Holy Family program makes batterers reflect on their behaviors

April 1, 2013

The program's premise is battery is a learned behavior; once acknowledged, it can be stopped


He did not want to be in the room. He was resentful and rude. The very idea of having to share his story made him angry.

But, after a few sessions, he said, "This doesn't suck as bad as I thought."

Doug Gaudette, veteran of many gatherings and changes of heart, called the man's epiphany "the good housekeeping seal of approval."

Gaudette regards himself as a realist, but one with dogged optimism. For more than 20 years, he has worked closely with a rough, unsympathetic bunch — men who have battered their wives or girlfriends.

He directs the Family Safety Project at Holy Family Hospital in Methuen, Mass. The hospital has advocacy programs for adult victims of domestic violence and intensive counseling for children who have suffered, or witnessed, violence at home. Its staff trains police officers, counselors, lawyers and others who want expertise in dealing with the perpetrators and victims. It has sessions to help men become better fathers.

It also runs the Batterers' Intervention Program for men who have been referred by the courts for acts of physical abuse. Most of them pleaded guilty to committing abuse or admitted to having violated restraining orders against them. Almost all of them attend the group discussion sessions as a condition of probation.

Holy Family's program is one of 15 in Massachusetts that provide intervention and treatment for batterers through a state law enacted in 1990. The state Department of Public Health certifies the programs. Gaudette, a licensed mental health clinician, was working on one of the first programs at a mental health center in Methuen when Holy Family Hospital took over that center in 1997.

Each year, the hospital's program works with about 220 men, who meet in groups of no more than 15 for two hours weekly. Each group is a mixture of veterans and newcomers. The ones who stay with it meet for 80 hours, or for most of a year. A few keep coming back after they graduate.

Some go back to court, possibly to prison.

Gaudette said he believes the program works by forcing men to admit to their own violent acts and the damage they cause, physically and emotionally. He said about half of them still live with their victims.

"No man doesn't understand that he can't be hitting the woman he loves," Gaudette said. "But they can be abusive or controlling in ways they didn't think about. Or they don't realize that it can have such a terrible impact upon their children. It can be almost cathartic for these men to confront themselves in a reflective way."

Gaudette and Holy Family will not discuss individual cases to honor confidentiality. He said a study conducted for the Massachusetts probation commissioner's office shows that men who complete the batterers program are half as likely to be charged again with violent acts of any sort, including domestic battery, than are those who don't finish the course.

The numbers are still daunting. About half of the men don't complete the course, either because they quit and went back before the judge or were arrested again. Most of those who leave the program do so within the first five weeks. Gaudette said his office quickly notifies the courts of no-shows, and provides judges with updates on all participants at least monthly.

Among those who do complete the program, one-third still end up within the next six years charged with some kind of violent act, including domestic abuse.

But two-thirds who didn't finish were back in court within the same period. And fewer than one in five graduates were accused of violating a restraining order, compared to more than two in five for nongraduates.

Gaudette said those differences justify the effort. He has worked with almost 7,000 men since the program began, and he said the statistics mean there are success stories — and women and children whose lives are better for it.

"I've seen it work," Gaudette said.

Robert Haynor, director of batterer intervention services for the state public health department, said Holy Family has a "very strong program." Haynor said the presence of the Family Safety Project's related efforts and victim advocacy program strengthens its intervention.

"The staff is able to see the breadth (of battery) on everyone involved and can better respond to its impact," Haynor said. "The staff is well-trained. Doug has a lot of credibility among his peers and is highly respected."

Haynor said the premise of intervention is that battery is a learned behavior. "Our goal is to provide an opportunity to change belief systems and behavior," he said.

Many of the men have a lot of learning to do. Although batterers come from every economic background, most of the men in the Holy Family program are poor, marginally educated, unemployed or underemployed. Many were victims of violence when they were kids, or saw their mothers beaten by the men in their lives.

"We have men in their 50s who can recall with crystal clarity what their fathers did," he said.

The effort is to make them see it in themselves.

Gaudette said each group session is run by a man and a woman from his staff. Seeing the woman in the room sometimes is a jolt to newcomers, who may never before have dealt with a woman as an equal. The first thing a newcomer must do is tell the group about the worst thing he ever did.

The veterans don't let him mince words, or use bad ones.

"If a guy talks about 'this chick,' the others jump on that. 'What's her name?' they ask," Gaudette said. "The men aren't picking on him. They tell him they've been through the same thing. These men learn from each other."

When a participant has attended all of his sessions, Gaudette notifies the court of this accomplishment.

And the resentful man with the change of heart? He completed the program.


Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2013 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.