Attitudinal Change in Participants of Partner Assault Response (PAR) Programs: A Pilot Project


1. Background

In 1976, the first formal intervention program for abusive men opened its doors in London, England (Jennings, 1987) in response to the unexpected demand for clinical help from battering men whose partners had sought refuge in an associated woman's shelter (Pizzy, 1974). Similar programs spread quickly across Europe and North America (Roberts, 1984). Currently in Ontario, there are approximately 42 programs for men who abuse their partners (National Clearing House on Family Violence, 2002). Most of these programs operate according to a set of standards (Dankwort & Austin, 1999), and many are integrated into the wider criminal justice response to domestic violence (Buzawa, Hotaling, & Klein, 1998; Murphy, Musser, & Maton, 1998). Coordination between criminal justice and community-based services for abusive men in Ontario is facilitated by the 30 Domestic Violence Courts and associated Partner Assault Response (PAR) programs. Among other things, Domestic Violence Courts aim to have first time offenders who have not caused serious physical injury to their partners plead guilty and agree to attend a 16-week batterer intervention program prior to sentencing (Early Intervention). Repeat offenders and men who have perpetrated more severe assaults are first prosecuted, and then sent to PAR intervention as a condition of their probation order (Coordinated Prosecution).

As coordination has increased between the justice system and programs for abusive men, significant questions have been raised about the efficacy of intervention. There have been a number of recent reviews of the literature in this area (e.g., Babcock, Green & Robbie, 2004; Scott, 2004). Some of the highlights of these reviews are as follows:

  • Approximately two-thirds of men who complete intervention avoid physical re-assault of their partner over a relatively long period of time.
  • The one third of men who re-assault their partner typically do so within 3 months of their intake into intervention. These men typically re-assault their partners multiple times.
  • Re-assault rates are higher among men who drop-out of intervention.
  • When the progress of men who have been randomly assigned to intervention or non-intervention are compared in experimental study, results reveal that batterer intervention programs have, at best, a very small impact on rates of subsequent assault.

Reviews of the literature also highlight needs for future research. A primary need is for coordinated research on the effect on the systems of intervention for abusive men. For example, information is needed about the ways in which men who do and do not appear to make progress through intervention are addressed by the broader legal and criminal justice system. A second need is for better understanding of mechanisms of change. This understanding is important for two reasons - improving current interventions by identifying and targeting criminogenic needs and identifying limits in client responsivity that result when these mechanisms are not adequately activated (see Andrews et al., 1990 and Howells & Day, 2003 for more in depth discussions of the principles of risk, needs and responsivity as they apply to program evaluation).

In the current research, focus is placed on attitudes as possible mechanisms of change among men participating in intervention programs for partner assault. Specifically, this report outlines the development of a new measure designed to assess attitude change among men attending a batterer intervention program. In addition, differences in the pre- and post-intervention attitudes of men referred to intervention through Early Intervention or Coordinated Prosecution components of a Domestic Violence Court (DVC) or via voluntary referral are examined.

1.1 Attitudes as a mechanism of change

The importance of shifts in attitude to change in behaviour is supported by long traditions of research on psychological intervention. Consistent with these traditions, key goals of intervention programs for abusive men include changing men's attitudes towards their abuse and increasing their respect for women. Recently published research also suggests that changes in men's attitudes toward intervention itself may be important to promoting change. In the following section, past research in these three areas of attitude change is reviewed briefly.

1.2 Change in attitude towards abuse

Denial of problem behaviour, or of personal responsibility for such behaviour, is likely a fundamental component of many psychological problems, especially when they involve significant harm to others (e.g., see Sykes & Matza, 1957 for discussion in criminality and Salter, 1988 for discussion in sexual offenders). Clinicians working with male perpetrators and victims of intimate partner violence clearly recognize the importance of abuse denial and minimization and externalization of blame. The Deluth Power and Control Wheel, which forms the educational basis for numerous intimate violence prevention and intervention programs, identifies minimization, denial and blaming as forms of abuse. Formal standards developed to regulate batterer intervention programs include countering men's denial and minimization and encouraging them to take personal responsibility for their abusive actions as critical intervention goals (Dankwort & Austin, 1999).

Despite the apparent importance of this domain of attitude change, there has been surprisingly little research on the importance of men's attitudes towards their abuse and change in abusive behaviour. The few studies that exist in this area show that men who enter intervention with high levels of problem denial show less change than men with more positive pre-intervention attitudes (Scott & Wolfe, 2003; Taft, Murphy, King, Musser, & DeDeyn, 2003). Strong correlations between denial and minimization of abusive actions and violence in the relationships of young adults have also been demonstrated in past research (Scott & Straus, submitted). These results, in combination with knowledge of clinical practice, suggests that changes in responsibility attitudes are likely important to change in abusive behaviours.

1.3 Change in attitude towards women

A second area of attitude change that is likely important to change in battering is men's attitudes towards women. Feminist theory suggests that men with attitudes and beliefs most supportive of patriarchy are most likely to be abusive (Mihalic & Elliott, 1997; Saunders, 1984; Stith & Farley, 1993). Men's ‘buy-in' to patriarchy is viewed as important because it increases men's sense of entitlement in their relationships with women (e.g., "Because I am a man, I can expect my partner to ...") and reduces constraints against domestic violence (e.g., "She should have dinner on the table every evening, and if she doesn't I have a right to punish her."). It is on this basis that batterer intervention programs focus on changing men's attitudes about traditional male and female roles, having men acknowledge their privileged position in society, and encouraging men to challenge patriarchal beliefs and systems (Dankwort & Austin, 1999).

Support for feminist theory comes from research on the impact of patriarchal social organization on the incidence of woman abuse. Analyses across cultures and regions, including North America, suggest that greater sexual equality is associated with less wife battering (Campbell, 1992; Haj-Yahia, 2000; Levinson, 1987; Straus, 1994). Less support has been found for a relationship between change in men's attitudes towards women and change in abusive behaviour (Feder & Forde, 2000; Davis, Taylor, & Maxwell, 2000; Petrik, Olson, & Subotnik, 1994). In other words, when the social context is disregarded, men's individual attitudes do not seem to be strongly related to perpetration or change in abusive behaviour. However, given the strong theoretical background for these constructs, attitudes towards women remain an important dimension for continued investigation as a possible attitudinal predictor of change in abusive behaviour.

1.4 Change in attitudes towards treatment

A final domain of attitude change that shows promise for predicting abuse reduction is men's attitude towards intervention and group facilitators. In psychotherapy research, these attitudes are captured under the label of "positive working alliance," which encompasses men's opinion about trustworthiness and positive regard of their therapist and men's perceptions of the congruence of their therapeutic goals to those of their therapist. The importance of a positive working alliance between therapists and clients has been established in research on a variety of populations presenting with a wide range of difficulties, including alcoholism and marital problems (Bourgeois, Sabourin, & Wright, 1990; Connors et al., 1997). Recent work by Taft and Murphy further suggests that men's attitudes in this domain may be important to predicting the success of batterer intervention for reducing men's physical and psychological abuse (Taft et al., 2003).

1.5 Current study

In summary, three attitude domains are likely candidates for promoting change in men's abusive behaviour - attitudes towards abuse, attitudes towards women, and attitudes towards intervention. The current study was undertaken to develop and test a self-report measure of attitudes in these three domains using a small test sample of men attending a batterer intervention program. There were two purposes of analyses. The primary purpose of the current work was to determine if a reliable measure could be developed of men's attitudes. It was expected that:

  • Hypothesis 1: Attitudes towards abuse, intervention, and women are related but conceptually distinct aspects of men's presentation.
  • Hypothesis 2: Attitudes will vary by men's referral status. Specifically, it was expected that men attending intervention voluntarily would have the most desirable attitudes, followed by men attending in the Early Intervention and Coordinated Prosecution streams.

A secondary purpose was to explore changes in men's attitudes on the constructed measure from pre- to post-program. This analysis had two aims. First, potential differences in attitude change associated with men's referral status (i.e., Early Intervention, Coordinated Prosecution or Voluntary) were to be explored. Second, analyses were to be carried out to determine the usefulness of the constructed measure to differentiate those men who do and do not change over treatment. As reviewed, research suggests that approximately one third of men who attend batterer intervention programs repeatedly re-assault their partners. A key need in this context is for measures that differentiate those men who do and do not show progress in intervention. To examine this question, changes in men's attitudes were to be compared to other indicators of potentially poor progress through treatment as available in men's files, specifically counsellor judgement of men's success. It was expected that:

  • Hypothesis 3: Men will show significant pre- to post-intervention changes in their attitudes towards attitudes towards abuse, women, and intervention.
  • Hypothesis 4: Men judged by their counsellors as low risk for re-assaulting their partners at the end of intervention would show greater changes in attitude over treatment than men judged high-risk for continued abusive behaviour.

The constructed measure of attitude was considered successful to the extent that it was sensitive to change over time and able to differentiate men who, from other indictors, seem to have made more and less progress through treatment.

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