Jim Henderson, a trainer and lecturer on domestic violence, discusses probation group conferencing, motivational interview techniques, and the importance of community collaboration.
The following is a transcript:
SARAH SCHWEIG: Hi. I’m Sarah Schweig at the Center for Court Innovation and today I’m speaking with Jim Henderson. Jim provides technical assistance as a trainer and lecturer to courts, probation offices, and other criminal justice agencies to help them improve their responses to domestic violence as part of the Federal Office on Violence Against Women Battered Women’s Justice Project. Jim also acts as a consultancy team member for the Family Justice Center Alliance, the Battered Women’s Justice Program, and the Center for Court Innovation. Thanks for speaking with me today and welcome.
JIM HENDERSON: Thank you.
SCHWEIG: So what are the biggest challenges probation offices face when working with domestic violence offenders and how does the court monitor compliance?
HENDERSON: I think probably the biggest challenge is figuring out how to do an adequate assessment: you know—are we getting police reports that are well-written and well thought-out? Did the detectives do an appropriate investigation and questioning? Do we have access to 911 tapes? Do we have access to prior personal protection orders, prior police reports, calls to the home? So are we really looking at domestic violence in the whole context of what’s really going on. Then if we’re doing that, are we then able to collect that information in a way, disseminate it to the judge where it makes a meaningful impact for sentencing. Hopefully, if everything goes well, we’re able to assess who truly is the batterer, who is the true victim in context, look at what type of intervention we feel will be most helpful as far as enhancing victim safety and holding the offender accountable.
From there, it’s trying to make sure that the judge is adequately informed about what are we doing? How’s the program operating? Do probation officers have the training they need to be able to talk to those who are victimized by the violence? That’s another challenge because we’re trained so much to really investigate a case and kind of be a little hard-nosed at times. And when we talk to a victim, if we investigate it appropriately and she’s 100 percent honest, sometimes that can result in collateral consequences to her or retaliation that we get frustrated with when we are trying to talk to her and we feel she’s not being forthcoming. And trying to get probation officers to understand that it might not be in her best interest to be forthcoming and why she may recant or change her story, or why she might take him back. In looking at that entirety and helping probation officers really kind of come to that realization has been difficult.
SCHWEIG: You’ve utilized probation group reporting to gain better compliance. Can you talk a bit about what it is exactly and how that works?
HENDERSON: What happens, when we came into the domestic violence field it actually fit very well with my training as a social worker in the sense that we really look at systems. So saying okay, if we’re really going to address domestic violence it has to be a community process. So, you know, are police on board? Are the prosecutors on board? What are the messages they’re sending to those victimized, to the community, and to the assailants? You know, how—what’s the judge doing? What are the victims’ services that are in place? What are children’s services that are in place? So as a probation agent, I was trying to figure out how do I better collaborate and learn from my partners? What training can I get from the shelter? How can I incorporate their voices or their experiences into our policy so that we’re not creating policy or engaging in practices that actually hurt or hinder the people we say we’re there to protect, right? And that takes a lot of time, going to the CCR meetings, watching the batterers in a bunch of programs to make sure they’re actually doing what they say they do, doing home visits, contacting victims.
When I’ve seen defendants in a traditional manner, in individual sessions, it seems like every single client had the exact same road blocks to success. They do the same kind of threats or you know, accountability plans, they did the same pep talks, and it was a waste of time. There was one day I had seen every client back to back to back. I had like 14 clients. At the end of the day, at 5:00, I finally get to listen to my messages. Three victims called, the judge called twice, and I wasn’t able to get a hold of any of those people because it was after 5:00. And so I’m like, this isn’t working because every defendant—I could have put them all in one room, played a tape, and said listen to the first guy I talked to, and it would have got accomplished the same thing. And so I said well then why don’t I do that?
We created a probation group reporting really as a time-saving mechanism so I would have more time to reach out to victims and work with community partners. What happened was, almost overnight, our compliance rate rose through the ceiling because we started being able to break down barriers to successful completion of probation by using other offenders experience who had successfully achieved that. So an example would be if you’re not able to make it to AA so that’s your excuse because you don’t have a driver’s license. So then we talk in the group, well how are other people getting to AA? And people are brainstorming all these different options. People are telling the guy about meetings he might not have known about; people are offering to pick him up; people are talking about their sponsor who lives two houses down from the offender and are willing to give him his number. So all of a sudden he had all these new resources opened up to him that I couldn’t do individually. And he’s also seen that some of his excuses were lame. That other people had accomplished, with larger road blocks, were being compliant.
And so it just ended up not being just a time-saving mechanism. It ended up being our batterers intervention compliance went right through the ceiling. People who were violating probation dramatically decreased because now—let’s say you’re skipping meetings: we’re going to violate you and take you back to court and a judge is gonna give you one day of jail for every day you missed of the batterers intervention program. Well now instead of me even doing that, I can go around the room and say, ‘Okay, George, I understand you haven’t gone for the program, you don’t have time. Has anybody else not gone to the program?’ Five guys raise up their hand. We say, ‘Okay, so Tom, what happened to you?’ ‘The judge gave me one day jail for every day I missed.’ ‘Michael, what did the judge do to you?’ ‘She gave me one day jail for every day I missed.’ ‘Thomas, what did the judge do to you?’ he gave me one day jail for every day I missed.’ Now I can go back to defendant A and say, ‘Okay, when I violate you, what do you think the judge is gonna do?’ He already knows. ‘Well, it sounds like she’s gonna give me one day of jail for every day I missed.’ ‘Is that what you want?’ ‘No, that’s not going to be helpful to me.’ So I say, ‘Okay group, what do you think we can do to help Thomas so he doesn’t go to jail?’ And they will tell him a variety of ways that he can get compliant before we go back to court. So then the other guy who’s sitting in a room who hasn’t screwed up yet is thinking about it, already has been taught ‘Oh, this is what’s gonna happen.’ So really, all of a sudden, less people were skipping, more people were going, more people were dealing with their resistance, and it ended up being a helpful tool.
SCHWEIG: It sort of offers all different kinds of perspectives in that system. That’s really interesting. Um, so you’ve also worked with changing the dynamics of you know, interviewing the domestic violence offenders as well as victims. Can you talk a bit about the motivational techniques used with domestic violence offenders? It sounds like you sort of addressed that a little.
HENDERSON: In motivational interviewing, the whole thing is rowing with the resistance. We’re helping a client identify what their needs are and pointing out discrepancies. So let’s say Client A who hasn’t gone to the batterer’s intervention program who says that he doesn’t have time. He has a wife and three kids to take care of. So then we’ll talk, you know, how many people have a wife and multiple kids. ‘How are you guys able to juggle that?’ So we have some clients who have five kids, some who have six, some whose wife just had twins. So they can talk about how they’re juggling that. We can also talk about pointing out the discrepancy: ‘Okay, you heard from all these guys that it sounds like the judge is gonna give you one day jail for every day you missed. Is that gonna be consistent with your desire to spend more time with your family? Do you think your wife and kids are gonna go to jail with you for those eight days that you’re gonna be in there, or do you think those are gonna be eight days you’re not gonna have any access to them and not be earning any income to help support your family that you say you care so much about.’ ‘So maybe I understand you don’t want to give up that two hours a week to go to class, but you tell me which is going to be more advantageous to your goal?’ He gets to—I don’t tell him—what to do. I don’t tell him what to think. I help him assess where he’s at in his life space, and what’s going to be the best role for him. And we don’t really argue with him. We just kind of point out what’s gonna happen.
And you can also tap into the strengths of the other clients who have done well. Clients who you never thought would make it and never graduated high school, now all of a sudden they’ve got their GED, they’re finishing this program, and you can compliment them and their successes. We’re not gonna compliment them and say they’re not a batterer, because I don’t know. But I do know he made it through his batterers intervention program, he got his GED, he completed his drug testing class—he hasn’t ever tested positive in two years, you know? There’s a lot to be proud of and just identifying that and letting him be able to brag and tell other clients how they can, too, be successful.
SCHWEIG: So you’ve also worked on changing the focus of the victim interview as well. Can you talk about the importance of playing the role of an information provider to the victim rather than an information gatherer, and why the shift is so significant?
HENDERSON: Probation officers are trained really well on how to gather information, right? And so we set somebody down and we almost interrogate them, right? We ask them all these questions about very intimate, personal, shameful experiences that they’ve had. And then sometimes we get frustrated when people aren’t forthcoming with that information. We talked a little bit about sometimes if people are forthcoming with it—so let’s say I make you feel very comfortable and very safe; you give out more information than you really would have been in your best interest.
And now as agent of the court, I have to provide it to the court, the assailant gets to read it and hear what you told me, and now there’s retaliation against you. I’ve accomplished nothing. So really, what I want to do in my interviews is ask you questions in a way that even if you aren’t honest, even if you can’t be honest, when you leave my room, if you’re a victim of domestic violence you understand what that means. If you’re a higher risk than the general population, you understand what risk factors are. That you understand what community resources are in place that would be more advantageous to you than the court. So maybe I’m not the best person to tell, but maybe knowing that Theresa Johnson at the shelter specializes in sexual abuse and trauma, then you can go talk to her 100 percent confidential, would be life-changing for you. That’s what we mean.
So it’s really a way for probation officers to ask questions. If a victim feels empowered enough or safe enough to disclose, she can, but if she doesn’t it doesn’t mean I’m not successful. I think sometimes probation officers felt like they were non-successful: ‘I just spent a half hour or an hour with this person and I got no goods.’ Well you know what, if you got no goods and her life is safer, she knows what resources are available, she knows what the system can and can’t do for her, you were 100 percent successful and you should be extremely proud of the time you spent.
And so that’s kind of what we mean by it’s less about gathering and more about providing. I even start out the interviews now—I tell, when I meet with an individual who’s been victimized, I say, ‘You know, I’m gonna ask you very personal questions that are probably none of my business, other than the fact that I want to make a recommendation to the court that’s gonna make your life safer, um, and better help the offender change his behavior. However, if you think answering any questions are gonna endanger you, you are not on probation, you are not required to answer anything. What you can do is just say, 'Jim, I prefer not to answer that question and I will never document that.’
So I’m trying to work to bridge that gap, instead of giving that victim our card and saying, I think you should call this person—which she won’t because it’s too shameful, it’s too difficult—I’m gonna say, ‘We care enough about you to reach out to you at a time that’s convenient and safe for you.’ And I have a good enough relationship with my partners that I believe they’ll do that. They’ll never come back and tell me they did because they have confidentiality, but I trust them as individuals that if I say, ‘Theresa will you please call Mrs. Johnson? Here’s what I’m concerned about; here’s what happened in our meeting today,’ I have faith that somebody will call her that could assist her.
SCHWEIG: Excellent. Well thank you for letting me ask you the questions today. I’m Sarah Schweig and I’ve been talking to Jim Henderson about probation group conferencing, motivational interviewing techniques with domestic violence offenders, and the importance of collaboration within the community to address domestic violence. To find out more about the Center for Court Innovation, you can visit our website at www.courtinnovation.org. Thank you for listening.