By: Michelle Cantea
Over the past two years, we’ve seen an increase in probation officers requesting that we place women in our Domestic Violence Program. While we would love to (and we often strive to) fulfill all the requests that we get, we’ve had to, until very recently, deny these requests. The reason for this is that women who are convicted of Domestic Abuse and its various forms, are simply not appropriate for a men’s Domestic Violence group.
The Power and Control Wheel, that we use in the men’s program, was created by battered women as a visual tool to understand the violence they had survived. When we think of a wagon wheel, we envision the metal frame that holds the wooden rungs together. In the dynamics of domestic violence, physical and sexual violence are often the framework which enable an individual to have and maintain long-term power and control over another person. The physical and sexual violence may happen frequently or infrequently but they are often the framework for the coercion and control in battering relationships. In the case of women who have used force, many are also survivors of domestic and sexual violence. Therefore, it is important to understand that women use the behaviors noted on the Power and Control Wheel in order to attain autonomy or some type of short-term control during battering and/or abusive heterosexual relationships. In contrast, when men use the behaviors noted on the Power and Control Wheel they often do so in order to exercise their authority and primary power in intimate heterosexual relationships. Although the behaviors of women who use force and men who batter are essentially the same, the reason behind those behaviors is fundamentally different, and thus, must be addressed differently.
While violence, for any reason, is unacceptable and inexcusable, the approach used to address violent behaviors in a men’s group would be useless if used to address a woman who uses force. When choosing a program to address women who are convicted of Domestic Abuse, this premise must be the basis on which to start. Abuse history, cultural, factors, economic resources, ingrained beliefs systems and behavioral patterns are also important factors to consider in a program.
A woman’s abuse history is essential to her underlying behavior and should not be ignored as it is often a driving force behind her choice to use violence. Physical, sexual and mental abuse might be present currently or could have happened as a child or in a former relationship. If a woman has a history of being abused and is placed into a program that doesn’t address this key factor in her life, then chances for a complete and full recovery are marginal. Any incident that, to the woman, signifies that she is about to be abused could lead to a violent reaction. If the past abusive history is addressed, however, then the woman can learn to identify potentially abusive relationships and empower herself to leave the situation before the violence begins. If she’s had incidents where she perceived a situation as potentially hostile when it was not, then she will gain insight into this part of her life and can learn new ways to handle situations in the future. Past history of abuse is not the only deciding factor on whether or not a woman may choose to use force in any given situation. Cultural and socio-economic factors can also lead to this decision.
America is very unique in that there are sub-cultures within a massive American culture that are regional, religious, ethnic, socio-economic, etc… in nature. Unfortunately, some cultures within our culture are more prone to using violence or aggressive behaviors, for both men and women. Understanding and identifying a cultural bias toward the use of aggression is important. While the woman herself may not be culturally predisposed toward violent behavior, her partner could be. A full picture of the woman and her partner can help identify and address these issues. When placing the woman in a program, it is not as essential that the woman be placed with women in the exact cultural situation as it is that the program is keen in addressing cultural issues as they pertain to violence. Just as there is a spectrum of cultures throughout America, there is also a spectrum of economic resources that factor into a woman’s choice to use force.
In many cases, violent encounters can be caused by or exacerbated by limited economic resources. A woman who is in an abusive relationship and is not permitted to work may not have additional funds in order to leave a violent relationship. She may not be educated on services that are available to her or she may feel that even if she does leave, her partner could “out-spend” her in court and take her children. These are all forms of economic control that a woman might be under in an abusive relationship. It is not merely a matter of explaining to someone that they can call a number or go to a shelter in order to escape the violence. Each circumstance is so unique and different, that it takes care to navigate what the woman is thinking and how she is assessing her choices. If she believes that going to a shelter might get Children’s Protective Services involved, then she may choose to stay in a relationship. Just because there are resources available, does not mean that a woman will choose to utilize them. Sometimes those resources can seem more dangerous than her current situation.
Besides cultural and socio-economic factors, ingrained belief systems play an important role in a woman’s decision to use force. In discussing ingrained belief systems, religion, sub-culture, etc… are not the subject of the discussion. More so, an ingrained belief system is an individualized belief that is, appropriately or inappropriately, derived from cultural messages and life experiences. A common belief that is prevalent in a woman who has used violence is that the law doesn’t punish a man for abuse so it is up to the woman to stop the abuse. This might be an appropriate or inappropriate belief based on her history. If she’s called the police before to stop an abusive situation, and the partner was met with minimal punishment (or worse, she was arrested), then that belief system might be justified. Unpacking and sorting out a woman’s beliefs and how they lead to violence is an important step in her recovery.
Lastly, behavior patterns are essential in understanding and helping someone stop using violence. Like smoking, overeating or any other bad habit, a behavior pattern that is destructive is difficult to stop. A myriad of variables can make it difficult to quit a behavior and replace it with something more appropriate. Identifying behavior patterns that lead to (or are) violent and addressing them appropriately is key.
It is important to note that while each of the above listed things is relevant and part of a woman’s choice to use violence, they are not stand-alone. Each one is intertwined with the other and it takes great care and time to sort through them. When assessing where to send a woman who has been convicted of Domestic Abuse, it is important to determine if the program has the ability to evaluate and attend to everything that leads a woman to choose violence.