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Domestic violence program focuses on abusers, not victims

Local effort places responsibility squarely on offenders’ shoulders

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    Carol Smith

  • Michelle-Wagner

    Toledo Municipal Judge Michelle Wagner is among those who have called for creation of a special court docket to handle only domestic violence cases.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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Toledo Municipal Judge Michelle Wagner is among those who have called for creation of a special court docket to handle only domestic violence cases.

The Blade/Andy Morrison
Enlarge | Buy This Image

It may be the most common question asked in every domestic violence case:

Why doesn’t she just leave?

Psychologist Carol Smith has spent 17 years working with men who have been charged with beating up their wives, girlfriends, children, and other female family members, and she sees the question from a different angle.

“Everybody asks, ‘Why she doesn’t leave?’ Well, ‘Why doesn’t he leave?’ ” she said, sitting in an office at the downtown Family Service of Northwest Ohio an hour or so before she prepared to meet with a group of offenders as part of the Batterers Intervention Program.

The question strikes at the core of the issue when looked at from the perspective of therapists, law enforcement officials, and others who battle the domestic violence problem by working with offenders.

If someone makes you so angry that you lash out at them physically, why stay in that relationship? It shifts the burden from tacitly blaming the victim to placing the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the person at fault: the abuser.

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The prevalence of the domestic violence problem is numbing. High-profile cases such as Jashua Perz’s murder of Kaitlin Gerber on March 24 in South Toledo attract large amounts of attention from the media, but there is a constant stream of domestic violence cases flowing through the criminal justice system.

Last year, 1,721 domestic violence cases were filed in Toledo Municipal Court, with the vast majority of the defendants men, according to court records. Of the cases that were resolved in 2012, 42 percent resulted in convictions and 58 percent were dismissed.

So far this year, 61 people were booked at the Corrections Center of Northwest Ohio on domestic violence charges out of 685 total bookings.

In 2012, the regional jail held 796 offenders on domestic violence-related sentences out of 8,324 inmates.

The problem of physical and psychological abuse through intimidation, harassment, and other means is so persistent that a few judges, including Toledo Municipal Judge Michelle Wagner, have called for creation of a special court docket to handle only domestic violence cases.

“I think we all want to minimize how often it happens,” Ms. Smith said. “I think you have high-profile murders and there’s a little bit of attention for awhile and then it fades until the next one. But there’s so much of it going on.”


Carol Smith


Control issues

The psychology of male domestic-violence offenders centers on a toxic combination of low self-esteem, an overwhelming need to control a partner, hypermasculinity, poor role modeling when growing up, use of drugs and alcohol as an excuse, and a sense that problems are someone else’s fault.

They tend to be men who can control their anger at work or among friends, said Ms. Smith, who has a doctorate in psychology from the University of Toledo and has a private practice in addition to her contract work with Family Service.

“These guys usually are not violent any place else and they have a belief that if they can control their partner, then she’s doing things right and he’s doing things right,” she said.

“So the belief system is that ‘I’m in charge and somebody has to be in charge. I have to be right and she’s my possession or property.’ ”

This leads to a constellation of bad thoughts and behaviors that seep into interactions with wives and girlfriends, creating dysfunctional, violent interactions. The offenders keep women off balance by intimidating them, accusing them of being at fault, and generally cutting them off from support systems and help, she said.

“They really think that if the woman didn’t need to be there, she wouldn’t choose to be there. So they do everything they can to make the woman feel hopeless and dependent because it really kind of guarantees for them that she’s not going to have a lot of options,” Ms. Smith said.


She believes that part of the problem with finding help for the victims and breaking the cycle lies in various attitudes and ideas embedded in our culture.

Men are taught to be hypermasculine and to always be in control. Too often, Ms. Smith said, questions are asked about the victim: What did she do wrong? Why doesn’t she just leave? Maybe she precipitated the violence.

The Batterers Intervention Program focuses the responsibility directly on the offenders, who generally are referred through the court system or Lucas County Children Services. It lasts for 26 weeks and the participants are required to pay to participate, which is proved to have therapeutic value because “anything that’s free, you don’t value,” Ms. Smith said.

The cost is a $40 intake fee and $25 for each two-hour weekly session. By comparison, meeting with a private therapist or psychologist can cost four times that or more for just one hour of counseling.

The program is psychoeducational, which means the men, who often are on probation, are taught the consequences of their behavior, given new communication and coping techniques, and required to be accountable for their actions. It meets in a group setting of about 12 to 15 men, and Ms. Smith and a male co-facilitator coordinate the sessions.

Sgt. Tim Campbell of the Toledo Police Department said Ms. Smith runs an “excellent program” and her success rate based on independent statistics that measure recidivism shows that about 91 percent of the men who completed the entire 26 weeks over the past six years did not commit further domestic violence-related crimes.

By comparison, more than 40 percent commit more domestic violence crimes if they didn’t finish the program.

About 100 men go through the program each year and Ms. Smith estimated that 60 complete the entire thing.

Another tool

Judge Wagner said a domestic violence court would provide another component in addressing offenders while keeping the focus on helping victims. The proposal, which also is supported by Judge Amy Berling and is still in the idea stage, would create a docket that exclusively handles domestic violence cases.

The judge would become familiar with cases and have a good handle on whether an offender has violated a temporary restraining order, is in trouble in another court such as Sylvania or Maumee, and if he has completed rehabilitation programs, she said.

Each case has a “back story,” and a judge dedicated to only domestic violence cases would better know the details, Judge Wagner said, citing the example of someone who is on probation in a different jurisdiction and commits another crime.

“Obviously, red flags are going to go off and you’re going to think, ‘Gosh, I have this guy on probation already and this offense seems to be a lot more violent and he’s escalating.’ You can put it in context,” she said.

Ensuring offenders are required to get counseling is important as well, she said.

“They’re going to get out and let’s face it, it’s a six-month sentence and if we maxed everybody, they’re going to get out in six months. If we don’t try to change the behavior — and domestic violence is a learned behavior — then in six months, you’re not any better off,” Judge Wagner said.

Lock them up

One thing that works for some offenders is simply throwing them in jail.

A 2009 National Institute of Justice report showed that prosecution can reduce subsequent arrests and violence. The study said that “more intrusive” sentences such as jail time and electronic monitoring reduce rearrests.

Lucas County sheriff’s Capt. Donald Atkinson said he has seen offenders in his years working in the field for whom being sent to jail is enough to get them to stop the violence permanently.

“There’s a whole group of them where the arrest is enough and they don’t need counseling,” he said. “They’re in cuffs and think, ‘I’m not going to do this again, I’m not going to lose my job.’ ”

An important element in successful prosecutions is ensuring the victim will cooperate, and officers at the scene need to provide victims with information and support so they can avoid the common problem of women failing to follow through on charges, Sergeant Campbell said.

How to help

So what can someone do who knows a friend or family member who is an abuser or is abused?

Do not suggest marriage counseling, Ms. Smith said. It only implies that somehow the woman is responsible for the violence, she said.

“Couples’ therapy is the worst thing you can [do] — that’s the worst,” she said. “That is always the bargaining tool that an abusive man will use because he feels justified in his anger and his resentment and in the tactics he has to use to get that woman back in control.”

Men should speak out to their friends about the issue and encourage them to get treatment if they are an abuser, she said. “Women need men to talk to other men about this.”

Victims should be encouraged to leave, to press charges, and seek help, she said.

At the same time, the men who are involved should find a way to get their own help and stop the cycle, she said, noting that most abusers are “miserable.”

The problem is that the average domestic violence offender doesn’t think any of it is his fault, Ms. Smith said.

But if others can get through to him, the long-term implications are profound because stopping the abuse breaks a pattern that stretches across the community and even generations.

“It’s such a ripple effect because it’s not just them [who get help],” Ms. Smith said.

“It’s their partner, it’s their kids, it’s their friends.”

Staff writer RoNeisha Mullen contributed to this report.

Contact Rod Lockwood at: or 419-724-6159.

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