Can Batterers Change?

We are often asked if abusers ever change.

The answer to this question is a tricky one and it varies widely. First, there is a range is what an attempt at change can look like. On one end of the spectrum, it could be a man trying everything in his power to keep a promise made to his wife that it would “never happen again”. It could also be an abuser who made that same promise with no intention of deliberate follow through.

Often the batterer we think of when we evaluate change is the one actively involved in some kind of rehabilitation program (usually facilitated by a court mandate). This is also the batterer we are better able to track and have more access to researching. For those reasons, data on this topic is likely to be skewed toward court-involved men in Domestic Violence Intervention Programs (DVIPs).

Even narrowing the field to men engaged with a DVIP produces a wide range of approaches and a lot of grey area surrounding outcomes. According to the Duluth Model, “68% of men who pass through the criminal justice system response and are sent to our men’s nonviolence classes have not reappeared in the criminal justice system over a course of eight years.” That is a promising statistic. Unfortunately, the Duluth Model is not used universally.

That means that the best case scenario is that approximately two-thirds of abusers don’t appear in the criminal justice system for eight years. Which really just means that they don’t get arrested. We know that domestic violence is one of the most under-reported crimes, so we can assume that some of these men continue to batter (perhaps scaling back to “just” emotional, verbal and financial tactics to control) without detection.

The question here is not how many batterers change, but if they can. Since we believe abuse is a choice, we must also believe that abusers can choose to stop it. The difference between success and relapse could be any or all of the following factors:

  • Motivation: Is the batterer truly embracing change? Has he admitted to a problem? Is the timing right to focus on treatment and implementing new habits?
  •  Support: Is there adequate support from family/friends? Is there incentive from the legal system?
  • Treatment: Is he receiving treatment? Is the treatment high quality? Does it follow a proven curriculum?
  • Other Factors: Is substance abuse also an issue? Are other medical or mental health issues being addressed? Are current living or work situations healthy?

As a society, if we are going to address the entire issue of domestic violence, we must not neglect change among the abusers. In Clackamas County we practice offender accountability through the Domestic Violence Deferred Sentencing Program (DVDSP), within the Family Violence Coordinating Council (FVCC), and numerous DVIPs.


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