We think we know the perpetrators of domestic abuse.

They are jealous, possessive tyrants who use physical strength and psychological torture to control their partners, sometimes to the point of death.

But there are other ways we know them: They are our brothers, fathers, sons, neighbors, co-workers.

They are people we care about, even if they have done things we can never condone.

They need to be held accountable for the harm they have caused, but they need something else, too. A chance to change.

That compassionate framing comes from an unlikely source. Karen Wyman coordinates batterers’ intervention programs for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence. They offer violent partners a chance to understand what they have done and how to make amends.


It comes from an understanding that it will take more than police and judges to keep families safe. We need everyone in society – including the perpetrators – to want to change.

“We’ve done a great job among victims and survivors, making it clear that they are the people we know – they are us,” Wyman said. “And we need to do that with the people who use abuse and violence too. They are in our community with us, and we are not going to punish our way to peace.”

These programs will be up for discussion in the Legislature this week, as Wyman and others will seek an appropriation to expand their reach.

Legislators have been given a report evaluating these programs and their effectiveness. Unlike the usual rosy scenarios activists typically offer legislators when they are asking for money, this report is clear-eyed about the limits of how much of a difference participation in a court-ordered class can make.

Do these programs work? Maybe. Sometimes. Depends.

The report relies on a survey of the best judges of the programs’ effectiveness: the domestic partners who were victims of abuse and know what happens outside the classroom.


The number of people who said they felt “not safe at all” shrunk from 60 percent to 24 percent after their partner finished the program. The number who said they felt “somewhat safe” grew from 21 percent to 31 percent.

In written comments, the partners expressed a wide variety of experience, not all of it good. “He would brag about how smart he was for ‘tricking’ the people in charge because he would lie and ‘tell them what they want to hear,’ ” one woman reported. “It was a horrible experience for me and just made him more angry.”

But another wrote: “He went all the time, he showed up, he was ready. Life was so different after that … It made him a changed man.”

Wyman is very clear that the classes are just one part of a coordinated response that focuses on the safety of the victim. She is also clear about what a batterers’ intervention program is and what it is not.

It’s not “anger management.” Domestic abuse is not caused by an inability to control emotions, she said. Many abusers can turn their anger off when there are other people around or when the cops come to the door.

And it’s not psychological counseling. Abusers may have untreated mental illness, but it’s not the reason they are violent. The same with alcohol and drug use. An abusive partner may need treatment for a substance use problem, but that’s not what makes them violent, either.


The violence comes from deeply held beliefs about entitlement and power. These ideas take hold behind the closed doors of a household. In the confines of a family, they can seem normal. If you can shake those beliefs, maybe you can change.

You’ve probably read about domestic violence in the news. Usually the coverage follows a murder, like the daylight killing last month of Rhonda Pattelena on Short Sands Beach in York at the hands of her former domestic partner, Jeffrey Buchannan.

These events grab our attention, and they should. Year after year, domestic violence is involved in half of the murders in Maine. Knowing that they are preventable should shock our conscience.

But focusing on murders means we lose sight of the thousands of assaults, reported and unreported, that are happening all around us and the families where humiliation, isolation and financial control are daily realities. When the murder story fades from the front page, there are still households where children witness one adult psychologically abuse another, growing up learning the wrong lessons about how things are supposed to be.

Murders set off an alarm, but we shouldn’t mistake the alarm for the fire. We need to think about the warped beliefs that would let someone terrorize people he claims to love. We need to talk to the people in our lives who hold those beliefs and challenge them.

And when it comes to the perpetrators, we need to give those who will take it a chance to change.

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