Some 80 programs in Illinois aim to stop domestic abusers from battering. Born in the 1980s out of the feminist movement, they subscribe to the theory that abusers are overwhelmingly men who use violence to exercise control over women and that society sanctions, even encourages, such behavior, says the Chicago Tribune. This gender-based, one-size-fits-all approach to reforming batterers is endorsed by victims’ advocates and the state. Every year, judges order thousands of people convicted of domestic abuse to participate in the programs, often jailing those who don’t comply.
Critics say there’s no sound evidence that these programs work. They point to research that shows many abusers suffer from psychological problems and substance abuse–and are just as likely to be women as men. As they see it, batterers should receive therapy tailored to their individual experiences and issues. “It’s a very contentious field,” said Larry Bennett, a professor of social work at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “A lot of mental health professionals never bought into [the gender-based model]. But others worry that if we redefine it as a mental health issue and place the problem of domestic violence between the ears, we are pandering to the denying and blaming mechanisms that many batterers use.” The debate over the two methods is occurring at a time when more than 100,000 domestic-related crimes are reported each year in Illinois. The stakes are high: One large study found that the most important reason for a victim to take an abuser back was his decision to attend one of these intervention programs.