Domestic Violence Treatment Policies Harm Abused Women

Despite the widespread publicity surrounding the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act and October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month, little attention has been given to a crucial aspect of the battle against domestic violence—the way batterers’ treatment programs are conducted. Yet there is a growing consensus among treatment providers that the strategies currently mandated are ineffective, and are placing abused women in harm’s way. Current treatment strategies are based on the Duluth model, which depicts domestic violence as a function of patriarchy and men’s patriarchal privilege. 
This model assumes that the reason men physically abuse women is to maintain control over them. In ideologically-driven classes for offenders, men in need of serious psychological intervention are instead screamed at and called “domestic terrorists” and “fascists.” A recent report by the National Research Council’s Committee on Law and Justice condemns these programs for failing to consider non-Duluth causes of domestic violence. The report criticizes the way batterers are “treated as a homogeneous group,” and states that treatment programs are “driven by ideology and stakeholder interests rather than by plausible theories and scientific evidence of cause.”

While some domestic violence no doubt stems from a warped desire to control spouses or intimates, most experts believe that the roots of domestic violence generally lay elsewhere. Psychologist Donald G. Dutton, author of The Abusive Personality: Violence and Control in Intimate Relationships, asserts that personality disorders are the cause of most domestic violence.

According to Dutton: “Treatment providers who work with abusive men are very frustrated by the current domestic violence treatment paradigm. Research shows that Duluth-oriented treatments are absolutely ineffective, and have no discernible impact on rates of recidivism. These methods cannot work because they preclude patients from developing the crucial therapeutic bond with their treatment providers. However, when we treat offenders like normal patients by focusing on personality disorders and employing cognitive-behavioral treatments, we see progress.”

Last year University of Houston psychologist Julia C. Babcock and her cohorts published a meta-analytic review in Clinical Psychology Review which examined the findings of 22 studies on domestic violence treatment programs. The authors found that in the few genuine cognitive-behavioral therapy treatment programs available, CBT is effective in reducing recidivism among DV offenders. Unfortunately, powerful but misguided domestic violence organizations have used their influence to squeeze out psychotherapeutic treatments and instead preserve Duluth-oriented methods. Some states even have statutes barring funding for non-Duluth programs such as: communication enhancement or anger management techniques; techniques which identify poor impulse control as the primary cause of the violence; or individual, couples, marriage, or family therapy. Even addiction counseling models are sometimes banned.

As a result, drug and alcohol-addicted men receive lectures on the patriarchy instead of the substance abuse programs they need. Batterers’ treatment has become so politicized that many therapists refuse to become domestic violence treatment providers. Seattle marriage and family therapist Michael Thomas calls batterers’ treatment the “third rail” of the profession and believes that many therapists won’t do batterers’ treatment because “they’re afraid of what happens to their careers if they try to do treatment based on normal treatment policies or to employ whatever works.”
For example, Thomas says that while couples therapy can be very effective in cases of low grade, mutual violence, conducting it or even suggesting it in conferences can “put your career at risk.”

Abused women who have elected to remain in their relationships are themselves unhappy with the Duluth-oriented court-ordered treatment their male partners receive. According to Dutton, dropout rates in support groups for these women are extremely high, in large part because they believe the programs their male partners are required to attend are over-politicized, ill-conceived and ineffective. Writer Nev Moore attended a similar support program at Independence House in Hyannis, Massachusetts, after her husband Tom was arrested for assaulting her during a drinking binge.

Moore characterizes the treatment she and her husband received after the incident as being ideologically-driven, amateurish, and out of touch with reality. The domestic violence treatment system is further burdened by the byproducts of overzealous, anti-male police and prosecutorial policies. These policies often result in court-mandated batterers’ treatment programs for men who engaged in mutual or trivial abuse, who were falsely accused of domestic violence in child custody maneuvers, or who in some cases were actually the victims, not perpetrators, of abuse in their relationships.

Both Dutton, and Phil Cook, program director of the domestic violence organization Stop Abuse for Everyone, believe that only a quarter of the men enrolled in batterers’ treatment programs are actually batterers. Over the past three decades advocates for battered women have achieved numerous important gains for abused women. These include: greater legal intervention on behalf of victims; increased options for women fleeing abusive relationships; and greater funding for and attention to victims of domestic violence.

However, many of these gains are being frittered away because of these advocates’ misguided commitment to treatment programs which don’t work, and which put battered women in danger of further abuse. A meaningful re-evaluation of batterers’ treatment policies is needed so that treatment programs are selected for their effectiveness, not their ideology.

This is an expanded version of a column which was first published in the Daily Breeze [Los Angeles] (11/7/05). Glenn Sacks serves on the advisory board of Stop Abuse for Everyone, an international domestic violence organization. His columns on men’s and fathers’ issues have appeared in dozens of the largest newspapers in the United States. He invites readers to visit his website at

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