In this episode, Juan Areán is joined by James Henderson, a former probation officer and facilitator of the Accountable Choices program in Michigan. They discuss how the Abusive Partner Accountability and Engagement Project defines “accountability” and highlight examples of effective coordinated community responses and creating multiple pathways to accountability for abusive partners.
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 on Violence Against Women. We provide training and technical assistance to communities across the country to help them enhance their abusive partner intervention and engagement strategies. We are producing a podcast series focusing on innovations and trends in abusive partner intervention programs, also known as battering intervention programs. Today I have the pleasure to be joined by my friend James Henderson, from Accountability Choices in Michigan. He'll be talking with us today about one of our project's principles, accountability is active and relational. Thank you so much for joining us today, Jim.
JAMES HENDERSON: Thank you. It's my honor.
AREÁN: Before we get started on the actual topic, could tell us a little bit about your background and your present and former organizational affiliations.
HENDERSON: My professional experience in the area of domestic violence came when I started working for the probation department in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The judge ended up asking me if I would be interested in starting up and heading our domestic violence stalking unit, and she did that because I was already doing batterer's intervention work in the Detroit metropolitan area. That was in 1999 when we started that work. I ran that program from 1999 until 2010. I was doing batterer's intervention work from 1996 until currently today. On a personal level, I also grew up in a home where there was family violence. So really working with men and trying to figure out how to engage them in the process of change is extremely important to me on multiple levels.
AREÁN: Thank you so much for sharing that, James. So, you’re part of the advisory community for the Abusive Partner Accountability and Engagement training and technical assistance project and you participated in the development of the guiding principles. So, one of the principles is that accountability is active and relational. In the explanation of that it states, and I quote, "Accountability is both personal and systemic. System and community-based agencies should create multiple pathways to accountability and identify and remedy the barriers they have created for abusive partners and survivors to safety and accountability." So that's a mouthful. A lot of information there. Let's try to deconstruct it a little bit. Let's start with this. What does accountability mean for you?
HENDERSON: Well, when I think about accountability in this whole process, when I'm working with an offender, they have their own accountability to be able to take responsibility for the actions and harms they have caused other people. But as a system, we are responsible for identifying who's causing harm and identify who's being harmed, identify multiple pathways into intervention, whether that be through family court, through divorce court, through child protection services, through criminal court, which often we see, but even working with your substance abuse agencies, your mental health agencies, so they can do a better job doing a general assessment with individuals who are causing harm and making appropriate referrals and encouraging them to follow through on that. When we look at accountability for a system, it's also looking at making sure that our policies and practices are not putting those who are being harmed in more harm's way. So, when I'm focusing on the one causing harm, I always have to have that lens on that, how does this intervention impact other people in my community?
AREÁN: Okay. Well, thank you. You spoke about the partnering on multiple pathways to accountability and you and I know that in the United States, and I know you have done a lot of work abroad too, but in the United States, we almost concentrate only on the criminal justice response to accountability. The majority of referrals – I’m talking about probably over 95% of referrals – to battering intervention programs come from criminal court, but you identify other places like child welfare, of course, civil court, but also places outside those, what I would call coercive systems. I know you are aware of this, that in other countries, for several reasons including the fact that the systems don't work so well, they have had to be a little creative in looking to expanding those pathways to accountability. So how do you think in the US we should start thinking about expanding that menu of pathways, if you will?
HENDERSON: I think the criminal justice system was just the easiest route to do, because we can use the coercive control of the courts to mandate men into programming or women, if it happens to be a female offender. I know as a probation officer, I went and did speaking engagements at some churches, and we actually had a variety of men who joined our batterer's intervention program because their mothers insisted that they go. Some of the men were still living at home with their mothers, but their mothers knew that they were battering. Some of the men didn't. It was kind of funny, a friend of mine, David Adams, who runs a batterer's intervention program in Boston said that my program was mother-approved. But what it showed me is that if we go out and talk to the community about domestic violence and the harm that it does, and if we talk to the community about possible solutions and support and help for those who are causing harm, the community will use those programs. In addition, another thing we did in Ann Arbor is we always assess men who are charged with domestic violence for substance abuse and mental health, but we don't do as good a job of assessing people who are in substance abuse agencies for causing harm or people who are in mental health. So, we get a lot of cross-training between our substance abuse community and our batterer's intervention program. Ultimately, we even had our residential program in town have one day a week where batterer's intervention came in, worked with all the men in their program, and victim services came in and worked with all the women and they separated those two groups. We could talk about male privilege, entitlement, coercion, all those things that many men struggle with or engage in. In the women's group with victim services, we could talk about all sorts of victimization issues: child sexual abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence. We just know that there's such a huge overlay between victimization and substance abuse, and it really made sense for us to try to marry those different groups together.
AREÁN: That's great. I love the “mother-approved” program. That's really funny. But it's also profound because I think you and I and other people in the field have been trying to break that paradigm that men or women or people of all genders will only seek help and come to groups if they are mandated by either criminal court or if they're in child welfare. But clearly, I think one of the things that the pandemic, and for those of you who are listening to this in the future, we're still right here in the middle of the pandemic, but one of the things that it has shown us, at least in my opinion, is that in fact, men and people will ask for help, will look for help and will come to these groups even if they are not necessarily sanctioned if they don't come. So, I would like to bring up the role of the coordinated community response, because obviously that's a central part of battering intervention. It's not only the programs, right? It's a larger table. So, in your opinion, what is the role of the CCR in this expanded definition of accountability?
HENDERSON: In Ann Arbor, we had a really good working group. Our domestic violence shelter had a great relationship with the court, had a good relationship with the police department, had a really good working relationship with the batterer's intervention agencies. As we start to really expand that, like if we look at the Strangulation Institute out of San Diego, a lot of their work actually is with first responders looking at the people – your medical personnel, ER nurses, forensic nurses, right? So, if a woman is strangled, are we getting the right EMTs there? Do they know what questions to ask? Do they know how to make referrals? Are nurses trained in risk assessments? Do they know how to make referrals and talk to a person who's been victimized? The other thing we've worked on in Ann Arbor, I know we had churches and synagogues and brought that community in. Because many victim and even perpetrators will seek guidance from their religious institutions. So, having them to know what services were available and get appropriate training on, what is power and control? What is coercive control? What does it look like? Not all domestic violence is illegal, but yet still extremely harmful to families, so being able to talk about that and look at alternatives and options. As I said earlier, we worked hard with the mental health community and we even created a program at our homeless shelter because what we found is that a lot of men used homelessness and mental illness as an opportunity to really perpetrate or take advantage of a very vulnerable population. Oftentimes those individuals, when victimized, didn't trust the criminal justice system. If I'm a paranoid schizophrenia, I'm probably not going to talk to the cops. I'm probably not going to show up to court. If I have bench warrants on me, I may be very unlikely to communicate with the criminal justice system or if I think there's systemic racism. So we created a program at our homeless shelter where if they see somebody engaging in behavior that was exploitive and harmful, that they would maybe require to do that program in order to continue to receive services at the shelter. We actually created a grant and paid people for going to it. What we did, for every week you went in a row without missing, you would get an additional bus token for free. So if I made it 26 weeks, this week I got 26 bus tokens. They tracked to see if people were using those bus tokens to try to get employment, to make it a special appointments and stuff like that, and it had great success. So really looking at some of the roadblocks. I think the other thing that's happened is our language has been shameful to men who are engaging in abusive behavior. So, when men do seek help, they don't look at batterer's intervention because I think that's too harsh. They go look for anger management, right? Something that's more palatable, something that's more acceptable to them. As a system now, we're trying to figure out what language should look like. How do we have language that allows people to still engage with us, that's more palatable to people, but still accountable in nature so that we're not being too soft or justifying or colluding with someone who's causing harm?
HENDERSON: I actually loved the work. It was a lot of fun being a probation officer and being able to bring people together. We had a guy who really needed to go to jail. Re-assaulted the victim halfway through probation. But if he went to jail, they were going to lose their home. They're going to lose their health care. Their child had huge medical conditions. The victim is going to end up being homeless. When he got out of jail, we would have a unemployed guy who was homeless, no insurance. All those things raised lethality. So, when we looked at that family, we worked with the shelter. We worked with his AA sponsor. We worked with the batterer's intervention, and that's the first time we came up with using batterer's intervention more than one time per week, to get him out of the house more often. Had him going to AA significant times per week, meeting with his AA sponsor. We'd wrapped around, with the community helping, me supervising, batterer's intervention seeing him three times per week, AA seeing him four times per week, me having him call every night and telling me that he went to those programs, him working during the day. So it was very busy. He was being accountable. He wasn't in jail, but the victim kept her health insurance. Their child kept her health insurance. They didn't lose the home. So those only came from having this really good, tight-knit collaboration where the shelter was supportive of that, the prosecutor was supportive of that, the defense counsel became supportive because they didn't want their guy to go to jail. The offender was supportive because he wanted to see his child continue to live. He didn't want to lose his home. He wanted to try to save his marriage. So that whole coordination between all of those community partners and we even coordinated with the AA community, right, and brought them in and talked to them and it had their support. It was a lot of fun. It was a great time to be working with families.
AREÁN: That's excellent, Jim. Thank you. One of the things I love every time that I hear you speak is how creative you and your program and your partners have been in creating this larger table. In fact, one of the critiques of the CCR is that often it stands more as a coordinated criminal response, right? That it's only a systemic kind of thing rather than an authentic, coordinated community response. Of course in the present moment, people are looking at criminal justice reform. Again, we are in the middle of 2020 here. This is a very hot topic and we hope that it will continue to be. So, what would be your advice to other CCRs to bring more community members outside the system so that they can have that place at the table? Literally the faith leaders, the mothers, whoever else can be part of it.
HENDERSON: Interestingly enough, When you look at the research from Jacquelyn Campbell on homicides, something like 78% of the victims who were killed was involved in the system somehow, right? We have to do a better job of identifying where individuals who are victimized are coming into contact with us, whether it be through child protection, whether it come through housing departments and the people who are causing harm, where do they come into contact? Have we had them on probation for drugs? Have we had them on probation for this? Have they sought help through unemployment? Some communities will do a problem analysis where they'll go look at all the domestic violence homicides for the last three to five years, pull them out and look at who's doing the killing in their community and who's being killed, and what do those people have in common. Who did they talk to? Were they engaged with any part of the systems? Because our communities all look different. Then we can identify and start saying, "All right, how are we going to target people? If a majority of our people who are being killed are receiving aid to dependent children, is there a way that we could work better with that department to identify people who may need resources and assistance? Is there a way that we can make intervention free or accessible to that community? Because obviously if I'm getting aid for my children have not, I don't have the financial resources to pay for intervention." So really trying to figure out where people are at, meeting them where they're at, and trying to create pathways to them to get intervention and to really eliminate those roadblocks. We also had a free program in jail. We called it a batterer's intervention preparation program because this was a more lethal group of individuals or people who are not motivated for any type of change. So, we created a free program for them in jail, and if they completed that program and appeared to be open to looking at things, we would allow them sometimes to be released from jail to continue intervention on the outside and follow through with some type of probation supervision. The other thing we're seeing now is more used by the civil courts. So oftentimes my programs, probably at least 50% if not more are from civil court, and these guys don't have any jail held over their head, but a lot of times they come through divorce court or child custody, and so credible accusations were made of prior use of violence and a judge has maybe made visitation to children dependent on entering a batterer's intervention program. These men come in very angry sometimes. They may have never had an order of protection placed on them. They may have never been arrested for domestic violence, but once they come in there and they realize we're just trying to look at what have we done that's been harmful to our partners. How has this been harmful to our children? What got us to this place, right? Did I grow up and experience this growing up? Did I say I would never be like this and now here I find myself in this predicament? Acknowledging systemic racism, history of oppression, history of their own trauma and victimization and how that plays out in their decisions now has made the program, I think, more palatable to that group of individuals and it's allowed us to have a pretty successful compliance rate of people continuing and finishing the program without the threat of any incarceration or jail. AREÁN: Wow. This is really, really important. In some way you are addressing the other aspect of the principle that I read before. Again, I quote, "System and community-based agencies should identify and remedy the barriers they have created for abusive partners and survivors to safety and accountability." That's excellent. Now some people in the domestic violence field would say that it is not their job to deal with those barriers such as trauma, poverty, racism, and so on because abusive partners often use those issues as excuses for their abuse and they don't want to collude with them. So what would you say to those people about that?
HENDERSON: I think some of that comes from our history. Initially it was easier for society to blame those who are victimized than it is for those who cause harm. Like, "Why does she stay? All those things that we've heard for so long. So when the movement really started taking domestic violence serious, people were very scared about us colluding with those who are causing harm and putting responsibility on those who were being harmed. Now what we've seen is, in our attempt to be accountable, we've actually really limited the palpability of our programs to those who are causing harm. I would say that I cannot talk about systematic oppression and coercion that an offender is engaging towards women, if I don't acknowledge systematic oppression and coercion that person has experienced because of structural racism, because of poverty, because of all the other traumas in their life. Plus, when I abuse people, we believe that has to do with this whole concept of entitlement and privilege and core beliefs. Those core beliefs come from my own background, my own experiences, what society has taught me, what I have seen, what I've experienced, maybe at the hands of my parents, at the hands of other community members. So, if we're not willing to talk about that trauma, that pain and how deep-rooted those core beliefs became, we can't expect men to really dissect that, come to terms with that and change that behavior. That's our goal. Some people would even argue that we moved from, "What's wrong with you?" to "What happened to you?" And saying, as we look at what's happened to individuals, we can understand how they're rage-filled men and may be feeling extremely powerless in their lives, and this is the one place they think they can have power and they so desperately are grasping on to that. So, we would argue that it really is imperative that men be allowed to look at their own victimization and then look at how we're passing that on.
AREÁN: I mean, some people would call this the trauma-informed intervention and we did have another podcast that we invite people to listen to specifically about this topic. I think more and more people are realizing that we will not be fully successful in our work with people who use violence if we don't pay attention to their own trauma. So that's excellent. Thank you. So, the principle that we're talking about also states that, and again I quote, “accountability requires an abusive partner to be an active participant in both identifying, taking responsibility for, and where possible, repairing the harm and violence of their thoughts and actions." Close quotes there. So tell us why you think that's important.
HENDERSON: It's interesting. I come from the recovery world. That was my job before coming into probation. I worked in a drug rehabilitation center. In the AA community and in recovery, there's this concept, "Make direct amends, except for when to do so will hurt them, myself or others." When we look at the men who are coming into our program, one of the things that I want them to be able to identify, and early on they don't see, is where they're at on this power control wheel, something that was created by Ellen Pence, the Duluth Model, that really looked at the various forms of coercion or abuse that we may engage in in an intimate relationship and look at how those played out, what was my intent of doing those things, and what was the harm or reaction to my partner or my children. As men come to terms with that, and at first they don't see it, but as you continue to go through the group, our clients are really able to say, "Okay, I actually did do this. This was my intent. This is why I did it. This was the effect I had on my partner." And then sometimes they can't make direct amends, right? "I have a no contact order," a variety of things. So really how do I make amends through my actions? How do I account for that? A lot of people are using ACEs nowadays. We have an exercise, we use the Adverse Childhood Experiences where the man can talk about their own trauma, right? And we can look at our scores and then we can look at resiliency scores and what things may have been in place for us, or weren't in place for us, that would have been protective measures. And then we go through the next week and we do that on each of our children. We look at what I have done to give my kid a high score, and that's really tough work for these men. If I strangled my partner, I've called her lots of coercive names, maybe I have sexually assaulted my partner and my kids have overheard this, that's a lot of trauma. If I really care for this child, that's going to be tough for me to swallow. And so then we work with the men. Once we come to terms with that, it's how do I repair that? How do I fix that? What do I do to try to give my kid some more protective measures? The men really work hard to try to figure that out and other men try to talk to them about all the things that we can do, not only to change our behavior, but to repair some of the damage so my child is not in this class 10, 20 years from now, right? Because we don't need to be raising more men who are violent and more men who are objectifying women.
AREÁN: That sounds like a very powerful and creative and profound exercise, so thank you for sharing that. One of the advantages of doing this work for a long time like you have and I have is that I think we have seen the work move and the field move. I do think that we are moving, little by little, what some people are calling retributive approaches to justice to more reparative and restorative. There's a great article that just came out at the Journal of Interpersonal Violence where they interview survivors in Baltimore City, mainly African American, mainly low income, and that's exactly what they want, right? They want more healing, they want more reparation and so on. So, I think this is very relevant right now. Another of the project principles that is related to that one is about the fact that hope and dignity should be restored as part of the work. So for you, what is the connection between hope and dignity and accountability?
HENDERSON: Well, I think if men come into a program and don't see how changing behavior is going to be advantageous for them, their families, their children, there's really very little motivation. I mean the criminal justice system, our goal, if I convict you, we order you to a program and we say that you have to change. Well, the client, his motivation early on is just to get the courts off his back, not to really look at oppression or look at abuse. So really what we want to do is be able to talk with the men about what would be an ideal father, for example. What would be an ideal partner? What would that look like? What would you love to hear your kids say about you at your funeral, right, if you were able to listen in? We even have an exercise where they write a eulogy, if their children was going to be honest about them now, and their behaviors that they've witnessed, what would they have to say about their father? And then we have them write another eulogy about what they would love to hear their kids say about their father. We look at what would be their ideal man. What would a man of integrity look like? And then we start saying, "Okay, what would need to be in place for that to happen before I finally move on to the next life?" Right? So, the men can start looking at, "Okay, I can vision what a good father looks like. I can vision what a good partner looks like." Once they can see that vision and can describe it, then we start looking at, all right, so what would need to be in place, what would need to happen? And then you look at what roadblocks are going to be in my way there. If I have a substance abuse problem, that might be a roadblock that I have to address. I have struggled with experiencing mental illness. Is there a medication or treatment or interventions that I could engage in that it would also mitigate the damages of those. So, as the men start really starting to process this, we think they start gaining some hope and they start seeing things. And then we have the men talk about how life is getting better, how their relationship with their children has gotten better. What do their kids need from them? For a new guy coming in to hear about another guy getting access to his children now, having a better relationship with them than he's ever had in his entire life and how he got there, gives that new guy some hope if that's a motivating factor for him. So, I think it's imperative that I'm only going to make changes if I think I get something out of it, if I think it benefits me or people who I care for, and if that's how I feel, I think that's the way many of our clients feel as well.
AREÁN: That's really a wonderful way to end here. I feel like I could be talking with you for much longer because your work, it's so inspiring and so creative. Is there anything else you would want to add about your work with abusive partners?
HENDERSON: I didn't talk at all about religion and for us, and I could have done this when we talked about roadblocks, I have a large Muslim population, right? So during Ramadan, our class is in the middle of that. You might need to change your policies where people can go out and pray and make it very inviting and easy for people to do that. There are issues with eating when the sun goes down. So really being aware of how different religious practices are impacted by your program and being sensitive and respectful to that, I think has a big impact on certain communities buy-in and willingness to participate in your program.
AREÁN: Thank you so much, Jim, for your work. Thank you for being part of this project and for your participation in this podcast.
HENDERSON: It was an honor, Juan Carlos. Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it. For those who haven't listened to the trauma podcast, I'd really encourage them to go back and listen to that. That was an excellent podcast you guys did.
AREÁN: Thank you, Jim. So thank you everybody for listening today. Over the course of our podcast series, we're touching on several other topics. We already mentioned the working with a trauma-focused lens, but we have others also in working in Native American communities. Very interesting one. As well as other cultural-relevant approaches and survivor-center approaches as well as working with faith leaders and community. So it's a very rich series of podcasts here. To find the rest of the podcasts, you can visit our national clearinghouse where there's many other materials. It's at courtinnovation.org/abusive-partner-resources. To learn more about our project or to request technical assistance, including from our friend Jim here, feel free to contact us at dvaccountability. One word, like domestic violence. firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also learn more about our organizations at our websites, futureswithoutviolence.org and courtinnovation.org. Thank you very much and be well. Bye-bye.