Each year, the Battering Intervention Services Coalition of Michigan (BISC-MI) offers presentations, workshops, and discussions from people around the nation (and from other parts of the world) to consider methods of intervening with domestic violence offenses. Since its inception, BISC-MI has been an excellent source of critical thinking about this work, and this year they changed their name to better match an approach that works to address behavior as opposed to labeling people and "othering" individuals (prior name was "batterer intervention" opposed to the new "batterering intervention"). This humanizing approach was a key theme behind this year's "Miles to Go" conference which focused on various ways of addressing trauma issues in those who choose to harm their partners and families. It was abundantly clear that these approaches were not to excuse behavior, but rather to name that self-care and personal healing are as much of the process of accountability as ending violence and abuse toward others.
Some of the conference also involved experiential aspects and an opportunity for self-reflection and healing for those of us doing this work. These aspects are ones which are impossible to capture in a summary article, but I will make attempts to address some of the information involved during these sessions. For most of the conference, I posted links, observations, and brief summaries on my Twitter feed, and on the Domestic Violence Intervention and Education group on Facebook. I will link to these posts throughout this article.
To start the conference, Juan Carlos Arean opened up the framework for the conference and the discussion of trauma. In general, the history of work with men who choose battering behavior has not been one that has humanized men enough to address issues beyond their violence and abuse. While efforts have been made over time, in different ways by different models, in a large way trauma informed approaches are a major adaptation to this field. Arean brought forward techniques that have had great success in other human service fields: trust and support, use of peers, collaboration and mutuality, horizontality, empowerment by giving people a voice and increasing their agency, and overall humanization. One tool being used by some is the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) which gathers information on how an adult may have traumatic experiences in their history. It helps to identify that issues are there, but the challenge is how to address them?
Arean suggested that it is similar to medical illness - if you are sick, and are given medical advice to follow but ignore that advice, you will continue to be sick. Battering Intervention has the opportunity to both give feedback and opportunity for change, where that health is not just about ending violence, but truly addressing long-term issues that provide justification and a foundation for abusive and violent behavior. Arean discussed work being done by Full Frame Initiative which works on 1) social connectedness, 2) stability, 3) safety, 4) mastery, 5) meaningful access to relevant resources. Balance of these factors is key, and there is relevance to both victims/survivors and perpetrators.
Restorative justice options have been a challenge in part due to the colonialist attitudes behind them - where indigenous tribes have been practicing community healing for centuries, but are told how they should follow "best practices." Arean pointed out the need to understand and address cultural issues by addressing individual cultures. People of color experience pain at being excluded and not being welcomed into the work they have been doing - so we need to think critically about whom we have been leaving out, and why. How do we give lip service to cultural work in general and specific places? Why is it that mostly white men lead the work in battering intervention, and how has work for community health, showing love and appreciation, and healing work within this field been excluded or looked down upon when practiced by people of color?
Jerry Tello followed by discussing methods of working beyond trauma work to healing centered work. He used personal stories to illustrate the process of change, and the struggles of being human - where those fit into stopping domestic violence. He talked about it being easy to see anger and frustration as negative, rather than recognizing that these can be a result of being invisible and ignored. Certain communities are in a perpetual state of facing traumatic situations - making people in these communities inherently trauma informed. The impetus of mainstream society is to break down and conquer people who do not fit into the so-called mainstream. This includes non-white people, poor people, LGBTQ+, those people who lack privilege and power in certain ways. We, as a society, label people to create fear and see frameworks of culture as a deficiency. We have rules for how people need to adopt certain ways of interacting within communities, furthering oppressive thoughts, attitudes, and behavior. If a society, like ours, is founded on the premise of conquering others then the focus is always on treatment and stopping behavior - NOT on healing. Even when we realize treating the violence is not enough.
Indigenous cultures tend to recognize the sacredness of relationships, yet manifestations of violence and disconnect reverberate out from a society that encourages and sometimes forces that disconnect. Individuals often question, "am I wanted?" and if someone does not feel a sense of importance, a sense of value from others early in life - they will search for it (or force it) throughout their lives. When you see someone as a relative to you, someone connected to you, you treat them differently. When someone is a number, or even a "client," you can easily see and treat them as less than you. Tello discussed how he treats participants in his program as his family. He said that when you categorize men as perpetrators and not recognize their wounds, how can you possibly support yet check their behavior at the same time?
Tello described how what happens to our ancestors and is never healed is passed on to us individually. Generational trauma is often missed in a society that wants to treat behavior because it only values what can be seen. How do you measure spirit in an individual? Healing of ourselves is critical in this work - Tello emphasized that the most humbling thing men can do is to heal themselves. He said, "we had incorporated colonialist ways into our lives. We needed to reclaim our sacredness to heal." Healing centered work focuses on us - how to live with our teachings, not just give them to others. He described taking a "do you see me" concept of work with men, that if you do not make a connection, you do not have a conduit to help, guide, or connect. Men in groups need to feel seen and heard, need a chance to attach to healing by understanding the most significant factor can often be how do you love yourself, and how do you show love despite someone else's woundedness. It becomes simple to "otherize" people who choose battering behavior, and disconnect from individuals as a result. Tello pointed out "WE ARE THEM." We need to move out of rhetoric of labels and boxes and bring back humanity. We can still be about accountability when we are healing generations of wounds.
Next we heard from Floyd Rowell, who told his personal stories of violence he experienced within his community. When he found a refuge to the violence, and was violated within that refuge, he said he shifted his thinking to a mentality of "before you get to me, I'm going to get to you." The limitation led to what he described as creating a shield that, "wrapped [his] horrors in barbed wire," and a philosophy of "before you get to my heart, you're going to go through some pain first." His experiences ultimately led him to prison, and experiences where he was seen as an offender and not as a human being were foundational in enforcing these beliefs.
Terri Strodoff, director of Alma Center (where Rowell learned how to change his life after prison), discussed how approaching men who use battering behavior with discussion of attitudes, behavior, socialization as men, the power and control wheel, or other cognitive behavioral approaches may not be considering how men like Rowell may not be able to relate to such information because we know nothing about their humanity, or how the context of their lives matters in discussing their hurtful behavior. She said that it is important to change the question from what is wrong with you to what happened to you. Such a shift changes how we show up for people, and it can be important to consider how we hold space for people to tell stories. Summarizing the importance of looking at trauma in men's lives, she explained, "any pain not transformed is transferred. The only way out of trauma is healing, and we need to ask how we support healing and change in men who batter." As a general philosophy, I tend to agree with her ideas, but I would have liked to hear more concrete information about their approaches in groups and why/how they think they work.
The rest of the first day involved honoring Barbara Hart for her work by awarding her the "Ed Gondolf Compass Award," and some experiential meetings. I attended a session facilitated by Alma Center staff that involved participants sharing their stories, talking about things in their lives. The personal stories varied and some shared deeper information while others kept to work related situations. The experience was personally interesting, but it seemed many participants were unclear of boundaries or unsure of how to participate. Since the information was merely shared and not discussed it also created an open, non-judgmental environment without processing or further discussion of topics that were sometimes rather profound. Another workshop I was unable to attend considered how to "Honor One's Sacred Circle," and was facilitated by Tello and Arean.
That first evening, we had an informal and unofficial meeting of AQUILA members, and the 15 or so who attended discussed methods of addressing sexual harms in BIP, which often seems to be a major gap in services where the reality of sexual harms in victims/survivors lives create major damages. As societal shifts appear to be occurring on this front, it behooves us to be more direct and authentic in our approaches here.
On the second day, Merkeb Yohannes of Michigan Coalition to End Domestic Violence took time to share her humanity by talking about all the components behind her victimization and survival as an undocumented immigrant. She started by discussing how people feeling sorry for her made it impossible to see her for anything beyond being a survivor, and while her stories made her vulnerable, they at the same time made others impressionable. Her identity as an immigrant and undocumented survivor flattened her experience, rather than considering that her stories are that which form her and her humanity. When she told her personal experiences, she discussed the dynamics of living in parallel worlds, the impact of changing her name to adapt to a new culture, and the ways her experiences of abuse twisted her vulnerabilities against her. While I am cautious about telling specific details in this space, she made the point that single stories create stereotypes that create an incomplete picture and can easily rob people of dignity. I believe reflecting on these truths can be critical to work with both victims/survivors and perpetrators.
Lisa Young Larance did an overview of research and practice in women's use of force, partially addressing the problems with the commonly used Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS) which provides no context for behavior, misses sexual harms, misses discussion of an incident, and the impact on someone. While the CTS had a revision, the revised edition had initial validation, but the researchers changed questions and that initial validation was lost as a result. Yet, this scale is used in research and used by media to justify ideas that women are as violent as men and miss the context of victims/survivors reporting more responsibility for harms, and perpetrators reporting more victimization and little talk of their own hurtful behavior. [Note: I left this presentation early, but I heard from others there was backlash against Larance's presentation where some audience members derailed to discussions about men as victims. Since her focus was on looking at research and practice on women's violence and the contextual difference, such derailments are not productive as they shift focus to men, which is a different conversation that has importance, but it does not need to and should not override a discussion of women's hurtful behavior.]
Aldo Seoane talked about cultural healing and showed a recent documentary highlighting Wica Agli's program with men who have been abusive. He began by inviting an invocation of prayer into the room from an elder, and introduced the concept of container wrapping - creating a space of safety to hold the energy of processing. The need to confront colonialism within work on domestic violence issues (including patriarchy and how our systems invest in these kinds of power) involve the ability and willingness to reflect on how this fits within ourselves. We need to ask permission from others in guiding them toward reflection. He discussed how there is a need to start in a place of gratitude and understanding. The chevron symbols of Wica Agli begin with representation of a black chevron, indicating the first direction, but the other colors are out of order - reminding us that while we know what is right, we have lost our direction. We are tied to our history, and we can always reclaim it, or "dig it up" as a mentor of his will exclaim.
Seoane talked of his painful and traumatic experiences and how they informed him in his life and his culture, and how overall culture in the United States is one that houses systems that are about hate and fear - systems which are afraid of love and feeling. To decolonize and do antioppression work, we need to create safe spots in our spirit to grow love for others. He reflected on his advocacy during Standing Rock, and where men do not ask for consent when harming women, and corporations do not ask for consent when building infrastructure. This relates directly to transgenerational trauma - where we revictimize people all the time through our practices and through our silence. In many ways, the federal government can be the biggest batterer - use of intimidation and isolation, judging others for the sake of judgment. In addressing trauma, we need to have discernment and understand how can we show ourselves the same level of compassion we want to show others.
In describing his work in groups, Seoane talked about how we learn from each other, and how we can separate from our work at times to simply connect as human beings. He gave the example of occasionally asking "are you okay?" to class participants. He said their classes are three hours long, and involve storytelling - working to change the culture within the community to where it should be, and how we guide thoughts and minds to balance, health, and respect. In western society, we tend to work to compartmentalize everyone, and Seoane was clear that we can use our stories as a path to healing. In a smaller break out session, he spoke to using stories to ground discussions, to create space for healing. Exercises can be felt, and can be experienced without always needing to be cognitive, and he provided several examples of how that might work within group settings.
I joined Jeffrie Cape, Pam Wiseman, and Chris Huffine to present information from the "Truth Squad," a committee of people working to increase discussion and understanding of battering intervention as a part of AQUILA. Cape opened the presentation to talk briefly about AQUILA and its name and foundation. In my short presentation, I stressed the advantage of people using the new AQUILA discussion forum. Our work is improved by the ability to both have discussions over this philosophical material, but also by having ongoing and easily accessible information. The listserv has advantages of broadcasting to many people at once, but has a major disadvantage of making discussion difficult, unfocused, and challenging to find information at a later date. In short - if you are reading this, please join us on this forum.
Pam Wiseman discussed the political ramifications of PEW research, the Council of State Governments, and others working to privatize systems (like probation and jails) who are working to control battering intervention work (particularly with pushing the ACT-V model). Chris Huffine talked about the challenges of a system which glorifies the virtues of "evidence based programming" without fully understanding how they work, the research used to grant that status, or a base understanding of the systems they intend to replace. Often these groups talk poorly of the Duluth Model, and have no understanding of the difference between the "model" and the "curriculum" which are two entirely different things. The Duluth Curriculum is the use of the power and control wheels, control logs, and vignettes to do group sessions for men with battering behavior. If using the most recent 2011 update, you will be working to focus 75% of your time in classes on respectful and healthy behavior. Most places which claim use of the "Duluth Model" are actually only using the curriculum, and even then may not have read the first 100 pages of the manual which explicitly states the classes should never be a script, and instead a start of a conversation - and also mention the need to use the entire model, not just the curriculum. The Duluth MODEL is the community coordinated response involving very specific and direct work within community to change perspectives, attitudes, and practices on domestic violence on all agencies who have a role. This is often very challenging, requires extra funding for staff, and makes the BIP sessions a very small part of overall work to change the community. Unfortunately, research has rarely spoken to the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program (Duluth) directly, and often analyze community based programs who have very low fidelity to their model and program as a whole.
Huffine also emphasized that many of us in this work take direction from probation departments, which often have pressure to use evidence based practice and miss the importance of research based practice. The goal in our work should not be to replace programming, but to rather enhance and improve it. As a part of this improvement, we need to be aware of risk factors and do more to address risk issues. This becomes challenging as there is often greater emphasis on recidivism and not on risks of ongoing domestic violence (much of which may be non-arrestable).
The rest of the second day becomes more difficult to report on, due to some experiential sessions. I attended a workshop with Aldo Seoane, who followed up his conversation from before by adding some legendary stories and spoke to how such stories can be important to reflect on. Mary Case, from the Los Angeles LGBT Center, spoke to identifying primary aggressor in LGBT domestic violence cases. I am more used to language focused on predominant aggressor as opposed to primary aggressor, which initially I thought was not that significant a difference - then recognized that the reason for the shift in wording has a lot to do with how law enforcement sees domestic violence, and assaults in general. PRIMARY aggressor often indicates there is a secondary aggressor. This tends to eliminate an analysis of power and pattern of coercive control as a part of the determination. PREDOMINANT has more to do with an analysis of who controls or dominates the other person. This gave me more of a critical viewpoint to Case's presentation, particularly in the challenges that already come with law enforcement responses to LGBTQ+ domestic violence. That said, the LA LGBT Center does screening as a part of their couples counseling program to rule out domestic violence from that service, and when she discussed some differences between victims/survivors and perpetrators, she directly spoke to there being a significant difference in how perpetrators avoid identifying their own behavior and focus on how they perceive themselves to be victimized, whereas victims/survivors tend to be focused on their own behavior - similar to information discussed by Larance above.
That evening, I facilitated a simulation based on "Dog Eat Dog," a role playing game that explores the impact of colonialism on Pacific Island peoples. We began by discussing colonialism as a concept, and how it could fit into domestic violence systems. Three groups went through the experiences within the child protective services, probation, and mental health / substance abuse counseling systems. The simulation is set up to create rewards for following the rules of the system, and penalties in expressing individuality, which is also very common within DV systems as a whole. Anyone who would like to look more fully at the simulation to consider using it within their community can click here to learn more or click here for an in depth review. I will probably write more in depth on this topic in the future, and have already had articles that have explored this overlap before, so feel free to go through other articles if this interests you.
The final day involved a number of discussions from Family Peace Initiative, and some experiential drumming workshops run by Rahul Sharma and Dummunity. I only participated on the periphery of the drumming workshops, so do not have anything to include here outside of those links (which give a sample of the drumming involved).
Steve Halley and Dorothy Stuckey Halley started off the day by discussing "Cracking the Code: Understanding those who batter and the connection to risk and lethality," which began by reviewing work by Bandara in 1973 that summarized abuser's aggression is done in order to 1) appropriate resources, 2) win approval and status, 3) bolster self-esteem and manliness, 4) see the expression of suffering in others. Their claim was that these traits are important to consider in looking at battering behavior. They broke down categories of abusers to the following groups:
Entitlement based: this category is based in privilege, and a belief in personal righteousness to punish others. Steve and Dorothy described this group as calculated, not being "out of control," and in many cases use anger as a tool by faking it or investing in "righteous anger" to justify abusive behavior. They detailed a subcategory of materially motivated abusers who are primarily wanting money and resources. These abusers are exploitative, see women as interchangeable and disposable, do not have jealousy toward their victims, expect services without needing to reciprocate (such as with chores, sex, etc), have contempt for their victims, view women as restricting their liberty, lack empathy, and some are criminally minded (trafficking behavior, drug sales and use, rarely having police calls from their victims).
Survival based: these abusers must have their partner to survive, and to keep their image of themselves intact. Their reaction to potential loss of a relationship is not fear, but terror. Their response to a sense of betrayal is not anger, but rage. These individuals have a strong cycle of abuse, have an abusive personality structure, and inhibit total desperation behind their motives. These abuser have borderline traits, even if they do not have borderline personality disorder. They have rage at imperfection, are aloof and narcissistic, and terrified of both separation and closeness. They often create self fulfilling prophecies, and have great perceptions of scarcity. They have an attitude of not ever going back to nothing, no matter what they have to do. During the presentation, Mel Gibson was used to illustrate this point by listening to a violent rant against his ex-partner. Protective orders may heighten danger in some cases, and as a general rule victims/survivors should be given the opportunity to get a protective order but never required to obtain one. When analyzing ACE results, the top three factors discovered with survival based abusers were experiences of emotional abuse, having a substance addicted caretaker, and having parental separation. The most dangerous types of survival based batterers were dependency types during separation, and antisocial types during relationships.
Sadistic based: These abusers derive pleasure by causing pain. They are very intelligent, and often have power within their career. Their abusive behavior often begins long after marriage, and they often hide abuse and think of it as a game. Victims are often noticed when they first enter into psychiatric units and are often seen as "compliant."
Personally, I am not big on categorization of types of abusers. I have experienced over time in my work that individuals follow unique patterns, and thinking about general categories can easily lead to dehumanizing or believing only certain approaches might work with an individual. That said, I am not entirely clear how Family Peace Initiative uses these categories in their work. If I am looking at overlapping patterns of behavior in men in my groups, I speak about certain categories from within those patterns as opposed to generalizing people into groups. For example, I have seen many men with abusive patterns of behavior who enter into relationships solely for sexual intercourse, but don't really want to develop an intimate relationship. These patterns can lead to unplanned pregnancy, unplanned (and undesired) marriage, a serial pattern of cheating - and these patterns can be discussed as a whole, and where those patterns might have impacts. I use those patterns to humanize the disrespectful and destructive choices and speak to methods of working toward respect and health that fit into individual cases. The milieu of presenting within a small time frame, and inability to discuss these methods also may contribute to my not understanding the context of FPI's categorizations.
Next, I went to both Steve and Dorothy's presentations on "The River of Cruelty" to see their differing perceptions and understanding of a core component of their curriculum. Overall, I appreciated their different takes, and Trish Taylor's presentation with Dorothy. Their way of explaining cruelty is in reflecting on behavior that intentionally causes pain and fear, or behavior that is willfully and blatantly neglectful of others. In these smaller workshops, participants had a chance to brainstorm examples in each of the categories. It was not directly stated, but I got the impression that FPI does the discussion similarly in their group sessions. Steve discussed how they encourage facilitators to lead by example and discuss their own patterns, which enters into a needed discussion about self-disclosure and its dynamics even if it was not the time for it during the presentation.
Cruelty: FPI provided a handout on the "River of Cruelty Map" to help discuss the ways cruelty impacts people's lives. It starts with discussions of cruelty children experience, and we as a group listed several examples - some personal, some just based in knowledge of the violence and abuse children face from parents and others. I think this discussion grounded the topic, and when participants asked challenging questions about how to respond to a BIP participant who either refused to participate, or participated inappropriately, FPI staff provided compassionate yet accountability minded responses. It was an ongoing point that understanding experiences of trauma does not excuse someone from their own violent and abusive choices, but it expands accountability to the need to work toward personal healing and self-care.
Adverse Feelings: I noticed during this part of the discussion that the initial discussion seems to be to brainstorm so-called negative emotions. I found it important to name other adverse feelings as a result of cruelty, such as happiness. Sometimes when people have experienced cruelty, if they believe they are responsible for that cruelty that was done to them, they may feel guilt associated with happiness, or may avoid feeling happy because they do not think they deserve it. Understanding some of these broader applications is important, in my assessment. However, this exercise gives a venue to discuss emotions and sensations without using them to justify.
Defense Systems: These examples can provide opportunity to reflect on abusive behavior as a defense, or even to discuss resistive violence. The category can also be used to look at responses people take based in gender role training that can easily become toxic.
Unintended Consequences: In one of my groups last night, I decided to have a conversation over the "River of Cruelty" and had some interesting participation from the men in the group. They, when talking about people inflicting cruelty, seemed to want to focus on a need for revenge, particularly against people who might hurt their children. This branched into a discussion of the unintentional consequences on self and others by making such a choice - by using such a defense system. Intended outcomes are often so much different than unintended consequences and this is a good thing to discuss and reflect on in BIP classes.
Beliefs-Attitudes: When facing unintended consequences, it is a natural response to develop beliefs or attitudes about the entire experience of cruelty, the results of trauma. Seeing how entitled and disconnected beliefs and attitudes become amplified after experiencing patterns of cruelty might be an excellent avenue to explore development of empathy and repairs.
Overall, the conference provided excellent dialog over complicated topics, allowed me to engage with peers and colleagues, share my experience with newcomers to the work, and increased my understanding that working with intentional connectedness to others, even those I don't agree with on 100% of our practices, is CRITICAL to learning and growing personally - and in working toward progress on building health and respect, as well as ending violence and abuse.