Domestic violence, also known as family violence or intimate partner violence, affects millions of individuals in the U.S. every year. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reports that 12 million women and men are the victims of sexual assault, physical violence or stalking by an intimate partner each year. In addition, 678,000 U.S. children were the victims of child abuse or neglect in 2018, according to the federal government’s 2018 Child Maltreatment Report.
One of the primary ways abusive behavior gets countered is through preventative action like education and advocacy. Government agencies, mental health care providers, and anti-abuse organizations spend much time and money working to stop domestic violence before it happens. But the fact remains that it still does happen millions of times a year, and for each person who suffers abuse, there is another person who has perpetrated it. What happens to the abuser after abuse has already occurred?
A domestic violence intervention program, also called a batterers intervention program (or BIP), is a learning curriculum aimed at rehabilitating individuals who have committed domestic violence. These programs challenge all types of abusive behavior and attempt to show participants that they alone are responsible and accountable for their harmful actions. Ultimately, intervention programs seek to protect potential victims by ending the cycle of abuse before it can start again.
Abuse Awareness and Accountability (or AAandA) is one such BIP that Cummins partners with in Montgomery County. To learn more about domestic violence intervention and why it matters, we spoke with Adam Myszak from AAandA and Mindy Frazee from our Crawfordsville outpatient office. Together, they explained how domestic violence intervention fills the gaps that prevention alone misses.
An Introduction to Domestic Violence Intervention
When we think about behaviors that constitute domestic violence, we often think of things like physical and sexual assault. However, domestic violence encompasses any and all behaviors that achieve control over another person through abusive methods. Besides physical and sexual abuse, a person may also commit verbal abuse, emotional abuse, mental abuse, spiritual abuse, or economic abuse.
Batterers intervention programs aim to root out and confront all forms of abuse. These programs teach offenders responsibility and accountability for their actions, emphasizing that their behavior was wrong and must change in the future. In Indiana, BIPs must be certified by the Indiana Coalition Against Domestic Violence (ICADV) and must consist of at least 26 weekly sessions lasting 90 minutes or longer.
According to Mindy, this intervention is intended to help both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence. She says, “While I can understand how it may be difficult to discuss offering an individual treatment based on some of their behaviors, I think it’s important to zoom out of the topic and think about how treatment and support can impact not only the individual coming in for treatment, but also those around the individual. For example, their children, partners, friends, colleagues, and community members. Each of us touches many lives, and by offering an individual support on breaking abusive or unhealthy patterns, we can see how systems can also be impacted.”
Adam agrees. “It’s important to get these individuals the tools and education to change their patterns of abusive behavior,” he says. “Without intervention, perpetrators will continue to use power and control and abuse their victims. We all agree that intervention is second to prevention, but if we can help stop the violence at any level, then we can help put victims’ safety first.”
Intervention in Action
A typical BIP class, such as those offered by Abuse Awareness and Accountability, consists of a lesson and group discussion facilitated by an instructor. The primary goal is to help participants identify abusive behaviors so they can begin to reinterpret their own actions in an objective light.
“For the most part, our clients do not see themselves as perpetrators and believe their actions were in the right,” Adam explains. “They have learned to blame the victim, and in that feel no guilt. They feel justified and have excuses, and they minimize their abuse because of this thinking error.”
According to Mindy, this cognitive error may be caused by numerous factors in a person’s life: “There are often patterns in behavior that either come from early childhood or from things picked up along the way in one’s life. It can also be from lack of needs being met (i.e. their own emotional deprivation, lack of financial resources, lack of proper nutrition). Over time the client, with the support of their treatment team, can recognize their abusive patterns and begin to challenge them and replace them with healthy responses.“
These behavioral patterns are often so deep-rooted that they do not change easily. As Adam mentioned, most people who have abused do not even believe that they need to change. “There is no excuse for abusing anyone, and that is why the Stages of Change start with pre-contemplation,” he says. “The critical thinking error that is present in these cases needs to be brought to the surface and held accountable. In order to intervene and make changes to behavior that has hurt and destroyed others, the client is challenged to first accept the behavior as abuse and then work though how to handle things without using power and control.”
As a person progresses through the program and starts to come to terms with their past behavior, they can benefit from additional support in the form of individual therapy or counseling outside of BIP classes. Mindy provides services of this type for some clients of AAandA. “If they are in classes with Adam, then I like to explore what class was about that week and support them in processing their experience and how it applies to them on an individual level. And whether they’re in the class or not, I often support clients on improving communication, disrupting old patterns of thinking and acting, boundary setting, and emotion regulation,” she explains.
The Gift of a Second Chance
As we have said, the primary duty of any domestic violence intervention program is to protect victims of violence. If a person who has committed abuse can be persuaded to change their behavior, then other people will be protected from future instances of abuse. However, these programs also offer abusers a chance to change for the better.
Again, the most challenging part of rehabilitation is convincing the person that they have a problem. The group framework of a BIP class helps with this. “Working through the learned and chosen abusive behavior in a group setting allows for clients to let down their wall of resistance and let in that idea: ‘Do I have a problem, or am I abusive?’ ” Adam says. “Once the client can take accountability without any minimizing or blame shifts for their behavior—100% accountability that no matter what, their actions were wrong—then partnering with individual therapeutic services is critical. At that stage, the therapist has a willing client ready to do some work on themselves and not resist the therapeutic work because ‘it’s somebody else’s fault.’ “
Mindy agrees that much of this work is best done in individual therapy, with the support of a trained therapist: “If we know certain things upset us, or if we can recognize when we feel fear, shame, confusion, or we become agitated, we can work on identifying ways to decrease reactions that lead to abusive behaviors based from these difficult emotions and increase responses that can lead to healthier behaviors by acknowledging the emotions. When given a chance to explore the self in a safe, nonjudgmental space, then the opportunity to grow and find new ways to cope and live a life with more meaningful relationships, including the one with the self, is possible.”
Making personal changes of this magnitude is difficult, but as Adam explains, BIPs such as AAandA have been proven successful at creating this change in their clients. Therefore, evidence-based intervention combined with individual therapy can provide a second chance for both perpetrators and victims of domestic violence.
“As our program is the largest certified program for perpetrator services in the state of Indiana by the Coalition Against Domestic Violence, I think that we offer such a curriculum because we know the possibility of change is apparent, and the only way we can keep victims safe is to offer the opportunity,” Adam says.