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."

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 News shortly 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."

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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