Rehab Madness

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

When reached by phone to discuss the Daniel Sanders case, all that Sarmanian, his former boss, would say was: "We have a terrible dilemma here." He was talking about the situation facing NYCAAP. But he could have been talking about the state of BIPs in general

The concept of working with men who are violent toward their partners came hard to the battered-women's movement. It began in the 1970s by focusing on counseling, sheltering, and educating the female victims of domestic violence. But as advocates for battered women became increasingly successful in holding the offenders accountable to the criminal-justice system, a new question arose: What sort of accountability would be most effective? For those not sentenced to jail time, it seemed to make sense to put them into classes or counseling, as is done with drunk drivers and drug offenders. "We use these programs as an alternative to nothing," says administrative judge Kluger, emphasizing that BIPs are never used when jail time is available as a sentencing option. "If we ever would have a sense that these programs are harmful in some way, we'd look at that. But no one's ever been able to quantify that in any way."

Kluger is right. Not only can no one agree on what type of programs do the most good and the least harm, but most battered-women's advocates are skeptical of the "anger-management" approach taken by many court-mandated groups. "Overwhelmingly, the men who beat their wives or girlfriends don't have a problem with managing their anger," says Bea Hanson, the director of domestic violence programs for Safe Horizon, the city's largest provider of shelter services for battered women. "They manage their anger on the streets or on the job. The men who batter are making a choice, that they're going to be physically violent toward their partner and not to anybody else." Case in point: the methodically murderous Daniel Sanders, who "certainly had problems, but he was a professional," NYCAAP's Sarmanian, told the Daily Newsshortly after his employee's death.

Groups like NYCAAP, according to several experts in the field, incorporate a therapeutic model for dealing with abusive men. To battered-women's advocates, this emphasis on diagnosable pathologies—such as "explosive disorder"—allows men to evade responsibility for their actions. (It also allows groups that offer counseling to receive reimbursement from Medicaid and insurance companies.)

Patti Jo Newell, director of public policy for the New York State Coalition Against Domestic Violence, says it's difficult to counsel a batterer the way Daniel Sanders did without sympathizing with him. "The minute you take a clinical approach—'I'm going to help this man'—you've entered into a particular kind of relationship," says Newell, "and you start to see their point: 'Well, she really is a bitch'; 'God, he's under so much pressure'; 'boy, he's trying'; 'oh, if I had that childhood'—that kind of thing." Newell, like many others in the movement, insists that any program men are sentenced to should be seen not as an opportunity to improve themselves, but as a penalty and a method of monitoring their compliance with terms of probation, including protection orders. "We see this strictly as having to be related to criminal justice," says Newell. "It is in fact a punishment, a tool for holding them accountable. They may or may not have a change of behavior, they may or may not have a change of mind. That's true of the penal system as well. But you do pay a certain price for having committed a crime."

Only programs based on an educational model are eligible for New York state funding. These programs involve a series of classes taught by male-female teams that present men with a feminist analysis of the dynamics of domestic violence, advancing the theory that the patriarchal nature of society, with its attendant ingrained male privilege, is responsible for battering. If offenders do not attend, their probation officers are notified. Repeated absences can result in stiffer penalties. But there are only five such programs in the state. And even they don't make any claims for effectiveness. In fact, that's one of their hallmarks: Those who administer them are adamant when they say that to expect quantifiable results would be folly. "Truthfully, the minute any program claims to have a specific success rate, that program becomes suspicious in our eyes," says Newell. "The only concrete data is that this person has not reentered the criminal justice system. But that doesn't mean he's not battering. And even if you ask his current partner, even if you got a no, you really couldn't come to any safe conclusion about that, either. Because she might be answering out of fear."

Ted Bunch runs alternatives to violence, the largest BIP in New York City that uses the feminist educational model. Each year, some 1200 to 1300 men pay a sliding-scale fee to take court-mandated classes from the agency. (Another 60 men were transferred to ATV when NYCAAP abruptly shut down.) According to Bunch, approximately 65 percent of men sentenced to attend ATV classes complete the 26-week cycle, but he emphasizes that this rate means nothing about the men's future actions. "We're not even able to measure any change in the men, and we don't profess that we make the changes," he says. "We're just a disposition for the court."

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