The crime of family violence: breaking the cycle. Wisconsin program combines counseling and compassion to help keep members of abused families together

The research on family violence paints a disheartening picture: Children who live with abuse - whether targets of it or witnesses to it - often grow up to be abusers. Someday they may abuse their own children, their spouses - or even the elderly parents who long ago may have abused them. Thus, family violence may become a hurtful inheritance passed on from one generation to the next ... and the next.

Recognizing those patterns, the Dane County district attorney's office in Madison, Wis., decided to try a new approach to the problem. The majority of cases involve husbands' abusing their wives. ``If there is a hope of breaking the cycle of family violence, we seize upon it,'' says Hal Harlowe, the district attorney. ``That's where our system differs from others.''

The program focuses the efforts of a variety of people in the community - the district attorney's office, police, social workers, and therapists - on this social-legal problem. Not only are abusers directed toward professional help, but the victims, or survivors, of family violence - usually women and children - are offered counseling as well.

The three-year-old program blends tough-minded legal policies with compassion.

The ``get tough'' part of the program begins, says Mr. Harlowe, with calling family violence what it is: crime. ``If you look at the law, it says that inflicting pain or injury on someone without their consent is a battery. It doesn't say unless it's your wife, unless it's your kid. But somehow society has said, `There's something different about this. Don't worry, it's not a crime.'''

Harlowe, however, argues strongly against that viewpoint and those who would say that the criminal-justice system should not interfere in family violence because it's a family matter. ``If we say we're going to deal with violence in barroom brawls but not in the home, we're abandoning any hope of making a difference in the use of violence in our society,'' he says.

But the aim of the Harlowe office's stance on family violence is not to throw abusers in jail, but to use the clout of the courts to push abusers to get help. That's where tough legal policies pair up with compassion.

``You can't take a macho approach to this problem,'' says Suzanne Beaudoin, the office's family violence specialist. ``If dad is beating mom, you can't go in and take dad out without saying something like `Dad has to go to a group and then he can come back.'''

In this program, after someone is arrested for beating a spouse or partner, he will end up in a treatment program called Alternatives to Aggression, directed by Darald Hanusa, a therapist.

The men in Alternatives come from all walks of life and socioeconomic groups. ``Corporate executives, construction workers, teachers ... you name it,'' Mr. Hanusa says. One thing they all have in common is their problem with anger. Another point in common is the role of violence earlier in their lives.

``Abuse was always a part of my life,'' says John, a 36-year-old huskily built man.

``I was the oldest male child, so if anything went wrong in our family, my father shouldered it on me. When my father beat me, I'd run to my room and destroy something of my own. As an adult, I'd tell myself that things didn't bother me ... but they did. I'd let things pile up in my life, and when the pile got too big to deal with, I'd vent my anger on anybody convenient, usually the woman I was involved with.''

Like John, 80 percent of the men in Hanusa's program were victims of abuse sometime in their lives - either being beaten by a parent or witnessing violence between parents. ``When I ask these men what they learned in their lives about anger, they tell me, `When people get angry, someone gets hit, maybe hurt.' They've never learned the difference between anger and violence,'' Hanusa says.

While most of the men resist changing their attitudes at first, Hanusa says at some point the message usually gets through. ``Especially for those men with children, it's a real awakening when we talk about the intergenerational transmission of violence,'' he says. ``We look at what happened in their childhoods and what messages they're passing on to their kids. A lot of men never realized the connections before.''

Those connections came together for Rob, a tall, quiet man in his mid-30s. ``What I found out in Alternatives to Aggression,'' says Rob, ``is that violence is learned behavior. I was raised that way. My father beat my mother, and my mother beat me. I learned to be violent ... and I can unlearn it.''

Education offered other members of the family is crucial to the Dane County program. The women often come in very angry at the district attorney's office for making the arrest and pursuing the case, according to Ms. Beaudoin.

``You have to understand why that is, otherwise it would be easy to blame her for the whole situation,'' she says. ``When you look at the characteristics of that family, you see that there could be no other role for the woman but to try to take care of this for him.''

Often the woman will carry that role to the point of refusing to cooperate with the district attorney in prosecuting the case. However, while the attorney's office will consider victims' wishes, it will frequently prosecute cases even if the victim doesn't go along with it.

Harlowe's experience is that that policy actually protects victims.

``Once it's clear that it's out of her hands and that it's our decision, she won't be subjected to harassment, coercion, or threats from the abuser. It changes the interpersonal dynamics of these cases.''

Another reason for the pro-prosecution policy is that it's a vital part of this break-the-cycle approach.

``I remember one woman who sat right in that chair,'' says Harlowe, pointing to the chair next to his desk. ``She told me, `Stay out of my life. I can handle this. You'll mess up this relationship.'

``After a while I asked, `Isn't the wrong person in that chair? If this guy is going to take responsibility for what he did, wouldn't it begin by his being in here saying he's going to do something about this? Because until he owns the problem, he's going to stay on the same cycle.'

``There was almost this `aha!' in the room. She realized she was perpetuating the problem by letting him off the hook again. And when we got down to talking about what she wanted, it was pretty much what we wanted - to get the guy into treatment.''

Linda, a petite mother of two, remembers grappling with inner conflicts when her husband was arrested.

``I had a hard time dealing with being battered,'' she says. ``I wanted to stash back the whole ugly scene, just like all the other times. I felt ashamed. I was scare I'd lose him. And I was scared about testifying in front of all those strangers - against my own husband.''

As it turned out, Linda didn't have to testify.

But most important, she is thinking about her children. ``I don't want my kids to grow up thinking this kind of behavior is OK because Mommy and Daddy did it,'' she says.

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