Domestic violence conference weighs effectiveness of therapy

Is it possible to create safer intimate partner relationships through carefully controlled, domestic-violence therapy sessions? That was the topic under discussion at an OnTrack Inc.-sponsored symposium Friday.

The all-day conference, held at the Smullin Center in Medford, opened with remarks by retired Jackson County Circuit Court Judge Rebecca Orf and closed with a panel discussion that included Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert; Doug Mares, Department of Human Services district manager for Jackson and Josephine counties; Eric Guyer, deputy director of Jackson County Community Justice; Anna D'Amato, director of victim services for Community Works; and the symposium's three guest speakers.

Sandra Stith is a nationally recognized researcher and clinician in treating intimate-partner violence. She is also a professor of marriage and family therapy at Kansas State University.

Stith said her program includes careful and ongoing screening of participants and involves a "co-therapist" approach in which the couple receive both individual and group counseling sessions for several weeks.

The purpose of Stith's therapy program is to end violence — physical, emotional, psychological and sexual, she said.

Stith said the therapy she advocates is not appropriate for all couples in domestic-violence relationships. Sometimes it is simply too dangerous for one or both involved to continue to interact.

"One-size-fits-all treatment doesn't work," she said.

But if the couple are determined to stay together, and they often are, she said, it is in their best interest — and the best interest of their children — to at least try to teach them non-abusive ways to interact.

Stith suggested that being "accountability focused" is huge in the United States. But it is counter to the way many other cultures deal with domestic violence.

Stith said the county partners should consider adopting a new therapy which would require intensive training. The classes could be an add-on to batterer-intervention programs, she said. But Stith did not want to see the therapy be mandated by the courts, so that a man or woman could be free to leave the counseling — and the relationship — if they chose without feeling coerced by threat of a court order.

In the follow-up panel discussion, moderated by Democrat Rep. Peter Buckley of Ashland, D'Amato urged for caution in changing current protocols and best practices.

D'Amato challenged figures presented earlier in the forum that placed what she characterized as a falsely high number of domestic violence victims as male, noting that perpetrators who had injured themselves while committing violence had not been parsed out of the statistic.

Mandatory arrests for domestic violence were put in place because "it saves lives," D'Amato said.

"Last year 10 victims were murdered (in Jackson County) — six women and four children," she said.

Mares said community partners need to engage in a series of discussions about this issue and find a way to keep everyone safe.

"Every day in child welfare we see kids who are left in the balance," Mares said. "We want to create safety for each and every individual, the females, the males and the kids."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail

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