Len came into my office many years ago for a domestic violence assessment. He had been arrested after an incident with his wife and was ordered by the court to complete the assessment and follow the subsequent recommendations. I must admit that I was excited to have the appointment as I was just starting a BIP program in this particular community. He was my very first referral there. I had been in private practice for a few years, and had completed a fair number of assessments in other communities. I have to admit that I thought I was pretty good at my work and I was ready to get this program up and running.
I was confident that this was an incident of situational violence where emotions had gotten out of hand. Nothing indicated a pattern of domination that I was “expert” in detecting.
During my interview with Len, I was struck by how much responsibility he was taking for the incident. He described how his wife, Michelle, had gone on a camping trip with some of her co-workers. She had been drinking most of the weekend and she ended up sleeping with one of her co-workers. Len explained that he had learned of this after she returned home feeling guilty. “I can always tell when she is lying to me.” He said he had been stunned by the news as he never expected Michelle to “stray”. He said that he overreacted and in the “heat of the argument,” slapped her. He had never hit her before and he felt horrible. He had apologized to his wife for his behavior but he could never recover from her cheating on him. Len explained that they were in the middle of divorce proceedings. I listened intently, thinking I was pretty good at my work.
Len was extremely likable and very engaging. I enjoyed visiting with him and quickly knew that I was not going to be recommending him for our program. I was confident that this was an incident of situational violence where emotions had gotten out of hand. Nothing indicated a pattern of domination that I was “expert” in detecting. I returned home to tell Dorthy, my wife and colleague, that I had found the first referral as “not appropriate” for the program. She asked me if I had contacted the victim. I explained that I did not need to as “I KNOW this guy is not a batterer.” Dorthy suggested that I should contact the victim anyway. I told her that I did not have time to do that because I was “very busy”. Dorthy again said that she thought I should contact the victim. I reluctantly agreed to “if I could find the time” in the next few days. After all, I thought I was pretty good at my work, and surely didn’t get this wrong.
The number one reason that batterer intervention programs exists is for the safety of the victim, partner, and children. Helping the person change who is using violence is an important but secondary concern.
I reluctantly contacted Michelle. She showed me quickly that my belief of “I am good at my work,” was actually evidence that I had much more to learn. Michelle came to my office and described her horrific experience of coming home from a weekend camping trip to a husband who was drunk and blind with rage, spewing false accusations he had conjured up in his mind. She explained that she had begged and pleaded with him to come along on the trip as it was a rare weekend where the kids were at grandma’s. We talked and cried together for over 2 hours as she recounted being brutalized by Len late into the evening upon returning home. This conversation with Michelle is forever etched in my mind.
The number one reason that batterer intervention programs exists is for the safety of the victim, partner, and children. Helping the person who is using violence change is an important but secondary concern. When I contact victims/partners now, there are some basic elements that I keep in mind:
- Victims and partners are under no obligation to speak to me about their experience. They are free to refuse.
- Victims and partners are welcome to speak with me under strict confidentiality as far as the law allows. They can also give me permission to use the information in a variety of ways.
- Victims and partners are always welcome to contact me or the staff of FPI at any time with questions and concerns that might arise while the person who abused them is in our program, or after.
- Victims and partners are under no obligation to receive services from anyone. I might offer resources that may be helpful for them, but they have the right to choose.
- Participants of our program are told that we contact victims and partners. So I can assume that many victims and partners have already been coached as to what or what not to say.
- Victims and partners are never responsible for the outcome of the assessment. It is always the responsibility of the assessor.
Contacting victim/partners is a crucial aspect of our batterer intervention program: from being able to warn a victim when risk is elevated and helping victims access services and resources; to learning how a group participant may be using the program as another way to dominate them, and gaining their perspective to help us work with participants trying to change. I have learned a lot over the years of doing this work. Thanks to Michelle, I learned early on that when I find myself thinking that I am good at this work, it is likely evidence that I have much more to learn.