Domestic abuse re-education efforts detailed

Getting batterers to understand why they're reacting in an abusive manner can provide the key to helping them maintain self-control, say a couple who run a county program for abusers who are at risk of re-offending.

Mary Ann Terrall, who runs the program with her husband, Terry, spoke to a group of Jackson County judges, prosecutors and public defenders during their lunch hour Thursday.

The forum was hosted by Gerry Sea, coordinator of the Jackson County Council Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and detailed key points in a 48-week re-education program offenders enter, most often as a plea bargain condition in domestic violence cases.

The goal is to help batterers re-learn their societal training and accept responsibility and accountability for their actions, Sea said.

"They need to learn how to problem-solve without resorting to violence," Sea said.

The Terralls run the county's domestic abuse program for batterers who are at low to moderate risk of re-offending. OnTrack Inc. tackles the cases that have offenders assessed at moderate to high risk, she said.

Terrall's program is designed to break down an offender's resistance, fear and denial and to impart a new way of thinking about power and control — to understand that true power comes from exercising self-control.

It is not an easy task, Terrall and Sea said. But the rewards for society, victims and batterers themselves are worth the time and effort.

"I'm used to working with men and resistance," said Terrall, adding she ran sex offender treatment programs for many years.

Using a diagram that projects a person's likelihood of remaining rational, wise, kind and calm in the face of feelings of fear, anger, powerlessness and rage, Terrall demonstrates that resorting to violence or abuse is a choice that is fueled by bad information and poor decision-making skills.

"A lot of it is about emotional immaturity," Terrall said. "How do you change behavior? You change your belief system."

Terrall assured the attorneys and judges in the assembly room that she doesn't demonize men who attend one of her four weekly groups that contain between 10 to 15 offenders. She also discussed biological differences between men and women.

Women have seven verbal/language centers located on both sides of their brains that process and share information. Men have two centers, both located in the same hemisphere. The men's centers do not interact, she said.

"If you get a hot angry female who attacks verbally," some men "get hot under the collar" because they feel overwhelmed and feel powerless, Terrall said.

"They haven't learned how to have a healthy relationship," Terrall said.

But if the man opts to regain control by becoming physical with the woman, he has only lost more power.

"Adrenaline shuts off the brain," Terrall said.

Domestic violence runs across all socioeconomic and cultural lines, Terrall said. The men in her classes may be sporting neck tattoos and a "wife-beater" shirt, or they may be wearing a suit, she said. They may think they have nothing in common. But over the course of the 48 weeks, they come to realize that there are many similarities in ideology, she said.

Exerting power and control over another human being works best in the shadows. Often in the case of domestic violence, offenders are very reluctant to talk about what they've done, Sea said.

"It's quite a hidden issue," she said.

Perpetrators typically minimize their behavior and demonize their victim or the arresting officer. Part of the education program requires an offender to read their police report aloud before the group, Terrall said.

"They'll say that officer had it in for them," she said, adding she doesn't argue with the offender, she tells him to address the parts in the report that are true.

Offenders are also required to write a letter to the victim. The letter is not sent to the victim. The point is to get abusers to take responsibility for their actions and learn empathy for the victims and demonstrate they fully understand the pain they caused.

Offenders must also take two polygraph tests, one at the 24-week mark, and one at the completion of the 48-week course.

Terrall and Sea have been working together on these types of programs since the mid-1990s. They know that most men are not thrilled about committing to a yearlong program. But changing behaviors, beliefs and lives takes time, Sea said.

Classes cost $25 a week, and there is no federal, state or local funding to help pay for the training, Sea said.

"Domestic violence isn't viewed as a mental health issue," Sea said. "It is seen as a social, behavioral and belief system issue. (Domestic violence) isn't a medical model, it's a choice."

Terrall estimates the recidivism rate among her clients is about 10 percent, which is well below the national average of 25 percent.

Terrall said 75 percent of her group members are on deferred sentences, which means their conviction will be expunged upon successful completion of the program. The other 25 percent enter as a condition of their probation, she said.

"This is not treatment, this is re-education. It's about accountability, and what have you learned," Terrall said. "But I believe, if they use the tools, they will not be abusive."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

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