Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence

Information for Professionals

Understanding Domestic Abusers

What Can I Do To Help Hold Abusers Accountable?

A batterer program is not enough to stop domestic violence or change abusers’ behavior. Stopping domestic abuse requires the entire community to respond differently to abusers. No one individual or system can do it alone, but every individual and system can do part of it. Click on the tab for your profession, to see practical actions you can take to help hold abusers accountable. If your work is not represented here, click on the last tab to see what all of us, as citizens, can do.

Note: Many of these ideas are taken from Andy Klein’s work135 summarizing practical implications of domestic violence research. Each idea taken from this useful article is marked with an asterisk (*).

Police Officers

Police officers can begin the process of holding an offender accountable by how they handle their initial response to the call. The OPDV Criminal Justice page contains detailed information for police officers about the following topics and others:

Additional strategies
  • Interviewing Victims
    • Ask victims about prior unreported assaults for evidence of crimes that may still be charged.*
    • Ask victims whether they fear reassault, but don’t rely on their assessment as the only predictor of reabuse or potential lethality. Assume that the defendant is likely to reoffend until proven otherwise.*
  • Suspects
    • Check for outstanding warrants, pending cases against the suspect, his/her probation or parole status, and other criminal justice involvement, including non-domestic crimes.*
    • Locate and arrest abusers who flee the scene and aggressively serve warrants.*
  • Domestic Incident Reports
  • Indicate whether the crime involved the use or attempted use of physical force or threatened use of a deadly weapon.
  • Note the abuser’s use of alcohol or drugs.*
  • Note information on how to locate and contact witnesses.*
  • Make sure that victim and witness statements in a language other than English are translated as soon as possible, so that the information is accurate and useful.
More resources for police officers

Klein, A. (2009). Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges.

Prosecutors

Making the strongest case leads to the greatest likelihood of accountability.

  • Create policies and protocols to ensure that domestic violence cases are handled efficiently and effectively.*
  • Pursue evidence-based prosecutions.
  • Collaborate with law enforcement in developing evidence collection protocols.
  • Charge felonies and misdemeanors when applicable. Review prior convictions to charge defendants with higher level offenses where appropriate.*
  • If a abuser has a prior record for any crime, assume that he is a high-risk domestic violence offender, even if this is his first domestic violence arrest.
  • When prosecuting other crimes, look for concurrent domestic violence that was previously prosecuted, is pending, or may be charged.*
  • If presented with a dual-arrest case, conduct an independent analysis to determine the primary physical aggressor, and proceed only against that suspect, not against both parties.*
  • Recommend increased sanctions for abusers who do not comply with court orders or conditions of probation.*
  • Ensure that all written plea agreements indicate whether the crime involved the use or attempted use of physical force or threatened use of a deadly weapon.
Victim safety and cooperation with prosecution

Victim safety is a vital end in itself, but victims who feel you are concerned for their safety are also likely to be more willing – and more able – to cooperate with prosecution.

  • Reach out to victims soon after the arrest, and maintain regular contact with them.
  • Address victims’ fear of their abusive partner, and of being involved in legal proceedings, but do not allow a victim’s opposition to automatically stop you from prosecuting a case.136 Publicly state that the victim’s wishes are irrelevant to your decision to prosecute.*
  • Be honest with victims about limitations on your ability to keep them safe.* Refer them to domestic violence agencies for help with safety planning.
  • Take steps to protect victims and witnesses while prosecuting the case.
    • Make violations of orders of protection and access to firearms a factor in your response to bail requests.
    • Ask that offenders be required to abstain from alcohol and drugs as part of release or sentence conditions, when appropriate.*
    • Ask judges to order suspects to surrender firearms.
    • Take stalking and sexual assault into account in identifying potentially lethal abusers from whom victims need protection.*
    • Do not request limited temporary orders of protection at defense counsel’s request.
    • Provide non-public waiting and meeting places to minimize contact between victims and offenders.
    • Provide victims with timely notice of proceedings and information about the offender’s status.
  • Work with law enforcement to uncover any evidence of abuser intimidation of the victim that would inhibit the victim's testimony, such as telephone and email records, and recordings of phone calls from jail. Charge offenders with witness tampering, intimidating a witness or coercion when applicable.*
More resources for prosecutors

Klein, A. (2009). Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges.

New York Prosecutors Training Institute, Coordinated and Consistent Enforcement of Violations of Orders of Protections Can be a Crucial Tool in Stopping Domestic Violence.

New York Prosecutors Training Institute

Criminal Court Judges
  • Ensure that orders of protection are entered into state and federal registries immediately.
  • Enforce orders of protection in the courthouse.
  • If a defendant has a prior record for non-domestic crimes, do not assume him to be a low-risk "first offender” simply because he has no prior domestic violence record.*
  • To evaluate risk and identify potentially lethal abusers, take seriously the abuser’s…
    • History of weapons use; access to guns.
    • History of threats to kill, strangulation and sexual assault.
    • History of drinking and drugging, and current substance use.
    • Stalking behavior.*
    • Co-existing mental health problems, and whether those problems make the abusiveness worse. Take the severity of both the abuse and the psychiatric symptoms into account in assessing danger, as only looking at symptoms is likely to lead you to underestimate the danger the abuser poses.137
Firearms
  • Order suspects to surrender firearms whenever legally permissible.
  • Ask both parties about firearms at every stage of the court process – not just at the beginning.138
  • Order that firearms be surrendered to law enforcement, not relinquished into the keeping of family members or friends.
  • Respond promptly to National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) requests for information related to gun sale background checks; if such checks are not completed within three business days, the buyer automatically is allowed to purchase the gun.139
  • In New York State, when a defendant is convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor, courts are required to determine whether the crime fits the federal definition of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence140 (i.e., whether it involved the use or attempted use of physical force or threatened use of a deadly weapon), and if so, to transmit the information to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, which will pass it on to NICS.141
  • Require firearms permits to be surrendered whenever legally permissible.
  • Take all possible steps to prevent the return of firearms to disqualified individuals.
  • When sentencing offenders and issuing orders of protection, be sure to check the federal firearm prohibitions box.
Pre-trial release
  • Consider the defendant’s history of firearms use and violation of orders of protection before releasing them pending trial.
  • Access defendants’ prior domestic and non-domestic criminal histories when you make decisions about orders of protection or pretrial release.*
  • When setting release or sentence conditions, require a substance abuse evaluation, treatment, or abstinence from alcohol and drugs when appropriate.*
Sentencing
  • Impose sentences that reflect defendants' prior criminal histories, including domestic violence convictions.*
  • Require police and prosecutors to inform the court if defendants reabuse, threaten, or intimidate victims while cases are pending. This may allow additional charges to be filed.
  • Consistently respond to repeat offenses with increased sanctions.
  • Minimize the number of violations you allow before revoking an abuser’s probation and incarcerating him or her.142
Using batterer programs
  • Use batterer programs (BPs) only in combination with probation supervision and other legal sanctions.
  • Do not use BPs to divert offenders from the criminal justice system, even for first time or “low-level” offenders. This reduces, rather than enhances, accountability.
  • Make sure your expectations about what BPs can and cannot do are based on the best available evidence. There is no reliable evidence that BPs stop domestic violence, change offenders’ behavior, or enhance victim safety.
  • Do not send women arrested for domestic violence to BPs for men.
  • Only use BPs that are at least 26 weeks long.
  • Only use BPs that will support your sanctions and mandates, and swiftly report all noncompliance; promptly return violators to court.* (Remember that the BPs works for the court, not for the abuser.)
  • Request compliance reports, not progress reports. Progress reports are not reliable, and it can be dangerous to the victim if you act on a report that is wrong. Do not lift sanctions based on any report by a BP stating that an individual offender has changed, as it is impossible to know this.
  • Clearly notify abusers of the consequences of noncompliance.
  • Follow up program mandates with regular court appearances.
  • Respond quickly, consistently, and with increased sanctions, to repeat offenses, violations of orders of protection, and noncompliance with court orders (including an abuser's first failure to enroll in or attend a court-mandated BP).143 *
  • Incarcerate any offender who reabuses his/her partner while enrolled in, or after completing, a BP.*
  • Do not mandate abusers and their partners to couple or family counseling, or to mediation. When one partner is a abuser, these are dangerous and ineffective.
More resources for judges

Klein, A. (2009). Practical Implications of Current Domestic Violence Research: For Law Enforcement, Prosecutors and Judges.

Judicial Checklist , (2008). available from American Bar Association Commission on Domestic Violence.

Mitchell, D. & Carbon, S. (Summer, 2002) Firearms and domestic violence: A primer for judges, Court Review, 32 – 43.

Judicial Responses that Empower Abused Women. (judicial power and control wheel).

Probation Officers
  • Make your expectations of offender behavior clear at initial contact and maintain them during the entire supervision period.
  • Supervise at the highest level of supervision possible.
  • Make unscheduled field contacts at the offender’s home, workplace, etc., and record all relevant observations.
  • Where possible, make regular contact with neighbors, and other relevant individuals. Ask if they have heard or seen anything alarming or unusual. Do not violate victim confidentiality.
  • Conduct random checks for alcohol and other drugs.
  • Monitor compliance with all treatment and education orders, and consider increasing the level of supervision if the offender violates them.
  • Do not allow early release for any probationer who is on probation for domestic violence, or who is known to have committed domestic violence.
Using batterer programs
  • Make sure your expectations about what BPs can and cannot do are based on the best available evidence. There is no reliable evidence that BPs stop domestic violence, change offenders’ behavior, or enhance victim safety.
  • If you require probationers to attend a BP:
    • Monitor the program and be familiar with the nature of what it teaches.
    • Do not request progress reports. They are unreliable, and it can be dangerous to the victim if a report is wrong and the court acts on it.
    • Respond immediately to an abuser's first failure to enroll in or attend a mandated BP – don’t give second chances.*
    • Treat noncompliance with program requirements as a violation of probation.
    • Enforce court conditions and return violators to court promptly.*
    • Violate any offender who reabuses while enrolled in, or after completing, a BP.*
    • Only use BPs that are at least 26 weeks long.
    • Only use BPs that will support your sanctions and mandates, and swiftly report all noncompliance. (Remember that the program works for you and for the court, not for the abuser.)
More resources for probation officers

Probation Supervision: A Model Procedural Package for Use by Probation in a Coordinated Criminal Justice Response to Domestic Violence. NYS Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives, NYS Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence, and NYS Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 2005. Available at NYS Probation Departments, and on eJusticeNY.

Mental Health and Substance Abuse Clinicians

Getting abusers to change is extremely difficult, for several reasons:

  • Abusers ’ behavior is based in their attitudes, and changing any attitude-based behavior is difficult.
  • Abusers ’ behavior is heavily rewarded and seldom punished.
  • Even if you are a very skilled clinician, you do not have the power to change the social context that supports abusers’ behavior.

Because these factors are not really treatment issues, the likelihood that your interventions will lead your client to become non-abusive is very small. However, how you approach therapy with clients who are abusers can support your community’s accountability measures. In some individual cases, therapy contribute to a abuser’s deciding to change his/her behavior, but it can’t be relied on to have this effect. Be realistic. Steps that clinicians can take are outlined here.

Understanding domestic abuse
  • Always treat abusiveness as purposeful behavior, and remember that it is heavily rewarded.
  • Do not assume that abusers’ underlying problems are what cause them to act abusively, or that treating those problems will end abusive behavior.
  • Do not treat domestic violence itself as a mental health issue. Do not base any diagnosis solely on abusive behavior.
  • Remember that incidents of physical violence are not the whole story – pay attention to the abuser’s pattern of controlling behavior.
Screening for abusiveness

Ask all clients about both victimization and abusiveness before starting treatment. Some abusers will admit to abusing their partners, but most will minimize or deny their behavior. This makes it impossible to tell for sure whether a client is abusive, or whether one who has been abusive in the past has stopped engaging in that behavior. This understanding should underlie all work you do with identified or suspected abusers.

Victim safety

Do what you can to ensure that your work with abusers does not further endanger their partners – while realizing that you can’t guarantee safety.

  • As far as possible, evaluate the safety implications of your treatment plan. Specific interventions may have safety implications that you are not aware of. Because of the danger that is known to be involved, do not provide:
    • Couple counseling to abusers (or suspected abusers) and their partners. Before agreeing to any request for couple counseling, screen for domestic violence in private interviews with each partner.
    • Anger management as a response to domestic violence.
  • Let the client know that you take his/her partner’s safety seriously.
  • Make victim safety a top priority in handling partner contacts.
  • Write casenotes on abusive clients carefully and accurately; never include conclusions about the victimized partner based solely on what the abuser says. Carelessly written casenotes can harm victims if they are brought into court.
  • If a abuser makes threats against his/her partner or children, inform the partner, the police, and the client’s probation or parole officer.
  • Never expect a victim to accept your judgment that her/his partner has changed. You can’t know for sure, and you may put the victim in further danger if your assessment encourages her/him to remain in the relationship.
  • When a female client presents as a abuser, or has been arrested for domestic violence, carefully assess for victimization and refer for victim services if needed. Most women arrested for domestic violence are victims who have fought back or tried to defend themselves.
Interacting with the courts

Therapy is not an alternative to criminal legal sanctions, only an adjunct to them. Abusers who are in therapy (or attending a abuser program) can and should also be prosecuted for committing domestic violence crimes.

  • Learn what the court is requiring of your client, particularly whether there is an order of protection against your client. Ask what it requires him/her to do or not do. Challenge any excuses for noncompliance. Consider discontinuing therapy with a client who continually violates an order of protection.
  • Do not bill insurance if domestic violence is the only issue. Having to pay for intervention may be part of accountability, and insurance should only be asked to pay for treatment of genuine mental health issues, which domestic abuse is not.
  • Never provide progress reports or judgments of dangerousness to the court. Assume that the abuser will continue to be dangerous to family members, no matter what you do or how much progress he/she seems to be making in sessions. Reports to the court should contain only information about the abuser’s compliance with the court order, attendance at sessions, and other observable behavior – not judgments about whether he/she has made “progress.”
Responding to abusers during sessions

Even thorough screening will not enable you to identify all the abusers with whom you work.. Therefore, the following measures should be taken with all clients.

  • Support respectful ways of handling situations. Encourage clients to examine and change any abusive behavior.
  • Remind clients that they are in control of whether they act abusively.
  • Confront excuses and rationalizations, such as “I was only trying to…”
  • Challenge entitlement beliefs (spoken or unspoken), no matter what they are based on.
  • Confront abusive behavior – toward yourself and others – especially:
    • The use of communication, anger, and boundary violations as weapons of control.
    • Talking about their partners in ways that are lacking in empathy, condescending, contemptuous, and disrespectful; trying to get you to agree with such attitudes.
    • Misogynistic language, if the client has a female partner, or homophobic or transphobic statements if the client is LGBTQ.
Responding to manipulation

Abusers will try to manipulate you – and will often succeed. They want you to underestimate how serious their behavior is, and overestimate how serious they are about changing it. Therefore:

  • Do not take abusers’ statements about their partners at face value.
    • In particular, do not make a custody recommendation or report the abused partner to CPS/ACS solely on the basis of what the abuser says, in the absence of any other evidence.
  • Do not let abusers involve you in getting their partner to “meet them halfway.” Do not be drawn into discussing the partner’s faults, problems or provocative behavior.
  • Be alert for any evidence that the client is turning your interventions and suggestions into weapons to use against his partner.
    • For instance, you are working with Warren on expressing his feelings verbally to Nina, rather than acting out physically. Pay attention to whether he starts complaining that Nina does not express her feelings “correctly.”
  • Many issues commonly addressed in therapy can easily be confused with abusive behavior or used as an excuse for it. Be alert for abuser manipulations when you work on issues such as:
    • Anger.
    • Emotional expression.
    • Conflict resolution.
    • Stress management.
    • Family of origin issues – especially abuse and neglect.
    • Separation and divorce.
Talk about accountability

While you don’t have the authority to impose consequences for abusive behavior (the real meaning of ‘accountability’), you can point out the harm that abusive behavior does to the client’s partner and children. You can also challenge their entitlement attitudes, control tactics and rationalizations. For instance:

  • Henry violates the order of protection against him. Remind him that only he is responsible for obeying it. Confront his excuse, “I was just trying to…”
  • Jason talks about Marian as an object – e.g., he always refers to her as “my wife.” Label the attitude of ownership and insist that he use her name.
  • Larry makes threats against Naomi. Take them seriously. Remember your duty to warn. Confront his minimization, “She knows I’d never hurt her.”
  • Peggy tries to get you to talk Ruth into going to couple counseling. Refuse, confront, and explain.
  • Stuart is waging a custody battle to retaliate against Tina for leaving him. Name this behavior. Confront the rationalization, “I just love my children so much.” Do not advocate for the courts to award him custody or unsupervised visitation with his children.
More resources for clinicians

OPDV Mental Health page

Batterer Programs

This page is currently under construction. Please check back at a later date for more information.

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  1. Klein, A. (20 09).
  2. For a useful discussion of prosecution strategies, see O’Sullivan, C., Davis, R.C., Farole, D.J. & Rempel, M. (2007). A comparison of two prosecution policies in cases of intimate partner violence: Mandatory case filing vs. following the victim’s lead. National Institute of Jus<a id="note137"></a>tice.
  3. Bancroft, L. (2002). Why Does He Do That? Inside the minds of angry and controlling men. NY: Putnams, p. 102
  4. Mitchell, D. & Carbon, S.D. (2002). Firearms and domestic violence: A primer for judges, Court Review: 39 (2), 32 – 43. The remainder of this bulleted sub-list is from the same publication.
  5. A NICS check includes a check of automated databases and, if additional information is needed, follow-up requests to agencies, such as the police, prosecutors, or the courts, that may have relevant information.
  6. Restrictions on the Possession of Firearms by Individuals Convicted of a Misdemeanor Crime of Domestic Violence.
  7. CPL §370.15 and §380.97.
  8. MacLeod, D., Pi, R., Smith, D., & Goodwin, L.R., (2009). Batterer Intervention Systems in California: An Evaluation, Office of Courts Research.
  9. Ibid.