Almost half the people locked up in Kansas prisons admit they have a history of domestic violence — getting the cops called after an argument with a partner, having a restraining order against them or serving time for beating or threatening a family member or partner.
Some of those people end up in batterer intervention programs — sometimes while they’re behind bars, other times during probation or parole. The weekly workshops stretch over months, aiming to pinpoint what drives someone to violence, and searching for ways to break those cycles.
But waiting lists, program costs and other barriers mean that roughly half of people in those programs never finish. The state attorney general’s office reports that last year 1,134 people completed state-certified batterer intervention programs in Kansas, out of a total 2,404 participants. That includes programs run by nonprofit organizations and by the Kansas Department of Corrections.
The completion rate for the state’s program is lower than the overall rate. Out of 487 participants in 2018, 20 people completed the program while incarcerated at the Lansing Correctional Facility and 47 finished it while on parole.
Those statistics reflect the difficulty of leaving prison, the stringent requirements of parole or probation and the emotional stress of confronting one’s own history of violence, say the people who run the programs.
“People come here afraid. They don’t want to be here,” said Steve Halley, the director of Family Peace Initiative, an organization that provides batterer intervention services in the Shawnee County area and helped develop a curriculum used statewide. “They don’t want to be vulnerable. And changing and ending cruelty is a very vulnerable process.”
Halley’s program requires at least 25 weekly sessions of learning about trauma, gender roles and personal responsibility in groups of about eight to 12. Men and women are placed in separate groups. About half of the people drop out in the first five to eight weeks.
Of those who complete the program, about 22% committed domestic violence again. Of those who left early, 44% committed another act of domestic violence, according to the Shawnee County District Attorney’s Office.
Each session costs $35, with additional costs for assessment and orientation sessions. The program offers a sliding scale for people who are unemployed, but even that cost can be a burden for participants, about 80 percent of whom have been mandated to attend by a court, Halley said.
“By far we’re serving, basically, the poor,” he said. “Their life is so chaotic that to be able to make it, to attend a class once a week for six months, is a huge request.”
Rural batterer intervention programs face similar challenges.
But a program based in Hays, in northwestern Kansas, sees completion rates of about 90%, well above the statewide average. Its attendees come from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds and nearly 20 counties in a sparsely populated part of the state, said Dian Organ and Nance Munderloh, who run the program.
They said court orders mandating the program contribute to the high completion rate.
“Our people,” Organ said, “want to get off of supervision.”
Many of their attendees have to carpool because they don’t have driver’s licenses or access to public transportation. Some have to drive for almost two hours. That commute can complicate the typical barriers to attending several months of classes: the cost, low-paying jobs, struggles with addiction and unstable housing.
“It’s quite the stress,” Organ said, “on some of them.”
Those challenges can be magnified on parole, said Danielle Thompson, who supervises the batterer intervention program at the Kansas Department of Corrections.
The state runs a program specifically for people on parole because they find it particularly difficult to attend every session while looking for housing, finding work, staying away from drugs and meeting other conditions of parole, Thompson said. Unlike community programs, the state’s batterer intervention program doesn’t have any fees.
“Parole offenders really struggled with paying those fees because of the jobs they were able to get and all the other fees they had to pay for,” she said. “Being able to offer it at the parole office was an attempt to make it a little bit more attainable.”
The state-run program also serves people held at the Lansing Correctional Facility in northeastern Kansas. Forty-two percent of respondents to a Department of Corrections survey said they have a history of domestic violence, but Thompson estimates that a more accurate proportion might be closer to 50% or 60%.
“We know the immense trauma that offenders in our custody and who we are supervising have experienced,” she said. “We know that unresolved trauma can result in perpetrating violence onto others.”
One reason for the state program’s low completion rates, Thompson said, is the waiting list. People might not make it into the program until a few months into their parole term. Often, a parole term can end before the batterer intervention program is complete.
Thompson said the state program doesn’t accept people with less than five months left on parole who can’t commit to at least four months of batterer intervention. It can take eight to 10 weeks for attendees to build rapport, learn empathy and start applying new skills to their relationships. Before that point, they’re often hostile, defensive and emotionally vulnerable, which puts them at risk of committing further violence.
“If they don’t have that minimum amount of time, we don’t put them in the group because it would be counterproductive to safety,” she said. “It can actually increase the risk and make them more dangerous.”
More staff, Thompson said, would increase the program’s capacity. It’s easy for the batterer intervention program to keep on dedicated employees, but it’s harder to hire enough people with both the skills and the willingness to work on an emotionally difficult subject. Kansas also requires people to obtain a special license in order to conduct assessments for people nominated for batterer intervention.
“We serve the highest-risk people,” she said. “It takes a certain set of skills to be able to do this work.”
In 2016 and 2017, 19% of people who completed the Department of Corrections batterer intervention program were convicted of another domestic violence crime. Seven percent had a restraining order issued against them due to abuse of a partner or household member.
Progress is often slow, Thompson said, but she finds the work rewarding.
“Sometimes success is, instead of calling her ‘my baby Mama,’ it’s ‘her name is Rachel.’ It’s moving from objectifying them to identifying them as a human,” she said. “Instead of strangling her, it’s pushing her. There’s still violence, but the violence has decreased.”
Nomin Ujiyediin is a reporter for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can send her an email at nomin at kcur dot org, or reach her on Twitter @NominUJ.
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