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"Smart people (like smart lawyers) can come up with very good explanations for mistaken points of view."

- Richard P. Feynman, Physicist

"There is a danger in clarity, the danger of over looking the subtleties of truth."

-Alfred North Whitehead

October 18, 2010

DV Treatment Efficacy Questioned

In my last blog entry, I discussed the dangers of potential “side-effects” of treating people convicted of crimes. The consideration of “side-effects” is especially important in domestic violence (DV) cases.

First, with domestic crimes, the victim and perpetrator are not independent of each other. The victim may continue to live with the perpetrator, or may at least intend to again live with the perpetrator. The victim and the perpetrator may remain a single economic unit, sharing income and expenses. Financial costs of interventions will not only fall upon the perpetrator, but also fall on the victim. We all know of situations where defendants lose their jobs because of incarceration or court appearances, and the victim of the crime, who is also dependant on the income from the defendant, suffers. If perpetrators are required to pay for probation and therapy, that money also comes out of the household of the victim.

Further, if the treatment, including jail time, probation, and counseling, antagonizes the defendant, the victim may experience the result of this antagonism, through verbal and even additional physical abuse. Even if the victim does not continue living with the perpetrator, if the victim has children with the perpetrator, she may be required to continue to interact regularly with him and be subject to his abuse.

Research shows that the most informing predictor of whether a domestic violence victim returns to an abusing spouse is whether the perpetrator received counseling.[i] Victims believe that the counseling will result in a reduction of the abuse, and rely on that belief.

Unfortunately, the research on the efficacy of domestic violence treatment is mixed at best. Researchers have voiced a concern: “If treatment is essentially ineffective in decreasing recidivism, then continuing to mandate treatment may be inadvertently providing these victims with a false sense of security that, in the end, may lead to a higher likelihood of future injury.”[ii]

I have examined the research on domestic violence treatment and will present it here. I use analytic and systematic literature reviews and meta-analyses as these research techniques combine multiple smaller studies into a larger study in an attempt to increase accuracy of estimates of effectiveness.

A 2008 meta-analysis identified fifty-seven studies of domestic violence counseling studies.[iii] The researchers identified four experimental studies and six quasi-experimental studies that met their predetermined eligibility criteria for research rigor. The studies involved evaluations of psycho-educational or cognitive behavioral approaches to treatment. The treatment ranged from a minimum of 8 two-hour sessions to the maximum of 32 sessions.[iv]

These researchers found an average reduction in the recidivism rates of 26%, which was statistically significant, but with great variation among the studies. These researchers were concerned that official arrest rates did not accurately reflect the amount of repeat domestic violence actually experienced by the victims as reported domestic violence is a small fraction of the actual domestic violence that occurs.[v]

The researchers looked at seven studies that included information regarding victims’ reports of continued domestic abuse. The result of their research, using victims’ reports as a measure of recidivism, showed that the treatment had no effect on recidivism. These researchers concluded as follows:

“The findings from this meta-analysis combined with the caveats above raise questions as to the value of these programs. While additional research is needed, the meta-analysis does not offer strong support that court-mandating treatment to misdemeanor domestic violence offenders reduces the likelihood of further re-assault.”[vi]

A 2006 systematic review of the literature conducted by researchers in the State of Washington reviewed nine rigorous evaluations of educative/cognitive behavioral treatment of domestic violence offenders. They concluded: “Based on our review of nine rigorous evaluations, domestic violence treatment programs have yet, on average, to demonstrate reductions in recidivism.[vii]

Another 2006 systematic review of six studies of feminist interventions (involving education regarding sexist attitudes) and six studies of cognitive behavioral interventions was completed in Maryland. The investigators concluded: “Using the Maryland criteria, none of the interventions examined in this analysis show strong evidence that they work to reduce domestic violence. Neither of the two types of treatment programs, feminist or cognitive-behavioral, produced two studies with clear significant results favoring the treatment group over the control group.”[viii] However, the researchers concluded that both the feminist and cognitive behavior interventions were classified as promising as the results of the studies showed a positive effect of the interventions in reducing recidivism, however the reductions were not statistically significant.[ix]

In most of the reported studies, the researchers reported the percent reduction in the recidivism rate without reporting the actual recidivism rate. Feder et al (2002) did report that 24% of the offenders in both the treatment group and control group were rearrested during the one year of probation following conviction. [x]

Feder et al (2002) raised an interesting point that although domestic abuse counseling itself did not appear to be effective, perpetrators failing to complete the counseling sessions had constellations of personality traits that also made them more likely to re-offend. Therefore, failure to attend the counseling sessions was a marker that could be used to identify those perpetrators who were more likely to re-offend. Victims apparently can rely on the successful completion of counseling as being an indicator of their future safety from the perpetrator.



[i] Gondolf, E. 1987, “Seeing through smoke and mirrors, a guide to batters program evaluations”, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 12, 83-98.

[ii] Feder, Lynetter and Laura Dugan, 2002, “A test of the efficacy of court-mandated counseling for domestic violence offenders: The Broward Experiment”, Justice Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2.

[iii] Feder, Lynette, David B. Wilson, and Sabrina Austin, 2008, “Court-Mandated Interventions for Individuals Convicted of Domestic Violence”, Campbell Systematic Reviews, 2008:12. Pp 1-46

[iv] Ibid p. 11

[v] Ibid. p. 14

[vi] Ibid. p. 18.

[vii] Aos, Steve, Marna Miller, and Elizabeth Drake, (2006). “Evidence-Based Adult Corrections Programs: What Works and What Does Not.” Olympia:Washington State Institute for Public Policy. P. 5.

[viii] MacKenzie, Doris Layton (2006), What works in Corrections-Reducing the Criminal Activities of Offenders and Delinquents, New York, Cambridge University Press, p . 212

[ix] Ibid. p. 212.

[x] Feder, Lynetter and Laura Dugan, 2002, “A test of the efficacy of court-mandated counseling for domestic violence offenders: The Broward Experiment”, Justice Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 2, p. 366.

The views expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author(s) and do not represent the views of any other public official or organization.

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