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Programs for batterers lead to fewer deaths, Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force says

Last year, a 27-year-old woman was set on fire and left to die in a trash bin behind a Largo bank.

A 24-year-old woman was beaten and stabbed to death in her St. Petersburg home.

A 29-year-old Clearwater mother was stabbed to death days after her 5-week-old son allegedly died in her boyfriend's care.

For 11 years, the Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force's fatality review team has studied cases like these — nearly 100 of them. And it has discovered there are patterns that emerge when victims of domestic violence end up dead.

One pattern the team discovered is that in more than 90 percent of these cases, the perpetrators never attended batterers intervention programs or were ordered by a judge to do so.

Florida's 26-week intervention programs are group counseling sessions that help those who have abused their partners to accept responsibility for their behavior. The groups, led by certified facilitators, are aimed at teaching healthier ways to express emotions and methods for ending physical and emotional violence in relationships.

The effectiveness of batterers intervention programs has been debated. But local victim advocates and some who have researched the programs extensively do believe they can curb abusive behavior. And the fatality review team says such programs might save lives if more people who abuse their loved ones participate in them.

"We're going to create more victims if we don't find ways to get these batterers into groups," said Denise Hughes-Conlon, chairwoman of the task force.

State law requires that people convicted of domestic violence crimes be ordered to participate in certified batterers intervention programs as a condition of probation. Judges, however, do have some discretion if they believe the program is not appropriate.

And they have even more flexibility in civil cases, where victims ask for injunctions for protection. Referrals to batterers intervention programs are generally required in certain civil cases, such as when someone has a previous criminal domestic violence conviction. However, in most of these cases, judges have the option to order such programs but aren't required to do so.

For whatever reason, some advocates say perpetrators of domestic violence, especially those who end up in civil court, have not been ordered to participate in intervention programs as often as they should be.

Hughes-Conlon, who is also outpatient clinical director with the Pinellas Ex-offender Re-entry Coalition, said she has noticed a drastic dip in referrals to her agency's batterers intervention program.

The reduction may be linked, at least in part, to the economy and the requirement that perpetrators pick up the tab for counseling, she said. Participants have to pay $30 to the Department of Children and Families, which monitors the program statewide, and another $50 for an initial assessment. Participants also pay weekly counseling rates, which are geared to an individual's ability to pay.

Frieda Widera, chairwoman of the fatality review team, spends time each week in court. She said she noticed that judges were issuing fewer orders to the programs in recent years.

"We've had much better times when referrals were happening much more consistently," said Widera, who works as a domestic violence specialist for Largo's police department.

But Widera and other members of the county's Domestic Violence Task Force wanted concrete evidence, so they asked a group of volunteers to go to court.

From July 2010 through the end of March, the volunteers monitored 380 civil domestic violence hearings in which judges granted 221 injunctions for protection. In just two cases, perpetrators were referred to batterers intervention programs.

"If people have a protection order against them, it's saying there's a need for protection," Widera said. "Doesn't it make sense that we would try to change their behavior?"

Widera, however, does see some promising signs recently. Just last month, two months after the fatality review team released its annual report, she saw notations on court calendars indicating that certain individuals should be considered for batterers intervention programs.

Pinellas-Pasco courts spokesman Ron Stuart said the suggestion to include the notations came during a routine meeting between judges and staff.

While advocates say the batterers intervention programs can help, there are also studies that say the programs change neither the behavior nor the attitudes of abusers.

Some of those studies may be flawed, according to Edward Gondolf, research director of the Mid-Atlantic Addiction Research and Training Institute in Pennsylvania. He has extensively studied batterers intervention programs and said research shows the programs can make a difference if other systems within communities support them.

One of his studies concentrated on men who participated in batterers intervention programs in four different cities. It found that nearly half of the men abused their partners again during a four-year follow-up period. But the study also found that violence diminished over time. At the end of four years, 90 percent of the men had not re-assaulted their partners in the previous year, he said.

"Batterer programs can be effective with sufficient supports from the community and the criminal justice system," Gondolf said. "They're not sufficient in and of themselves to end domestic violence. And we shouldn't be looking to them as a convenient safety valve."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

By the numbers

Results of the review

Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force's fatality review team examination of 96 cases found:

96 percent of cases: Victims had no contact with domestic violence centers

91 percent of cases: Perpetrators had no record of attending batterers intervention groups

86 percent of cases: There was a male perpetrator and female victim

86 percent of cases: No injunction of protection granted

72 percent of cases: Alcohol or drug use by victim and/or perpetrator is connected to incident

Programs for batterers lead to fewer deaths, Pinellas County Domestic Violence Task Force says 07/19/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 19, 2011 5:26pm]

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