Informing-Educating-Healing Aggressive Women

I woke up this morning and came downstairs to answer e-mails and drink a cup of tea before work.  The first e-mail I opened was from a probation officer with whom I had a contentious conversation the day before.  Our battleground is well worn:  how should we conceptualize and address domestic violence perpetrated by aggressive women when men are the victims?  Can we examine bi-directional abuse without jeopardizing the protection of women as victims when we explore their part in the cycle?  If aggression in women is often rooted in victimization, is this also true for some men?  We have been reluctant to explore these questions because they conflict with the prevailing paradigm that governs virtually all DV treatment models and BIT governance: women are victims and men are batterers.

I am a domestic violence counselor who runs a program for women at OnTrack, Inc. in Southern Oregon.  In addition to facilitating groups for women victims of domestic violence, I also have groups for women who manifest violent and/or aggressive behavior.  I am on a subcommittee of the Batterers Intervention Team for Jackson County, and our task is to find or create a tool for assessing aggressive women that will be useful to all the partner agencies in our county.  Until now, I have been the primary facilitator and assessor but other agencies are building programs to serve women offenders. Our BIT committee is looking to standardize the tools and treatment for all providers in our county.

Over the years I have worked hard to build these professional relationships.  I take great pride in the partnerships we have created in our community.  But, about three years ago, Rita Sullivan Ph.D., Director of OnTrack and I organized a conference to introduce our community to current research on which we could base new ideas and practices regarding domestic violence.  I wanted a curriculum that was gender inclusive.  I wanted to empower the victims and help aggressive women to heal and change behaviors.  I wanted men to have an equal voice in this very difficult discussion, and a place to talk about the abuse they had suffered in their lifetimes, especially as children.  Men who are not DAAP appropriate.

The three conference speakers based their presentations on empirical evidence which sometimes challenged the victims’ advocates’ beliefs.  John Hamel LCSW, Sandra Stith Ph.D., and Deborah Capaldi Ph.D., shared information about bi-directional abuse, men as victims, and a very thoughtful approach to couples counseling for select couples who have domestic violence issues but have done enough work to be appropriate for this type of couples communication re-education program.  I could hear the chatter during the breaks. Victims’ advocates were asking how anyone could challenge the thinking that has earned national respect and significant funding for women victims.  It was never my intention to challenge what is working.  I had just spent two years facilitating a group for men who were victims of domestic violence as children and who have no other treatment options available to them.  These men were usually living in OnTrack’s housing units, with the mothers of their children.  Many of their female partners were also in my group for female perpetrators of domestic violence and many of them were also victims of domestic violence as children.  Most were working on their recovery from methamphetamine or other addictions. I was fascinated to learn about their relationships from both the male and female perspectives.

In my men’s group, when I framed the discussion carefully, the men were willing to talk about anything including those things which have traditionally been kept secret, such as their own childhood sexual abuse, witnessing abuse, and being abused physically, emotionally, mentally, and verbally.  And then they grew up to become addicts who expressed what was normal to them:  abuse, addiction, and neglect.  Some of the men held a core belief never to hit a woman.  And some of the women in my groups held a core belief that they would hit first or punish the men in other ways until they had no center of gravity, and posed no threat.  They were offended by the dysfunctional family they had grown up in, and by the family they had created, looking for what they thought love looked like: abuse, addiction, and neglect!

I was hooked!  I wanted to understand more.  Until now, everything I had been taught, informed me that men were batterers and women were victims.  It didn’t add up. Some of the women I worked with were telling me that they were in charge—berating, belittling, shaming, hitting, and slapping these men—and the men were not hitting back.  This is not to say that these women hadn’t been hit in the past. But it was fascinating that these women were clearly the primary aggressors and for whatever reason, the men had become their victims.

The night before the conference, we had our state senator, three judges, two public defenders, our speakers, and a host of other interested people for dinner.    The discussion was guarded and people were being very careful with each other.  I was naïve.  I had no idea how invested and conditioned our community was.  But the speakers knew what they were in for.  They had been met with resistance in other communities, but they welcomed the opportunity to spread this very controversial but evidence-based thinking because they too are working to end domestic violence.

John Hamel was the first speaker and I thought the building would explode.  Victims’ advocates were gasping for air.  People were incensed.  I still didn’t realize the extent of the fervor.  It didn’t stop me.  I intuitively knew this was a conversation that had to happen.  Lucky for me, my strongest ally was my boss, Dr. Rita Sullivan.  When I had no support from BIT providers or victims’ advocates, Rita would shore me up and throw me back into the mix, always reminding me that change is hard but worth it.

Three years and countless contentious BIT meetings later, a very small number of the community partners appear to be more open to the possibility of incorporating some of the new research into DV services.  I’m hopeful Probation and Parole, Department of Human Services, judges, service providers, and victims’ advocates, will continue working to find solutions for all people who suffer abuse from an intimate partner, male or female.   It is my belief that we must develop approaches which rely on evaluations of individual risk and clinical needs of all those who inappropriately express their emotions.  Services offered should consist of gender blind, trauma informed and evidence based practices. One thing I know for sure: physical power and control is only one way that domestic violence ruins families and crushes an individual’s self-esteem. We need much more than a one-size-fits-all response.