Feb. 16, 2012
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
We sat in a circle, inhabiting hard plastic chairs. Wingtips shuffled impatiently on the floor beside work boots. White collars huddled next to blue. Each man wore his guilt – or denial – on his sleeve.
The room smelled of cigarettes, although no one was smoking. Burnt tobacco lingered on those who sucked their last few desperate drags outside before class; it tinges fingers while permeating breath. Pungent exhalations – like too strong, nasty cologne – filled the space. It triggered headaches, until I got used to the smell.
Class started at 6 p.m. sharp. Arriving late counted as an absence, requiring a visit to one’s probation officer. Three misses prompted expulsion, risking a return to jail.
Welcome to Burlington’s Domestic Abuse Education Project (DAEP). I worked at DAEP a decade ago after volunteering with women and children impacted by domestic violence. I resolved to engage batterers, to promote prevention. Spectrum Youth and Family Services coordinates the batterer intervention program.
There is no excuse for violence. Women remain far more likely to be battered than men.
Co-facilitating a class with court-ordered attendance establishes an interesting dynamic. Showing up was often a condition of release from jail. Some participants demonstrated resentment via body language and zombie-like presence. Engaging this bunch was difficult. Fostering mutual respect and accountability was crucial.
A police file preceded each new addition to class. Police reports and affidavits detailed relationships disintegrating into violence.
Class was conducted on a first name basis, for safety and confidentiality. I didn’t want participants to be able to look me up in the telephone book. If I spotted a student in public, I left it up to him to say hello or not.
We began with a check-in. Each man stated his name, charge, first name of his victim and his abusive actions. These weekly confessions forced batterers to detail how they slapped, punched, threatened, destroyed property and/or used weapons to instill fear. Domestic violence is oxymoronic: intentionally hurting someone you love makes no sense.
We explored the tactics of domestic violence via discussion, role plays, films and written assignments. We identified forms of abusive behavior: physical, emotional, threats; economic, manipulation of children, isolation, minimizing, denying and blaming. The curriculum challenged gender stereotypes while citing components of healthy relationships. Years later, I still remember the stories.
James was 19. He beat up his pregnant partner and tried to run her over her with his pick-up truck. I remember his remorse. Months after class ended, James showed up to deliver oil at my house. Vermont is small. He smiled and asked how I was. I asked the same in return, hoping all was well on his domestic front.
Sam was a middle-aged businessman, a transplant from out of state. He voluntarily enrolled in class and earnestly participated. Sam recounted, in his check-in, a fierce argument with his wife in which he picked her up and threw her across the room. His daughter witnessed the assault. His wife stared at him from the floor in horror and disbelief.
Carl held a knife to his pregnant girlfriend’s throat, threatening to kill her. He was smart and very philosophical. He grew up in an apartment above a bar in Burlington’s Old North End. Reflecting on his mother’s series of abusive boyfriends, Carl said, “I swore I’d never be like that.” Children learn what they live.
I ran into Carl several years ago. HE said hello to me. Construction wrecked his back and he was working as a cook at a Burlington eatery. He introduced me to his partner and their beautiful little girl who were at the counter, eating breakfast. Were they living in an emotionally safe household? I hope so.
The scariest man of all – I can still see his face – was married with two little daughters and a professional job. He was absolutely furious to be there. I feared for him and his family.
We had to kick one guy out because he kept showing up strung out on heroin. He, too, ended up at my house one day, part of a demolition crew. He looked at me funny each morning as I checked in with the contractor. When the job was done, he finally approached me and asked, “Are you a PO (probation officer)?”
“No,” I said, “but I used to teach a class at probation and parole.”
Editor’s Note: Names changed to protect confidentiality. Women Helping Battered Women Hotline: 658-1996. For more information on DAEP: www.Spectrumvt.org/vipp