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Domestic Violence

Batterer Treatment Programs

In 1984, the Attorney General's Task Force on Family Violence concluded that treatment for domestic violence is most successful when the criminal justice system mandates it. Although the Task Force report recommended incarceration for serious offenses, it encouraged the use of batterer treatment programs in cases where the injury to the victim was not serious. Since then, the criminal justice system has adopted faith in treatment as a matter of policy. Some states require courts to order attendance into a batterer treatment program as a condition of probation. Others have pretrial diversion programs in which first-time offenders can avoid conviction by completing a batterer treatment program. VAWA also endorses batterer treatment for violations of its criminal provisions.

Many states mandate the length and content of treatment programs that can be court ordered, although there is no convincing evidence that either the length or model of the treatment determines its effectiveness. Most court-ordered programs are six months to a year long. Program content varies greatly. Early programs were based on the premise that poor conflict management skills within the relationship caused violence and, therefore, treated both parties. Most court-ordered programs today, however, reject couple's therapy and treat the batterer only. While some programs focus on anger control and the individual's history with violence, increasingly, the majority of court-ordered programs adopt the premise that battering is an outgrowth of patriarchy and focus on the use of violence by the batterer to establish power and control over his victim. Most of these programs will not accept batterers who have substance abuse problems, although more than half of those incarcerated for domestic violence had been using drugs or alcohol at the time of the incident for which they were incarcerated, suggesting that many abusers are in need of multiple interventions (Greenfeld).

Does batterer treatment work? Some available data suggest that court-ordered treatment correlates with a reduction in physical violence, although treatment neither terminates violence in many cases nor curbs the more subtle forms of abuse. However, whether treatment, or simply individual motivation brought on by legal intervention, causes the reduction of violence is unclear. In fact, some studies have found that men arrested and treated resume violent behaviors as frequently as do men arrested and not referred to treatment, and that there is no significant difference between men who complete batterer's treatment and men who drop out of the program (Rosenfeld). The available research on batterer treatment is hampered by the lack of a control group. As of 1999, no study has randomly assigned abusers to incarceration, treatment, or unsupervised probation. A control group would give researchers confidence that treatment, and not some other variable, such as threat of incarceration, individual motivation, support from one's partner, social stigma, or other factors, are influencing a change in behavior. Additionally, many studies are methodologically unsound. Sample sizes are often too small to draw valid conclusions and drop-out rates are high. Even more troubling is that most studies that report treatment successes include only subjects who have no substance abuse problems, no psychiatric difficulty, and high motivation. Thus, the complex question of which programs work best for whom, and under what circumstances, remains largely unanswered.

Finally, some jurisdictions have established specialized probation units. Probation officers trained in domestic violence intensively supervise abusers, following their progress in treatment and at home. This is considered to be the last loophole that the criminal justice system needs to close in order to hold abusers accountable for their crimes.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawDomestic Violence - Who Are The Abusers? Who Are The Victims?, The Causes Of Domestic Violence, Federal Approaches To Domestic Violence