Abusive partner intervention programs traditionally work to reduce recidivism and increase accountability. In this podcast, Juan Carlos Areán from our partner Futures Without Violence, speaks with Terri Strodthoff, executive director of the Alma Center, and Steve Halley, director of the Family Peace Initiative, about the growing recognition of the need to address underlying trauma in work with people who cause harm and incorporating trauma-informed practices and strategies into abusive partner intervention programs.
The following is a transcript of the podcast:
JUAN CARLOS AREÁN: Greetings. My name is Juan Carlos Areán, and I'm a program director in the Children and Youth Program at Futures Without Violence. We partner with the Center for Court Innovation on the Abusive Partner Accountability and Engagement Project, an initiative funded by the Office of Violence Against Women (OVW). We provide technical assistance and training to jurisdictions and communities across the country interested in enhancing their current approaches to engaging people who cause harm in intimate partner relationships and holding them accountable. We are producing a new podcast series focusing on innovations and trends in abusive partner intervention programming, also known as battering intervention programs. Today, I have the pleasure to be joined by Steve Halley, the director of the Family Peace Initiative in Topeka, Kansas. Good morning, Steve. And Terri Strodthoff, the executive director and founder of the Alma Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Good morning. They'll be talking with us today about the growing need to address underlying trauma in work with people who cause harm and incorporating trauma-informed practices and strategies into abusive partner intervention programs. Thank you, both, for being here today. Before we get started on the actual topic, could you both share a brief overview of the program you offer at your organizations? Let's start with Terri.
TERRI STRODTHOFF: Thank you very much, Juan Carlos. It's a pleasure to be here, as well, with you and with Steve, to have this conversation this morning. We are a community-based non-profit in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and we work with men who have a history of violence in their family. Our program is a trauma-informed and healing-focused program that supports men in understanding what happened to them so that they can heal from their past and change their behavior going forward. We work primarily with men who are involved in domestic violence-related incidents and situations, but we also work with men returning to the community from incarceration.
AREÁN: Thank you so much, Terri. What about you, Steve?
STEVE HALLEY: Juan Carlos, thanks so much for the opportunity to be here with you and Terri today. The Family Peace Initiative is the organization that I co-founded with my wife, approaching 30 years ago. We've been working at batterer intervention for the duration of that time, but we've also branched out into working with incarcerated women in a Kansas prison, Topeka Correctional Facility, and with youth in our detention center and the alternative schools, and we're now beginning to branch out into working with educators, trying to help implement some of these ideas into the school systems as well.
AREÁN: Great, thank you so much. You both are leaders in the field and directors, obviously, of innovative programs that are known for being trauma-centered, or you might use different language: trauma-focused, trauma-informed. So, first of all, how do you define trauma? Let's start with Steve this time.
HALLEY: We think about trauma as a disturbing or distressing event that has a significant impact on an individual through their lifespan. It could be a single event or it could be something that is an ongoing experience; but, whether it's singular or ongoing, it leaves a mark on a person's life and changes their direction.
AREÁN: How about you, Terri?
STRODTHOFF: We define trauma as an experience or an event that an individual has that overwhelms their capacity to cope – that could be emotionally, physically, spiritually – and they really have the belief that they're not going to make it through this situation. That kind of experience – ongoing experience or even a discreet event – kicks a brain and body into survival mode. So, it's not just the experiencing of that event, it's what happens inside of us as a result of that event. So, when we think of trauma, it's not about a litany of what people have experienced, but it's what they're still carrying – what is it that they have unresolved from the experiences and the ways that life have happened to them.
AREÁN: I asked that question because I think when we talk about trauma, different people have different definitions; obviously, your definitions are complimentary to each other, so that's great. Terri, why is it important to take trauma in consideration when working with people who use violence?
STRODTHOFF: It's really important to take trauma into consideration because it helps us understand people's behavior. What we know very clearly is babies are not born into the world to grow up being violent or abusive to their partner and to their families. Something has happened to create that behavior, and when we get curious and try to explore what it is that happened, and when we follow the research and try to understand what it is that happened, it leads us to trauma. Because what does trauma do? It impacts the way that we develop as a human being. It impacts our worldview. We come to think of the world as a dangerous place, and if we think of the world as a dangerous place, then our job in that world changes from a baby who curiously engages in the world, let's say, to a person who has to survive the world.
If our work is to survive the world, then the other thing that trauma does is it forces us to adapt our behavior to survive the adversity that we're living in. And it's those adaptive behaviors that really cause problems in interpersonal relationships.
AREÁN: That's really interesting. Steve, anything that you would add to that, in terms of taking trauma into consideration when doing this work?
HALLEY: The Family Peace Initiative really sees trauma as a really important aspect of intervention. I think, universally, people have seen the high level of trauma that has come into our group rooms, that has impacted the people that we're serving. And, for a long time, we kind of, I don't know that ignoring is the correct word, but we decided to put that on the backburner and encouraged them to go someplace else and tend to that, trying to refer people out for more additional services. And, slowly, over time, what we realized is that connecting with people's trauma, connecting with people's adverse experiences is an incredible way to engage people, to connect with them on a human level. And, as people become less afraid of their own story that includes traumatic events, they generally become safer people. And so, we've found, over the years, that focusing a large part of our programming component on a trauma-focused intervention has just done wonders for engagement, for reducing recidivism, for partners reporting that their abuser has become safer. Trauma leaves a mark on all of us who have experienced that, and that mark has a tremendous power over the course of our existence. And unless we do something to help resolve that, help to just be able to tolerate and accept it and understand it better, it's really helping people to change their behaviors to becoming more peaceful and less cruel in their relationships. We just found it to be a vital component to what we do from day-to-day with the people we serve.
AREÁN: Thanks for that, Steve. Can I ask you, more specifically, if someone were to ask you, well, what does that look like? Why is your program different with a program that wouldn't be trauma-centered? What are a couple of examples?
HALLEY: We used a national model for years that was really centered on cognitive behavioral therapy, the here and now, and focusing on beliefs, and we do all of that. But what we've done is added an affective component. We have moved beyond to where we're connecting the cruelty that people do to the cruelty that people experienced long before they were ever cruel to anyone.
And so, we are pursuing what we call "adverse feelings," the feelings that people don't desire to experience. People have a plan to avoid feeling stupid or feeling afraid or feeling sad during the day, and then they go about their existence trying to make sure that those feelings are kept at bay. And we spend a lot of time trying to help people become less afraid of their own humanity, which includes many of those unpleasant, and maybe even undesirable, emotional experiences. We acknowledge and work with people's emotions, and we help people to become more comfortable with their entire human story, and not having to avoid certain components just because it was a painful experience.
AREÁN: Thank you, thank you for that. What about you, Terri, what are some examples of how you folks make your program trauma-centered?
STRODTHOFF: Oh my gosh, what a joy to hear Steve's answers. I agree with Steve, what it means to be trauma-informed is really to deal with people's pain, to be healing-focused. We have a mantra that any pain that is not transformed is transferred. How do we transfer it? We sedate it within ourselves, we ignore it, or we pass it onto other people. And so we work to help to support people in uncovering what happened to them and the truth of uncovering what happened to them, including all of the emotions and the physical experiences that go with that, and to get away from the ignoring, sedating, or transferring of that pain to other people. It also is a culture of how we deal with people. We practice a form of accountability called "compassionate accountability," meaning that we believe in your ability to be your best self, and we have the expectation that you are going to be your best self, and we have the belief that you're going to make that choice. So that means that we try to bring into the light that this is a choice, that life doesn't have to be this way, this doesn't have to be the way that you engage with people. It may have worked in your childhood or it may have worked in your adulthood to keep you in your feeling of safety, but it certainly is not working in terms of the higher human consciousness about intimacy and relationships and about healthy interpersonal relationships.
We want to support them to explore what happened to them, the truth of their story, and then to support people in resolving that. I think a big difference is to have compassion for people, that's not excusing people's behavior and that's not allowing people's behavior, but it is saying, "Help me understand. Help me understand what happened to you so I can understand where it came from, so I can hold a mirror back up to you so you can see yourself and the truth of who you are, and you can say, ‘Oh, that's where this comes from. I may have needed it back then, but I don't need it now.’"
AREÁN: Thank you for that. From my standpoint, it's interesting because little by little, the field recognizing what you both are saying and moving, slowly and cautiously toward embracing this idea of trauma-informed. However, there are some people in the field that that have expressed concern that if we go into a more trauma-informed model, we are going more fully into the clinical approach in working with people who use violence, rather than remaining a social change movement, as originally this movement was. So, what would you say to that, Terri?
STRODTHOFF: I think that a trauma-informed and healing-focused approach is a social change approach because what we're talking about is the harm that people perpetrate to other. That's not something that just happens with one individual to another individual; it's a culture that we live in.
In general, boys and men adapt their behavior for more outward aggression and rage because that's the kind of behavior that has been accepted and taught to them. So, they're acting out their hurt and their pain and acting out their powerlessness by taking power from other people because that's what our society encourages for men. As we support men in healing themselves, in expressing their true self, of a nurturing, caring, loving being, it creates a change in the narrative of who and how a man can be. This is a question I ask myself: in this society, if we say that men's behavior comes from the social learning, and because they have grown up in this patriarchal and misogynist culture, then why is it that not all men act exactly the same in this culture? And the answer that I have is because, for some men, that kind of ideology and that kind of way of being in the world very much aligns with their worldview because it taps back into something that they learned at a deep level about the world, that the world is about who has the power, that the world is a dangerous place, that the world is a place that might equals right, and that I have to be in charge. Think about the idea that if we move from a judgment and punitive model to a restorative and healing model, it's changing the entire way that we look at this problem.
AREÁN: Thank you, Terri, that's great. Steve, I'm going to ask you a different question, which is another concern that I have heard in the field, which is that if we focus on the trauma of the people that cause harm, that the voices of survivors and the trauma of survivors will get lost in the shuffle. So, how do you take into account the voices of survivors in the model that is trauma-informed?
HALLEY: Thanks for asking that, Juan Carlos. Before I answer, I just want to say it's such a pleasure, Terri, to listen to you and have the opportunity to have this discussion. I feel like, in so many ways, we're soul mates, and we don't get to have this conversation enough. I just appreciate being in the room with everybody here.
STRODTHOFF: Agreed, Steve.
HALLEY: The history of the Family Peace Initiative is really built on the voices of victims and survivors of domestic violence. My wife actually was the person who initially created a batterer intervention program in Southeast Kansas, and she did that after she was working with the seventh victim of the same perpetrator. She realized that just tending to the victims and helping them to survive and helping them to escape and helping them to manage abusive situations wasn't enough; we had to do something to address the cruel behavior. We have been working with victims for the entire length of our existence. Our batterer intervention program contacts partners and victims as a part of our service to those who batter. We have a staff of two former directors of shelter programs and people who have a long history of victim advocacy. We're involved with three or four different community-coordinated responses in Kansas. We have been paying attention and listening to what people are saying for years and built a program that is not only holding those who are battering accountable and trying to help them move to a place of change, but also working to keep those who are being victimized, women/children most commonly, keeping their voices in the room so that we don't stray off the beaten path. I think a really solid program will have very regular and constant and informed contact not only with advocates, but also with those who are experiencing the cruelty. I think it's a fundamental part of any kind of a good batterer's intervention program.
AREÁN: Thank you, Steve. Yeah, I think one thing that we all have in common here is that I think we try to practice that both-end mentality, and it's not either/or with many of these issues; it's a little more subtle. So, Terri, back to you, I know that your program, in addition to be trauma-informed and healing-centered, you folks pay a lot of attention to cultural issues, so what does that mean when you're working with a trauma-center approach? What does it mean to have a cultural lens in that context?
STRODTHOFF: When we think about the fundamental question for trauma is: what happened to you? What happened to us happens in the ways that we show up as a person in the world because that's the way our world is constructed, right? If you show up as a woman, show up as a man, show up as a Black man, White man, Latino man, however you show up in the world, we live in a culture that treats people differently, there are some things that might be universal about the way we develop, but because we live in a society that still treats people differently, it matters about what you've experienced in the world, and those are things that we have to not even take into consideration, those lived realities are what we have to base our way of interacting with people on because we have to connect with the way that people are actually living and the experiences that they're actually having.
Men will often say that the criminal justice system is racist. Now, what sense in the world would it make to argue, "No, it's not" or "That doesn't matter"? Yes, it is. And it is true that you are experiencing a criminal justice intervention that somebody who is a White person doing the same thing would not experience. It is true that Black people in our city are living in resource-deprived neighborhoods because of a history of segregation. It is also true that what I'm talking about right now is just an individual's life, our lifetime of what we're showing up. And when we are talking about taking culture into consideration, what we know that we carry is not just what happened in our individual lifetime to us personally, but it's about what happened in the generations previous to us. What do I experience from my parents and my lifetime? I experience the pain that they have not yet resolved. What happened to them in their lifetime matters, and what did they experience? They experienced the pain that their parents did not yet resolve. When we talk about the cycle of violence, it's the way that unresolved pain gets transferred through families -- certainly plenty of resiliency and plenty of brilliance as well – but the pain gets passed on through families.
So, when we think about integrating culture reverence, really, not even into a program, just into the way that we are being with people, it is incumbent to understand what people have< experienced in their immediate life, in the generations before them, and what people are experiencing as a result of our culture right now, and a result of our cultural heritage. We live in a country that was founded on violence, when have we had healing around that? When has there been restoration around that? Of course, that continues to impact the way that we interact with each other, and of course that is something that is essential in the ways that we interact with the men that we serve because it's about being authentically present on people's journey and that requires acknowledging the pain that people are experiencing.
AREÁN: Thanks so much, Terri. Back to you Steve, I know this is something that you have thought a lot and done a lot of, but could you tell us a little bit of how you train and support your staff in engaging in this trauma-center approach?
HALLEY: This is the area that I think was a major shift for us in our thinking. Probably about 10 years ago, we moved to a model where we lead by example, and what that means is that everything that we ask people in our groups to do, in our programs to do, we do first and we do it, hopefully, better than the participants so that we can set a bar of hope of reach for this, reach for this. That means that the staff that come to the Family Peace Initiative have to do a tremendous amount of personal work on themselves. They have to be able to be familiar with their own adverse emotional self. They have to be able to talk, even uncomfortably, about the cruelty that they experienced when they were growing up, and also the cruelty that they've used in their life toward their children, toward their partners. They have to lead by example. And that was a terrifying shift for me and for others at the beginning because we had practiced for years about keeping this arm's length distance, "This is about the participant and we're not going to share ourselves. If we're talking about ourselves, they're just manipulating us and throwing up smokescreens." And when we learned that we're just all in a room working to try to end cruelty, and that people arrive in our room in a variety of different ways, they're going to need leaders who can say, "Here, let me show you my journey, and my journey is not perfect, in fact, far from it, but here's the journey and here's the skills that we need to develop," and this is this internal-focused conversation that we want to be able to have, instead of blaming and minimizing and attacking others, we can speak more for ourselves. And so, we find that our facilitators, if somebody comes on day one to be a staff member, many times it's a year and a half or two years before they're ever the primary facilitator in a group. They have a lot of skills that have to be developed and mastered. But what happens is that our staff stay for a really long time because suddenly we have an environment that's not just about helping somebody else, we're all working together in order to make our lives more respectful and less cruel, and more inclusive, and people stay because of that reciprocity, that I get to continue improving my relationship while I help somebody else improve their relationship. It's a magical formula because it's helped us with our engagement, you take away that us-versus-them attitude that seems so toxic in our programs originally, historically. In the end, a lot of good things can be created by that, and, remarkably, people choose to do it, and we are blessed with an amazing staff.
AREÁN: Thank you for that, Steve. This has been a fascinating conversation and I feel that we could spend a few hours just talking about this. I'm certainly learning a lot, but, unfortunately, we're coming to the end of our conversation, I would like to give one more opportunity to each of you to add anything else, maybe questions I didn't ask, so why don't we start with Steve and then Terri?
HALLEY: Well, just a last word, Juan Carlos, I want to thank you and the Center for Court Innovation for doing this, I think that this is a valuable tool that you all are putting together to get some thoughts and ideas out. The last word that I would want to make sure is heard is that trauma-focused batterer's intervention is not significantly different than what would be called the mainstream, I think, batterer's intervention. It just adds a trauma piece to it. But there's a belief out there that if we look at people's "horrible childhood," that somehow we're giving them an excuse for the cruelty that they use in their relationships, and that is far from the truth. What is really happening in the way we approach this, is that we have increased accountability, and that means being accountability and responsible for the cruelty that we've done to others, but also becoming accountability and responsible for healing the impact of the cruelty that happened to us long before we were ever cruel to anybody else. And those two pieces of the puzzle are very tall orders for people when they come into our program. It is a significant increase in what's expected for the people that come there. It is not in any way, shape, or form creating an excuse for people's cruel behavior. And I think that needs to be spoken very loudly because that's one of the myths out there that's used when people are questioning the trauma-focused approach.
AREÁN: Thank you, Steve. Terri, your last words?
STRODTHOFF: Oh my gosh, Steve, my soul partner. Yes, to everything about what you said. I really want to underscore the idea that when we ask people to step into their healing, that it is far more work than what people are expected to do in a cognitive behavioral intervention program, where they are to learn new skills and new ideas. No, this is to take out your whole life, to look at what happened to you, to understand what happened to you, and to make active choices about who you are and how you want to be in the world, how you want to forgive people about what happened to you, how you want to restore people that you have harmed, stepping into a fully engaged adult, and that's something that we do a lot of practicing of in our culture and in our society. So, I couldn't agree more that the expectations from people are very much more profoundly challenging. I think in a more traditional approach, what we're looking for is compliance: change your behavior and comply with these expectations about your behavior. And what we're looking for in our program is transformation, a transformation that you become a cycle-breaker, and that means that you are a cycle-breaker not just for yourself, but that you become somebody who understands what trauma looks like and you become an agent of change and an agent of healing for your family, for your children, for the people that you interact and connect with, and we expect you to be a different kind of person in our community. And that is really huge. I also want to underscore something that Steve had said earlier about we have to do this work ourselves. This work actually requires people to step in as their true and authentic self, and that's really, really important. I think we're all in this journey together. I'm going to go out on a limb and say it is nobody who gets through this life without pain happening to them, and all of us are figuring that out, and the more that we become honest and authentic about that, the more that our connections with each other and our relationships with each other help us heal and help us move towards restoration.
AREÁN: Thank you so much, Terri. And thank you, both of you, for being here this morning with us and with our audience, and for the incredible work that you do in the world. Really, I mean that.
Over the course of our podcast series, we'll be touching on several other topics, including Native American approaches and responses to domestic violence, other culturally-relevant programs that are out there, as well as emphasizing victim and survivor safety, so I hope that you will join us in our future podcast.
To find the rest of the series, you can visit our national clearinghouse on abusive partner intervention programming at courtinnovation.org/abusive-partner-resources. To learn more about our project or to request technical assistance, feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we also invite you to visit all of our organizational websites: almacenter.org, familypeaceinitiative.com, futureswithoutviolence.org, and courtinnovation.org. Thank you so much for listening, bye-bye.