Twelve men sit inside a cramped Spokane Valley office, some sipping coffee out of Styrofoam cups. It’s 7 p.m. and they’ve grown quiet. Another session is about to start.
Group leader Bill Sims stands. He points to a man who states his name and reason for being there.
“I’m Eric. I pushed my girlfriend Maureen into a wall.”
Some look at Sims when they speak, others study their hands or the floor. They’d rather be anywhere but here. Their voices are low, mechanical, cautious.
“My name is Alan. I grabbed my wife and bruised her arm.”
They are batterers, a sampling of the more than 300 Spokane men and women ordered into a domestic violence program after being charged last year with crimes ranging from assault to stalking.
Although the merits of such efforts are being debated ferociously, it’s been a growth industry in Spokane County.
Three years ago, there was just one batterers’ treatment program. A year ago, there were three. Today, there are six, each featuring group therapy aimed at preventing disputes between intimate partners from turning violent.
The biggest criticism of the batterer programs is that they simply don’t work.
“This is another case where you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” said Bill Norton, a Spokane County assistant public defender.
Norton has represented dozens of men and women ordered into domestic violence treatment by a Spokane judge. He doubts the programs have much value.
Nationwide, the effectiveness of perpetrator programs has been studied with mixed results.
“We know that treatment doesn’t work for everybody,” said Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna, who is researching the treatment programs.
Supporters point to studies that show up to an 84 percent drop in repeat offenses by men who complete batterer treatment.
But Hanna said the true benefit is more modest. She agrees with studies finding that out of every 10 men or women completing treatment, four eventually re-offend.
Still, that’s better than the 60 percent recidivism rate typical for untreated batterers, she said.
In Spokane, probation officials admit they cannot accurately track how many offenders are dropping out of treatment and how many complete a full year.
“The (compliance rate) is not as high as 50 percent. It could be much lower,” said Diana Sullivan, an administrative assistant in the Spokane County Probation Department.
Nationwide, the average completion rate for domestic violence programs is about 50 percent.
Many participating men say the sessions have changed their lives for the better.
Sims and other treatment providers say early intervention with people who’ve committed their first or second act of domestic violence can save lives and heal wounded families.
“If we get people early enough, we can stop problems that build up over time into serious assaults or really harmful violence,” Sims said.
People convicted of domestic violence used to be routinely sent to alcohol-treatment or anger-management programs for several weeks.
That practice ended two years ago, when Spokane County and Washington state agreed to get tougher, sending offenders into certified batterer programs.
The change comes with a carrot. If the offenders finish the year of treatment satisfactorily, the court erases the assault charge from their record.
At Inland Center for Domestic Violence Prevention, the men in Sims’ group span a couple of generations. The youngest is barely old enough to buy a drink; the oldest is eligible for early retirement.
Most show up in jeans and T-shirts. One man arrives directly from his office, wearing a tight-fitting blue sports jacket, a tie pulled loosely from his button-down shirt.
To complete the program, they must meet once a week for six months. After that, meetings usually are held monthly. Sims can keep them longer than a year “if we feel some issues haven’t been worked through.”
Most of the men sit through the first several sessions hardly paying attention. They answer questions with a shrug.
Sims said many leave because they can’t afford to continue - full treatment costs up to $1,000. To keep people longer, Spokane’s programs now offer sliding fee scales and subsidies.
Sims said batterers who never show up or do so only once tend to think the court will do nothing if they blow off the treatment order.
State law requires treatment providers to send monthly notices of dropouts and no-shows to the county probation department, which is supposed to enforce the court order.
“But not all of them provide the notices to us on a regular basis,” Sullivan said.
When they do, she said, the lists often are incomplete. Certain programs are known to cut truant offenders some slack, hoping to lure them back into group therapy.
The county tries to track offenders who fail to complete the program. If found, they are returned to court and ordered a second time into treatment. Violating that order usually means jail and a stiff fine.
Despite the dropout problem, court officials say many people going through batterer treatment are discovering ways to overcome the problem that landed them in front of a judge.
One of them is Art, a 42-year-old Spokane Valley railroad worker. Part of Sims’ group since January, he now acknowledges he had a major problem dealing with his wife and two teenage sons.
“I drank, I got upset. But I didn’t know how to explain what was happening to me,” said Art, who didn’t want his last name used.
He was convicted last year of fourth-degree assault. In a drunken haze one night, he stormed into his bedroom and shouted at his wife.
“I was upset over something I thought she had not done,” he said.
He knocked a telephone off a stand and struck her in the head. Police came after one of his sons called for help. Sheriff’s deputies talked to the family for 45 minutes, then arrested the father.
At first, Art thought Sims’ efforts were a joke. During the initial group sessions, he kept to himself.
After a couple of months, he began speaking up. He decided he was a victim of “bad belief systems,” using them to justify violence.
“I thought I was the man, the king in the house. I was the boss. I changed that into realizing me and my wife are equals.”
Now he meets with his group once a month or more, if he feels the need. “It’s a great way for me to vent problems that build up.”
He’s done so well that Sims recently got a call from Art’s wife. “She told me he’s been different. He now listens instead of telling her what to do,” Sims said.
Those preaching the gospel of perpetrator programs say they work by focusing on how attitudes about power and authority cause violent or abusive behavior.
Placed in a group of other batterers, many men or women discover that they’ve physically or verbally abused their partners as a means of venting feelings, said Carolyn Morrison, who leads Salvation Army’s batterer program in Spokane.
The domestic violence programs use traditional group therapy, with a therapist urging the men or women to identify trigger-points - situations that spark anger, violence or resentment.
“It may be a slow method - trying to change people one at a time,” said Maggie Fritz, who directs domestic violence treatment at Spokane’s Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “But when it does work, the results are very significant.”
Critics say the programs often are poorly designed, don’t take into account the vast differences between people and end up as touchy-feely group discussions that tend to be more effective with women. About 95 percent of those arrested for domestic violence, however, are men.
“They don’t really look at the highly different and individual reasons men have these problems,” Hanna said.
Sims said the ultimate value of the programs is putting men and women face-to-face with other batterers. Once initial barriers are demolished, participants demand honest answers of each other. They don’t tolerate finger-pointing, either.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TREATMENT CENTERS Three nonprofit centers offer state-certified batterer treatment: Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Salvation Army Outpatient Services Center and YFA Connection (formerly Youth Help Association), all in Spokane. There are three for-profit providers: Inland Center for Domestic Violence Prevention, in the Valley; Tapio Counseling; and Cedar Bridge Associates, both in Spokane.