Some Good News About Batterers (Really!): Q&A With Dr. Amie Zarling

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Frequent visitors to This Space know I talk a lot about batterers. More specifically, I complain about them: how destructive they are, how the culture sometimes tolerates or even condones their violence. But these days, what bothers me most about batterers is how poorly society deals with them. Our preferred intervention, jail and other legal remedies, isn’t getting us where we want to go in reducing incidence rates.

One of our biggest problems here is that most batterer intervention programs, or BIPs—the state-sanctioned kind offenders are sent to as part of their punishment—well, they kind of suck, IMHO. (See here for details of said sucking.) So you can imagine how delighted I was to see a study for a new kind of intervention which shows, at least so far, significantly improved results compared to traditional BIPs.

Amie Zarling, the lead researcher, is an assistant professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Iowa State University. She chatted with me recently about her study’s results, and some ways she thinks traditional batterer treatments may be getting it wrong.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lady Troubles: What first got you interested in working with domestic violence perpetrators?

Amie Zarling: In graduate school, my first few research projects focused on “common couple violence” in marriage and intimate relationships. I was also being trained as a clinical psychologist, and came to be trained in and passionate about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). For my [Ph.D.] dissertation, I examined ACT as an intervention for partner-aggressive individuals from the community. [Ed. note: My father is this dude, so I have a pro-ACT bias. But the data don’t care who my Dad is, do they?] Then when the Iowa Department of Corrections approached my research lab about developing a new program for court-mandated domestic violence offenders, I jumped at the chance to apply ACT to this population.

LT: What’s unique about the study you’ve done?

AZ: My understanding is that Iowa is the first state to allow researchers to come in and pilot a program like this [with court-mandated offenders]. No other state in the U.S. has permitted the testing of new interventions that might be more effective than traditional—and unsuccessful—approaches. The state of Iowa Department of Corrections was instrumental in getting this off the ground. This is also the first study in which researchers have had the opportunity to incorporate an intervention other than the traditional approaches into a state court-mandated Batterers Education Program.couplefight

What kind of treatment do abusers typically get in those programs?

AZ: Traditional batterers programs are based on feminist theory, called “the Duluth Model,” or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). In practice, most state-sanctioned intervention programs are a blend of both Duluth and CBT, and are based on the assumption that men’s desire for power and control is the main cause of violence against women.

Also, though [group] facilitators in Duluth/CBT programs vary, the facilitators are often confrontational and sometimes even shaming toward participants. The men may be forced to be accountable for their violent acts at the very first group meeting, which means they are required to “admit” to their violence in front of strangers or they cannot continue in group. Another aspect of Duluth groups is that facilitators often behave in an authoritarian and controlling manner when leading the groups, which are exactly the types of behaviors they are telling the men to stop.

LT: Does this approach work?

AZ: Studies have shown that, on average, a man who has been arrested, sanctioned and completed a traditional intervention program (Duluth, CBT, or a combination of both) is only 5% less likely to perpetrate physical aggression toward a female partner than a man who has only been arrested and sanctioned.

LT: I’ll take that as a “no.” So what do your group facilitators do differently?

AZ: The intervention we used in this experiment is called Achieving Change Through Valued Behavior (or ACTV, pronounced “active”) and is based heavily on ACT Therapy. The use of ACT leads to several differences from traditional programs. First, the facilitator is collaborative and non-confrontational. The facilitators relate to the participants from an equal, compassionate and genuine point of view. The facilitators are encouraged to model the supportive, respectful behavior they want the participants to engage in.

There are also different techniques used in ACTV. The primary difference from traditional programs is much more emphasis on skills training. There are four types of sessions included in ACTV: emotional skills, cognitive skills, behavioral skills, etc. Participants are exposed to “the Matrix,” a tool to engage in activities to help them connect with their values. Most of these men have never been asked or thought about their values, and it was a pleasant surprise for me to learn that almost all of them have the same values as you and me, such as family, children, love and meaningful work.

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Photo by Matteo Parrini.

LT: Some would say that batterers simply belong in jail. They commit terrible, violent crimes, and their psychological needs are not society’s problem. What do you say to that?

AZ: I think there are some men who have engaged in domestic violence who will not change their behavior or benefit from an intervention program, so prison may be the best place for them. These are the offenders who are likely to have psychopathic traits and lack remorse or guilt. In my experience, this describes a small but not insignificant (5% or so) proportion of the men in these programs. However, most of the men are greatly impacted by the ACTV program and do change their behavior. Moreover, from the taxpayers’ perspective, the ACTV program is a lot more cost-effective than prison.

LT: What are the next steps for you? How do you hope to make this treatment accessible to more people?

AZ: So far we have preliminary data showing that ACTV reduces recidivism rates for violent offenses by half compared to Duluth/CBT. [Ed note: !!!] The next step is collecting data on processes that explain the effectiveness of ACTV. We have also been asked to apply ACTV to females arrested for domestic violence.

In terms of making this type of treatment more widely accessible, it will take time. A few other states have expressed interest in ACTV, and we hope to disseminate the new program widely while also keeping quality control in mind. Learning to facilitate ACTV takes a lot more time and energy up front, and requires facilitators who are willing to go beyond their comfort zone. That extra time and effort is a small price to pay for reduced domestic violence.

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