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Stop the Violence 

Domestic batterers program not available in all counties

Spouses convicted on domestic violence charges in Mecklenburg County almost always are ordered to attend a program designed to teach them the error of their abusive ways, according to local advocates. But batterers elsewhere in North Carolina aren't necessarily held to the same standards.

Thirty-six of the state's 100 counties don't have certified batterer intervention programs, which means judges can't comply with a 2004 state law requiring batterers to get such treatment. Locally, this state law has spurred hope that people who attend such programs (more than nine out of 10 are male) won't use violence in their relationships again.

Just because 36 counties don't have the batterer intervention programs doesn't mean they lack any programs at all. Judges still can order most offenders to attend non-certified treatment programs or state-sanctioned programs in nearby counties, said Beth Froehling, public policy specialist with the NC Coalition Against Domestic Violence. But that's not ideal, she said: "We need to have the program available in every community."

Mecklenburg's certified treatment program, New Options for Violent Actions, has attracted widespread attention as the largest of its kind in the Southeast. Batterers ordered to NOVA attend 26 two-hour sessions, spread throughout a year, where they learn how to change their behavior. If they're arrested again during that time, they're kicked out and turned over to a probation officer.

NOVA is neither therapy nor anger management, said program director Bea Coté. "In therapy, they work on emotional issues; we work on belief systems and behavior," she said. "We don't see loss of anger control as being an issue with the majority of our offenders. Most of them are able to control their anger with everyone except their partner."

NOVA once handled some clients from surrounding counties, but quit after the 2004 reforms left the agency fearing need would outstrip resources, Coté said. The state Senate and House of Representatives that year unanimously approved legislation that required judges to order batterers put on probation to attend certified treatment programs. Now, counties near Charlotte have their own batterer treatment programs.

But programs in two counties -- Cabarrus and Union -- aren't state-certified. Libby Ruth, judicial district manager for Union, said the county already has a batterer treatment program, STOP, that she expects will become certified when it reapplies this year. "Some of the paperwork that was sent in wasn't exactly correct," she said, explaining why STOP was turned down.

Some people question whether batterer treatment is effective, but Mecklenburg's statistics are promising: Fewer than 8 percent of people who finish the NOVA program will be charged within a year with two common domestic violence-related crimes, assault on a female or communicating threats. (Only about a third of offenders who start the program complete it, however.)

That's why domestic violence advocates have pressed to make sure all batterers are ordered to the program. More than a year after the law's change, the message hasn't sunk in universally. According to the report to county commissioners, "some judges continue to sentence convicted batterers to unsupervised probation, or in some cases, simply order the offender to the United Family Services Anger Management Program, a six-hour program that is not designed to address issues of domestic violence."

Only a third to a half of offenders ordered to NOVA show up, according to a recent domestic violence report presented to county commissioners. That's despite probation officers' diligent efforts, Coté said. Some offenders would rather spend a month or two in jail than an entire year attending group sessions.

Cynthia Mitchell, Mecklenburg's assistant judicial manager, says local courts have refined their system of making sure offenders get to NOVA. "It's pretty tight," she said. Probation officers keep extensive lists, she said, that also are provided to NOVA.

Not all batterers, however, proceed from criminal courts to supervised probation. Between 7 and 12 percent are ordered to attend as a condition of a restraining order. "We usually know about those because we check the dockets every day," Coté said. "But there's not a reporting system from the civil courts to NOVA."

Like other aspects of domestic violence treatment and prevention, funding can seem scarce and inadequate. Grants typically go to help victims, Coté said, making it difficult for counties trying to get certified programs in their communities.

In Mecklenburg, advocates' pleas for more money have increased in recent months, particularly after the report to county commissioners. The report, in addition to discussing NOVA, also highlighted the shortage of beds for women and children fleeing violence. The county's only shelter for battered women has 29 beds. Cabarrus and Union counties both have more beds, even though the population of each is about one-fifth that of Mecklenburg's.

It's important to note how nascent domestic violence programs are, particularly ones targeting batterer treatment, said Julie Owens, southwest regional director for the NC Council for Women. She wasn't surprised several counties lack certified batterer intervention programs -- many still lack shelters. She noted batterer intervention programs are a relatively recent innovation; the first domestic violence shelter didn't even open until 1970. "We've come a long way since then," Owens said. "But we've got a long way to go."

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