Moving Beyond Accountability for Those Who Batter

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If you have worked within the movement to end domestic violence for any length of time, you have heard the mantra, “Victim safety and batterer accountability”.  This mantra sums up the focus of the fight to end gender-based violence.  The proliferation of battering intervention programs was one of multiple ways the system has worked to establish “batterer accountability."  While accountability is a critical element for getting those who batter into our doors, and to keep them there, it is an unfortunate shortcoming for facilitators to rely on accountability as the primary focus of the intervention. It often requires much more to be effective.

I admit that early on in my career, I thought accountability was the answer in working with those who batter.  I wanted them to take complete responsibility for ALL their abusive behavior, and they were going to recognize the impact that their behavior had on their partner and children...whether they wanted to or not.  I saw myself as protecting women by holding participants of my program to a high bar, and I would be satisfied with nothing less.  I was going to get these men to change, as there was simply too much at stake to not. 

As I matured as a facilitator, I recognized the shortsightedness of my early approach. By pushing, demanding and expecting participants to do what I wanted them to do, I was commonly engaging in power struggles with my participants. If I was not in a power struggle, it was likely that the members of my classes were simply telling me what they thought I wanted to hear. Many were not making any genuine change, but I convinced myself that they were. There was no real vulnerability, and little, if any connection.  

I was unintentionally activating the “danger mapping” of my participants.  It is no wonder my groups were unengaging, contentious, and I felt as if I was pulling teeth to get participants to share.

Russell Strand, an internationally recognized expert in child abuse and sexual assault investigations, explains that as a matter of survival, human brains almost immediately “map” those we meet to safety, or to danger. (You might have noticed this, if you’ve ever put a child on a Santa’s lap: some smile and "map" Santa to safety, while others shriek in terror, mapping Santa to danger) When I was so focused on “accountability”, I was unintentionally activating the “danger mapping” of many of my participants.  It is no wonder my groups were unengaging, contentious, and I felt as if I was pulling teeth to get participants to share. Strand says that when someone has mapped a helper to “danger” the helper is  unable to help them make change. Facilitators who focus on accountability as the primary intervention have inadvertently rendered themselves ineffective with many of whom they serve.

Helping people to feel valued and respected even though they have committed horribly cruel acts to those they profess to love, all while holding a high degree of accountability is another mark of a skillful facilitator.

Helping participants feel safe, valued, and respected are three skills that are critical in helping them to “map us to safety” and be willing to accept influence from us.  How to create a space where people can feel comfortable even though they don’t want to be there, is truly an art. Creating a space where people can talk about behaviors, thoughts and feelings that they are afraid or ashamed to talk about is a mark of a skilled facilitator. Helping people to feel valued and respected even though they have committed horribly cruel acts to those they profess to love, all while holding a high degree of accountability is another mark of a skillful facilitator. 

Professionals should be concerned about focusing too heavily on accountability. The risk of activating the participants “danger mapping”, rendering the facilitator’s influence useless is a real possibility. It seems ironic that to provide victims greater safety, we must provide some “safety” to those who batter but research repeatedly shows that the single most important factor in promoting change is the relationship--the connection— not accountability.

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