Last year I attended a domestic violence class. Everyone in this class was a convicted batterer. I remember thinking that if my zip code had fallen just a few miles away from my apartment at the time – if I had even bothered to call the police – my former partner might have ended up in that room. But then what? Would this reform him? Could it have “fixed” us?

The entire class was warned about my encroachment. No one would outright say it, but everyone’s chief concern was that I might exploit these boyfriends, husbands and ex-lovers. Bash them. Denigrate them. All of the above. After all, if you end up in this class, it’s because a judge in a courtroom sentenced you to be here.

It was always my intent to write about the experience. In fact, I expected to pen some fiery invective about how abusers get to skate through the criminal justice system while survivors are left haphazardly defended by flimsy protective orders and little-to-no other recourse. But this is not a get-out-of-jail-free card.

More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have standards for batterer intervention programs. This course can be in addition to, or in lieu of, time spent in jail. Now, if this seems too light a sentence, you should know – at least in this class – offenders aren’t exactly being coddled for the 16 to 22 sessions they spend in this course. The safety of the victim is the first priority. They really might stand the chance of being reformed.

The Curriculum

Valerie Collins, Branch Chief of the CSOSA (Court Services & Offender Supervision Agency) Domestic Violence Unit in Washington, DC shared that accountability is a key tenet of this coursework. Many communities implement a curriculum called the Duluth Model. Based in Duluth, Minnesota, the program gives a considerable amount of attention to personal accountability.

So when I asked Ms. Collins about student resistance, she was quick to confirm it exists. “Oh yes, in the beginning,” she told me. No one likes being there because they have to remember why they’re there.

What’s more is the name of the course. Ms. Collins said a lot of men would be more comfortable saying they were required to attend “anger management” over “domestic violence” class. This makes the course incomplete without a thorough examination of race and gender norms.

“We work closely with the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American community, because the Duluth model is great, but it’s from Duluth, Minnesota.” Cottman said cultural sensitivity is critical in these courses. This is especially important in this region, where a significant number of arrestees in domestic violence cases are African American males. A student has to deconstruct how their attitudes about violence and intersectional identity – their “blackness,” their “masculinity” – have been informed by their own community and by the culture at-large.

The Class

It’s important to note that there were no scarlet letters to be found in that classroom. There were no signs or cautery brandings to tip off current or future significant others that their dear, sweet mates might be under this kind of construction.

In this class, each participant solemnly shared whether any flags were raised in the previous week. If there were no flags, it meant no major outbursts or triggers were tripped that week. Power and control – key themes of the course – remained in their proper bounds.

The first man to report a flag had cheeks like a teddy bear. I couldn’t help but think, if this were grade school, he and I would have probably been friends on the sole premise that our chipmunk jawlines belie us. From the story he shared, an unnamed “she” created problems for his family that week. She said this. She texted him that. She showed up uninvited here. She sent a family member to challenge him there. It’s a frustrated monologue about how this “she” got under his skin. He shifted in his seat, eyes rolling about how this estranged woman pushed him – not physically, but emotionally – closer to the brink of a meltdown.

His retelling of events brought him to the point of palpable irritation, until a single phrase tumbled out, yanking everyone to life. “Man, I don’t even care if I go to jail!”

A record scratched somewhere in the Universe.

In no time, Mr. Cheeks was hammered with a string of questions and comments from the rest of the group. Why is she still calling you? Why are you still responding to her? Man. There’s something you aren’t telling us…

The level of honesty was incredible, but Ms. Collins tells me this is the result of weeks and weeks of re-education. I had the luxury of being with veterans who were comfortable rigorously engaging another male peer.

The facilitator jumped in to refocus the group. “What’s one of the positive things [Mr. Cheeks] did?”

Someone answered. “He showed up.”

No matter how brilliant and full of bravado Mr. Cheeks’ testimony was, he wouldn’t participate if he didn’t really care. While the course is tied to a participant’s probation and parole, it is possible to miss classes. But an escalation in threatening behavior could result in unfortunate consequences, like losing one’s freedom. Freedom is still a very real commodity here.

The facilitator walked through the process of identifying and then defusing one’s triggers. These kinds of activities may help the group broaden their emotional vocabulary and get to the root of an abuser’s proclivity to react with anger, which can feel like the only gender-appropriate tool available to deal with a wide range of more complex emotions like fear of abandonment or helplessness. These activities also help the group identify other patterns of behavior that are misuses of power and control.

“People tend to think the batterer needs to deal with whatever their childhood issues are, or that this was a bout of anger, or maybe alcohol was involved – so all of these other factors rather than personal accountability,” Cottman says. With every tool dispatched, the facilitator repeatedly emphasized to participants that they have the power to choose what happens next. These tools include paying attention to physical cues like an increased heart rate, taking a “time out,” creating a safety plan before a volatile situation approaches, and identifying and naming triggers with one’s partner.

The (Less-Than) Happy Ending

The facilitator encouraged the studentsto remember that these tools take time to develop. But while that may be okay for the batterer in the long run, the road to rehabilitation can prove most trying for the person on the receiving end of violence. The very people these men hope to reform for could even unintentionally work against their rehabilitation – mates, family, and friends alike. From DCCADV’s experience, there is little reinforcement of the lessons learned in class once a student returns to the community.

The class was almost over before I realized how incredibly valuable these coping mechanisms are for everyone – not just the accused. Not just abusers.

But are domestic violence classes working? Nobody knows. Cottman and Collins said the data simply doesn’t exist.

Could these men go on to batter again? Yes. They could. In some cases, they do.

So, what’s the point?

DCCADV regularly takes calls from people who want to stop being abusive. “They know something is wrong with their behavior,” Cottman said. Many people who have abused are actually trying to make these tools work with little reinforcement outside the classroom walls. That doesn’t mean they represent accused batterers everywhere. It does, however, suggest that there are no easy villains when we talk about domestic violence.

No man in that room invented intimate partner violence. But a focused attention to pros and cons of comprehensive batterer intervention could prove a tremendous help in reducing domestic violence and sexual assault.

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Jessica Johnson

J.T. is the Media Relations Associate for the Feminist Majority Foundation. She’s a graduate of the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and an NBC4 Washington alum.