- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) - Deven Weire, 28, listened to his wife, Stephanie Wiggins, describe the assault - how Weire pinned her to a wall and choked her with such force she couldn’t breathe.

“I was scared,” Wiggins recalled, “absolutely fearful, especially for our son,” a 1-year-old who Weire held as his other hand squeezed his wife’s throat, bruising it. Weire then punched a woman coming to Wiggins’ rescue.

A year later, sitting at the kitchen table in their trailer in Kirkwood, Wiggins, 28, was matter of fact about the attack. It happened as they argued over whether to get a Superman or Despicable Me cake for another son’s birthday.

Wiggins, a cook, pressed charges and was glad her husband went to jail.

“I’ve thought about (the assault) every day,” said Weire, a 165-pound roofer who was sitting beside Wiggins. To regain her trust, he said, he has committed to trying to change.

Researchers for more than 30 years have been asking whether batterers can change. After states passed tougher domestic violence laws, judges began ordering offenders into treatment programs like the one Weire attends.

The results are mixed, and domestic violence remains a day-in, day-out reality. Every 20 hours someone is arrested for domestic violence in Lancaster County. And every nine hours someone gets a protection-from-abuse order. In the last decade, 39 have died here.

Weire was one of 459 people who local police charged last year with domestic violence assault, but no one knows how many scared victims never went to the police.

Eight months after her husband choked her, Wiggins felt safe returning to him. She’s encouraged by Weire’s positive, helpful attitude, but she’s also wary.

“I would call 911 in a heartbeat” if he became violent again, she said. “I’ve told him … there would be no second chance. Our marriage would be done.”

Batterer intervention

On a recent Monday, Weire passed through a metal detector at the Probation and Parole office in Lancaster and joined 16 other domestic violence offenders for a court-ordered group discussion.

All of the men faced jail or other sanction if they fail to participate. They were mostly white in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Many sported tattoos. They sat in chairs arranged in a circle.

Dorota Foster, one of the intervention group’s two facilitators, called on one participant to read his responses to a 12-question sheet each must complete at the mid-point of the 20-week program.

As Weire listened closely, the other participant described how a night of drinking led to a fight with a girlfriend.

“She came at me,” the participant said. “She got in my face. I shoved her and punched her. I dropped her to the ground a couple of times.”

The participant said it’s hard now to live with the shame. “I was raised better than that,” he said.

Foster urged him to think hard about what he’ll do the next time someone gets in his face.

Weire at first resented going to the group, but the stories and responses drew him in. He found himself thinking all week about what was said.

He told the group that Monday that he was guilty of raising his voice, slamming doors and throwing things to get his way with his wife.

“In our seven years together, off and on, I’ve used pretty much every” controlling behavior in the book, Weire said later, sitting in the kitchen with Wiggins.

But he said he no longer thinks a husband gets the final say. “A marriage is a two-way street,” he said. “You give a little. You take a little.”

If the group put Weire on the road to rehabilitation - and he concedes he’s fallible - he may not represent other batterers.

In the last three years, 472 offenders started the county’s intervention group. Only 258, or 55 percent, finished. And completing the program reveals nothing about an ex-offender’s state of mind.

“Once it’s over, it’s not like there’s follow-up,” said Bonnie Glover, the director of Domestic Violence Services, a program of Community Action Program of Lancaster County. Her agency served 1,490 women and 49 men last year.

Studies suggest that batterer intervention programs have a modest impact on reducing rearrests, according to the National Institute for Justice, the U.S. Justice Department’s research arm, reducing recidivism by 5 to 20 percent.

Meanwhile, about a quarter of offenders are resistant to batterer intervention, and about half of intervention group participants assault an intimate partner within 30 months.

The New York Model for Batterers Programs says intervention programs give victims a false sense of security that offenders will change.

Because it’s not possible to know which men will change, the New York Model, according to its website, says intervention programs should be judged by how rigorously they monitor each participant’s adherence to program rules and how swift and severe the penalties are for failure to comply.

Repeat offenders

Susan Ellison, an assistant district attorney and the county’s chief domestic violence prosecutor, said that if intervention programs aren’t changing behavior, she hopes the threat of legal consequence is.

“It’s important that (offenders) understand that the justice system takes it seriously: the police officer, the prosecutor, the judge, the probation officer. They are watching your behavior,” she said.

But Ellison is concerned the law is too easy on repeat offenders.

Unlike repeat shoplifters and drunk drivers who face a higher crime grading for each offense, repeat batterers face the same maximum penalty for simple assault (two years in prison) as those charged the first time.

Casey Corcoran with Futures Without Violence, a national advocacy group exploring how to rehabilitate abusers, said good programs and best practices are emerging.

“But it doesn’t mean it’s all settled,” he said. “We, as a movement, need to have a large conversation about how we’re defining success, how we’re defining safety and what our outcomes are.”

Thousands of batterers have attended Probation and Parole’s intervention group since it started here 10 years ago, but long-term outcomes aren’t tracked.

Brett Cole, who supervises Probation and Parole’s six-officer domestic violence unit, said he thinks the county “is doing a lot of good things.”

But he and Mark Wilson, chief of Adult Probation and Parole, acknowledged deficiencies, including 90-offender caseloads per parole officer, lags in enrolling offenders into the intervention group and a lack of support for offenders after they finish the program.

Needed: Ongoing help

Weire, who is halfway through Lancaster County’s 20-week program, is already thinking he would benefit from an ongoing support group or contact with a domestic violence counselor.

“Once this class is over, and I’m off parole, there is nothing to hold me” accountable, he said.

Wiggins said she, too, would like her husband to have ongoing support because she’s not sure his change is permanent. But she has hope.

“It might sound like a weird thing, but he’ll sit down and offer to paint my toenails,” Wiggins said. “We actually laugh more. … I don’t have to watch what I say.”





Information from: LNP, https://lancasteronline.com

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