Rehab Madness

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

Bunch knew Daniel Sanders from their work together at domestic-violence task force meetings, and he sees Sanders's actions in part as a cautionary tale. "My reaction was disbelief, of course," says Bunch. "At the same time I thought: It's not what you know, it's the choices you make. He chose to work out whatever he had to work out with his ex-partner this way. I was shocked, but at the same time, I really wasn't surprised that men who don't take responsibility or don't have responsibility placed on them would continue to think that they're not ultimately responsible for their own behavior.

"We don't cure you," says Bunch. "We let the men know that, we let the judges know that; we let the partners know that."

Despite, or maybe because of, the ongoing debate over the effectiveness and potential dangers of BIPs, there is no movement in New York to create state standards for these programs. Hanson thinks that a uniform philosophy and guidelines would be helpful, and she's hoping that the Daniel Sanders case might provide a rallying point. "We don't have any guidelines that say that program X is fine and program Y isn't," she says. "So you can have one man sent to a program like ours, which is a once-a-week, 26-week, all-around education around domestic violence, or you can be sent to a one-day anger management course. And that to me is a real problem."

But since the conventional wisdom holds that men who batter are always at risk of reoffending, wouldn't it be obvious to at least keep former batterers from serving as counselors? Not according to Phyllis Frank, executive director of VCS, a Rockland County BIP that has been lauded by battered-women's advocates. "I will tell you that there is not man working with me who I would say is or is not a former perpetrator," she says. "I don't ask. The reality is that men in this culture, by virtue of what we teach them, use controlling strategies and tactics with their partners as part of normal life. To weed out men who have ever done an abusive thing against a woman would mean there would be no instructors."

But Bunch would like to see some kind of screening system for BIP employees, even though he concedes it would not catch every potential problem person. (Safe Horizon and ATV already screen all job applicants for felony convictions.) "One of the things we do not endorse is someone who's had a so-called domestic violence problem and now he's 'dealt with it' and wants to come work," Bunch says."We believe that you don't become recovered from this thing. We're hoping that the Sanders incident will help to push for a commitment to standards, not only for programs, but also with workers, some kind of credentials, some kind of education." The horror of the Sanders case notwithstanding, it seems unlikely that there will be a groundswell of support for stricter regulations of BIPs. "It's a fairly controversial issue," Newell notes. "If you were to issue standards, it's effectively having the state put a stamp of approval on something that we don't believe to be provable." And so the idea of imposing standards for BIPs will likely remain where it has for the past two decades: in limbo.

Bunch, who has educated thousands of domestic-violence offenders—and who, one morning, opened the newspaper to read that one of those men had killed his partner and himself—takes a philosophical approach, perhaps because to do otherwise would be too grim. "What we invest in isn't about saving that individual man. It's a social problem needing a social response. We're part of that response. Even if it means continuing to educate the courts that batterers' programs are not the cure. We hope that the information we give plants a seed that brings change to his life and his partner's life and everyone he's involved with, but we can't invest in that."

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