Can Batterers be Rehabilitated?

David Adams, co-founder and co-director of Emerge,
the first counseling program in the nation for men who abuse women, discusses the inner workings, challenges,
and potential benefits of group counseling for men who batter. (July 2012)


SARAH SCHWEIG: Hi, I’m Sarah Schweig, of the Center for Court Innovation, and today I’m speaking
with Dr. David Adams. Dr. Adams is co-founder and co-director of Emerge, the first counseling program in the nation
for men who abuse women. He is one of the nation’s leading experts on men who batter and has conducted trainings
for social service and criminal justice professionals in 46 states and 18 nations. Dr. Adams has also conducted outreach
to victims of abuse for 35 years. Thanks for speaking with me today.

DR. DAVID ADAMS: Thank you.

SARAH SCHWEIG: Can you give us a little background about the kind of counseling you do? What kinds of issues
does counseling in this case seek to address? And is there a kind of model you use or promising practice?

DR. DAVID ADAMS: Well, I mean first of all, it’s small groups, and secondly the model that we use is
male/female co-facilitated. And the reason we do that is that we really want to provide a role modeling opportunity
for the abusive men to see women and men working together operatively and sharing leadership. Our program is divided
into two phases. There’s an educational phase, which is the first eight weeks where they’re exposed to
just really basic information about what is abusive behavior, broadening their understanding that it’s not just
the illegal behavior. How does it affect their partner, how does it affect their children, other alternatives and
so forth. But then the more interesting phase, you know, the second phase which is the remaining 32 weeks is more
of an interactive group. And that’s where we’re a little different as a model from other kinds of programs.
because we’re a psycho-educational model, not just an educational model, which really means that we’re
able to give individualized feedback to the men in the program, and to really kind of like focus more in depth about
each person’s history of abusive behavior. We actually do a very interesting exercise, which I call a relationship
history, where we ask each person 14 questions about every intimate relationship he’s had. And it’s done
right in the group. The other men ask the questions. And we do another interesting exercise where we really develop
very individualized goals for each man in the group, and the other men, again, are very involved in that process,
making suggestions about what goals make sense for that person. And so really the whole purpose of the goal of our
program is to really learn two things. One is respect, and how is respect communicated in relationships—not just
with your partner or with your children, but also empathy too. Because most abusers are very—kind of have a narcissistic
orientation and so the beginning stages, it’s really clear that it’s hard for them to see their own behavior
from their partner’s perspective. And so over time, we’re really trying to do that. We’re trying to build
that into the program so that even when men are giving each other feedback in a group, we’re asking men to try
to see things from the partner’s perspective. So when a man’s reporting an interaction with his partner,
for instance, we’re asking all the other men to say, okay, what do you think his partner’s perspective
was in that interaction? And in the process, they are learning empathy too. Because it’s easier, I think sometimes
to recognize another person’s abusive behavior than one’s own, you know? So we kind of take advantage of
that natural ability that abusers have. They’re very good at actually spotting other people’s abusive behavior,
not so much their own. And so we really kind of teach the men how to give each other constructive feedback, and how
to kind of hold each other to a higher standard. That’s really kind of the premise of our program.

SARAH SCHWEIG: So, as you know treating domestic violence offenders can be controversial. Some people say
that abusers can’t be reformed or treated. Can you talk a little bit about how this affects your work, and what
you have seen in your perspective?

DR. DAVID ADAMS: Yeah. Well, I think there’s been a lot
of misinformation about the outcome studies that have been done, first of all, and I also think it kind of reflects
that the outcome that has been done has a very kind of narrow definition of what outcome is, you know, too, because
I always say I’d like to get the same deal the substance abuse programs get. Because nobody ever questions the
value of substance abuse programs, and yet their outcomes aren’t any better than ours. And yet, somehow for
us to have the same outcomes, you know, there’s questioning about—are we worth it? And I think that what all
of the outcome studies have found is that program completers do a lot better than non-completers because of recidivism.
So that’s very reassuring to us, because just like a substance abuser program, it sort of is a given that the
more treatment they get, the better they do over time. I think that, however, when you have the expectation, this
all or nothing expectation that—do we cure? because some of the outcome studies have sort of compared program participants
with non-participants, but even program complicits who only get one session, you know who drop out and reoffend,
that counts as a program failure. And that makes no sense because he’s only had one session. But the other thing
is that we feel that we provide a valuable service regardless of the outcome, because we provide really useful information
to the courts about his participation, about noncompliance, for instance. And noncompliance is really a big deal
because that’s a predictor of his reoffending. We provide really useful information to the partners, to the
victims of abuse, and that’s a big deal because victims are really trying to make decisions, you know? Quite
often when he’s in the batterers program, you know, do I want to say in this relationship? Do I want to maybe
curtail his access to the children? And so, you know, they’re hearing back from us, and if they’re hearing
back from us, well you know, he’s still minimizing his abusive behavior. Or he’s still really blaming you.
That’s really useful for victims, because we want to make sure that she doesn’t just automatically conclude
that because he’s in our program, you know that naturally things are going to get better, you know too.

SARAH SCHWEIG: Those are some excellent points about the information sharing, and I wanted to ask about,
you know, in the court how your program sort of comes into play, and as you know domestic violence court emphasizes
holding offenders accountable for their abusive behavior. Do you see a tension between accountability and treatment
within the court, and how do those concepts fit together?

DR. DAVID ADAMS: Well, yeah, I think
that sometimes accountability is taken to mean punishment. Most of the men who participate in Emerge, they definitely,
when they start our program, think of our program as a part of their punishment. And yet, our understanding of accountability
is really much broader than that. It’s about recognizing the impact of your behavior on other people, being
able to really identify and talk about your abusive behavior, and to make changes. That’s all a part of accountability.
And so that’s very different from punishment. You know? Some abusers, they’d love to just be punished,
you know, because then they’re sort of off the hook. They don’t really have to change. So that really,
accountability, we try to sort of build that into our program so that just the process of having them describe their
abusive behavior, which they would never do on their own, right? I mean and also to put it on record too, you know,
so it really goes back to the court and so now he is on record as admitting, you know, in some detail, what his abusive
behavior, is—and has been. Another part of the accountability is being able to really be open to feedback too, in
the program. So really it’s kind of an aging process, accountability. It’s more than just punishment.

SARAH SCHWEIG: How do you think a justice system can be flexible enough to sort of fit the response to the
needs of the offender, in terms of sort of redefining accountability in that way?

Right. I mean first of all we love it when judges do more than just sentence abusers to programs, but also kind of
reinforce the goals of the program, to really kind of say to the defendant, you know, I’m gonna sentence you
to this program, but I want you to be an active participant in the program. In fact, I’m going to review your
progress in the program. And that’s one of the great advantages of domestic violence courts, is there’s
that built into it, so that a person knows that they’re going to have to be accountable in that way, they have
to go back before the judge, the court, and kind of review the process. And they take it more seriously themselves
too. And I think it’s just human nature, that people will do that.

you established Emerge in 1977, how has working with domestic violence offenders changed, and do any new achievements
come to mind or any new complications or challenges that you might want to mention?

ADAMS: Well, I think it’s been a lot of trial and error over the years and we’ve learned a lot about how
to engage men. And certainly programs have become more culturally relevant too, over time, as well as programs specifically
geared towards abusers in same sex relationships, too. But I think that in the beginning, I think there was kind
of a consciousness raising, more of a sort of emphasis really only one set of issues, which was really sort of gender,
equality, and more of a kind of confrontative approach, sort of confronting them about sexist attitudes and so forth.
And I think what we’ve learned over time is that that can be really quite alienating, that people—and really,
I think we’ve kind of replaced that with more of an emphasis on respect, because respect is more of a universal
value, and respect definitely plays into gender equality in terms of relationships. And so we sort of try to keep
it focused on how much do you respect your individual partner? More than, you know, what’s your attitude toward
women in general.

SARAH SCHWEIG: And that also goes back to teaching, you know, teaching empathy,
which is a much more intimate experience. So you’re also the author of the book, “Why Do They Kill? Men
Who Murder Their Intimate Partners.” Maybe talk a little bit about how you sought to answer that question and
what were some of your findings in cases of homicide?

DR. DAVID ADAMS: Well, I mean when I started
working on that project, there had been a real spike of intimate partner homicides in Massachusetts, so much so that
our governor had declared a state of Emergency for women. And so it really kind of made me curious about what distinguishes
batterers who kill from those who don’t kill. What do we need to know that can really help us to identify these
cases in the earlier stages, though I did interviews with prisoners that all had killed their intimate partners in
Massachusetts, and I also did interviews with victims of attempted homicide. And it really identified that there
were, essentially, five different types of killers in terms of their motivations to kill, and so I think we need
to make it better in the system, in identifying those men earlier on, flagging those cases, you know, looking at
the mental health issue on top of the domestic violence issue. I mean I think the first really, duty in combating
terrorism, you know, is to gather intelligence. These are domestic terrorists, so you know, we really need to gather
better intelligence about the people that are gonna be causing the problem, you know, which is the abusers.

SARAH SCHWEIG: Well that’s fascinating and it’s been wonderful talking to you. I’m Sarah
Schweig and I’ve been speaking with Dr. David Adams, co-founder and co-director of Emerge. To learn more about
the Center for Court Innovation, please visit Thank you for listening.