Last in a three-part series
Chris is not a monster, he says — and he hasn’t been one for almost four years.
Up until then, however, he was a man with serious problems, and they landed him before a judge.
“My anger would get to an uncontrollable level,” he ex-plained. “I’d snap, sometimes for no real good reason, and I couldn’t hold back anymore. I’d take it out on (my wife) in a bad way.”
Chris, in his early 40s, admits he was physically violent towards his partner on a few occasions. A former alcoholic, there were times when that disease, combined with jealousy and irritability, resulted in a rage so strong it left his wife with bruises.
On two occasions, she left, spending up to a week with relatives, but returned after he pleaded with her.
“Yes, of course, I felt bad every single time,” Chris says. “I felt like the world’s biggest asshole when I saw the bruises on her arms.
Learning new ways to cope
“When I was crying to her and saying I was sorry and begging her to come home, I wasn’t just saying it — I had every intention of changing and never hurting her again. I knew it was bad and I knew she had every right to leave, but my anger got the better of me, every time,” Chris said.
“I’m not saying it’s an excuse, because, you know, I’m responsible for my own actions, but the way I grew up, let’s say I didn’t really learn good coping skills for emotional situations.”
Chris participated in more than 2 1/2 years of counselling for both his alcoholism and anger management as well as issues from his past, and his wife has also been involved in his therapy (as well as her own counselling). He says he’s learned ways of dealing with his anger and hasn’t had a violent episode — or touched a drink — in about four years.
“It was the courts that made me smarten up, I think, but it’s the counsellors that have kept me on the right path. It kills me to think of what I put her through, and there are lots of days that I wonder why she stuck with me. I’ll be forever trying to show her I’m a totally changed man and I really mean it now when I say it will never happen again.”
For the past three years, many abusers have been given the opportunity to take part in the province’s Family Violence Intervention Court. A pilot project of government, the court program is voluntary for people charged in relation to domestic violence — statistically mostly men — and involves the accused pleading guilty in exchange for counselling and other supports for themselves, their partner and children, if there are any.
“The whole purpose of the family violence court is to break that pattern and cycle of violence, and the two components of that initiative are offender accountability — the offender has to feel accountable for his actions — and safety of the victim,” Justice Minister Felix Collins explained to The Telegram.
Firstly, an accused offender is assessed to determine his eligibility for the specialty court, Collins said. In the beginning, only those deemed at medium risk to reoffend were accepted; now, those at low and some at high risk are accepted as well. There are some who are found to be at a level beyond the family violence court, Collins said, and others whose lawyer advises them to plead not guilty, and they must proceed with their case in regular court.
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If an accused person is eligible and willing to take part, he must plead guilty to the charges and participate in counselling, the period of time and the depth based on his history, charges and risk to reoffend. The abuser’s partner and children can also avail of counselling, free of charge, through Iris Kirby House, Victim Services and Child, Youth and Family Services, Collins said.
Offender counselling is done through the local John Howard Society, a non-profit organization which provides services for adult and youth ex-offenders. For those charged with domestic violence, intervention includes a combination of group and individual work, said Cindy Murphy, executive director.
“It’s a very comprehensive, best-practice program that they participate in, so it’s based on research and all those kinds of things,” she said. “Basically, it’s tackling a whole range of issues, everything from victim empathy to power and control to communication. They challenge some of the preconceived ideas around that, and it forces them to have a good look at themselves and their behaviour and the impact it has on others.”
The therapeutic relationship that develops with the offender is particularly important, Murphy said, so he feels he has a safe place to talk about what’s going on, and he feels his counsellors and others are there to help, not judge him.
“That’s the tricky part,” she explained. “If they feel you’re just being confrontational with them the whole time they’re in group, then they’re always on the defensive and they’re not really looking at what they should be looking at. That’s not to say we’re letting people off the hook, because we certainly aren’t. It’s holding up that mirror, hopefully, and getting them to look closely at themselves and saying, ‘I’m not really that nice of a person right now; there’s something I need to do differently.’”
Many of the abusers have addictions issues, Murphy explained, and those must be dealt with separately and simultaneously, so not to give the offender the impression that the addiction caused the violence. A history of family violence is a common denominator with just about all offenders, Murphy said — not just those charged with domestic violence.
“It’s what they saw growing up and they perpetuate it, even though they always say, ‘I’m not going to turn out like him,’” she said, adding, like Chris, the offenders often don’t have good coping skills to deal with conflict and will lash out, trying to find some sort of release but ending up making it worse.
Oftentimes, the abusers break down in therapy when the extent and their result of their actions hits them.
“The majority of these people aren’t completely insensitive, and very often they’re emotional for what they’ve done. They just don’t know how to do anything different,” Murphy said.
“Can they be rehabilitated? Absolutely, but it does take work. If you think about your own life, you might be trying to lose weight, quit smoking, whatever the case may be, and you know how difficult that is. Imagine if you had to try and change the world and the way you interact in relationships. It takes time and a willingness on their part.”
What about abusers who agree to participate in the program just to try and stay out of jail?
Counsellors quickly find out who’s sincere and who’s not, Murphy said.
“I think this work is so much harder than doing time, in some respect,” she added. “If you do time, yes, it’s not easy and I’d never minimize that, although some people do. I worked in corrections for over 20 years and it’s rough stuff. But once (these offenders) get into treatment and understand what’s being expected of them, it’s a different ballpark altogether.”
While the treatment is ongoing — and it may take as little as two weeks or far longer, depending on the circumstances — regular reports on the offender’s progress are sent back to the court. The abuser also has to appear in front of the judge on a regular basis, to talk about what he’s learned and at what level he understands his crimes and their impact. Sentencing is held off until the treatment program and post-treatment testing is complete.
While it’s not guaranteed there will be no jail time at the end of the day, an offender’s participation in the program will be seen as a mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing, Collins said.
“All this would be taken into account and the sentences in a lot of the cases are reduced, if at the end of the day it’s decided the person has benefitted from this and the risk of breaking the family violence cycle is there.”
The government continues to gather information on the Family Violence Intervention Court pilot project from all those involved, to determine if it will continue. However, as of now, it’s seeing success. In the three years of the project, 134 offenders have stood before the court; 91 of them have completed the program.
None have been back, Murphy said.
“We know that custody alone is not deterring behaviour. If that was the case, people would never go to jail after the first time,” she said. “When you’ve got them into therapy you can challenge them on their behaviour and create some understanding about the impact they have on others.”