Batterers seek help to stop their violence

The glitter of Boston's Copley Place, just across Huntington Avenue, contrasts with the sparsely furnished office where Juan Sosa spends his Thursday evenings. Mr. Sosa is one of four part-time volunteer counselors on the staff of Emerge, a private, nonprofit agency that works with men who batter their wives. It was one of the first such agencies in the United States, formed eight years ago at the request of local shelters for battered women.

Sosa takes calls from men seeking help and sometimes interviews prospective clients in person. A few of these men are referred to Emerge by the courts. But most come on their own -- particularly, says Sosa, after their wives have left home to seek refuge in a shelter.

His primary job, says the Emerge counselor, is to nudge batterers toward acknowledging and taking responsibility for what they've done. Instead of ``she drove me to it,'' Sosa wants the recognition that ``you can't justify violence to anyone.'' Changing attitudes

It's essentially a matter of convincing men they can alter the attitudes of male dominance they've been brought up with, he says. The very title ``Emerge'' refers to this process of coming out of those attitudes. ``Men have to become aware that they can decide not to control women,'' he asserts.

Clients are guided toward this decision through a method Sosa describes as ``confrontation.'' First, men are asked to describe what they've done. The wives are then called to get their accounts of what happened -- discrepancies, often wide, are noted and discussed. If they choose to go on with the program, husbands agree to attend group counseling sessions over a period of weeks. During that time they consult with other men on nonviolent ways to deal with domestic disputes.

Sosa volunteered to work at Emerge after viewing a film produced by the agency. Counseling is his full-time work. In addition to the volunteer hours at the agency's Huntington Avenue office, he holds a paid post with the Roxbury Court Clinic and another with a local youth organization. Atlanta agency

Among the first programs of its kind, Emerge has become a model for similar organizations elsewhere. For example, Men Stopping Violence, an Atlanta agency, was patterned after Emerge, according to co-founder Dick Bathrick.

The Atlanta group uses much the same approach as its Boston counterpart, drawing, says Mr. Bathrick, on a ``continuum of ways that men control women'' developed by Emerge's David Adams. The ``continuum,'' Bathrick explains, ranges from the extreme of battering or rape to ``more subtle'' psychological threats to the ``institutional ways'' men exercise control -- for example, their dominance in such professions as law and medicine.

This continuum serves as a basis for discussion in the seven counseling groups organized by Men Stopping Violence. The fundamental purpose, again, is to get men to question and ultimately control the attitudes that justify or excuse battering.

Men Stopping Violence is working with 50 to 60 men at present, about the same number as Emerge. Both agencies charge their clients a counseling fee, set on a sliding scale corresponding to an individual's salary.

Bathrick, a marriage and family therapist by profession, says that about 80 percent of the men who finish his agency's 24-week counseling program ``have gotten control of their physical abuse.''

Maureen Pirog-Good, a researcher with the school of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University, recently completed a nationwide study of agencies like Emerge and Men Stopping Violence. She and her colleague, Jan Stetz-Keley, found 103 organizations with similar purposes, most of them ``geographically clustered in the Northeast.'' In contrast to the Boston and Atlanta agencies, many of them are associated with the criminal-justice system and draw on public money.

On the question of effectiveness, Dr. Pirog-Good found that, on average, of every 100 men who enroll in these programs, 60 will eventually complete them. And of those who complete the programs, 42 to 53 will not return to battering within a year. The study also found that blue-collar workers appear to be the most favorably affected by the programs. That's ``heartening,'' says Pirog-Good, because they're the ones most likely to use such agencies. (Sosa and Bathrick emphasize, however, that their clientel e crosses all socioeconomic lines.)

Pirog-Good cautions that hers is only ``a first study'' and that ``we need something over time'' to assess whether the effects of counseling are lasting.

She notes a couple of things that the more successful programs seem to share: notably, some kind of follow-up to check on and perhaps give further counseling to men who have already completed a program, and some means of including both husband and wife in programs. She sees a need to ``work with both partners to try to defuse a bad situation.''

When it comes to the impact of agencies set up to counsel batterers, things have to be kept in perspective, says Kathleen Carlin, a former director of a women's shelter who now serves as director of Men Stopping Violence. ``Probably two-tenths of 1 percent of the men doing this kind of thing will ever make it into a group,'' she observes. ``Substantial change in the face of that is difficult. But we believe it's behavior that's learned and can be unlearned.''

Moreover, she adds, for these men ``it's a lifelong process. Once a man decides to change, he'll work at it for the rest of his life -- like an alcoholic.''

Noting that he has seen men reassess their lives and break habits of violence, Bathrick adds: ``If a man really wants to change and is willing to work on it, he can change.''

He explains that Men Against Violence requires each man in the program to draw up a ``personal control plan.'' On one side of a sheet the client lists situations that seem explosive and mental ``cues'' or ``messages'' that prod him to violence -- for example, ``there she goes again.'' On the other side, he lists alternatives to violence. A particularly useful one, says Bathrick, is ``contracting'' with a wife to ``take a time-out,'' to break off the dispute in order to relax or get in touch with another

man in the program. It's important, he says, that men learn they can rely on, and confide in, other men.

A chief goal of both Emerge and Men Stopping Violence is to work with policemen and judges to heighten their awareness of the problem of wife battering. Too often, Bathrick says, law enforcement ignores or even condones violence against wives.

``It's very clear to us,'' he says, ``that unless you work [to improve] the systems that allow or condone abuse of women, you're not doing that much'' to get at the larger problem.

On a personal note, he adds that his work with batterers has forced him to deal with some attitudes lurking in his own thinking -- attitudes that reinforce women's submissiveness to men.

In his view, much of what his agency and others are wrestling with are male outlooks learned through ``basic cultural training.'' Undoing them, he says, is ``very hard work.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.