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"If the group is working well, you'll hear things like, 'Have you ever thought about what you're doing? When I listen to what you're saying, you sound like an asshole.' It's an attempt to get beyond excuses."

Durham's CHANGE program is back to tackle domestic abuse 

Holding batterers accountable

Click for larger image • Lena Angelichio runs CHANGE, a domestic violence intervention program for batterers. It offers two English-language and one Spanish-language sessions for men.

Photo by Derek Anderson

Click for larger image • Lena Angelichio runs CHANGE, a domestic violence intervention program for batterers. It offers two English-language and one Spanish-language sessions for men.

Lena Angelichio scoped the courtroom for potential clients. She handed out fliers to probation officers and court-appointed attorneys, and gestured to get the attention of the men dressed in orange who sat on the bench against the wall.

"I'm trying to get the word out," she said.

Domestic violence cases are heard in Durham district criminal court four days of every week. This was an especially busy day: There were more than 50 cases on the docket.

Angelichio's clients are men convicted of abusing their wives and girlfriends. The program she runs, CHANGE, re-launched this month after eight months' hiatus. Like other batterer intervention programs, it's designed to stop abusive behavior by training abusers to examine and take responsibility for their actions.

She asked a woman sitting beside her if she was there regarding a case. "Yes, my son, but he shouldn't be here," the woman said. "Give this to him," Angelichio said, handing her a flyer. "It could keep him out of jail either way."

Under state law, anyone convicted of domestic abuse must complete a 26-week abuser treatment program as a condition of probation, and pay the cost—$15 per week at CHANGE. The North Carolina Council for Women certifies 55 programs statewide.

According to Council statistics, about 300 people in Durham County were referred to abuser treatment programs last year, the second-highest number in the state, behind Wake County.

If clients don't comply, probation officers and court officials are notified, and the judge could make them do the time. Judges also order people to attend the programs as part of a domestic violence protective order. Some clients are referred by the Department of Social Services.

Asked if she felt strange about giving abusers a way to avoid jail time, Angelichio thought for a moment, then said, "I think everyone should do the program, and some people should go to jail and then do the program. Jail is the punishment, and the program is treatment, so they go hand in hand."

CHANGE went offline last January when Family and Children's Services of Durham, the social service agency that had operated the program, closed, citing financial problems. At the time, CHANGE was serving approximately 75 clients in Durham and 50 in Orange County.

Costran, a private drug-treatment and mental health agency with offices in Durham, Raleigh and Wake Forest, picked up most of those clients, according to Costran CEO Michael Glass.

But a handful of local social service professionals who work in the field of domestic violence prevention revived CHANGE. The program uses a form of behavior modification therapy known as the Duluth Model, which began in Duluth, Minn., in 1981. The Duluth Model includes the discussion of cultural issues such as male dominance, and it is the most frequently used model in the field.

Back in the courtroom, Ishmael Hamilton stood before the judge and pleaded not guilty to assault on a female. A police officer testified that the woman who called police had a swelling bruise on her forehead when police arrived, and that, after he was arrested and put in the patrol car, Hamilton spontaneously told the officers, "Yeah, I hit the bitch."

The attorney for Hamilton (he's one of the few defendants who hired his own) argued that the statement didn't amount to a confession. "He could have been talking about anyone," she said.

Judge Claude Allen considered this line of defense: "'I hit the bitch.' Well, I'll tell you, the bitch could have been anybody," Allen said, perhaps facetiously. "I don't know if he hit her hard or soft."

Allen convicted Hamilton, sentencing him to probation—and a batterer intervention program. Angelichio grabbed a flyer and followed Hamilton and his attorney into the hall.

In treating abusive behavior, batterer intervention programs are neither straight psychology nor anger management.

Neil Blair has been a facilitator with CHANGE for almost 10 years. He described the program's goal as "getting these guys to change their belief system, the map in their head of how the world works."

Batterers often think of themselves as victims of unfairness, Blair said, and they can be good at eliciting the sympathies of friends, neighbors, pastors, even therapists. "The world will always be the way it is. The question is, How do we handle ourselves when we get a truckload dumped on us? Is there a way to live life without being abusive to the people who disappoint you?"

The group dynamic helps hold individuals accountable, Blair said, because members challenge one other. "If the group is working well, you'll hear things like, 'Have you ever thought about what you're doing? When I listen to what you're saying, you sound like an asshole.' It's an attempt to get beyond excuses."

Yet, while batterer intervention programs like CHANGE are an increasingly popular approach to dealing with domestic violence, statistics on their effectiveness are hard to come by. Most available studies estimate the recidivism rate to be about 50 percent among those who complete the program, and even with the possibility of jail hanging over their heads, about half drop out. It's hard to accurately track how many go on to abuse, given that domestic violence is not reliably reported.

Facilitators like Blair acknowledge there's a high failure rate. Nevertheless, he said, "I think it's an important piece to the whole community approach to reducing domestic violence. The rest of the system is saddled with the destruction these individuals cause. It's better to stop it on the supply side if we can, rather than deal with the damage once it's done."

"It's great to have the service available once again in our community," said Aurelia Sands-Belle, executive director of the Durham Crisis Response Center, the primary agency that serves domestic violence victims in Durham.

She said she's seen cases in which CHANGE and programs like it have helped a family stay together. "A lot of times, women love the individuals, they just want the abuse to stop." In other cases, she said, knowing the abuser has been offered treatment can help strengthen the victim's decision to break away. "You can walk away and say, I did everything I could do."

To find out more information about the CHANGE program, call 286-2168.

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