Years ago, when Hilary Sanders-McKenna was considering working at Family of Woodstock’s domestic violence shelter, she watched a training video that made her wonder, “How are these women going to stop being beaten if men don’t get help?” In 1984, she became one of the first facilitators of Family’s EVOLVE program, which conducts weekly sessions to help participants discuss and examine their feelings and behaviors, in order to reduce the incidence of domestic violence.
Family, the local social service organization, now conducts seven EVOLVE groups per week in Kingston and one weekly group in Ellenville, with 12 people per group, for a total of 96 participants at any one time. In Kingston, one group is for women, and another is bilingual, for Spanish-speaking men. Some clients enter the program voluntarily, while others are mandated by the court, probation, parole, social services, the Mental Health Association, and other area agencies. There is a waiting list for admission, with new participants joining whenever someone graduates by attending 33 sessions. Each group is led by a woman and a man, both having equal authority. “That’s a message right there,” pointed out EVOLVE administrator Khadijah Ward. In total, the program employs ten facilitators.
Sanders-McKenna works with several men’s groups. Her co-facilitator, Jay Sadowitz, said, “The men ask us all the time what we think they should do or believe. I answer, ‘I don’t know. What does everyone else think?’ We always ask what’s going on emotionally for them. It’s not about us.”
Ward said the cardinal rule of the program is confidentiality. “Whatever goes on in that room, stays in that room. The facilitators do not discuss even with me what has gone on in terms of conversations in the group. And some agencies really want to know how the client is doing, since they have to make decisions about this person, but I cannot divulge. All I can say is how many sessions they attended and whether or not they are actively particpating.”
“That’s part of why we’ve been in business so long,” said Sanders-McKenna. “The word on the street is, it’s a cool program, and your secrets are safe with us.” (The two exceptions are the legal obligation to report child abuse and the clear sense that someone is intending to commit suicide or endanger another person.)
Confidentiality frees the participants to open up in the sessions, and hearing from other participants has big impact. As clients progress in the program, their feedback to each other is more powerful than anything the facilitators might say. “Men in our culture are typically more isolated than women,” said Sanders-McKenna. “For the men to come into a room with other men charged with similar violations, their isolation immediately starts to break down. They talk to each other and become like a family.”
“Men are taught not to feel sad,” said Sadowitz. “They’re only allowed to feel angry. We try to give them the chance to voice the feelings underneath the anger. We teach the language of what it feels like as opposed to acting out without processing. If you talk, maybe you won’t hit or act out in other ways.”
“As a woman in the room,” said Sanders-McKenna, “I can address things like when a man says, ‘I tried to leave the house, but she blocked the door.’ We can look at how men are trained to flee and women to hold on. Right there is a hook that needs to be figured out.”
But women, too, can be violent, and that’s why EVOLVE added a group for women who batter, starting in 2013. It’s structured much like the men’s groups, and facilitators report that women also benefit from hearing the stories of their peers.
“Violence doesn’t know race, religion, or socioeconomic status,” said Ward. The range of clients goes across the board from doctors and lawyers to the unemployed. Many years ago, a Kingston police officer was mandated to the program because of his violent behavior. While he was in the group, a new member was admitted, a man the policeman had once arrested for domestic violence. “They realized they were just like each other,” recalled Sadowitz. “It was dramatic for the first few weeks, and then they just became group members.”
he EVOLVE program does not follow a formal curriculum. Whatever comes up in a session provides a focus for comment and discussion. There is, however, a long list of topics that facilitators bring up when appropriate, including power and control; jealousy and possessiveness; gender stereotypes; the double standard regarding fidelity; why people stay in unhealthy relationships; family of origin and childhood experiences; substance abuse; parenting; issues of race; the criminal justice system; how to identify a support system.
Another key to the success of the program is the facilitators’ refusal to pass judgment on participants. “When I interviewed for the job of administrator,” said Ward, “my predecessor said, ‘When a client comes in, and you have to do an intake, you may hear some horrific stories. How will you handle it?’ For whatever reason, Kahlil Gibran came into my psyche. I blurted out, ‘I’m them, and they are me.’ But for the grace of God, I could be that person. I’m just lucky I’ve made choices that serve me better — at least so far.”
Rather than criticize, the facilitators urge the men to talk about how they feel. Group members, however, might be less restrained in their responses to each other. “When someone completes the program,” said Ward, “we give them a survey. People often say they learned how to take constructive criticism from their peers.”
Facilitators do guide clients into a clearer perspective on their behavior. “This county’s had a lot of women murdered in last five to ten years,” said Sanders-McKenna. “It’s a horrible statistic we have to address. When men say, ‘Well, she punched me,’ I ask, ‘Did you get hurt?’ ‘Nah, it didn’t hurt.’ Well, that’s because men are bigger and have more power. Many men think women have more power, since they just have to call the police. So we talk about why the women have to call the police. They wind up saying, ‘I guess it’s because she was afraid of me.’ ‘Were you afraid of her?’ ‘No.’ That’s why women get dead.”
The biggest challenge for many participants is learning to take responsibility for their actions. “What I have a hard time with is a man who is continually blaming the system, his partner, his family, his children, minimizing the extent of the damage he has done,” said Sanders-McKenna. “It’s difficult to crack that open. That’s how we think we can tell men have progressed — if they start owning what they’ve done, telling other men, ‘I used to be like you.’”
“That’s why we have 33 sessions,” Sadowitz commented. “Sometimes it takes 32 and a half for them to own what they’ve done. But I’ve seen it happen many times towards the end.”
Sometimes men try to challenge the facilitators. “It has gotten to me at times when the group members try to make it about me,” said Sadowitz. “They’ll say, ‘You’re just an old hippie from Woodstock, getting high. You probably go home and beat your wife.’” For help with such problems, all the facilitators meet monthly for a supervision session. When Sadowitz was frustrated by one client’s continual accusations, he found relief by talking about his feelings in the supervision group. “When I went back, the client’s behavior was different,” he said. “Sitting there with a tense vibe affects the room.”
anders-McKenna has a degree in working with at-risk families. Sadowitz brings his life experience to the job, including 33 years of facilitating EVOLVE groups. They both say they love their work. “It’s fascinating and gratifying,” said Sanders-McKenna. “I’m still learning about relationships, my own anger, the differences between men and women. It’s such a privilege.”
Judging the effectiveness of the program is tricky. “We can’t tell,” said Ward. “Who are we to know what someone has absorbed or not, changed or not? There are people who have completed the program, and a year down the road, they’ve been referred back to us.” It’s discouraging when a new client turns out to be the son of a father who went through the program 30 years ago. But data has been gathered on participants who previously had orders of protection placed against them, and it was found that 71.3 percent had not reoffended.
The facilitators agreed that more than half the people in the program don’t want to be there, but over time, they usually learn to welcome the support. Most telling is when a graduate wants to continue to attend — such participants are allowed to remain in the group after their successful completion of 33 sessions.
“A lot of people are tired of being in the system,” said Sadowitz. “They’re exhausted and ready to do something different in their lives. Young people see older men who have spent their whole lives in rooms like this and say, ‘Am I going to wind up there?’ It’s often a wake-up call.”++
If you or someone you know would like to join EVOLVE, or for more information, contact Khadijah Ward at 845-331-7080, ext. 124. Call before the problem becomes a crisis.