Can engaging perpetrators help reduce intimate partner violence?

Published on
June 13, 2023

There are an average of 100 reported domestic violence-related deaths annually in Arizona, with the state ranking fourth in the nation for women killed in such homicides — 45% higher than the national average. 

Every 44 minutes in Arizona, one or more children is witness to domestic violence, and the state ranks eighth in the country for the numbers of calls to the National Domestic Violence Hotline. 

In 2022, the Emerge Center Against Domestic Abuse in Tucson received 7,189 calls to its 24-hour, multilingual helpline and provided more than 15,000 shelter bed nights to survivors and their families, many of whom called into the helpline. This is more than a 20% increase in calls from the past two years and a 17% increase in demand for programs and services. The need for the nonprofit’s services had increased steadily before the pandemic, but even COVID-era mandates including as stay-at-home orders and citywide lockdowns didn’t decrease the overall demand. The Southern Arizona organizers say it’s now time to address the problem from another angle: abusers.

Emerge is getting ready to launch a helpline for men who abuse their intimate partners or are at risk of doing so. With an expected soft launch in summer 2023, the center is recruiting and training volunteers to staff the phone lines and counsel callers. The helpline is a larger expansion of Emerge’s existing men’s education program, which will also include a community space to help callers identify non-violent choices and the harm caused to their partners, families and children. Organizers say the initiative aims to create a network that prioritizes survivor safety while engaging perpetrators in meaningful conversations about abusive behaviors.

This method of engaging perpetrators in finding solutions is a first for Southern Arizona but is used regularly in other parts of the country. I’ve written about intimate partner and other forms of gender-based violence for nearly a decade, but haven’t ever really dug into interventions that aim to address the problem, despite the fact that there are existing programs across the United States and in other countries.

In Massachusetts, for instance, the Call for Change helpline (a model for Emerge’s new program) started in April 2021. It received more than 200 calls in its first year and 400 in the first nine months of 2022. About 70% of callers are seeking help for themselves, and the helpline now receives calls from people across the United States. 

The Center in Placerville, California has used a positive solutions program for the past five years, helping people responsible for domestic violence change their behavior patterns and build healthy relationships. The program works with 90 men and women on any given week. Of the 75 people who have completed the course over the past two years, only two have reoffended.

In Portland, Oregon, the Domestic Violence Safe Dialogue Program is one of the few existing programs that arranges face-to-face dialogue between survivors and men with a history of abusing women. The restorative justice program is a controversial approach, but proponents say it helps two people who want to change but aren’t able to do it alone.

The Duluth Project is a model that was created more than 40 years ago in Minnesota and has since been adopted by several locations across the country. It focuses on prevention through counseling and education, rather than relying solely on punishment after a crime has been committed. It has a 70% success rate and includes a multi-agency response and lengthy treatment program that leads men to examine their lives and attitudes towards women.

In Kingston, New York, the Intimate Partners Violence Intervention is an early-intervention program that relies on deterrence and counseling rather than punishment. It’s contributed to a 36% drop in reported abuse in Kingston and has a low recidivism rate but has received pushback from defense attorneys.

My project, supported by a grant from the 2023 Domestic Violence Impact Reporting Fund, will focus on the interventions and strategies utilized by these abuser-centered programs and explore similar programs in Arizona, while also measuring their impact on participants, survivors, families and children. Individuals who witnessed interpersonal violence as children are more than twice as likely to become either victims or perpetrators of violence.

In one day in 2017— years before the pandemic — victims in the state made 366 requests for services that went unmet due to lack of resources. Nearly 75% of the requests were for housing, a resource that has become even more scarce since the pandemic, amid rising rents and costs of living. I’ll contextualize the pandemic’s effect on intimate partner violence and address government interventions to address the issue, including allocating funds, providing financial backing, sponsorships and more.

Lastly, I’ll look at court outcomes for participants of these types of treatment programs, exploring whether accountability measures are in place to prevent further long-term harm to spouses or children.