Public Safety

Targeting violence: Classes help abusers change behavior

Iowa batterer's education classes cuts violence by half


CEDAR RAPIDS — In Iowa, when someone is convicted of a domestic violence charge, they're court ordered to take a class aimed at helping them better handle confrontation and difficult emotions. Rodney Mack, 31, ended up in that situation earlier this year following an altercation with the mother of his child. He's also had four no-contact orders placed on him by three women.

But now, he said, he's able to communicate better with the people in his life after taking a new version of batterer's education that teaches through experiments and metaphors and helps men get in touch with their values and goals.

“They don't point their fingers at anybody,” Mack said. “They don't look at it like we're bad people. We made a mistake .

“They taught me how to talk to people. Honestly, just talk to people and not just demand them to listen to me.”

Commonly called batterer's education, these classes were first established In Iowa 25 years ago through state legislation that required those convicted of domestic violence to take court-ordered instruction aimed at curing abusers of this behavior.

The Department of Corrections, which facilitates the classes in each of the state's eight judicial districts, until recently employed the Duluth Model, a method known for relying on using shame and judgment as a learning approach. The writing for the new curriculum began in 2009.

“The Duluth model is more confrontational — you confront the offender with their crime, and what they did to get into the program,” said Anne Brown, coordinator of domestic-violence programing at the Iowa Department of Corrections. “It's based on the premise that the battering is all a result of power-and-control issues.”


The feminist theory underlying this particular model is men use violence to control a relationship and women and children are vulnerable to violence because of their unequal status in society.

But offenders in this program reoffended at rates of about 16 percent, according to a study of the participants in the program from 2011-2013.

A more modern version of batterer's education, which is implemented in most of the state's judicial districts, takes a different approach.

Men who attend these classes also are much less likely to reoffend, according to studies of the program.

The ACTV program, Achieving Change Through Value-Based Behavior, helps offenders alter their behavior by internalizing change and focusing on working toward living better lives, Brown said. It's a method created in 2009 by academics at the University of Iowa — one that's slowly spreading to other states such as Vermont and Minnesota.

It has the same goals and same premise but goes about it in a different way,” Brown said. “It's very non-confrontational, and the individual is looking at their behavior, setting their goals and determining if their behavior is moving toward those goals.”

Results from the 2013 study of the program show that men who enroll in ACTV treatment are half as likely to reoffend than those who go through the traditional program.

Sixteen percent of men reoffended after completing a traditional batterer's education course compared to the nine percent who abuse again after completing an ACTV course.


The new courses have had a greater impact on those who've committed general violence crimes not classified as domestic assault.

Thirty-five percent reoffended after a traditional Duluth course, compared to the 13 percent that reoffended after taking an ACTV class.

What are these classes?

Men ordered by the court to take batterer's education classes will spend six months and $500 studying how to get in touch with their emotions and values, create healthier relationships and learn how to reach their goals.

In the ACTV program, said Lori Traeger, a DOC community treatment coordinator, the classes are a safe place for batterers in that there's no judgment, no confrontation.

“One thing people ask is, 'How do you get the men to be accountable?' What I tell people is the Duluth model had clients be remorseful and confess the different forms of tactics they were accused of doing. We don't do that here,” Traeger said.

“What happens is that as they go through the sessions, internally their awareness increases. They begin to step back, look at their behaviors, and they usually get to a place where it kicks in and they go, 'I understand.'”

On the first day of class, Traeger will write a quote on the board. It sums up the purpose of the program, she said: “This material is not about feeling better. This material is about getting better about feeling.”

“Most of our clients are not good at being aware of their own feelings and also those of other people,” she said. “So we're trying to slow that down in themselves.”


For two hours a week, participants will learn through metaphors and experiments. Hold an ice cube in your hands and don't let go — that's a metaphor for dealing with tough emotions.

“We're trying to help them understand that there's things in their life that they can control. That's the actions they take, their behaviors, their attitudes,” Traeger said. “And the things they can't control — other people, the thoughts, the urges, the memories and feelings that come up. It's a different relationship with those urges and thoughts. It's one of acceptance to say, 'I got these. Now how am I going to behave with them?'”

More violent offenders

The ACTV curriculum has shown promise in terms of working with domestic-violence offenders in general. But what about those who are in jail for committing more violent offenses?

Amie Zarling, an assistant profession in human development and family studies at Iowa State University, has worked with the ACTV curriculum since she was a graduate student at the University of Iowa and now is the point person for the program in the state.

“These are more severe offenders, repeat offenders, who have a lot more problems going on,” Zarling said.

Zarling will conduct a pilot program beginning at the end of this month to work with offenders in the Woodbury County Jail in Sioux City, making offenders complete what's typically a six-month-long program into 24 days.

Rosaura Orengo-Aguayo, a UI doctoral student, tested a similar curriculum at the Linn County Jail, based on what's called acceptance-and-commitment therapy — an approach that aims to help men move toward the life they want, one that's full of meaning and purpose, Orengo-Aguayo said.

While similar to the ACTV program, Orengo-Aguayo said her program was designed specifically for men who have been through previous batterer's education classes before but hadn't completed them.


While the results of the study are still being compiled, she said preliminary results show inmates tended to respond well to the curriculum.

“They didn't feel judged. They felt accepted,” she said. “They really thought it was life-changing to think about their values and how they can move toward those.”

Side by side
Duluth ModelACTV
Focuses on teaching that men are perpetrators who are violent because of living in a society that condones male violence Focuses on eliminating barriers to behavioral change such as substance abuse
Critics say this model shames men into changing their behavior and is very confrontational Teaches through experiments and metaphors
16 percent of men who take this course reoffend, according to a recent study 9 percent of men who take this course reoffend, according to a recent study

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