State policy on abusive men: They will never change

For 10 years, New York state gave $42,000 a year to the Vera House battered women’s shelter to run a program for abusive men.

But state officials discovered the Syracuse agency had committed a serious breach of contract: It tried to change the bad guys. So for the last three years, the state cut off the money.

The state Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence forbids any state-funded batterers programs from trying to rehabilitate abusers.

Anger management? Prohibited.

Alcohol or drug counseling? Forbidden.

Mental health therapy? Can’t do it.

It didn’t used to be that way. The state switched about seven years ago to a philosophy that allows only what amounts to finger-wagging in the 26-week programs it funds. Instructors can only tell the abusers they were wrong and why.

“Why would we do this work if we didn’t believe there was a possibility it could help change abusive men?” asked Vera House’s executive director, Randi Bregman.

The philosophical divide: those who think wife-beaters can change and those who think that even the attempt to change them gives victims false hope for safety.

State officials say programs for batterers should try to hold abusers accountable and persuade them to drop the patriarchal view that men are entitled to dominate women.

“We’re saying we can’t tolerate this as a society,” said Sherry Frohman, the state office’s executive director. “It’s not about being rehabilitated. They can stop using violence at any time. The reality is, they manage their anger just fine. They’re not uncontrollable.”

Frohman said that as a therapist she initially had a hard time accepting the state’s philosophy.

“It was very difficult for me to come to the realization that we couldn’t help somebody,” Frohman said. “Not that they’re not helpable. But that’s the wrong approach in dealing with them, in the same way we’re not doing classes for bank robbers.”

If the state believes its own program can’t change abusers, why is it spending taxpayers’ money on them? asked Kenneth Corvo, a professor of social work at Syracuse University who has studied domestic violence for 20 years.

New York’s philosophy is pervasive across the country, Corvo said. “We’re haunted by this model,” he said.

The dropout rates for batterer programs that follow the state’s philosophy are high, Corvo said. When the dropouts were asked why they quit, they said, “Why would we go and be insulted?” Corvo said.

Frohman said the state maintains existing programs because judges want them. It does not favor adding programs in other counties.

Victims say court-ordered programs put them at more risk, she said, because the men resent being forced to attend.

“This is not just off the tops of our heads,” she said of the no-treatment policy.

Studies have shown that wife-beaters who complete intervention programs are two to three times less likely to abuse again, according to David Adams, a psychologist and head of Emerge in Boston, an education program founded in 1977. The studies don’t compare the programs that are strictly educational with those that include therapy.

Nationally, New York’s model is unusual, Adams said. Other states started using education-only programs about five years ago, but have returned to a model that also uses therapy, he said. He knew of no other state that explicitly forbids its programs from trying to change the abusers.

“That’s kind of an extreme position to take,” said Adams, who has studied domestic violence for 30 years. Other states have hired him as a consultant on standards for handling batterers. “If you’re saying, ‘We don’t believe in change,’ how the heck do you motivate people to change?”

Corvo said the state’s philosophy doesn’t take into consideration research into how to stop violent behavior.

The state’s philosophy assumes all offenders have the same personality, he said.

New York state funds seven pilot programs for batterers at a total cost of $220,000. They serve people ordered there by a judge as punishment. If an abuser voluntarily called one of those shelters for help, he’d be turned away.

Two men asked for help last month in Syracuse. They called Vera House in response to publicity about the murder-suicide of Jim and Wendy Dirk in Cicero. If Vera House were still receiving state funding, it would’ve had to reject them. Both signed up for the agency’s Alternatives program for abusers.

Ever since it lost its state funding, Vera House has been charging abusers for the 26-week program. The fee is equal to the hourly rate that the abuser earns on his job. Last year, the fees totaled $70,000. The shelter has also received $60,000 from the White Ribbon Campaign against domestic violence.

Vera House supports the state’s theory that abusers need to be held accountable and be educated about domestic violence. But the program can also have a therapeutic component, Bregman said.

The agency has no way of knowing whether its program has changed any abusers. But Bregman said at least 10 percent of them seemed to have shifted their behavior.

“We’re not guaranteeing the partners will be safe,” Bregman said. “But there’s a gut feeling that some men take something from this program.”