idea of working with men who are violent towards their partners. I was working in my practicum placement at Planned Parenthood while in graduate school in 1976. I was interested in helping men get more involved with family planning. Needless to say, I was about as busy as the Maytag repair person. During this time men were not interested in family planning beyond asking their partner if she had it taken care of. So to fill my time I was recruited by the staff in the pregnancy counseling clinic. One afternoon, I was counseling a woman who recently discovered that she was pregnant and she was in the process of deciding whether or not to terminate the pregnancy. As we spoke, I noticed bruising on her arms and I was curious about what had happened to her. I hadn't received any training in graduate school on domestic violence so I really didn't know how to broach the topic with her. I had no point of reference as to what to expect, but I decided to ask her directly. To this day, I can remember sitting in that small room and naively asking this woman what had happened to her arm. I was both expecting her to tell me that she bumped into a door or something worse had happened. I really wasn't sure. From the look on her face I could see she was initially shocked by my question. A long silence followed. I immediately worried that when she complained to my supervisor that was going to be the end of my short career counseling at planned parenthood. To my surprise, and I think hers as well, she slowly and deliberately began to talk about what had happened the night before. She told her story several times as if she was trying to convince herself as much as me that what she said happened really did happen. She described in great detail how she and her boyfriend got into an argument about the pregnancy and he grabbed her in a fit of rage and threw her across the room. He ordered her to either get an abortion or threatened that he'll take care of it himself. She told me her story in a soft voice as if I was now a witness to a painful and embarrasing family secret that I was never to repeat to anyone. I leaned forward in my seat, aware of the noices in the background on the other side of the door, wondering if "he" could hear what was going on. Unknowingly, I had just been initiated into a club that I would become an active member for years to come.

After our session I didn't talk with anyone about that session, but the fear in her eyes and that dark blood-like bruise haunted me for some time. Several months later, I was asked to attend a luncheon for a candidate running for the State Senate. Thanks to the persuasion of the local woman's movement, the candidate talked about the number of women in California who were being battered and I immediately thought about that woman in my office. I was amazed to hear that this violence was so prevalent. I asked myself - who is helping these men? I decided at that moment that I had to get involved in this issue. I spoke with executive director of Planned Parenthood and she directed me to our local battered woman's shelter. That's where my story begins.

Treatment of the Male Batterer: Circa 1977-1979

I called the local battered woman's shelter several time but got no reply. It wasn't until six months later, when a new director found my message on a pile of papers on her newly inherited desk, did I finally make contact. We met in person and after talking for a short time, we realized that there was some mutual needs that we could each possibly provide for each other. I had the need to learn more about the issue of domestic violence and simultaneously get counseling experience with male batterers andtthe shelter needed something with all the perpetrators calling their hotline who were relentlessly pursuing their partners who may have been residents of the shelter. She agreed to let me into their next hotline training. Afterwards they would refer the phone calls from the men to me. In speaking with other individuals and programs across the country about these early years, I discovered that my experience was not unique. In the mid-1970's shelters for battered women were just beginning and their focus of attention was primarily developing their services for victims. Providing services for pepetrators was not a priority. In fact, it was argued that focusing on the men was just another way men took priority over women in this society. Additionally, I would add, that men needed to take care of themselves and depend on the women to do so. We couldn't solve the larger social problem by having women take care of men when they needed to learn how to take care of themselves.

Personally, there was a pattern beginning to develop for me. I was once again working for an all woman organization. I didn't realize it at the time, but I too was needing to learn how to take care of myself and not look to women to do it. Because I did my work exclusively on the telephone I was not limited to where I could do the counseling. I became like Tony Roberts in the movie, Play it Again Sam. Every time I was walking by a telephone, I would call the shelter hot line and let them know how to reach me in case a man would call. Shortly after the word got out, I was deluged with phone calls. I would sometimes talk to men more than once, but most typically, it was crisis intervention counseling. Through those telephone calls, I was helping the men soothe their anxiety and better manage their emotions during, what we now know is a difficult period for them, a separation. Within a short period of time I met another shelter volunteer who suggested that we see couples together. I obliged, and through trial-and-error we developed interventions that addressed the issue of violence in the relationship. However, we discovered that it was tempting to address other issues that the couple brought into the sessions. Problems such as communication patterns, alcohol and drug use, co-parenting issue would often distract us from the real and pressing matter at hand - domestic violence. As referrals increased, we realized that we would be unable to work with all the couples and so we decided to start individual support groups for the men and the women. Group counseling seemed to be the most efficient and successful model to utilize given the large number of people wanting services.

At the same time, though unbeknowst to me, there were similar groups forming in Boston called EMERGE. Two innovative psychologists in Washington, Anne Ganley and Lance Harris, were developing an in-patient program at the Veterans Administration in Tacoma. Another innovative therapist was developing a court mandated counseling program in Santa Barbara. And probably many other unsung heroes and heroines across the country were doing the same ground breaking work in their communities. Back then, we were flying by the seat of our pants (or dresses as it were) for the most part. We drew from our knowledge of alcohol and drug treatment and utilized whatever behavioral and cognitive interventions that seemed to fit. There was an important social perspective to our work that was heavily influenced by the feminist movement. It was believed that violence was not just a individual or family problem, but a social problem rooted in the devaluation and subjugation of women in general. Like sexual assault and gender bias in the workplace, family violence was embedded into the very fabric of American society and therefore solutions to domestic violence would also reside in public education and effecting social policy.

Because there was no precedent to this type of work, we were learning as we went. After each group, we seemed to build our theories and mythologies that were promulgated at conferences and classes on domestic violence. Although there were many similarities between the programs, each group had it's own philosophy about the causes of violence and therefore their own particular interventions that would bring about it's cessation. Like the three blind people and the elephant, different programs thought they knew the shape of this animal. We were all so busy figuring out what we were doing that we didn't have to much energy to debate our various approachhes. This fact would soon change as the field grew and became more politicized.

During these early years, the battered women's movement also began to focus their attention on the criminal justice system as one being solution to the problem. Until this time, mediation, counseling and non-criminalization was the typical way these cases were handled. Law enforcement would often say, "..this is a family problem, not a criminal problem." A critical move occured during this time. Woman battering was not to be viewed as a family problem but as a crime. Advocates turned their attention to reforming the police and the courts. In California, as well as other states, passed pre-trial diversion laws in an attempt to begin to address domestic violence as a criminal problem. Domestic violence diversion is a statutory alternative to prosecution. Men were mandated into a counseling or education program from six months to two years and if they successfully completed that program, the charges were dropped, their record was expunged and they didn't have to say they were every arrested. Diversion, was good in it's day. Particularly considering what little protection battered women received from the criminal justice system before that time. On the positive side, defendants were only offered diversion once every seven years and it was only offered to misdemeaner cases. On the down side, treatment was often too short and victims would be reluctant testify if the diversion was revoked due to non-complience with treatment or a re-offense. Worst of all, because it was only offered to misdeamers offenders, many felony charges were reduced to misdeameners, which meant more serious offenders were given the option of diversion, rather than jail or probation.

For the most part, treatment providers, worked closely with probation officers, who oversaw these cases, and would attempt to develop at treatment plan that made sense to each particular case. We all worked together and did the best we could given the time limitations. Consortiums or treatment teams were established to provide a forum to discuss cases, coordinate efforts, provide continuing education and give mutual support while working with very difficult cases. At the time, we had not idea that one day our power to decide what is best for each case, would be taken away by the swing of the gavel. We witnessed the beginning of a movement that very quickly had a life of it's own.

The Second Wave: The 1980s

By the early 1980s the mental health field had gotten on the bandwagon. Funding was becoming more available for counseling services so clinics around the country were now offering counseling programs for male batterers. Domestic violence programs on military bases began to proliferate. Many community mental health programs were training staff to deal with this problem. Private practitioners began to get into the action. Even shelters, who previously were reluctant to offer services to perpetrators, began to set aside funds for batterer treatment. During this decade, we also began to see a significant rise in the number of research studies focusing on the male batterer. No sooner than all of this occurring, controversies began to erupt as to what was the "right" treatment approach for this population. Providers and advocates argued for their approach with the same vehemence that wasn't unlike perpetrators. Oh yes, I got on that bandwagon as well. I was as dogmatic as the best of them. From my vantage point, I was promoting a cognitive-behavioral, psychoeducational approach and denigrating the use of couple and family therapy. To the left of me was the pro-feminist peer counselors criticizing the cognitive-behavioral psycho-educational approach, that I was utilizing, and the family systems advocates. There were bitter debates and the lines were drawn between camps. A youthful comradery was lost in the process and has never been regained since. Ironically, all these debates were in the context of no empirical research supporting any group's claim that their approach was superior to others. To a group of activists and clinicians, this was a minor detail.

During this same period academic researchers began to take up the issue of the male batterer. The Family Reserach Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, under the faithful leadership of Dr. Murray Straus, a leader in the field, was producing research study after research study. They hosted the first conferences on domestic violence where reserachers and clinicians came together to generate new ideas and work out old differences. Although many of Family Research Laboratories studies looked at domestic violence from a sociological perspective, their findings were certainly applicable to the treatment of the male batterer. In addition, there were many interesting and extremely valuable studies conducted on this population duing this time period, and up to the present, and yet there is still more that we don't know than we know about the male batterer. Researchers such as Don Dutton, Kevin Hamberger, Robert Geffner and others, have helped clinicians fine-tune their clinical interventions to be consisent with empirical findings. On the other hand, clinicians have, in turn, helped to define the direction of the research. The eighties, with all it's in-fighting, was also a time of respectful dialogue and exchange.

During this time, more pressure was placed on the criminal justice system to pursue pleads of guilty rather than pre-trial diversion. It was believed that if a perpetrator had a jail sentance hanging over his head, he would be more likely to take counseling seriously. Additionally, this would give the court the ability to induce sanctions with having to depend so heavily on the cooperation of the victim. Additionallly, federal legislation provided more money on the local level, some of which was utilized for perpetrator treatment programs located within shelters. Domestic violence treatment programs proliferated during the 1980s. Mental health programs would receive considerable funding for offering services to this population. In counties where the criminal justice system aggressively pursued these cases, there was also the possibility of expanding the client base, and increasing fee for services, to this mandated population. During the late 1980's the gap between the feminist forces and the mental health professionals widened and the feminists turned to what seemed to work in the past - changing the laws.

1990s: When Left is Right and Right is Left

During the first half of this decade crime law proliferated on both the state and federal level. Victim's rights groups were formed to counter-act what seems to be a trend of greater protection of defendant's rights during the past two decades. Many of these laws have been reactionary. Someone commits a terrible crime and it is highly publicized. Before long, there are dozens of crime bills that address some particular aspect of the criminal's story or the details of the crime. No self-respecting politican, who wants to get re-elected, can be viewed by their constituancy, or worse the media, as being soft on crime. The three strikes legislation in California was an example of this. When the man who suspected of kidnapping and killing a Northern California twelve year old was arrested, people could not understand how this person was recently release from jail given his past criminal history. Dozen's of laws were drafted and one was enacted before the defendantt was convicted. The domestic violence forces have not been immune to this type of reactionary legislation. When a domestic homicide is highly publicized the lobbying forces go right to work. Several years ago a law was passed saying that all mental health professionals must report a client who is being treated for domestic violence. On one level, this law may make sense. We want desparately to protect victims and their children and hold perpetrators accountable for their actions. On another level, one may also say this infantalizes, or worse pathologizes, battered woman implying that they are unable to make their own decisions. Additionally, this reporting mandate could inhibit many women from seeking counseling in the first place if they thought that by going they would be reported to authorities. This mandate would also overwhelm an already overwhelming court system or both. What motivated this legislation was frustration by battered women advocates that physicians were not following already existing law mandating them to call the police when they treat injuries resulting from criminal activity, such as domestic violence. So when drafting the law, someone got the great idea of including therapists in this mandate as well. Good idea's don't always make good laws. But unfortunately, crime is a hot issue and legislators are often reactive to the loudest lobbying groups. Because being a politician is not particularly popular these days our leaders are more susceptible to these powerful influences. Fortunately this law was changed within the year, not before thousands of dollars were spent by mental health organizations. The law was changed to only include physicians treating physical injuries, as it was originally intended to do.

Over the past twenty years, people who I have considered ideologically progressive have looked more and more conservative. It wouldn't surprise me if we saw a group of battered women advocates get a law passed that expanded the special circumstances that qualify a defendant to be executed to include spousal murder. The pornography debate was an illustration of how divisive these issue have become. During the congressionaly hearings on pornography, there was a large contingency of feminists who were advocating for censorship. Once again, on the surface, this seemed to be a good idea - pornography is the devaluation of women and child, and violent films, in particular, may lead to greater rates of violence against women. But who's going to define what is and is not pornographic material? Could this leave sex education, AIDS education and books about sexual abuse vulnerable to censorship? I remember one friend and colleague telling me during these debates, "One should always be suspicious when you find yourself on the same side of the line as the most conservative groups you are used to attacking."

One may argue that our legal and political system of checks and balances prevents unfair laws from being on the books for too long and that the innocent are protected by the law. One only has to look at how persons of color, gays and lesbians and women in general have been historically treated by society and the government specifically, to realize that confidence is not the word the comes to mind. But in this era of political correctness, our leaders are not wanting to be remembered for their voting against, what seems to be on the surface, a tough-on-crime bills.

A most recent example of conservative legislation is the California law that for all practical purposes eliminates diversion, makes domestic violence offenders plead guilty and defines what is legitamite treatment for perpetrators all in one fell swoop.

The Day Pro-Choice Advocates Took Away Our Choice

In 1995 the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 168. The purpose of this bill was to change an important aspect of the Domestic Violence Diversion Act of 1980. With diversion a defendant would not plead guilty prior to being referred to treatment. Therefore if he violated the terms of diversion the prosecution would have to put together a case from the beginning in order to procure a conviction. Typically, unless there were other witnesses to the offense, it would be necessary for the victim to testify. This was problematic in that many women were reluctant to testify against their partners, particularly if there was a reconciliation between the original offense and the diversion termination hearing. The new law requires the defendant to immediately plead guilty so that the conviction is obtained prior to his participating in treatment. The pleading is ultimately not entered into the record if the defendant successfully completes the program. If the defendant fails to comply with the terms of probation, the judge enters the guilty plea and the defendant can be immediately remanded to jail. In this way the court has greater leverage to mandate program complience. This aspect of the law makes sense particularly with defendants who need the additional motivation to follow through with treatment recommendations.

In addition to this procedural change, the law also specifically spells out the type and length of treatment perpetrators must complete. County probation departments are given the responsibility to certify local treatment providers and are responsible for assuring that the providers are complying with the legal mandates. The minimum length of treatment was increased from thirtytwo to fiftytwo weeks. The treatment program that was ultimately used as a model for this law was the approach supported by the feminist contingent of the batterers treatment providers. The Duluth Model, one of many successful approaches to working with male batterers, was essentially written into law as the one and only model to use. The law prohibits couples and family therapy as a treatment approach. Additionally, service providers can not require victims to participate in treatment. If victims do agree to come in for counseling, treatment providers may not charge for these services. Furthermore, the law specifically mandates that only programs offering group treatment can be certified by the local probation departments. The programs have to be certified by the local probation department and it appears that probation departments are interpreting the word program to exclude private practitioners. Essentially, this law prohibited private therapists, programs involving the victim in treatment of the perpetrator and programs using couples and family therapy from being certified by probation departments. Because the wording of the law does not specifically define providers as licensed counselors or therapists, the providers can be peer counselors or educators, therefore psychological evaluations are not required of the treatment providers. Although many of the providers are licensed mental health professionals, former probation officers, retired police officers and a variety of other para-professionals are now offering their version of the Duluth Model and becoming the sole providers in their communities. Given the fact that defendants are mandated for one year, and treatment is not being considered solely within the pervue of licensed professionals, developing batterers intervention programs can be a lucrative venture.

The entire premise of this law is based on the feminist analysis of the problem of domestic violence and, in particular, the Duluth Model of treating male batterers. This perspective views the causes of the problem of domestic violence as being social rather than psychological. This philosophy posits that the primary reasons that men batter are because of the male socialization process and because they get away with it. Therefore the answer is more social control and re-education regarding men's roles. Although the social perspective should be an important element in a treatment curriculum, viewing the problem solely from a social-political perspective fails to incorporate significant psychological factors found to be present by empirical research. Most importantly, the persons who drafted this law presumed that the model they describe is the most effective method of treating male batterers even though there is no empirical research to date that supports this viewpoint. Viewing the problem of domestic violence in such a narrow and reductionistic manner does not take into account the true complexity of the problem. I am not confident this approach will ultimately bring about a reduction in domestic violence just as arresting people who sleep on the streets will ultimately not solve the problem of homelessness.

So what is the solution? I can not even presume to do know that answer to that question. However, I do know that passing legislation that inhibits individuals from developing new and innovative approaches for addressing this problem with this particular population is not the answer. I find this law more frightening in that I find it no different than the same narrow minded thinking that has contributed to people developing over-simplistic solutions to problems in the past such as those laws passed in 1930's Germany. We Americans also have developed restrictive and oppressive social policy in an attempt to solve complex social problems. Affirmative action, illegal immigration, welfare reform and homelessness are just a few examples of where legislation has been passed that doesn't take into account the true complexity of the problems. This is my main critique of this domestic violence law and others like it that are being enacted acrossed the county.

I would like to see a return of flexibility, so that providers and the criminal justice personal can develop intervention plans that make sense for each client. Probation departments need to develop guidelines on how to address their particular domestic violence perpetrator population, rather than being held accountable to a law that restricts their choices. No other criminal justice population is subjected to this specificity of treatment and therefore a frightening precedent has been set that legislates what is and what is not appropriate treatment for a particular criminal justice population. In the past, treatment providers and probation officers worked closely together to define what type of treatment plan was appropriate for individual clients. Even if the majority of clients were ultimately given similar plans, there was flexibility and willingness to develop individualized plans that made psychological, economic and cultural sense. Some probation officers have supported this law citing that it's specificity makes their jobs easier. This may be so. But just because it is so, doesn't make it right. In order to effectively address this complex social problem both providers and the criminal justice system will need to develop complex solutions. Unfortunately, this will take a tremendous amount of deliberation and effort. But why should we expect anything less?