In recent years, domestic violence victims and abusers at the Pinellas County Jail are asked to depict domestic violence in artistic ways. This drawing is by Chantell Mosley.
CLEARWATER – The facts show the stark reality. Women are 10 times more likely each year to be victimized by domestic violence than diagnosed with breast cancer.
Each year, medical expenses from domestic violence total at least $3 billion to $5 billion, and businesses forfeit another $100 million in lost wages, sick leave, absenteeism and non-productivity.
More than 3.3 million children witness domestic violence in the United States each year. And in one study, about a third of men being counseled for battering were professional men who were well respected in their jobs and communities, according to a fact sheet from Community Action Stops Abuse, a nonprofit organization to help battered women in Pinellas County.
But it often doesn’t start with physical violence. Many times it eases into it, slowly gaining control over a partner, breaking down self-esteem, and making the person feel trapped. Then the physical violence begins.
Keith of Seminole grew up as a superstar athlete. He got anything and everything he wanted. People did things for him. And being “fairly good looking,” all of it left him with a sense of entitlement. He got a scholarship to play college basketball and ended up getting paid to go to college.
Keith said he had a great family with loving, supportive behavior, but he’s only just realizing that some of the behaviors he learned from them are not okay.
“I’m just starting to realize how close my behavior is to my mom’s,” Keith said. “My mom was from the south, so it was always her way. And she was physically abusive if she didn’t get her way.”
She would hit the kids with a belt or slap them to get them to shape up.
“The communication back to us was physical, not verbal,” Keith said. “If you didn’t do it, it was, ‘I’m going to whoop your ass.’”
Even though Keith hadn’t gotten to the point of physical violence, he had serious issues with power and control. (Keith’s last name is being withheld for his family’s privacy, since he is getting help for his control problems.)
“I was demeaning, belittling, blaming, minimizing my role in the problems, kind of really putting everything on my wife,” Keith said. “Like, ‘If you wouldn’t do that, I wouldn’t to this.’ Basically being irresponsible and blaming other people for my problems. And that goes to degradation of my wife. It caused a very unstable family environment. I have two young boys, and that’s certainly not an environment I want them to grow up around.”
Keith and his wife went to marriage counseling to try to work out their problems, and through that he was told to find an anger management class. However, he said, it turns out that anger wasn’t his problem – it was a power and control problem, which is easily confused with anger. Keith voluntarily entered the Pinellas Ex-Offender Re-entry Coalition program in Clearwater.
PERC is a batterer’s intervention program that is certified by the state and strictly follows the Florida Statutes, said Denise Hughes-Conlon, outpatient clinical director of PERC. The group works on power and control issues and taking responsibility for their own actions, she said.
“It’s a very stringent program,” Hughes-Conlon said. “Really working for six months on each person taking accountability for their own actions and hopefully coming out on the other side of that with a lot less power and control issues. Realizing they don’t control anyone else and they don’t have a right to attempt to control anyone else. And just because they’re in a relationship or are married and committed, it doesn’t mean that anyone else has to do whatever they want them to do.”
The program participants are usually court-ordered to take it, either as part of probation or as a last chance before jail. Normally the program does not get people accused of strangling their spouses or of beating their partner for a long period of time, Hughes-Conlon said. Those people go to jail.
“We get people in our groups the majority of the time for grabbing phones, for pushing, maybe slapping,” she said. “Our goal is to let them know that simple battery is not allowed. You can’t even put your little finger on someone else. That’s illegal.”
As of Oct. 28, Keith had voluntarily been in the program for 20 weeks. Even though the program is generally recommended as being 26 weeks long, he said he would continue going because he knows he has more to learn. Though he has also already made great progress.
Through PERC, Keith realized that his problem isn’t anger – it is power and control. He would get angry when people don’t do exactly as he says, but he has learned that the people in his family are all individual people with their own wants and needs, and he doesn’t control them. He also learned that domestic abuse isn’t just when it becomes physical – it can be emotional and verbal as well.
“But that’s the next step after verbal abuse,” Keith said. “It gets physical. All the homework that I’ve done on the problem shows it’s in the high 90 percentile. It’s inevitable. When you have that behavior, it turns into physical violence. And I didn’t want to be there. I don’t think jail is very fun and I don’t want to ever be there.”
In classes, they work with what is called a power and control wheel. At the center of the wheel there is a circle that says, “Power and Control.” Then there are eight wedges within the wheel, labeled “using intimidation,” “using emotional abuse,” “using isolation,” “minimizing, denying, blaming,” “using children,” “using male privilege,” “using economic abuse,” and “using coercion and threats.” Underneath each label are bullet points of examples of each of the categories. Then, on the outer part of the wheel it says physical and sexual violence. People in the class learn that the wedges are all ways people try to abuse power and control, and that all of them lead to the outer circle of physical and sexual violence. Hughes-Conlon said people on the wheel minimize, blame, deny, intimidate, use emotional abuse and the children, have a sense of male privilege, and threaten.
When Keith first looked at the wheel, he recognized six of the behaviors in himself. When he took it home and showed it to his wife, she said that she saw all but one of the inner behaviors in him. That scared Keith.
“I wanted to make sure I helped myself before (it turned to physical violence,)” Keith said. “I can’t imagine my kids seeing their dad arrested for hitting their mom. I shield myself from the real world, but I’m sure out there it happens every day.”
The path of power and control does lead to physical violence, Hughes-Conlon said. And even then, because it all happens gradually, people can be blind to it being wrong.
“The main story is, ‘I just pushed.’ ‘I just grabbed,’” Hughes-Conlon said. “‘I don’t think that is a big deal.’ But then you draw a picture for them and say that it is a big deal, and here’s why. And then they realize that it can lead to death.”
She said so many of the men in the class say “Everyone does this.” And there is no stereotype of what kind of person is a batterer, she said. PERC gets everyone from doctors and lawyers to the unemployed.
Keith worried about what his kids would be exposed to if he didn’t change his behavior. But every day, children across the United States witness domestic violence, and it leads to continuing the cycle. Children are present in 41 to 55 percent of homes where police intervene in domestic violence calls, and about 90 percent of those children are aware of the violence directed at their mother. Older children may be hurt while trying to protect their mother and siblings, and children from violent homes are at higher risks of alcohol and drug abuse and juvenile delinquency. Between 50 and 60 percent of the children in homes where the mother is being abused also are being abused, at the rate of 1,500 times that of children in homes where there is no battering. And 75 percent of batterers were abused as children, and 60 percent of boys who witness violence in the home grow up to abuse their adult mates, according to statistics provided by CASA.
“The girls who witness that and then grow up to think that (violence) is the norm and that’s okay,” said Hughes-Conlon. “And they die.”
Keith had grown up around forms of control and abuse, and he realized he had to stop that behavior in himself. Through classes, Keith learned to ask himself what part of the problem he is. He had been blaming others for 10 years in the relationship, but it was time to figure out the problems that lie in him. He also learned how to communicate with calm words instead of name calling and yelling.
His wife doesn’t work, so before, Keith said he felt he had certain rights and high expectations.
“I felt that me being the sole provider of the household, that I was entitled to things more because I worked hard and I paid for everything,” Keith said. “But that’s not how life works. Marriage is 50/50, no matter what. And that’s probably the biggest difference now. I had the feeling of entitlement because I made all the money. And you can’t be in a relationship like that. That’s not a relationship – that’s a dictatorship.”
Hughes-Conlon said one of the hardest things for people to undo is a sense of entitlement.
When Keith would leave for work, he said he used to have expectations that the house would be clean, the dishes would be done, the laundry would be done.
“So that’s what I expected of her,” Keith said. “And when they weren’t done, I was like, ‘What the hell were you doing all day? You’re such a lazy a—.’ And of course I would cuss a lot. ‘Why can’t you f-ing do something?’ Without giving her an opportunity to tell me about her day and what happened and what she did and being supportive of whatever was going on. There was zero communication, basically. Leaving the house and expecting things to be done when I got home. Kind of an, ‘It’s my castle’ kind of thing.”
At the time, he said acting that way felt empowering. He felt like he was in control of everything.
“It was a great feeling to feel that powerful,” Keith said. “But also a scary feeling to know that you have that much power. So it kind of took me a little while after to realize, man, that was just not a good idea. That’s not how you should be talking to people.”
Everything was about him, and he would end up getting what he wanted, so he thought it worked. He didn’t care about his wife’s or his children’s feelings.
PERC classes have taught him that he lives in a society where everyone is equal, and if you love your family unconditionally, then that means you have to respect them. He has since lessened his expectations and communicates his wants and needs better. He
realized that the reason he would get upset and yell and scream before is because what he was really feeling was that he was being disrespected, but he wasn’t communicating his needs and wants in an appropriate way. Whereas before he might have made demands of paying bills or doing certain chores and then flying out the door to work, now he tries to do things differently. He will have a conversation with his wife before work, using eye contact and a calm voice. If there are certain bills he knows need to be paid, he will ask her politely if she could please pay them that day. Then he lowers his expectations, so if it isn’t done when he gets home, instead of just exploding, he tries to have a calm conversation, find out what happened in her day, and then adjust. They can pay the bill that night instead.
“There is more communication, more talking, and it’s helped me dramatically,” Keith said. “Our house is very healthy and fun now.”
It is now frustrating for Keith to watch some of the other men in the PERC classes who have not been coming for as long as he has and have not worked through their issues yet. It is hard for him to see them blaming everything on their wives and acting as if they are the only people in the world. Keith tries to be a good role model for the other men and even calls them out sometimes and challenges them, trying to get them to be truthful. He is now a veteran of the program, with only one other person having been in it longer than he has. And all the progress he has made has actually helped some other men. He said that some of them have come up to him to thank him for the difference he has made in helping them change.
One of the reasons it is so hard to watch the other men is because Keith recognizes their behaviors as ones he has had himself in the past. It is hard to think back on how he treated his wife.
“I feel awful,” Keith said. “To my wife, it’s like, why did you put up with those things for so long? It’s sad to me that I had everything to do with my wife being kind of broken and shut down and felt kind of worthless. It’s a very, very bad feeling. A crappy feeling. But I have the rest of my life to make it up to her. And that’s my goal – for every day of the rest of my life make her as happy as she can be.”
Keith said he wishes more people would go to classes like PERC and that there were even more classes like that offered throughout the county. Preventing domestic violence is all about education he said. People know what they were raised with, but sometimes those are not good lessons that they learned, he said. But through education, people can learn better ways to deal with things, and ultimately, it can change lives.
According to a well-known study by Edward Gondolf, 2/3 of men who complete batterer’s intervention programs do not re-abuse, and re-abuses are reduced to 50 percent when the treatment is court-ordered. Most of the re-assaults occurred during the first six months of intake to the program, which meant that almost all of the assailants had not yet completed their programs.
Everyone must realize that domestic violence is not just a “private matter,” Hughes-Conlon said. Everyone pays the price, both monetarily from emergency room costs, time and money lost from work, costs from the Florida Department of Children and Families having to intervene, and jail costs. But it can hit closer to home, too she said.
“I think you have to bring it home,” Hughes-Conlon said. “I think you have to realize it’s personal. That child or woman in that home may work with me. May play with my kids. It does affect you, even if it’s in the house next door.”
People need to be educated and get involved, she said. Not directly, but people can ask the woman or child if they need help. They can call the police anonymously. They can refer the woman to the county’s two domestic violence shelters: The Haven of RCS or CASA.
“If there was any message that I want to get out there, it is to please help,” Hughes-Conlon said. “Do something. It’s an epidemic.”
To get help for domestic violence, call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 800-500-1119, CASA at 895-4912 or The Haven at 442-4128. For batterer’s intervention programs, call PERC at 608-2440.