Domestic violence interventions: Thoughts on what works to address this costly crime
In addition to the physical and psychological harm done to victims of domestic violence, domestic violence costs U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars each year. A significant portion of this money is spent by states as they prosecute offenders, punish the convicted and attempt to intervene to stop future offenses. Programs vary from state to state. Briana Barocas, research associate professor at New York University's Silver School of Social Work and director of research at New York University's Center on Violence and Recovery, receives funding from the National Science Foundation to study the interventions used in different states to assess how they work and how they can be improved. During Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we interviewed Barocas about her work.
Q: Tell us about your research and why it is important to intervention efforts.
A: My research focuses specifically on how domestic violence can be addressed through interventions that target offenders. Every state has some form of intervention treatment for offenders who are convicted of misdemeanors. The treatments are typically based on a model that is more than 30 years old. This model views domestic violence as an issue between heterosexual partners, with the man as the offender. Although the details vary from state to state and program to program, the treatments are typically performed as some form of group treatment, where only other offenders and the service providers are present.
There are approximately 2,500 batterer intervention programs across the U.S. In many states, repeat offenders are sentenced to more time in a program, but the particulars of the program don't change. There is no evidence from the research literature that more time in such a program leads to better outcomes.
In my research, I seek to better understand whether alternate models can be used to improve outcomes for the criminal justice system, for offenders and for victims. Better domestic violence offender intervention programs have the potential to save lives and money.
Q: What is different about the model you are evaluating?
A: Along with my New York University colleague Linda Mills, I have studied programs in both Arizona and Utah that use a restorative justice approach to address domestic violence, a model called Circles of Peace. What is different is that at least a part of the interventions we are studying involve the victim, if the victim would like to be included. Very often, a victim and an offender maintain intertwined lives. They may actually still live together, or they may have children in common.
Victims often wish to be involved to share their perspective because they want to help the offender and as a part of their own healing. Additionally, Circles of Peace brings together willing family members, support persons, trained professional facilitators and community volunteers, along with the offender and the victim (if she or he chooses to participate) to address the violence that has happened.
Another benefit of a restorative justice approach is that it stretches intervention to include other types of domestic violence. Not all instances involve heterosexual couples. Not all offenders are male, and not all are in sexual relationships with their victims. Domestic violence cases can also include family violence cases, for example, an adult child and parent, or adult siblings. Designing the program to fit the breadth of the problem helps to make sure offenders and victims don't fall through the cracks just because their situation doesn't fit with the stereotypical view of the problem.
Q: What are some of your research findings?
A: Our research in Utah is still underway, but from our work in Arizona we have seen that 62 percent of victims participated in the Circles of Peace program with their offender, indicating there is significant unmet demand for this type of intervention. The Circles of Peace model seems to be at least as effective as standard interventions.
Additionally, promising results are forthcoming from the first part of our Utah study. The study employs a randomized controlled design to assess both recidivism and harm reduction over a 24-month period. It compares a standard batterer intervention program with a hybrid batterer intervention program, plus the Circles of Peace program. In the second part of this study, we are providing an option to have a victim advocate present in the cases where a victim doesn't wish to participate. This allows a victim's perspective to remain an important part of the process.
Q: What do you wish more people knew about domestic violence?
A: People typically think domestic violence happens in a heterosexual, intimate-partner context and that it is male on female. Many domestic violence relationships don't look like this stereotype of male on female intimate-partner violence, and the lives of offenders and victims often continue to be connected. Using a broader definition of domestic violence is helpful to make sure we are addressing the problem in all its manifestations. Alternative intervention approaches that offer to include victim participation may help.
Q: What solution or solutions might help enhance the current system?
A: When it comes to interventions, different things may work for different people. We need to reexamine some state standards to make sure they align with evidence for what works. The idea that more time in the same type of program will deter future offenses is not based on scientific evidence. Some states don't allow treatment that includes victims. We need policies that allow more flexibilities to try what might work. An additional challenge is that state guidelines vary widely, so even if research suggests that one intervention method is better, it would be a challenge to implement it broadly.
Finally, it is important to stress that it is very hard to gather data on offenders and victims, but we need the data to improve policies and outcomes. We need to find ways to make data on domestic violence stronger and more available to scientists.