By Beth Lawrence

 

Meridian Behavioral Health Services offers a program it hopes will disrupt the cycle of domestic violence for residents in Jackson County. 

The Domestic Violence Intervention Program uses cognitive behavioral therapy to teach abusers to change destructive behaviors. The course is open to residents of Jackson and Macon counties. The Jackson group started in March and currently has a dozen participants.

Clinical Specialist Laura Oberland and Robert Guinn, a certified peer support specialist, manage the program in Haywood and Jackson counties.

Most clients are referred to the course through the court system or department of social services, but some clients are walk-ins.

Guinn is a graduate of the program.

“I’ve got just over four and a half years clean from substance abuse, some mental health stuff,” Guinn said. “I went through Meridian’s substance abuse intensive outpatient and the DVIP program as a client, and once I completed both, I stayed on as a graduate and came back in groups.”

Meridian later hired Guinn to its offender services program.

Guinn was referred to Meridian by DSS because he was in danger of losing custody of his children due to a substance abuse problem.

There was some domestic violence in Guinn’s relationship, so while at Meridian he underwent the DVIP course.

Many of DVIP’s clients are in court or involved with DSS for other reasons, but along the line domestic abuse is discovered, and they are referred to Meridian, Oberland said.

Guinn is glad he undertook the work to change his life.

“I was really sick and tired of my life being the way it was,” he said. “I had made a decision that anything I started I was going to complete. I wasn’t quitting on anything anymore.” 

Once a client is referred, he must undergo an intake evaluation which determines whether the program is right for his needs or if there is another problem that should be addressed.

“Sometimes men have really big mental health challenges or substance use challenges that are going to get in the way of them doing the work that we do,” Oberland said. “We ask them to attend to them first and then maybe come to us afterwards.”

If the person is a fit for the program, the work can begin. The program takes six months to complete. At each session, counselors cover a topic that addresses the power and control issues that are often at the root of domestic violence.

The topics are set up on a pie graph with each segment of the chart addressing a different power and control tactic: using coercion and threats, intimidation, emotional abuse, isolation, minimizing, denying and blaming; using children, male privilege and economic abuse.

Each topic has a corresponding section on a pie chart that discusses how a relationship should work. Topics include negotiation and fairness, non-threatening behavior, respect, trust and support, honesty and accountability, responsible parenting, shared responsibility and economic partnership.

“We’ll talk about using isolation, what does that look like in a relationship?” Oberland said. “Usually the guys are really good at saying, ‘Well, I know what that looks like because I’ve done that.’ So we’ll block it out: how do you do this, what does this look like in a relationship, what are the effects on you, on her, on children in the relationship. Then, we’ll use the equality wheel to look at what the opposite of that is.”

All relationships use power and control tactics to some extent, but in a healthy relationship there is equal give and take, Guinn said.

In an abusive relationship the balance of power rests with the abuser.

“One person’s experience is way over the other person,” he said. “The victim tends to report their life gets smaller; their choices get smaller. They have less autonomy to be able to make decisions and choices.”

Like other therapies, the DVIP course only works if participants are truly honest with themselves about their feelings and behaviors. Early on participants are often reluctant to admit they should be in the program let alone acknowledge the mindsets and actions that led them there.

Oberland and Guinn challenge them to confront their beliefs about relationships, gender roles and authority. Some clients take a few months to come around. 

What sometimes helps them are the examples and challenges of other men in the group, Oberland said.

“There are guys who are 20 weeks along in the process … or about to complete,” Oberland said. “They get to see what it’s like to see the guys who are farther along in the process having those difficult conversations, owning up to their behaviors, being held accountable.”

When a participant begins to make excuses for his behavior or defend wrong ideas of how a relationship should work, members of the group who have processed more call them out. It often works because the person making the challenge has been where the newcomer is, Guinn said.

“Through the process, we’re learning to identify unhelpful belief systems and challenge them with healthier belief systems,” Guinn said.

Clients are given time to come around, but those who refuse to participate are terminated and sent back to the court or DSS system.

Graduates are allowed to come back and sit through group meetings as long as they have not had a new charge or referral.

“If something’s going on in their life and they want to come in and sit down and process it with the group and go through the process with everybody, they can,” Guinn said.

The program is pay based. The assessment is $50, and group sessions are $35 per meeting. The program itself does not have funds to cover indigent or low income clients, but Meridian has slots open for indigent patients and does not turn anyone away, according to Elaine McMahan, executive assistant at Meridian.