Domestic Violence Intervention Project Experiments with Restorative Justice for A Stigmatized Group

Image via seattle.gov.

By Paul Kiefer

In early November, in a hallway on the tenth floor of the Seattle Justice Center, a middle-aged man in an untucked polo shirt waited for his name to be called. In the courtroom next to him, Seattle Municipal Court Judge Adam Eisenberg was wrapping up a string of DUI probation hearings; in the hallway, defense attorneys mingled with anxious probationers, none of whom looked pleased to be there on a Monday afternoon.

Judge Eisenberg spoke to the DUI defendants in a firm, measured tone. “We’re very excited that you’ll be going to law school,” he told a young man who turned up in a tidy suit, “but it’s also a little alarming that you’re here.”

But the judge’s demeanor softened when the man in the polo shirt walked through the courtroom’s double doors and took his place at the defendant’s table. “How are you feeling? How is everything going?” he asked. Immediately, the interaction felt far more personal than the hearings that preceded it.

The man is one of roughly 60 participants in the court’s Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP), a treatment program for defendants with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions that provides court monitoring, group and individual counseling, and referrals to substance abuse or mental health treatment providers as necessary. The program, which is still in its pilot stage, has been operating with little publicity or fanfare since June 2018. However, with alternatives to policing and incarceration front-and-center in Seattle’s political discourse, DVIP has taken on new significance as one of several promising experimental public safety programs in the city.

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Unlike people facing charges for misdemeanors like shoplifting or drug possession, domestic violence defendants haven’t received much attention—or sympathy—in recent discussions of alternatives to policing and incarceration. The belief that domestic abusers are best held accountable through probation or incarceration has not disappeared, but the shift towards a rehabilitative approach is relatively widespread. And while domestic violence offender treatment programs have existed for decades in the United States, until the past decade, most of those programs treated domestic abusers as fundamentally different from other criminal defendants.

“For a long time, domestic violence was siloed,” said Tara Richards, a professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who is leading an independent review of Seattle’s DVIP. Domestic abusers, she said, were typically treated as unique among violent offenders; as a consequence, they rarely received attention in conversations about rehabilitation.

“But over the past 10 or so years,” Richards explained, “we’ve started to notice that people in domestic violence treatment programs don’t just commit domestic violence offenses. They have the same needs and risks as pretty much everyone else with repeated criminal offenses.” Programs like Seattle’s DVIP are intended to identify offenders’ underlying needs, such as housing, mental health services, or addiction treatment, and connect them to resources while they undergo behavioral therapy.

The DVIP process begins with a referral from the Municipal Court, either as part of a plea agreement with the City Attorney’s Office or as part of a sentence. The court does not refer all misdemeanor domestic violence offenders to DVIP; only those who show some willingness to be accountable for their actions and who are able to participate in the treatment are eligible for the program. Someone facing jail time, for instance, could not participate in DVIP while incarcerated.

The notion of providing treatment for domestic abusers isn’t new, but Seattle’s DVIP is driving a revival of the practice.

The offenders are then sent to one of two treatment providers—Anger Control Treatment and Therapies (ACTT) or Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS)—for a risk assessment. The City Attorney’s Office has agreed to give offenders immunity from prosecution during the assessment, and any details they share about the abuse they’ve committed can’t be used in court.

Based on that assessment, the court and the treatment providers assign offenders to an appropriate “level of treatment” based on the intensity of their abuse, their rehabilitative needs, and their expressed commitment to change their behavior. The DVIP team can also refer offenders to mental health and addiction treatment providers, housing providers and other services as needed. The offenders then attend weekly counseling meetings, including group sessions, for 6 to 12 months.

During that time, they also appear before the court for periodic progress reviews. If they are convicted for a new domestic violence offense, or if the treatment provider deems them unsuited to the program, the court can then decide to revoke their enrollment in DVIP. But Judge Eisenberg says that he and his colleagues err on the side of caution when revoking an offender’s treatment. “We want them to keep moving forward—we focus on progress instead of perfection,” he said.

At the moment, the DVIP program doesn’t have a designated budget. According to Judge Eisenberg, the program uses existing Municipal Court resources to stay afloat; their application for a federal grant to pay for assessments was rejected earlier this year, and the possibility of receiving additional funding from the city disappeared when the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the city budget.

“Six or 12 months in the program isn’t enough time to address all their needs. It might take multiple rounds of treatment to get someone’s needs met and to get them to acknowledge their problem.”—Tara Richards, University of Nebraska professor of criminology

The notion of providing treatment for domestic abusers isn’t new, but Seattle’s DVIP is driving a revival of the practice. In  2013, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy (WSIPP) published a report criticizing domestic violence treatment programs as ineffective and expensive, but their conclusions were based on treatment programs that followed a one-size-fits-all intake and counseling model developed in the 1980s and favored in Washington state at that time.

The report marked a low point for domestic violence treatment in Washington. Tonya Dotson, a probation manager with the Municipal Court who specializes in domestic violence, told PubliCola that the report effectively brought the court’s domestic violence treatment referrals to a halt. At the same time, nonprofits in the Seattle area closed their domestic violence treatment services because of lack of support, referrals and funding.

When DVIP emerged five years later as a joint effort between the city, King County, and several local nonprofits interested in proving the value of treatment for domestic abusers, it was designed to address many of WSIPP’s critiques. For example, Judge Eisenberg says, the new program includes elements like in-court progress reviews and varied approaches to treatment.

The municipal court has been closely tracking the outcomes of DVIP. Of the 183 offenders referred to DVIP as of May 2020, only 16 have been removed from the program. According to Judge Eisenberg, only one person has re-entered DVIP after they were removed from their initial treatment because of a new conviction, and none of 18 people who completed treatment have reoffended.

Richards says it’s too soon to say for sure whether the program is effective. “We haven’t given people time to recidivate,” she said, “and it could take another year before we have any meaningful data.” But Richards also said recidivism rates aren’t the best measurement of DVIP’s success. People enrolled in the program are likely to reoffend, she said, “because six or 12 months in the program isn’t enough time to address all their needs. It might take multiple rounds of treatment to get someone’s needs met and to get them to acknowledge their problem.” In her opinion, allowing offenders to return to DVIP several times is more likely to change their behavior than repeated incarceration.

Richards and Judge Eisenberg agree that qualitative data—feedback from participants and victims—is essential in monitoring the success of the program. Judge Eisenberg’s warm approach in the Monday morning DVIP hearing was a part of the effort to collect that qualitative data: he relies on the hearings not just to check on participants’ progress, but to solicit their input about DVIP itself. The municipal court organizes that input, as well as participants’ anecdotes about treatment, into a “story log” to present alongside statistics about program completion, enrollment and recidivism.

Even without clear measures of DVIP’s success, some shortcomings are obvious. Both ACTT and ACRS hold group counseling sessions in English, leaving offenders who speak limited English without equal access to treatment. That was the case for the man at the Monday morning DVIP hearing, who had fallen several months behind his treatment schedule because he struggled to complete some written assignments from his treatment provider. The primary counselor at ACRS has been able to translate to Vietnamese when necessary, and the Municipal Court is currently exploring the possibility of partnering with the Lynnwood-based nonprofit La Esperanza to provide a Spanish-language treatment program, but the cost of providing translators for other languages (including sign language) is currently prohibitive.

DVIP also currently does not have treatment options for LGBTQ+ abusers. According to Julie Huffman, the supervisor for the city’s domestic violence victim advocates and a part of the DVIP team, the existing treatment models aren’t well-suited to address violence in LGBTQ+ relationships. “The way we address domestic violence in [group therapy sessions] talks a lot about the power differences between men and women,” she told PubliCola, ”and the power dynamics can be more complicated in [queer] relationships.”

Huffman also noted that the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, which sets standards for domestic violence treatment, requires gender-specific group therapy for domestic abuser treatment, which has generally excluded gender nonbinary abusers. The City Attorney’s Office does not keep data about the number of LGBTQ+ people charged with misdemeanor domestic violence, so Huffman does not know how many people have been affected lack of treatment options for LGBTQ+ abusers.

Some domestic violence survivor advocates raise concerns with the entire premise of a program based inside the criminal justice system. Shannon Perez-Darby, a longtime victim advocate and a domestic violence survivor herself, told PubliCola that her main concern with DVIP is the implied threat of arrest that hovers over program participants’ heads. “Even if you aren’t explicitly threatening criminalization [of the abusers], you don’t have to say it,” she said. “If you’re in the court, it’s obvious.”

Although she doesn’t discount the value of DVIP, Perez-Darby sees more promise in an emergent model for addressing domestic violence that takes place entirely outside the court system. “The most promising programs being tested right now,” she siad, “are about training friends and family to be the safety network.” Specifically, she described a “pod” model—developed by a Bay Area restorative justice group in 2016—that trains participants to build a network of family, friends and coworkers who can spot the warning signs of abuse and intervene to support survivors and hold abusers accountable.

Perez-Darby likened the “pod” model to her own experience as a domestic violence survivor; when she was in an abusive relationship, instead of turning to the police, Perez-Darby relied on the manager of the coffee shop where she worked to intervene when her ex-partner began stalking her. “A community of people who are trained to be observant and to step in to stop abusive behavior is more meaningful than something ordered by a court,” she said.

Perez-Darby and other victim advocates have few qualms with the basic principle of DVIP: that effective domestic abuser treatment is a crucial element of the fabric of public safety. “We have not done enough to figure out how to make another path for people doing harm,” she said. “Without it, our movement will plateau. We get stuck on the hamster wheel of supporting survivors without ever going upstream.”

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