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
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.