Combining Practice and Classroom: My Domestic Violence Treatment Group
BPD Update Online, Winter 2003
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My Domestic Violence Treatment Group: Challenging Stereotypes of Abusive Men in the Classroom

By Michael Chovanec, CSC/UST School of Social Work

It all began 16 years ago when my county supervisor at the time asked for a 'brave volunteer' to take over as facilitator of a domestic abuse program for men. The initial facilitator had left the program after starting the program a few weeks earlier. (I was hoping it wasn't the group experience that prompted his quick decision to leave the agency.) Over the years as I have transitioned from full to part-time county social worker and full time faculty, I have had the good fortune to function both as group facilitator and program coordinator, allowing me full reign to design the program as I saw fit.

Originally the program mirrored more closely the more 'confrontational' approach supported in the literature. Over time the program has been modified to include a more 'kinder and gentler' approach without condoning abusive behavior. The majority of men who are referred to the program are either court-ordered or are feeling pressure to attend from others, i.e., partner, attorney. A wide variety of men have passed through the program over the years. While the typical client has been in his mid 20's and economically lower class, I have had men from 18 to 65 years old and from all walks of life, unemployed to a patent specialist.

Why I Do the Work

When people ask what work outside the classroom I do, people typically are amazed that I have worked with 'those angry men' for so many years. I think there are a number of reasons I have found myself working with this population for so many years. First, I think I have always enjoyed the challenge of working with people others cannot stand to work with. I always tell people that all 'those men' were babies are one point in time and that I need to separate the abusive behavior from the man. I feel strongly we as a community need to continually challenge the stereotypes of both men and women who are in abusive relationships.

Secondly, this work has allowed me the opportunity to learn about my own emotional process and how I deal with my own rage or angry feelings. In this work you cannot escape this issue as men typically present with anger and frustration as they enter the program. I needed to find a way to model a way of expressing anger without putting others down. I needed to develop a respectful way of using my power in the group without mirroring the power and control environment many of the men referred to the program are familiar with.

Finally, I think you cannot do this type of work for so many years without having it touch you on a very personal level. My own issues with my dad have been part of the driving force to continually explore this work. My dad, particularly in his early years, could have been identified with many of the same characteristics that the 'fighters' in my group have. Learning how to express anger in a respectful way without disengaging has been a life task for me, and this learning has carried over into my work with these men. Over the years I have evolved my view of 'those men' and my dad from initial fear and resentment to compassion. This change in perspective not only has improved my relationship with my dad but also has improved my work with the men in my group and allowed me to work with this population as long as I have.

Taking It to the Classroom

A significant way my work in domestic abuse feeds back into the classroom is in challenging stereotypes of 'those men'. The wide range of stories about these men referred to domestic abuse help students to see that abusive behavior is only one element of these men's' lives. In class we discuss how the stigma of labels, in this case 'abusive men' impact their ability to change and their life outside of the group.

On the micro level, students find helpful examining how men who are abusive present emotions and how workers can effectively respond to it. Anger is typically a difficult emotion for students, as well as professionals to respond to. Anger presented by clients as well as dealing with ones own anger that gets triggered in the exchange is a major challenge. For example when examining group work skills I may role-play a domestic abuse group with students volunteering to role-play a variety of abusive men. Most students report they found the role-play a useful starting point in examining the use of self in addressing anger issues clients present. Examining how to respond to anger in a respectful way without condoning problem behaviors is a universal skill needed by all social workers.

On a meso level program development can be a useful topic to explore with students. I discuss with them the traditional forms of domestic abuse treatment that the program initially mirrored in its early development. I mention the high dropout rate in domestic abuse treatment found in the literature and in my program, and how this discovery provided the impetus to find better ways of engaging these men in the change process. In fact, this practice dilemma became the basis for my doctorate work. The continual effort to improve services to this population of men is key for not only the men in the program but their partners and the larger community. Group work is another topic area where application of the group I facilitate is useful in class. We discuss the distinctions between closed and open-ended groups and how this impacts the stages of group development the facilitator is presented with. Many students who run open-ended groups are thankful having the opportunity to discuss the unique challenges the open-ended group presents to the facilitator.

On a macro level the program has provided an excellent opportunity to examine gender issues in society. How is expression of anger supported in our society for young boys and discouraged for young girls? How will the changing norms around male and female characteristics impact how anger is expressed in our society and responded to in treatment? And how are we already seeing the impact of these changing norms with the appearance of anger management programs for women? All these questions provide students an opportunity to examine domestic violence from a broad perspective. Health care response to the domestic abuse problem is another issue that provides opportunity for students to examine the social dilemmas that impact the ability to address the problem. Most of the financial burden for treatment falls on the individual client who in my program is typically unemployed. Should men be held solely responsible for the financial burden of treatment? Since the majority of men are court-ordered into the program, most health insurance will not cover services. Thus, the cost of treatment falls on the state and county systems when men are unable to pay. Student dialog on these issues are useful ways to build critical thinking skills and broaden the lens by which they view the domestic abuse problem.

Continue on to the next page for a conversation about research with Linda Moore, Editor, JBSW

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