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Trying to Help Survivors, a Domestic Violence Agency Turns the Focus

Claudia Boyd-Barrett, California Health Report

Many programs that work with abusive spouses take a court-mandated punitive approach. These programs seek the roots of their behavior — often the abuse they suffered as a child.

Janna Rivas smiled at the three men on the computer screen in front of her. “So who wants to start us off with their check in today?” she asked cheerfully. For a few moments, no one spoke. Then a man with long hair raised his hand. “I am checking in today definitely with joy, grateful to be here again another week,” he said, pausing as if searching for the right words. “And a little bit of shame at the same time, that I’m having to do this,” he continued. “I just wish I would have learned this approach before it was a necessity.”

It was week four of Positive Solutions, a program of up to a year that aims to help people responsible for domestic violence change their behavior patterns and build healthy relationships. Run by Monarch Services, a domestic violence intervention and prevention agency in Santa Cruz County, the program encourages participants to tune into their emotions, practice nonviolent communication skills and identify negative childhood experiences that may have led them to express emotions in a violent way.

The program reflects a growing movement among anti-violence advocates, domestic violence agencies and even lawmakers to find effective ways to break the cycle of abuse. They argue that addressing domestic violence solely through the criminal justice system, such as by involving the police or incarcerating people, doesn’t fix the problem or promote healing, and may actually cause additional harm. But more holistic, trauma-informed approaches like Positive Solutions can give people a chance to process the deeper reasons for their behavior and allow them an opportunity to change.

“It just gives you chills,” said Rivas, program manager at Monarch Services. “You’re watching folks process and forgive themselves and each other. These guys are nodding and saying, ‘Yes, that happened to me too. You’re not alone.’”

Janna Rivas, right, speaks with a coworker at a Monarch Services event. She is a co-facilitator for the Positive Solutions Program. Photo courtesy of Monarch Services.

Since 1994, California has required people convicted of domestic violence and granted probation to attend what’s known as a “batterer intervention program” certified by their county’s probation department. However, violence prevention advocates and researchers have long questioned whether these programs are effective, citing high dropout rates and little evidence that they stop people from reoffending. A 2005 report by the California Attorney General found that dropout rates are as high as 89 percent in some counties. One criticism of these traditional programs is that they are overseen by the criminal justice system and, as such, tend to take a punitive rather than a healing approach. The style of many programs is authoritative and didactical, critics said, and often reinforces feelings of shame, alienating participants.

“You’re just another person telling them what to do,” said Dalia Ochoa, a facilitator for Positive Solutions who ran “batterer intervention” classes at a probation department before joining Monarch Services.

People of color, who research suggests are overrepresented in court-mandated batterer intervention programs due to societal inequities, also frequently mistrust interventions associated with the criminal justice system due to experiences of police harassment and brutality in their communities, experts said.

California’s state auditor is scheduled to release an audit later this year on the effectiveness of California’s domestic violence intervention programs, at the prompting of Assemblymember Timothy Grayson (D-Concord). And six counties (Napa, San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara and Yolo) are piloting alternative programs that experiment with different lengths and types of classes, using funding from an Assembly bill passed in 2018. The pandemic delayed some of the pilots, and it will take more time to determine the outcome, according to a report by the California State Association of Counties.

In the meantime, a handful of local nonprofits are taking up the helm.

The link between childhood trauma and domestic violence

Working with those responsible for domestic violence is new for Monarch Services. Since its founding in 1977 the agency has focused on serving survivors of intimate partner abuse by providing them with emergency shelter, crisis intervention and legal services. At first glance, the idea of helping those who have committed violence, whom some traditionally viewed as “bad” people, seemed anathema to the organization’s mission, said Co-Executive Director Kalyne Foster Renda. But three years ago, while consulting with survivors on a new strategic vision for the agency, staff heard the same request repeatedly.

“‘I wish there was a program that could help my partner,’” survivors told Foster Renda. “‘I want to stay with them.’ Or, ‘my kids are going to spend time with my ex-partner and I’m worried about the violence.’ It kept coming up.”

The Monarch Services team began scouring the state for a program they could implement. Most, like Monarch Services in the past, held fast to the belief that they should only help the victims of violence. Then agency staff came across The Center in Placerville, a domestic violence intervention and prevention organization that developed the Positive Solutions program about five years ago and now works with about 90 men and women on any given week. They went to observe the program in action.'

“We were blown away by the personal accountability that folks were showing, the support that was happening within the group — that’s really the key to this program, is folks hold each other accountable,” said Foster Renda. “They allow for vulnerability, and there’s really this pressure on folks to be honest and own their stuff and be able to communicate effectively, in a non-harming way. We thought, ‘OK, this looks amazing.’”

Executive Director Matt Huckabay at The Center said his agency developed Positive Solutions after surveying hundreds of people who had been in a relationship where there was domestic violence and noticing that almost all of them had experienced high levels of abuse or neglect as children. By uncovering this trauma during the program’s weekly sessions, people start to better understand its impact on their behavior as adults, opening the door to healing and change, Huckabay said.

The program also teaches participants to tap into their full range of emotions and learn how to express them. Men especially have often learned as children to repress any emotion other than anger, Huckabay said. If they grew up in abusive households, its common for them to have faced physical violence or loss of affection from a caregiver if they showed emotions such as grief or hurt.

“They learned very early on to connect vulnerability (and) expressions of emotions to physical pain (and) absence of love,” he said. “Part of the success of the program is really creating a space for men to become very, very vulnerable. To express their feelings of hurt, of shame, their sadness, their grief, and to allow the processing of those emotions where it is viewed as being a strength, not a weakness.”

Identifying suppressed emotions and experiences

Originally designed as an in-person program, Monarch Services is currently holding meetings on Zoom due to the pandemic. Each Positive Solutions session is two hours long, with two trained facilitators. It begins with a check-in, where attendees choose from one of five “core” emotions to express how they’re feeling — joy/happiness, shame, guilt, anger or sadness — and explain why. They’re also asked to note something they’re grateful for.

After talking through any issues that come up, the facilitators introduce a topic for discussion, such as power and control in an abusive relationship, cultural norms around masculinity, or the intergenerational cycle of violence. In the most recent session, the topic was “Always do your best,” one of “The Four Agreements” from the famous book of that name by Don Miguel Ruiz. Participants are encouraged to identify how these issues have surfaced in their own lives. The facilitators’ role is to help guide the conversation, ask questions to dig deeper, and propose new ways to address or reframe situations involving conflict. However, they try not to dominate the conversation, or act as teachers or experts. Rather, participants are encouraged to support and guide each other.

“All of us are on a healing journey, all of us have trauma, all of us have things to learn and grow from,” Rivas said. “That’s why we are ‘cofacilitators.’ … We have resources to share, we have the training to identify where to go a little deeper, but the group will have a topic and it will flow based on what comes up.”

Dalia Ochoa, a co-facilitator for the Positive Solutions program. Photo courtesy of Monarch Services.

Ochoa recounted how one man revealed that both his mom and a stepdad beat him as a child, and how he’d also regularly watched his stepdad hit his mom. Another participant began the program saying his childhood was fine, but a few weeks into the class shared experiences of sexual abuse.

At the end of each class, participants are asked to choose a “stretch” — something practical they will do in the week ahead to implement the skills they’ve been learning. The following week, they report back to the group how it went.

During the recent Positive Solutions session, one man shared the results of his most recent “stretch” — starting a conversation with his wife about the possibility of moving back in together. He didn’t get the answer he wanted, he said, but recognized the point at which their dialogue was in danger of escalating into a fight and was able to instead walk away from the situation. Another participant talked about how, for his stretch, he had been trying to come up with steps he could take to avoid saying something hurtful when he got angry. Rivas advised him to start by taking a deep breath and connecting to how his body feels to try to identify the real reason he is upset before he speaks. “Is it sadness, hurt, shame?” she asked.