When it comes to reducing domestic violence, one type of program — batterers’ intervention — has proven to decrease the recurrence of abuse. Sadly, it is underutilized in Maine, with less than a third of convicted offenders required to complete it as part of their probation in 2013.
Gov. Paul LePage, who has made reducing domestic violence incidents a centerpiece of his tenure, in addition to lawmakers, district attorneys and judges, should work together to ensure batterers’ intervention is more widely required.
Batterers’ intervention is an intensive, 48-week program in which convicted offenders learn to understand — and take responsibility for — the patterns of their abuse. The bottom line is that abuse is about power and control, and it’s not the victim’s fault.
Studies have found that offenders who complete batterers’ intervention are less likely to reoffend. Batterers’ intervention also addresses the underlying reasons for abuse when other programs, such as anger management and counseling, do not.
The Maine Department of Corrections regularly reiterates this in its reports to the Legislature. “The percentage of probationers being sentenced to anger management rather than batterers intervention programs is of concern; there is a great deal of research which states that battering is not about anger but rather is about power and control,” the department wrote to the 125th Legislature.
Nick Perry described his experience with anger management and batterers’ intervention to Erin Rhoda, the BDN’s Maine Focus editor, who took a lengthy look at the program. After a 2002 incident in which he hit a woman, he was sentenced to probation and anger management. He said his counselor had him talk about his childhood, which Perry said didn’t address why he was abusive. He also learned to count backwards from five when he was angry.
He was arrested in 2011 for chasing a woman and threatening to hurt her. His sentence included batterers’ intervention. Through it, he learned he was being selfish and blamed his victims for things that were not her fault.
“The more knowledge we get out there about domestic abuse, the safer it will be for victims in general,” Perry said.
Yet, too few offenders in Maine are directed to batterers’ intervention. Instead, district attorneys and judges continue to rely heavily on anger management and counseling, which often are covered by health insurance, including MaineCare. Batterers’ intervention is not.
The first thing Maine needs is a coordinated plan, which outlines best practices, for responses to domestic violence. Now, where an offender and his or her victim live could determine what type of punishment and rehabilitation the offender receives. This is unfair to the offender and the victim. For example, some district attorneys include anger management instead of batterers’ intervention in plea agreements, knowing the offender is more likely to agree to the shorter, less expensive program.
Kennebec and Somerset counties, under District Attorney Maeghan Maloney, offer a good model that could be used statewide. Maloney said she was skeptical at first of the effectiveness of batterers’ intervention. But after she learned more and worked closely with Jon Heath, director of education programs at the Family Violence Project, which runs a batterers’ intervention program, she said she changed her view.
Today, batterers’ intervention is mandatory for domestic violence offenders in Kennebec and Somerset counties, except in unusual cases.
“[Prosecutors] cannot make an offer on a domestic violence case without the batterers’ intervention program included. If they want to [seek anger management], they have to talk to me about it first. Every single offer is mandatory. It simply has to happen. That’s the only way to do it,” Maloney said.
Policymakers need to address the cost of batterers’ intervention for those offenders who truly cannot afford the $35-a-week charge. Several programs charge on a sliding-fee schedule. Iowa allows indigent offenders to perform community service to cover the cost of their attendance at batterers’ intervention. It would not take a large state investment to increase the availability and use of batterers’ intervention programs.
The state and district attorneys also need to keep better data on what programs offenders are referred to, whether they complete them and whether they reoffend. The lack of this data makes it difficult to know what is working and what is not.
Domestic violence remains a serious problem in Maine, annually accounting for half the state’s homicides. Batterers’ intervention programs offer a promising way to reduce the incidence of abuse. It should be more widely used.