This article is being co-published with The Imprint, a national nonprofit news outlet covering child welfare and youth justice.
Each week in neighborhoods across New York City, adults gather in groups to reflect on the role they’ve played in domestic violence — gatherings that are held across the country as a court-ordered intervention in child welfare cases. The perpetrators, who are overwhelmingly men, have a chance at reunifying with their families, and regaining custody lost after violent incidents.
But first they have to show they’ve reflected on the past, and found a new way to parent.
In early October, New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services expanded its local program, A Safe Way Forward, serving survivors of domestic violence, their children, and those who cause harm. The program has been offered since 2019 in the Bronx and on Staten Island and has since been expanded to serve 65 families in Brooklyn.
Parents are mandated to attend the sessions when court orders find the primary risk to a child’s safety is domestic violence. But Kelly Coyne, deputy chief program officer at the nonprofit Safe Horizon, which runs the service, said all family members benefit — and the effects can be generational.
“We really want to end the cycle of domestic violence in the lives of these families,” she said.
Widely used, but scant evidence
Programs to prevent intimate partner violence are relied upon across the country, with a general goal of increasing responsibility for violent behavior, creating better communication and problem-solving skills and developing empathy. Most participants are required to complete programs under court orders following domestic violence convictions, as a condition of probation or to reunify with their children. Courses vary, but most of them last roughly 25 to 30 weeks, said Laura Voith, an expert on domestic violence and social science associate professor at Case Western Reserve University.
Voith said most of these types of programs are facilitated by a counselor, case planner or therapist and rely on a “psycho-educational” approach, with a primary goal of helping participants understand the root causes of their behavior.
“They help people discover what are harmful behaviors, and what are healthy behaviors and how that looks in their own relationship,” Voith said.
But research on these intervention programs, which have been around since the 1970s, shows inconclusive evidence for their effectiveness.
A 2002 study published in Justice Quarterly examined a popular program in Broward County, Florida for men who had been convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence, comparing participants with a control group who did not attend the sessions. One year later, the study found “no significant differences” in re-arrest between the two groups, as well as no difference in “their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors regarding domestic violence; both groups were equally likely to engage in both minor and severe partner abuse.”
A meta-analysis of batterer treatment programs studied between 1975 and 2013 found scant evidence of their effectiveness as well, and called for additional study.
And in 2019, the federal government reported the two main programs relied upon nationwide had “mixed results.” The Duluth model employs a “feminist” approach in group-facilitated exercises, and aims “to change abusive and threatening behavior in males who engage in domestic violence.” It has been found to be somewhat effective in reducing partner reports of violence and recidivism among violent offenders. The cognitive behavioral therapy approach — which aims to reduce partner violence “by identifying and changing the thought processes leading to violent acts,” — appeared to have no discernible effect, according to Crime Solutions and the National Institute of Justice.
‘I needed to change my life’
Those leading the programs, however, say they’ve seen firsthand the effectiveness.
Among them is Devon Gaster, who has worked to overcome intimate partner violence in California’s San Francisco Bay Area for the past 20 years.
The work began with himself. Gaster said he was violent during his eight-year marriage, and wanted to stop falling into those behaviors and create healthier relationships. He said his abuse had caused his former spouse to suffer bruised ribs and breathing problems and he knew that pattern had to end.
“I needed to change my life, otherwise I was going to end up back in an unhealthy relationship and lose my relationship with my daughter,” Gaster said in an interview.
He went on to work as a case manager for clients struggling with substance abuse, and served homeless veterans. But his focus has been promoting conflict resolution and violence prevention among incarcerated men. In 2007, he launched a community college class that would become his nonprofit, Men Creating Peace, which has served more than 800 adults to prevent domestic violence, in partnership with local courts.
Gaster’s program is split into three stages over the span of 52 weeks. The goal is to build empathy and a sense of accountability.
The program begins with participants identifying their inner “hit man,” an image of their most brutal self. Exercises and group support, according to the Men Creating Peace website, guides them away from “manipulating, insulting, raging, threatening, and assaulting as a way to get their needs met.”
NYC program expands
In New York City, participants must agree to the services and undergo a safety assessment before the program begins. A separate site serves survivors and children, and the children can join a support group called “the kids club.”
A Safe Way Forward describes its program as comprehensive and “trauma-informed” in its service to entire families. Those include in-home visitation, crisis intervention, advocacy, individual therapy and group counseling. All families referred must have an active, court-ordered supervision case and live in the neighborhoods where the programs are run.
A Westat evaluation conducted in June for the New York City Administration for Children’s Services on Safe Way Forward’s impact found “a high level of satisfaction” with the program, but called for more rigorous review. More than half of the survivors and people causing harm who were interviewed for the report said they saw improvements in their emotional self-regulation and communication skills. They also reported higher levels of self-esteem and self-confidence, as well as a greater understanding of intimate partner violence and how to further their family’s goals.
Roughly a third of the survivors said they were working on improving their relationships with their partners and making progress. “In addition to concrete assistance and clinical work,” the report found, Safe Way Forward staff “helped them by listening, being understanding, offering suggestions and advice, and just being there.”
Participants’ comments in the report included the following: “I can tell when people are violent or how violence starts in life. And now, with the therapy I’ve had, I will be able to realize when somebody is violent.” Another participant noted: “I’ve actually had to look into myself and become more communicative.”
The study concluded that if the city child welfare agency “wishes to build evidence” of the program’s effectiveness, the model must be more established and incorporate more tools of evaluation.
Yet there are critics of the New York City model. One key concern is that the programs are not run by people who have survived abuse.
Safe Way Forward used the voices of survivors in its courses. But Raquel Singh, executive director of Voices of Women, a group that helps women recover from domestic violence, said she would like to see “individuals who have walked the journey” at the forefront.
“We don’t believe you can do this program as effectively and advocate for survivors if you don’t have them entrenched in the program as employees,” Singh said. “That lens is missing.”
Juan Carlos Areán, the children and youth program director at Futures Without Violence — a national nonprofit that works to end domestic and sexual violence — agreed. His organization focuses on fatherhood as a motivator for changing behavior. Its 20-week program has exercises that look through the perspective of children. Participants listen to recordings of children calling 911 in the middle of domestic violence incidents, draft obituaries as if they were children writing of a parent killed, and reflect on pictures their kids have drawn.
Areán described one drawing by an 8-year-old boy with his father depicted as a devil, with horns and a trident. Another showed a dark shadow hovering over a child’s mother. Kids also draw more positive pictures, like superheroes, he said, revealing how conflicted their views of their parents can be, even when they are at times abusive.
“It’s so easy to lose the North Star in this work,” Areán said, “especially if you are not checking in with the people who are being most affected and impacted.”
Madison Hunt is a New York-based reporter for The Imprint covering child welfare and the youth justice system.