Rehab Madness

Do Programs for Men Who Batter Women Work? No One Really Knows.

No one will ever know what Daniel Sanders was thinking at lunchtime last December 15, when he confronted his ex-girlfriend, Doris Coleman, and her new boyfriend, Lawrence Feaster, outside Coleman's midtown office. But Sanders was packing a gun, and he certainly conducted himself like a man with a plan. First he shot Feaster in the chest, leaving him to die outside the building where he had come to meet Coleman for lunch. Then Sanders shot Coleman in the leg and face before chasing her through the holiday crowds out into an alleyway just around the corner from Lord & Taylor's windows. As she begged for her life, he killed her with a bullet to the forehead.

It was the kind of murder sometimes referred to as a crime of passion, but eyewitness accounts indicate that Sanders stayed focused throughout and got the whole job done without endangering any bystanders. Eleven hours later, outside a Bronx precinct house, Sanders said to two cops, "Excuse me, officers, I have a gun and I'm going to shoot myself," put the gun to his head, and pulled the trigger. He never regained consciousness and died the next night at Jacobi Medical Center.

The shocking thing about Sanders's crime wasn't the fact that he killed a woman who had been his partner or that he then killed himself; that kind of thing happens all too often. It wasn't even Sanders's choice of time and venue for the act, although the fact that Christmas shoppers were witness to the brutal slayings earned his crime some extra ink. What made this cold-blooded act particularly disturbing was Sanders's job: He worked as a counselor for men convicted of domestic violence crimes—in spite of the fact that he had served time for robbery in 1968 and attempted murder in 1974, and had been arrested in 1989 on a domestic violence charge. His employer, the New York City Alternative Assistance Program (NYCAAP), was the second-largest provider of court-mandated services for convicted batterers in the city.

"Excuse me, officers, I have a gun and I'm going to shoot myself."

Was, because as the Voice has learned, NYCAAP closed its doors in early January. Although D. Jack Sarmanian, the program's executive director, refused to comment on the reason for the shutdown or to discuss anything about his group's methodology, New York court officials confirm that they have cut ties with the agency. "We don't do business with NYCAAP anymore," says David Bookstaver, a spokesman for the New York State Courts. "That was as of several weeks ago, shortly after that incident occurred. Because we felt, and I'm simply going to say it like this, they could no longer really meet the requirements that we have in place."

"Look, this was a horrific, tragic situation," says Judy Kluger, the administrative judge of New York's Criminal Court who has won praise from battered-women's advocates for her role in strengthening the city judiciary's response to domestic violence. "We were in contact with them immediately and we ceased using them immediately. But we had no indication before that there was anything going on in the program that was objectionable, because had there been, we would certainly have stopped using them. I think this incident that happened was not necessarily tied into what the program itself was doing. This was an individual who had a history, and we were not aware of that history."

But how could a man with such a history be working as a counselor in a court-mandated program for batterers? The answer is disturbing. While it's not possible to guarantee that men working in batterers' intervention programs (BIPs) are not abusive in their own relationships, the oversight mechanisms present in some other states are lacking in New York. There are no standards for court-mandated BIPs; any agency can set up shop and try to get a district attorney to recommend its program to judges as a sentencing alternative. The New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence (NYSOPDV) only recommends which approach to use; there is no restriction on former batterers working for the programs and no screening requirement for the staff. And at the most fundamental level, there is no solid evidence that BIPs stop men from battering again.

No comprehensive studies have been done to measure the difference in recidivism between men who attend such programs and those who do not, and the methodology of the studies that have been done is problematic. Since not all men who batter are arrested for it, researchers are forced to rely on potentially unreliable reports of men and their partners. A 1997 Minnesota study found that men participating in a variety of programs had a reassault rate of between 32 and 39 percent, but there is no way of measuring this against a control group, although program dropouts were 13 percent more likely to reassault. One recent Florida study suggested that men were more likely to be rearrested after counseling, maybe because their partners took them back in the hope that things would be different after completion of the program.

"Batterers' programs are still very controversial, because there hasn't been anything that's shown they are very effective stopping domestic violence," says the NYSOPDV's executive director, Charlotte Watson. "They tend to give a lot of false hope to victims. Because the victim really just wants Prince Charming to come back and the monster to be slain. So when the batterer goes for help, that's often a primary reason the victim will go back to the batterer, because now they think that that nasty side will be taken care of."

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