Programs struggle with compliance, history of underuse

By Dana Treen
The Florida Times-Union

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) — They line the walls side by side, sitting in folding chairs. Some stretch their legs. Some cast their eyes downward. They are a room full of men brought together by a violent bond.

Gawain Rushane Wilson was 25 and in the Navy in 2013 when he met in one of those rooms for six months with others who were on similar paths.

Once a week, they came together in an intervention program designed to overcome the patterns of domestic abuse that landed them there.

Wilson was ordered to enroll after a girlfriend reported being dragged, kicked, choked and thrown against a wall.

He is dead now, as are his twin babies and their grandfather. He shot them to death in November before using the gun on himself. The mother of his children, a different woman from the abused girlfriend, survived being shot several times as she held her infants in her arms.

Darien Head Jr., 21, never went to the intervention program he was ordered to attend in 2013 after he was arrested for grabbing an ex-girlfriend around the neck, biting her and taking their 4-month-old daughter. He was charged in November with murder in the death of his 23-month-old son.

James Colley Jr., 35, was supposed to enroll in an intervention course. Instead, he is behind bars, jailed on charges of killing his estranged wife and her friend in an upscale St. Johns County neighborhood in August.

The women died the day he was ordered to take the course.

Judges ordered all three men to enroll in a Batterers Intervention Program created by the state to show domestic violence perpetrators how and why they act like they do and, utmost, how they can change.

Those who attend later talk about rewiring their thinking and confronting their vicious acts for what they were.

Despite showing evidence of significant success since it started being offered in Duval County in 1988, the intervention programs struggle with compliance and a history of underuse.

Year after year advocates say awareness by the judicial, law enforcement and public sectors needs to be elevated and needs to more closely track violators, particularly those with violent histories.

“The prosecution and sentencing of offenders who have had prior arrests or protective orders in place for domestic violence should take into account that history and respond aggressively,” said the Domestic Violence Fatality Review of Duval County’s 11 domestic violence homicides in 2014.

Overall, the completion rate of men who are not in jail or in the military when they enroll is only about 43 percent.

What makes that more discouraging is that the program has a strong record of success. Those who finish are much less likely to re-offend, advocates said.

Women, a small segment of those sent to the program, also have a higher completion rate.

For most years since the Domestic Violence Fatality Review of Duval County cases was launched in 1997, the authors said batters-intervention programs are underused.

In 2008 the annual report said that for more than a decade the number of suspects in domestic partner homicides who completed the course was “abysmal” and that the number of abusers ordered to take the course declined.

“In a lot of places, they will say the batterers intervention program doesn’t work,” said Hubbard House CEO Ellen Siler. “We’ve got the data that says it works.”

Loretta Brienza, who has operated New Beginnings for 10 years and was with The Salvation Army for 15 years before that, said the intervention program can be an eye-opener even for victims.

“They are important for the victims because the victims always say they want the good guy back,” Brienza said. “They think all they need is counseling. If the victim sees that through all this counseling they are getting they don’t change, they have a choice to make.”

In a tiny Baymeadows office on a recent Saturday morning, men filed in and lined up at a card table, each paying their weekly fee to Brienza’s associate.

They sat, each with a folder, in the New Beginnings classroom and waited for Brienza to start a round of questions about their previous week.

The men, all domestic abusers sent by the courts, must refer to their victims by their names.

The victories, such as a laugh with their partner or recognizing when to walk away from a spat, are balanced by a drumbeat of advice and critique.

Enrollment is open, meaning first-time attendees join with others who have been going for weeks or months.

Vanessa Francis, the program’s manager for Hubbard House, said if changes can be made, they begin to happen in the third month of the six-month course.

“By week 10, they should have realized something,” she said.

Programs across the state were dealt a blow when the Legislature abolished the state Department of Children and Families’ role in certifying and monitoring intervention programs.

The state no longer conducts certification, monitoring or oversight of the program, said Jessica Sims, communications director for the Department of Children and Families.

The changes that went into effect in 2012 weakened the program, said Bob Smedley, executive director of Abuse Intervention Monitoring, a nonprofit established in 2011 to audit batterers intervention programs in the 9th Judicial Circuit in Orange and Osceola counties.

“My experience is courts want to know who they are referring to are doing the right thing,” he said.

Programs in Duval are operated at a high standard, he said, but that is not universal across the state. He has heard of online programs being advertised and said training standards for facilitators no longer exist.

Siler said outcomes could be strengthened if in all cases where violence has occurred the perpetrator was sent to intervention, even in cases when the couple does not stay together. That is not happening to the extent it should, she said.

Carithers said the topic of compliance is addressed in monthly meetings of the domestic violence project.

He said it is a frustrating issue strained by under-compliance by those sent to the classes and too few resources for tracking those who fail to show.

“It is a societal problem that should take higher priority,” he said.