His girlfriend had confronted him while he was in the shower. She saw text messages between him and another woman and wanted to know what he was up to.
Caught off guard, embarrassed and in shock, M., who asked that his name not be used, described what happened next.
“And then things got physical,” he said. “I pushed her up against a wall in the bathroom and smacked her.”
M., 33, of Atlantic City, then grabbed a wooden candle holder from a shelf and hit her with it. She called the police and he was charged with battery and assault with a deadly weapon. That was about a year ago. Since then, he has completed a court-ordered batterer’s intervention program, but said he still continues to go because it has helped him more than he knew it could.
The father of four and a music engineer, M. was referred to The Press of Atlantic City through the Atlantic County Women’s Shelter Fathers Ending Abuse batterers intervention program.(tncms-asset)1bb06d1c-b4d2-5824-89fb-5c3e9c13a5dd(/tncms-asset)
“The way I look at stuff now is totally different. If I had a crystal ball to go back, (it) would be so easy to make the right decision,” he said.
Counseling for victims and batterers is a critical component to eradicate domestic violence, according to a state report published last year on domestic violence. But due to lack of funding, it is often hard to come by, advocates say.
The New Jersey Supreme Court Domestic Violence Ad-Hoc Committee 2016 report made 30 recommendations to improve domestic violence response, including recommending statewide standards for intervention programs.
So far, such programs are scarce. The Atlantic County Women’s Center 26-week class, Fathers Ending Abuse, is the only option in Atlantic County, but it is open only to men in parental roles; men without children are not admitted.
This is despite the fact that according to state statistics, 51,316 of the 61,659 total domestic offenses in 2015 did not involve parents.
Since it started three years ago, more than 80 men — including M. — have graduated from Fathers Ending Abuse, program coordinator Michelle Reed said. The program is voluntary, although sometimes a judge will require a defendant to take the course before dismissing or downgrading charges.(tncms-asset)65b5efb5-fde7-58d4-b647-d3d932dc2ff7(/tncms-asset)
Advocates like Reed say attending battering class needs to become a requirement if abusers are to be reformed.
“If more municipal courts looked for solutions, referred men to the program, I think that would be a really good change of course,” said Reed.
M. said when he started the program, he had a similar mindset to many other participants: He didn’t believe he needed to be there.
“I felt that I didn’t need anybody to fix me. I felt that I did nothing wrong, that my actions didn’t affect anybody,” he said.
M.’s lawyer agreed to have him attend the program in exchange for downgraded criminal charges, so he agreed.
Outside of Reed’s program, the only other avenue for help is a one-day, eight-hour anger management class run by the Southern Jersey Association of Black Social Workers. The program is open to everyone.
While the program does fill a need, the state domestic violence report actually recommends programs be created specifically to address battering, not anger management.
Anger management counseling can sometimes do more harm than good for those accused of domestic violence, the report said.(tncms-asset)edd1ced7-ba23-5faa-9434-e4929f7676b6(/tncms-asset)
Michelle Brown, vice president of the South Jersey Association of Black Social Workers and the program coordinator, said the course was started in response to an obvious need.
She said 98 percent of participants are court-referred. The class focuses on finding alternatives to release anger, instead of on a domestic partner.
In Cape May County, a behavioral health service provider called Families Matter LLC began offering batterers intervention program based on a popular program from Duluth, Minnesota, director Pat Campbell said.(tncms-asset)2983b4d3-0fe5-58bf-a212-65cb5fb4a32e(/tncms-asset)
She said the Duluth model promotes batterer accountability and explores the power and control dynamics in a relationship.
“It’s a gift to the community,” Campbell said.
M. said it was in the fourth week of the Fathers Ending Abuse program that he started seeing and hearing the conversation differently.
“I was seeing and remembering things in my life that were kind of similar, and how society looks at us as a man,” he said. “‘You can’t control anybody but yourself’ was one of the strongest things that got through to me.”
Despite perceptions of violence being an inherited trait, experts agree domestic violence is a learned behavior.
“At least 75 percent of the clients they had … grew up in homes that were abusive. They may not have been abused, but they’ve seen the expression of anger in a violent way,” Brown said.(tncms-asset)46cf7186-fe8b-514e-abc6-5d5521fb2742(/tncms-asset)
M. grew up in Atlantic City and Brigantine with a single mother. He received his GED and now works as a music engineer, a passion of his. He said he was never physically abused, but always was shown a man should have control in a relationship. Understanding how his actions affected his children was a huge impetus for change, he said.
“Even if they heard something, how did that affect them? One of them might think it’s OK (to be violent). That’s the thing that switched for me the most in the program. I needed to find a way better environment for them at all times,” he said.
M. said he wants to show his children what a respectful relationship looks like. He said his own experiences as a child probably shaped his outlook on relationships.
“I’ve always come from an environment where (the) woman’s supposed to show us respect, the old ways of what the society expects,” he said.
M. said he strongly believes in the program, which he said should be longer and available to more people.(tncms-asset)535617ca-af39-5d53-81d1-bf240ef22d81(/tncms-asset)
“What about if I were to have that back then when I got in trouble? The help and support, the education and outlook of domestic violence and how it affects your family, would this have led up to the situation that I’m in now?” M. asked.
M. did reunite with his girlfriend for a brief period after starting the program, but said he realized after that he was in no shape to be in a relationship. He had to work on himself first.
“You want to be with somebody that’s going in 100 percent like you are. I never in my life went in 100 percent with anybody, so why would I expect that person to go in 100 percent,” M. said.
609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe