Traditional batterer intervention programs have a big gaping hole: They’re good at describing what men and women do to abuse their partners (intentionally control or dominate an intimate partner), and what they should stop doing (stop using power tactics against their partners), but they don’t get at the roots of why men and women abuse their partners: their adverse childhood experiences.
A handful of people around the U.S. are integrating trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on the science of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) into batterer intervention programs —by pretty much turning them on their heads — with astounding results. The recidivism rate for traditional batterer intervention programs ranges from 20 to 60 percent, according to research cited in a report published by the Duluth Model. These new programs, developed over the last 10 years, are seeing recidivism rates that range from zero to four percent.
Basically, the programs do two things differently:
- They ask people who’ve abused: “What happened to you?” and in that process, ask them about their childhood adversity and educate them about what happened to their brains and behavior as a result of the toxic stress from the ACEs they experienced that led them to abusing others;
- And they’ve designed the entire program to model healthy relationships so that people who abuse can experience what they didn’t see or learn growing up, It starts by naming the Batterer Intervention Program something else, such as Building Healthy Relationships or Breaking the Cycle.
“Since 2011 we have served 311 individuals,” noted Juan Avila, chief operating officer of Garden Pathways, Inc., a family services nonprofit organization in Bakersfield, CA, that that uses the Another Way…Choosing to Change developed by Nada Yorke. “Of the 311 who participated, 193 successfully completed the course. Of the 311 served over the last six years, 19 have been rearrested for domestic violence. That’s 6.1 percent. Of the 193 that completed the course, eight (4.1%) were arrested and convicted of another DV charge.”
In Iowa, a program that emphasizes relationship building, identifying values, and problem-solving, has seen a 3.6 percent recidivism rate after one year. Another program in El Dorado County, CA, has seen a recidivism rate of zero after five years.
Many people in the domestic violence community don’t like abusers being educated about how their ACEs may have led to their abusing behavior, because they think that the abusers will use ACEs an excuse. And many don’t like abusers being treated with respect, kindness or understanding, because they don’t think they deserve it. They’re happy with requiring people who’ve been convicted of domestic violence to confess to the abuse that landed them in jail, and to watch videos of examples of people using power to abuse another.
J.D. Doster, a father of six children and step-father to two, was required to attend a batterer intervention class in 2006 in Bakersfield after he served a two-year sentence for child abuse and abandonment. He hated it.
“You pay to sit down and listen until the hour is up,” he said of the 52-week class and the instructor. “They don’t want to be there any more than you want to be there. They tell you: If you participate, they’ll write a good note. If you don’t, they don’t. They don’t care if you learn anything.”
Two years later, he and his brother, Mikke Fergerson, had a conversation about how they wanted better lives for their children. Fergerson’s marriage was close to collapse. He’d heard about a free program offered at Garden Pathways and asked if Doster would go with him. He agreed.
“After the first two sessions, I was ecstatic,” recalls Doster. “They don’t play the blame game. This was about how to fix yourself. I needed to learn how to become a better father, not just a better man. When Ms. Yorke’s program came along, it was the perfect antidote to the poison inside of me. It not only helped me release that poison, it explained why I was that person, and how to get to be a better person. It showed me how I had become my own worst enemy.”
Doster, who once ran drugs and sold guns, now owns his own rural financial services business, and works with troubled youth in his church. He understands them, he says, because “I was that disrupted little kid when I was growing up. Having to deal with those same kind of kids is easy, because I used to be that person. I know why they are doing what they’re doing — because they were scared.”
ACEs, or adverse childhood experiences, was a phrase coined during the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study), whose first results were published in 1998. The study looked at how 10 types of childhood trauma affect long-term health. They include: physical, emotional and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; living with a family member who’s addicted to alcohol or other substances, or who’s depressed or has other mental illnesses; experiencing parental divorce or separation; having a family member who’s incarcerated, and witnessing a mother being abused.
Subsequent ACE surveys include racism, witnessing violence outside the home, bullying, losing a parent to deportation, living in an unsafe neighborhood, and involvement with the foster care system. Other types of childhood adversity can also include being homeless, living in a war zone, being an immigrant, moving many times, witnessing a sibling being abused, witnessing a father or other caregiver or extended family member being abused, involvement with the criminal justice system, attending a school that enforces a zero-tolerance discipline policy, etc.
The ACE Study is one of five parts of ACEs science, which also includes how toxic stress from ACEs damage children’s developing brains; how toxic stress from ACEs affects health; and how it can affect our genes and be passed from one generation to another (epigenetics); and resilience research, which shows the brain is plastic and the body wants to heal. Resilience research focuses on what happens when individuals, organizations and systems integrate trauma-informed and resilience-building practices, for example in education and in the family court system.
The ACE Study found that the higher someone’s ACE score – the more types of childhood adversity a person experienced – the higher their risk of chronic disease, mental illness, violence, being a victim of violence and a bunch of other consequences. The study found that most people (64%) have at least one ACE; 12% of the population has an ACE score of 4. Having an ACE score of 4 nearly doubles the risk of heart disease and cancer. It increases the likelihood of becoming an alcoholic by 700 percent and the risk of attempted suicide by 1200 percent. (For more information, go to ACEs Science 101. To calculate your ACE and resilience scores, go to: Got Your ACE Score?)
There are two other aspects of the ACE Study that are relevant for reducing family violence: First, the research shows that men who have high ACE scores have a higher risk of perpetrating domestic abuse. Women with high ACE scores have a higher risk of being abused. Second, one type of ACE is no more damaging than another. That is, an ACE score of 4 that includes divorce, physical abuse, an incarcerated family member and a depressed family member has the same statistical outcome as an ACE score of 4 that includes living with an alcoholic, verbal abuse, emotional neglect and physical neglect. This explains why programs that focusing only on preventing violence will never stop violence.
Nada Yorke didn’t know about ACEs science when she retired from her job as a probation officer in Kern County, CA, 10 years ago, and started a master’s program in social work. Before she left the probation department, she had been working with victims of domestic violence, and became interested in working with batterers. She wondered why many were going through an intervention program, but had not stopped abusing their partners. As part of her university program, she developed and tested a batterer intervention program in Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, CA, and then later at Garden Pathways. She designed the program to be trauma-informed from the get-go.
“I emphasize strengths,” she says. “For example, in doing an anger scale — on scale of 1-10, if you were at a 7, I asked, ‘What kept you from going to an 8? You could have gone off the scale.’ I designed it to build on their strengths, and helped them to look at the positive choices that they were able to make.”
A couple of years into developing the batterer intervention program, she learned about ACEs science. She decided to integrate information about the ACE Study and the 10-question survey into the program, and learned that many of the participants had high ACE scores. She discovered that scores of 7, 8, and 9 were common.
“Learning about the ACE Study showed them that they’re not crazy, that they’re not weak, that they were primed for choices and behaviors,” she says, “And now this knowledge gave them an opportunity to boost their esteem in a healthy way and to build in resilience.”
She provided information about the consequences of high ACE scores, such as that for people with an ACE score of 4 or higher, their risk of becoming an IV drug user increased 800 percent.
“There was a guy who was an IV drug user,” recalls Yorke. “He said that it was the first time realized that he wasn’t a bad person…a weak person who couldn’t manage life. I told him, ‘You were already primed to turn to drugs to escape from your life issues.’
Some in her class were reluctant to take the survey. Yorke recalls one man who kept saying, “I have no issues in my home.” But she knew his background, and the fact that he was in and out of prison belied his answer.
“So, I told him: ‘OK, you don’t have any issues. So, fill it out for your child.’ That got to him, and he was able to see that his child was experiencing what he had experienced. It was amazing just to see their eyes open to how their past experiences had influenced their choices. When they see their children on the same path, and they understand that they can mitigate their kids’ experiences, it motivates them to learn how to handle stress differently.”
Whereas many traditional batterer intervention programs focus on the various techniques that men use to control their partners, Yorke taught them how to regulate their emotions, and variations of mindfulness training that included relaxation techniques. She taught them that self-care was important to staying mentally healthy and able to control their emotions, so she had them monitor their sleep, nutrition, and exercise. Instead of lectures and requiring everyone to participate in class — a situation in which many people feel unsafe —she had them work in small groups where they could sit with one or two people and do problem-solving together.
“Batterers have the sense that their partner is supposed to know how to read their minds and meet their every need,” she says. She explained to the men that it was their responsibility to care for themselves, not their partner’s, and part of that understanding was helping them understand that their emotions related more to past experiences than to the present.
“If your caregiver was not available to you when you were a child,” she told them, “how many times are you going to punish your partner for what your caregiver did not provide for you? Maybe your partner is late to an event and you react like a 10, even though wasn’t that big of a deal. How many of you are punishing your partner because your mom passed out on the couch and wasn’t able to attend your event?”
She gave the participants homework, including keeping a gratitude journal. “When we focus on what we’re thankful for, that changes the brain,” she explains. “I have them look for the positive in their partner and their kids, instead of staying in being hypervigilant and looking for danger, which is where people who have high ACE scores live.”
She remembers one of the men in the program who had a volatile temper. “One day he told me that he saw his wife pick up a towel up off the floor. He asked her why she was doing that. She answered, ‘I hung it up for you.’ And then he said he told her, ‘Thank you,’ and she just stared at him. She’d never heard him thank her before. I said ‘Great! This week you’re going to go for two thank-yous!’”
She also had them talk about how their losses affected their decisions about themselves and others in their relationships. If they lost a pet, and their parents didn’t help them grieve, but shrugged and said they could just get another, “they get the message that somebody important to you that you loved is replaceable. That resonated with one of the men in the community program, a quiet but engaged guy in his 40s. He related how his father had purposely left the gate open for his dog to run away.
“I could suddenly see the eight-year-old who had just lost his dog. He was angry, and he’d kept that emotion bottled up for more than 30 years. He was incredulous that his dad could have done that,” she says. “How a child is counseled to express grief impacts their attachment to adult relationships. It can result in a desire to control: I’m not letting my partner leave me because I’m afraid I’ll go over the edge.” One man who was a gang member told Yorke that when his mother died, he felt that he couldn’t cry, because he had to be the strong one in the family. Yorke suggested that he no longer had to be strong, and he could go home and cry that evening.
“They’ve never been given permission to talk about grief, much less express it,” she says. “We talked about how, as fathers, what they could do differently.”
A lot of healing has to take place, Yorke says. “You have to allow opportunities for the participants to share the experiences that shaped and influenced their own behaviors and then teach them different ways to cope. And you’ve got to show that you care for them. How can you respect and love somebody else if you don’t know what it looks like, or if you haven’t felt respect and love?”
J.D. Doster says the course helped him understand that he came from lifestyle where there wasn’t an option to do anything different. “Uncles, aunts, parents, grandparents…all were stuck in lifestyle of negativity and stupidity,” he says. “I was able to figure out the root to my problems. I wasn’t a good man. On a scale from 1-10, I was a two. I was so hateful, that didn’t even know why I was so hateful.
"The course helped show me that I didn’t have to be that person," he continues. "The choice was up to me now. I don’t live in that heartache and pain anymore. I married again, something I thought I would never do. Started my own business. Bought a home. I used to be selling dope, running guns. I’d never thought I’d be working 9-5. Now, it’s like WOW! There’s a second chance.”
Doster’s brother, Mikke Fergerson, a disabled mechanic who’s the father of six children and grandfather to two, says that “without that class, I’d be in a broken relationship, going through the same cycle, not being able to communicate, not being able to stay there without storming off and staying mad and coming back mad. It’s taught me a lot. I liked the classes so much always eager to go. For 52 weeks, I went religiously.” And when it was over, he asked Yorke to do more classes. He didn't want to stop learning.
After every class, he went home and talked with his wife, Angela, about what he’d learned. “It really helped with my communication skills,” he says. “I could use the proper words to speak to people without being insulting or belittling. I could say ’I feel’, instead of ‘You do this’.
Yorke published her curriculum in 2012. Another Way…Choosing to Change is available as a participant’s handbook and a facilitator’s guide, and is designed as a 52-week program, which many states require for people who are convicted of domestic violence.
Another Way is different from traditional models, most of which are based on the Duluth Model that came out in 1981. “Mine is more strength-based. It looks at what participants are doing well, not what they’re doing wrong. We don’t focus a lot of time on their acts of violence. We identify the negative, but teach to the positive. Other programs have participants start out with: ‘Hi. I’m Joe and I slap my wife. Or having the facilitator remind a participant: ‘You’re the one who strangled her.’ I don’t believe in reinforcing that, partly because DV is a pattern of behavior. It’s not just one incident. And that approach reduces their violence to one incident. If we don’t model what a healthy connection looks like, how can we expect to go out and do it themselves?”
She has a module that covers ACEs science, and has designed the entire curriculum around what research says about understanding about stress, brain science, how they’ve been wired because of experiences they’ve had, and how to change that for their own children.
Although Yorke thinks the program can be useful for spouses, she thinks they should participate in their own life skills program that mirrors her program, but not until the men have been in the program for at least 90 days.
“Sometimes in the beginning,” she explains, “women think he’s the broken toaster, and would see attending the program as unnecessary or punitive. And men think I’m going to talk their partners into leaving them. We believe that until a man’s been in the program for 90 days, it’s not a good idea to start bringing in their partner. He has to get past power and control issues, stop blaming his partner, and understand that he has problems and accepts responsibility for changing his behavior."
Yorke’s program is being used in several communities around the United States. She’s also been teaching probation officers about the program and ACEs science, to help them make informed choices about which batterer intervention program to use.
From late 2015 through early 2017, at the Valley Family Center, in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, CA, James Encinas developed and tested out a batterer intervention program that’s founded on ACEs science. Encinas is a former Santa Monica elementary school teacher, a fellow from the first class of Aspen Institute's Teacher Leaders, and a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network. His book, Wheeling to Healing…Broken Heart on a Bicycle: Understanding and Healing Adverse Childhood Experiences, which came out two months ago, looks at how his childhood experiences of witnessing his father abusing his mother led to the abuse he committed on his own wife.
Over the course of those 15 months, Encinas led four groups with 12 people in each group. Three of the groups were for men; one was for women who had abused their spouses. All the participants had been convicted of domestic violence, and had chosen to attend the 52-week course instead of going to jail.
“We’re not there to change behavior,” Encinas says about his program. “We’re there to provide the tools so that they can heal.” He’s also cognizant that the program isn’t just about the individual, but about their family.
“Maybe initially, because of the danger factor, the partners need to be separated,” he says “But there has to be a next step, in terms of us healing versus breaking them apart. That also minimizes ACEs in children. We have to think of the whole family unit; the fact that we isolate individuals makes no sense.”
When he first gave the ACE survey to the participants, they said their ACE scores ranged from zero to two. He learned that he had to create a safe place before the men and women would be ready to talk about their childhoods.
“I needed to create safety, because most of the individuals are in survival brain,” he says. “To confront them with questions without creating that safe space, it’s not going to be effective. They’re not taking it to heart, not making it theirs.”
So, he began giving the ACE survey twice: once at the start, and once six months into their work together. “It totally changes how they identify with those questions,” he says. “Where they had put zero or 1 before, they were saying they had 5, 6, 7, 9 ACEs. That’s also because they had a better understanding of the developmental impact of ACEs.”
Like Yorke, Encinas uses a variety of exercises based on the resilience aspect of ACEs science: tai chi, mindfulness, and making masks, which helps them see the difference between the face they show to the world and the face they see in the mirror. He helps them take a step back, to look at what happened to them, and have a sense of who they can be, versus how they’ve been taught to see themselves.
He had them map their childhood journey from birth to the present by gluing string, pebbles and fake flowers onto white poster board. Their life journey is the string; the pebbles are experiences of abuse or struggle; the flowers represent experiences where they built resilience.
Encinas says his role is to make this journey into understanding themselves and others accessible. “I help them see when someone else is angry, or they are angry, rather than engaging with the anger, to think about what led them to the anger,” he explains. “Healing can only occur when they take a risk to be vulnerable, to tap into parts of their lives that are difficult, shameful and hurtful. Healing can only occur in community with another, when we come together and share what happened with others. It doesn’t happen when it’s me telling you what’s wrong with you.”
At some point, the participants engage in this process of learning about their emotions, why they express them when they do, how they can heal, and how they can regulate their responses to situations that would have otherwise triggered them.
“I don’t think you’re ever fully healed,” says Encinas. “It’s a lifelong process. I’m here to provide them with tools to deal with everyday experiences they encounter. The things that I’ve found that work for me — self-regulation, better self-awareness, tapping into their bodies, engaging left and right brain. I wouldn’t be able to do any of this without the ACEs science. I wouldn’t have a point of engagement.”
When Jose, a 47-year-old man who works in a landscaping business, participated in Encinas' class, he was able to understand how his childhood had led not only to how he had abused his wife, but to his considering suicide. When he was eight years old, Jose’s father abandoned the family, out of necessity, to find work elsewhere. Jose began working, and took on the responsibility of his younger brothers and sisters. He remembers often going without food, living on one meal a day. He didn’t have a relationship with his mother, whom he describes as very solitary person, so he kept his problems to himself.
Since participating in the class, his relationship with his son and daughter have greatly improved. He and his wife divorced, and the class helped him remove the animosity he had for her. “The feelings I had,” he says. “They’re gone."
Before the class, his son was content to have short visits with his father. Since the class, “my son doesn’t want leave his dad.” And now, he’s planning on asking his ex-wife for more time with his son.
When I asked him where he would be without this class, he answered: “Who knows what my life would have been? What I’m sure of is that this class has changed my life.”
Ana Zapata was one of the participants in the class for women who were convicted of abusing their spouses. Before being in a relationship in which she was the abuser, she’d been in a relationship where she had been abused. At first, she wasn’t thrilled about the class. That was before Encinas taught it.
“The other person just showed us movies,” says Zapata. “When James came in, instead of talking about the problem, he talked more about healing the problem. He focused on the solution. He didn’t tell us to come down. He taught us and made us find ways to calm down.
“We started doing ACEs the second month he was there. Almost every person did their timeline through childhood. Most of them had traumatizing childhoods, and they said, ‘Oh, wait, I haven’t got over this.’ It helped me to reflect on stuff I avoided or had tried to forget about or put it as a blur, like it never happened. I learned to start dealing with it, to start healing myself, instead of pretending that never happened.
“It felt like a relief to do that. It helped me understand why I react in certain ways…why I was a victim — I hate using that word. When I moved on to my second relationship, I became the abuser. I learned that it’s not okay to be living that way, especially not for my daughter. My self-esteem was really low, so I was building my self- esteem up throughout the year.”
The class helped Zapata start speaking to her nine-year-old daughter in a more calming way. “You can tell the difference,” she says. “When I was going through a lot, she was going through a lot in school, too. Now, she sees me calmer. And she is calmer. She feels more loved, too. She’s happier.”
Encinas is publishing his program later this year, in a guidebook called the Wheeling to Healing Guidebook that he’s writing with Dr. Audrey D. Jordan, a consultant and former director of community engagement and evaluation at the Full Frame Initiative. It’s organized as a series of stories interspersed with skills and tools.
Earlier this year, Encinas participated in a roundtable discussion sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime and Office on Violence Against Women. It was called Programs for DV Offenders: Current Trends, Alternative Models, and Promising Practices. A panel comprising Native American and Latino women and men said that their healing tools developed over thousands of years — relational tools, tools about loving people — had been ignored by people in the domestic violence movement. They challenged discussion participants to understand that most of the models used currently don’t work because they don’t include engaging with people with an open heart and developing a relationship. They said that social-emotional intelligence is as important as intellectual.
“They’re tired of having their men locked up,” says Encinas. “Tired of having their families broken apart. There’s enough damage through racism and intergenerational violence done to these people. They said they wanted people who develop these programs to get away from intellect and to open their hearts.”
Those gathered looked at the history of domestic violence and the development of batterer intervention programs. Out of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s came the belief that domestic violence was learned behavior. In the 1980s, it became criminalized, and many states developed a zero-tolerance policy in which perpetrators of abuse were arrested the first time that police were called to an address. In the 1990s, batterer intervention programs became intellectualized, with models and evidence-based practices. At the end of the meeting, the consensus was that domestic violence advocates had to move in a different direction.
“This isn’t about punishing or imprisoning or tearing apart homes,” Encinas says. “It’s about healing. We need to give people who are broken the tools so that they’re able to function.”
He acknowledges that there’s a lot of resistance to this approach, just as there has been in education and other sectors where trauma-informed and resilience-building practices based on ACEs have started to be implemented.
“These systems are ingrained,” says Encinas. “When you throw the word ‘love’ out there, people see it as an ineffective concept, not something that is a powerful tool. In fact, it’s the most powerful tool. ACE science allows you to come into relationship with people from a nonjudgement place.”
This week, Encinas is doing a presentation with Dr. Linda Chamberlain, who has integrated ACEs science into a domestic violence toolkit, at a workshop at the 8th Biennial National Conference on Health and Domestic Violence in San Francisco, CA. In November, he will attend, along with other people who are working to move batterer intervention programs away from a punishment model, the 2017 international conference on domestic violence perpetration sponsored by the Batterer Intervention Services Coalition of Michigan.
Eventually, Encinas wants to create a live-in program for men who have abused their spouses, a house where they live for two years. The current system of handling those convicted of abuse just abuses them and their families more, he says. Many of those who are convicted of abuse are living just above the poverty line. They’re usually given restraining orders so they can’t live with their wives. But they’re still responsible for the rent, otherwise their kids end up homeless, which means they can’t afford their own apartment. So, they themselves end up homeless or living in flophouses while trying to hold down a job.
“I think that giving them a place to live, while they still live out their lives, working a job,” says Encinas, “a place with a clear structure and clear boundaries, would provide them the tools to heal.”
In 1998, Judy Knapp — who teaches ACEs science and trauma-informed practices in schools, probation departments, and parenting education classes in jails in El Dorado County, CA — learned about the ACE Study. She was a really early adopter, because that’s the year of the ACE Study’s first of more than 70 publications. Her first response was the same as many others: "No wonder my family is so screwed up."
Her second response was to teach the counselors at the Center for Violence-Free Relationships about ACEs, and they began asking clients about their ACE scores and educating them about ACEs.
Her third response was to change how the people who participated in the domestic violence and batterer intervention programs looked at themselves. She began using ACEs to explain to the women that their “man-picker” was broken, and to the men that their “woman-picker” was broken. It helped them understand that when they were children, they just didn’t see or experience what they needed to learn to have healthy relationships, and that they didn’t have to be victims or perpetrators forever. It cleared the way for them to understand that they weren’t born bad, that what happened to them as children wasn’t under their control, and that they coped appropriately (smoking, using alcohol or drugs, etc.) given that they weren’t provided healthy coping skills, and that they could change.
Out of that program, Eddie Zacapa, who was a counselor at the Center for Violence-Free Relationships, integrated ACEs science into his own batterer intervention program, which resulted in none of the men who participated in it in 2008 being re-arrested for domestic violence over the next five years.