Controversies and Recent Studies of Batterer Intervention Program Effectiveness

This document examines the effectiveness of batterer intervention programs in holding batterers accountable, increasing victim safety, and changing behavior and attitudes. The authors address the inherent complications in evaluating these outcomes.

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VAWnet Summary:

Controversies and Recent Studies of Batterer Intervention Program Effectiveness by Larry Bennett and Oliver Williams (August 2001).

In Brief:

Batterer intervention programs (BIPs) are designed for men arrested for domestic violence, or for men who would be arrested if their actions were public. The goals of BIPs include not only preventing further violence, but also serve as an adjunct form of justice. BIPs are one local node of a community violence prevention effort. Knowledge about batterer program effectiveness is important because:

  • Courts are referring men convicted of domestic abuse to batterer intervention programs, suggesting a certain level of public confidence in the effectiveness of these programs;
  • Referral of a batterer to a BIP is one of the strongest predictors that a woman will leave shelter and return to the batterer. Advocates are justifiably concerned that batterer programs not hold out a promise of hope which may become a vehicle for injury;
  • People who work with batterers are interested in outcomes so they can improve the level of effectiveness; and,
  • Evaluation is one of the best forms of program accountability. A program which evaluates its effect on batterers (and victims) is likely a safer program than one which does not evaluate.

Outcomes for batterer intervention program are still relatively few, but a picture of their effectiveness is beginning to emerge. At the present time, we believe studies suggest the following:

  • BIPs have a small but significant effect. Batterers who do not complete their program are twice as likely to be re-arrested. The effect of any of the elements of a community violence prevention effort are equally small, including education, arrest, prosecution, probation, victim services, and adjunct services. The most effective reduction in partner violence will occur in those communities with the strongest combination of coordinated, accountable elements;
  • BIPs are more effective for some men than others. One in four men referred to a BIP will account for most of the repeat violence and most of the serious injury within a batterer program. The batterer program alone will not effectively reduce his potential for violence, so the batterer program's best role for these hard-to-treat men may be to hold them in program as long as possible, increasing the time a battered women may need to get herself into a safer position. Although longer term programs may not be more effective in rehabilitating these batterers, they may serve a more useful function as agents of accountability and victim safety than shorter term programs;
  • Most re-offense occurs early, usually within six months of initial program intake. Assessment and accountability must be on-going, not something which is done only at program intake and follow-up; and,
  • No program approaches have shown themselves to be superior to other approaches, so standards that specify specific BIP models must do so with criteria other than recidivism in mind. Due to concerns about victim safety, batterer programs must not only hold their participants accountable, but BIPs must also hold themselves accountable as well. The best way to do this is to work closely with local victim services agency or victim advocates.

Evaluation of batterer programs is fairly new, and evaluation of the community responses within which batterer programs operate is even newer. Statements about batterer program outcomes can be understood only in the context of their limitations. Specifically:

  • While nearly 50 empirical studies have been published on batterer program outcomes, in only four of these studies were batterers randomly assigned to a BIP or a no-treatment control group. Experimental research is difficult and expensive, and is, at present, inconclusive;
  • The rate of attrition from batterers groups has been on the order of 50%, and the people most likely to drop out are also most likely to re-offend;
  • It is difficult to distinguish the effects of batterer programs from the community of sanctions and victim services in which the BIP operates. Nor should we necessarily try to do so, since such a distinction contradicts the theoretical premises of most batterer programs; and,
  • The primary outcome for BIPs-re-offense-is measured in two ways: victim report and re-arrest. Victim contact is always difficult and potentially unsafe. A substantial proportion of batterers will either be living alone or moved on to their next partner. Re-arrest data grossly under-estimates re-offense. Batterer self-report is not considered a valid indicator of outcome.

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