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Can abusers learn to change behavior?

When she began working on domestic violence issues in the 1980s, in northern Vermont, and soon after in western Massachusetts, Sara Elinoff Acker doubted that a man who battered women could be convinced to truly end his abusive behavior.

Very few programs then worked with men to confront the abuse and its underlying causes, and there was no track record for their success, so the only responsible guidance to offer women victims was to leave for their safety.

That’s still the case for many victims, since many men who go through programs like ServiceNet’s “Moving Forward” groups don’t end the violence. Yet for others, like the 11 men in Acker’s new book, “Unclenching Our Fists,” there are approaches that can help perpetrators stop.

Acker, a Pelham therapist and former Wendell resident, will speak and sign her book at a Nov. 18 open house from 4 to 7 p.m. at ServiceNet, 55 Federal St., Greenfield, along with Mary Kociela, Northwestern District Attorney domestic violence project director, Steven Botkin, who heads Men’s Resources International and Steven Jefferson, a Moving Forward group leader and one of the men whose stories are told in the book.

“It’s hard to make what was private now public and to know that you’re going to be in a group with men who are all batterers,” says Jefferson — a University of Massachusetts sports-management lecturer who was abusive in all his intimate relationships and who at 14 had been attacked with a baseball bat by his father. “And I know that if I’m in that room, it means I’m one, too. … There was no way I could sit there and say, ‘That’s not me.’”

The “Moving Forward” groups, which meet Tuesday evenings in Greenfield and Wednesday evenings in Athol, as well as in Hampshire and Berkshire counties, have a success rate of about half, says director Eve Bogdanove. About 150 men have gone through the Greenfield program since 2009, and about 85 percent are court-mandated to participate in the 40-week program.

“Abusers who are able to make deep changes and become safe members of their family, sadly, represent only a very small minority of men with abuse issues,” Acker says. “My transformation had been in understanding that actually they can make that change.”

After she began working with partners of men who were taking part in the pioneering Men Overcoming Violence program that began in 1989, Acker trained to co-lead groups of men who were taking part in the program.

“I’d see how genuinely they were working at their problem, actually expressing remorse and really settling into the deep work of figuring out how they learned these behaviors and what they needed to do differently. That glimmer of hope was very powerful.

“To me, the work is how we help people who are violent to face themselves and change their ways, and how that can ripple out into the families that have been affected. That has to be part of the solution. We can’t just get the victims safe; we also have to go to the person and say, ‘You have to stop. ... We want to help guide you into being a different kind of person, a different kind of partner. It’s not an easy process. The ones that do choose to work on themselves over time, for the most part, can be successful,” even though it may be too late to save the relationship with their partner.

The men, in groups of eight to 12, enter the program on a rolling admission basis, so that those who have gained more self-awareness through the process can help newcomers still in denial. “When the men come into the room, they really expect to be trashed, judged, and shamed, and they’re really surprised when that doesn’t happen,” says Acker. “They are held accountable for their behavior, but they’re given the message that they’re good people.

Ron Lenois of Greenfield, another man quoted in the book, describes how when he was growing up, “My father was always the commander in chief … Mom was always expected to have the laundry clean, dinner on the table by 5 o’clock every day,” and he erupted with verbal abuse when he was angry. Lenois, who was “brutalized” by other kids in school, and was insecure, “very jealous” and controlling in numerous relationships, got arrested for domestic abuse and stalking.

“In the beginning of the (Men Overcoming Violence) program, I was just going through the motions. ... It was hard to deal with the fact that I physically abused my girlfriends. ... What I found at the bottom of all my abuse was my low self-esteem. It’s what fed the jealousy. When I was physically abusive, I felt I had earned this. With women I felt it was my right to lash out, to dominate.”

The debate

Acker wrote the book largely because there’s a heated debate about whether batterer’s programs work, and research uses different sets of data, including programs that are shorter than the 40-week minimum set for certified programs in Massachusetts. She interviewed men who’d been through different programs around the country to see what had worked for them, to describe “best practices” to encourage a “leading edge of change.”

Here are the kinds of practices she believes are key to getting the programs to change attitudes as well as behavior: They need to want to change and be willing to accept responsibility for the abuse without blaming, denying or minimizing their behavior; they need to be confronted about their violent acts while being reminded “this is not all of who you are;” and need to be taught strategies for de-escalating potentially abusive situations and for walking away. They need to be given ways to understand how they learned to become abusive, and to be shown more “emotional literacy” skills so all their emotions aren’t bottled up to be expressed only as anger.

Men who are physically abusive “really learn to empathize with the fear and pain they’ve caused to the people around them, to be able to put themselves in the shoes of their wives, girlfriends, children,” says Acker. “And they need to feel supported and challenged by a group of other men who are also doing this work. It can’t be done in isolation, and realistically, the work is not a quick fix. There are stages to go through. They can fall backwards, and they need to be able to pick themselves up and figure out what they did wrong.”

Programs like “Moving Forward,” which is also offered in the Franklin County House of Correction, offer no universal panacea, and there are some perpetrators with serious enough underlying issues that their partners are best advised to leave the relationship, yet the groups do play an important role, says Acker.

“Domestic abuse has been a problem in society for centuries,” she says. “Only for the last 30 years have we even had the language to talk about emotional abuse and partner abuse. We’re still very much in the early stages of understanding what it takes to end this kind of violence. ... There’s been no one unifying strategy.”

That’s why it’s important to look at what works in domestic violence programs, says Acker.

“Where we’re at the leading edge of making a change happen,” she says. “How can we make that bigger?”

On the Web: www.unclenchingourfists.org

You can reach Richie Davis at rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, Ext. 269

Thank you for this great interview. I am working in the policy area of dv in Australia and it is refreshing to find such informative articles. Good luck with your work Sara and thanks to Richie Davis and the foresight of your editorial team to print such material. Congratulations, Coral

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