Summary of the Focus Group
for the Project
Protecting Victims Through Community Supervision of
A Project of
The American Probation and Parole Association
The American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), through its project,
Protecting Victims Through Community Supervision of Domestic
Batterers, conducted a focus group on August 25, 2001. Twelve community corrections professionals from around the nation participated in the three-hour meeting. Participants were:
The primary goal of the focus group meeting was to ask this diverse group of participants to share their thoughts about three questions that will be central themes of the work the project is doing to develop practice principles and standards for sentencing and supervising domestic violence offenders. The questions used to generate and organize the discussion were:
What are the core values or principles upon which a probation1 response to domestic violence should be built?
What are the tasks which probation performs with domestic violence offenders that should be specialized to ensure that the core values, principles, and goals of the program are achieved?
What are the issues, problems, and challenges confronting probation agencies in responding to domestic violence?
Core Values and Principles of a Probation Response to Domestic Violence
Focus group participants were asked to share their ideas about the core values and principles of a probation response to domestic violence. After generating an extensive list, participants and facilitators then grouped the ideas into five categories they felt incorporated all the specific components discussed. These included the following:
Protection and Respect for Victims
Participants in the focus group felt that victim safety should be a primary goal and strategy of probation work in domestic violence cases. Rather than being offender-focused as probation work historically has been, the participants asserted that, in domestic violence cases, the casework should be victim-focused. However, to that concept was added the caveat that victims should be allowed input and control in decisions that affect their safety and welfare. Probation personnel should respect a victim’s viewpoint and her2 assessment of her situation at any particular time. This idea was applied particularly to working with victims to leave an abusive situation, and participants felt victims’ decisions to stay must be respected for the various reasons they may make that choice. Failing to demonstrate respect for victims often is counterproductive and turns them away from the help and support they may be able to gain from probation personnel. At the same time, the group voiced the opinion that intervention with the offender and enforcement efforts should not rely upon victim testimony.
Focus group participants strongly asserted that domestic violence offenders choose to engage in violent and controlling behavior and that the primary focus of probation intervention should be holding them accountable for their behavior and promoting behavior change. While victim safety is the primary goal, the offender is the primary recipient of probation intervention. It is important to use probation resources to provide offenders with options that will allow them to change their behavior but to hold them accountable if they continue to act in controlling and violent ways.
The group also acknowledged the dangerousness of domestic violence cases – for the victims and the professionals who work with the offenders. For this reason, probation personnel should be well trained and have at their disposal the tools needed to supervise the cases effectively and safely.
Prevention of Domestic Violence
A further goal of probation should be prevention of continuing victimization. Participants felt that one mechanism for promoting prevention is carefully attending to the children in families where domestic violence occurs. By recognizing the influence of domestic violence on children and providing intervention and referrals to interrupt the cycle of violence, probation professionals can be instrumental in diminishing its negative effects.
Community Outreach and Collaboration
Effective responses to domestic violence require coordinated, collaborative efforts in partnership with a variety of community organizations and professionals. The job to be done is too large for any one agency to accomplish, and it requires collaboration among all. Of special importance is the need for probation personnel to form partnerships with domestic violence advocates to ensure that they (probation personnel) accurately understand the dynamics of domestic violence in general and to work jointly for victim safety in specific cases. The group identified the need for leadership by the justice system, and particularly the need for probation agencies and professionals to take the first step in forming alliances with other organizations. The
focus group stressed the need for public education and outreach to inform the entire community about domestic violence and to change community norms. Probation is able to perform a gatekeeping role and, because of its place in the justice system and the community, it has the ability to connect with victims, offenders, courts, and all other systems.
System Change and Accountability
Although offender change and accountability are essential components of the response to domestic violence, participants in the focus group also acknowledged that there are ways in which the justice system and, indeed, society, need to change and hold themselves to higher standards of accountability. Participants avowed that the justice system should be part of a larger concept of social justice that deplores oppression of and violence toward women.
Several specific recommendations about improved ways of systemically addressing domestic violence were generated and are discussed below.
Domestic Violence Statutes
One of the ways to improve the system is to examine existing statutes regarding domestic violence and to ensure that legislation is passed that mandates the dual goals of victim protection and offender accountability and, further, provides the resources for the enforcement and procedures that will achieve these goals.
Agency Mission and Policies
Probation agencies should include the concepts of victim safety and offender accountability in their mission statements and program purpose statements. Further, agencies should have written policies and procedures that articulate the specific policies and strategies to be undertaken in working with domestic violence cases. Participants in the focus group also remarked that agencies and professionals should be aware of and vigilant about correcting institutional and criminal justice system biases that taint the opinions of and the provision of services to either victims or offenders.
The allocation of resources demonstrates priorities. Sufficient resources (e.g., time, money, staff) should be committed to domestic violence cases to demonstrate that victim safety and offender accountability are principles that have meaning in probation practice. In situations where sufficient resources for all cases are not available (which is almost always the situation), existing resources need to be reallocated to allow for priority attention to high-risk cases.
System Coordination and Accountability
Focus group participants also recognized a need for greater system coordination, particularly among the various components of the justice system. Each member of the system (i.e., law enforcement, prosecution, judiciary, probation, parole) must perform its functions well but also cooperate and coordinate with other parts of the system and work toward mutual accountability. Both individual probation officers and other participants in the system should be held accountable for their decisions. For example, when cases are returned to court for violations, judges should impose appropriate sanctions. Participants felt that it is important for national
groups such as the American Probation and Parole Association to take strong leadership positions in the area of domestic violence.
Specialization and Staff Training
Focus group participants emphasized the uniqueness of domestic violence cases and their potential danger and lethality. These cases cannot be handled like “business as usual,” and probation officers need specialized skills and tools to work with them effectively. The group felt that work with these cases should be performed as a specialized aspect of probation. They felt that, when caseloads are large enough, specialized units with specially trained staff should be organized to supervise these cases, and that domestic violence caseloads should be smaller and supervised intensively. They emphasized the need for staff training on domestic violence for all probation personnel, as everyone should have an understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence and be able to recognize signs within their offender population. The group also felt that those who work most closely with these cases should receive intensive training before undertaking work with this difficult population. Probation professionals must have a clear understanding of the goals of supervision and the skills with which to perform effective intervention. They also must comprehend that methods such as couples counseling are not appropriate and will not end the violence – indeed, they must become aware that inappropriate interventions may make the violence more likely and endanger victims further.
Effective information management and exchange was recognized as an important aspect of domestic violence work. Because a variety of system components and community service providers may be involved in a case, and because of the strong possibility of offender manipulation, probation personnel need to receive and provide timely and accurate information. The way in which information is gathered and shared should emphasize victim safety and offender accountability. Priority should be placed on integrated information systems so that various justice system participants (e.g., law enforcement, prosecution, judiciary, probation, parole) can access and communicate information most effectively. At the same time, agencies must understand the constraints of information sharing by which they are bound and find appropriate means for the legal disclosure of information that will enhance victim safety and offender accountability.
Focus group participants were divided into three smaller groups to consider probation tasks in domestic violence cases that need to be specialized to ensure that the core values, principles, and goals of the program are achieved. The participants were asked to consider not only the tasks to be undertaken with offenders, but ways in which probation officers should work with victims as well. As the time for this work was limited, the following issues do not necessarily represent a complete inventory of the probation tasks within each area. There is also overlap among the areas discussed below as many tasks cannot be compartmentalized into only one functional area.
Intake and Assessment
The participants stressed that a consistent approach should be used in investigating domestic violence cases, and that a thorough examination needs to be completed in all cases. Even though presentence investigations are not required in all jurisdictions, the group members thought that they should be conducted for all domestic violence cases. A thorough investigation should gather information from all possible sources. For example, in addition to interviewing the offender and victim, information should be gathered from family members, neighbors, previous court and justice system agency records, victim advocates, treatment providers, and others. Probation officers should become adept at soliciting information from the right sources, asking the right questions of them, and assessing the integrity of the response. Access to information through an integrated information system can be invaluable to obtaining needed information.
Participants stressed the need to find out as much as possible about the offender and his abusive behavior. Areas to explore include the extent of violence, criminal history, drug and alcohol use, relationship with the victim, and other abuse perpetrated with previous partners and children. Group members also pointed out that probation officers should be cautious about correlating the dangerousness of the offender with the charges for which he was convicted. In many cases, plea bargains result in charges reflecting lesser crimes than were actually committed.
The group considering this practice area discussed the paradigm shift that must occur in domestic violence cases. Victims must be given an opportunity to participate in the intake process and throughout supervision, if they want. The probation officer’s tasks expand to providing victims with information about the case as well as resources and services she needs. Thus, probation officers must know resources that are available in the community for victims and their families. Although some victims do not want to cooperate, they should receive information at intake about the probation process, including assurance that it is probation’s job, not the victim’s, to monitor the offender. Offenders also should receive a clear message from the intake process forward that victim safety is the primary purpose of supervision. Both victims and offenders should receive a nonviolence message: She is entitled to be safe and is not responsible for the abuse. Victims should be encouraged not to assume blame for the offender’s abuse and the consequences of it. Both the victim and offender should understand that beyond physical violence, emotional abuse, such as shouting and name-calling are also forms of violence.
Supervision and Monitoring
Specialized Probation Conditions
The small group considering this area felt that there should be special conditions for probation imposed on batterers above and beyond the standard conditions usually applied to probationers. For example, these should include no-contact orders, no possession or use of weapons, and provisions for warrantless searches of probationers’ property and confiscation of weapons.
Victim contact should continue beyond the intake phase throughout offender supervision. Partnership with advocates should be maintained during the supervision process, but probation officers should also have periodic contact with victims. If possible, it may be helpful to have the victim advocate primarily responsible for working with the victim, focusing on her needs, while the probation officer works primarily with the offender. Victims should be notified of the conditions of the offender’s supervision and have the opportunity to ask questions and understand how those conditions affect her and how the probation process will work. Further, she should be notified of any major change in the case, especially the release of the offender from custody. A careful explanation should be given about the limits of confidentiality and how that affects her. For example, if she shares information with the probation officer about a felony that has occurred, the officer will be required to take some action.
An electronic monitoring system should be used with care, and the limits of the technology should be explained carefully to the victim. She should be encouraged to maintain her vigilance and safety plans.
Victims need access to information sources where they can obtain all relevant information and resources needed. It is often helpful for probation officers just to be accessible to victims. By listening nonjudgmentally, validating victim concerns and serving as a sounding board, the victim can feel supported.
Probation officers should closely observe the offender to be aware of problems or progress. Home visits provide an opportunity to observe him in his usual environment, and it is important for officers to listen at the door before knocking to hear any altercations that may be in progress. Officers also should talk to neighbors, watch nonverbal cues, observe interactions between the offender and victim and other household members, and find out where the children are and what their body language is communicating. Officers should be alert to the presence of any weapons and remove them from the offender’s control. Probation officers also need to listen closely to what offenders say, whether during home visits, in the office, or in other interactions. It is important to identify attempts by the batterer to minimize, deny, rationalize, or externalize his behavior and to confront those. Officers need to be very aware of and careful not to collude inadvertently with batterers.
Probation officers also need to be adept at recognizing the signs of domestic violence even when offenders are not charged with domestic violence crimes. Further, it is important to recognize probationers who may be victims of domestic violence and offer them support and referrals to services appropriate for victims.
Probation officers need to document domestic violence cases carefully. Record-keeping should include a full account of all activities related to the case, and it should be done in a way that can be used later in court, if needed. Officers should attend to all reports and other evidence of violations and make immediate responses to violations. Group members felt there should be zero tolerance for violations and a response should be given for every infraction, even an infraction as minimal as being late for an appointment. Graduated sanctions should be applied consistently; a consequence for an infraction does not always have to be a return to court or revocation of probation. Examples of graduated sanctions short of revocation include increased reporting requirements, not allowing the offender to have travel privileges, and requesting amended orders from the court. Offenders should be reminded -- and probation officers should operate from the perspective -- that probation is a privilege, not a right, and offenders extended this privilege will be held accountable for their behavior. Participants did feel the practice of returning offenders to court for a progress review (much like drug courts) is a helpful tactic.
Small group members felt the use of face-to-face case staffings with other agencies and professionals involved in the case could be valuable for maintaining objectivity and reflecting on case management. Such forums can provide a safe environment for considering alternative methods of working with offenders.
Batterer Intervention Programs
Participants stressed the need for open communication with others working with the offenders, especially Batterer Intervention Program providers. They felt that the use of these programs was another method of holding offenders accountable and that resources for such programs are needed.
Community Involvement and Batterer Intervention
Probation agencies need to be part of a coordinated community response to domestic violence and need to be invited (or assert their desire) to participate in these collaborative groups. Probation agencies also need to seek the support of victim advocates and invite their partnership and input for probation work to ensure that probation activities are conducted in the best interests of victims. Further, probation agencies need to promote collaborative efforts within the justice system, especially with the judiciary. Probation professionals often are able to share information about domestic violence, best practice, and community activities with judges. They also need to establish ongoing dialogues with other system players so that everyone shares the same information. Collaborative efforts are part of the process of system accountability listed as one of the core values or principles.
Batterer Intervention Programs
Participants believed that batterer intervention programs should not be viewed as treatment and that anger management programs are not appropriate for batterers. Batterer intervention programs should provide information to offenders about their behavior and how it affects victims and allow them (offenders) an opportunity to make changes in their behavior. However, justice system professionals should not assume that batterer intervention programs will end the violence. It should be viewed as one component in the justice system’s endeavors to hold the offender accountable. Information should be shared between probation and batterer intervention programs about the offender’s attendance and appropriate participation in batterer intervention programs.
Issues, Problems and Challenges Confronting Probation Agencies in Responding to Domestic Violence
The final segment of the focus group was devoted to a discussion of issues, problems, and challenges that arise when probation agencies respond to domestic violence. Participants were asked to consider both program start-up and ongoing issues they have encountered. The various areas discussed by the group were ultimately sorted into three major categories.
Political and Community Issues
Participants noted the need for more and better legislation related to domestic violence. However, some cautioned that it is important to keep abreast of proposed legislation because sometimes well-meaning legislators include provisions that are not helpful and may pose dangers for victims. Participants also commented that domestic violence enjoys a degree of political popularity presently and domestic violence advocates and programs should capitalize on that interest with legislators and other stakeholders as it may not be sustained in the future when other interest areas emerge. One particular area that participants noted for which legislation is needed is the possession and use of weapons by domestic violence offenders. Clear policies and procedures are needed regarding the confiscation, disposal, and/or return of weapons, as well as the availability of weapons for purchase by offenders. It also was noted that some jurisdictions find ways to avoid imposing Federal weapons statutes when sentencing batterers. Further, the need for funding of programs is always paramount and often requires political support and legislative action.
Another issue raised was the lack of a shared philosophy about domestic violence among all political, justice system, and community stakeholders. For example, participants cautioned that, while the tenets of Restorative Justice are generally accepted, care must be exerted when applying these in domestic violence cases. The use of victim-offender mediation in these cases can be dangerous to the victims. This lack of a shared perspective can result in concerns with other justice system and community stakeholders (e.g., judges, advocates) who have different ideas about what should be done and how it should be done. Another example that was shared was the practice of holding abused women accountable for the safety of their children even though they are unable to protect themselves, much less their children from a batterer.
Probation Management and Administration
There is a lack of adequate research on domestic violence, particularly in the area of probation intervention. Thus, the conceptual basis for core values and practice standards are not well delineated. Many local jurisdictions lack guidance from higher authorities regarding practice principles and policies, and there are no mechanisms for enforcing standards, if they exist. The group strongly recommended that all programs include an evaluation component based on outcome measures that describe criteria for success. They felt both practitioners and researchers should be involved in designing and conducting program evaluations and that both offender and system accountability should be among the outcomes measured.
Probation is constantly faced with shortages of resources including funding, staff, and time. Participants felt that one reason for this is that the community does not really understand what probation does and the unique position probation can have in domestic violence cases. More work needs to be done by probation administrators to convey to the community both the capabilities and the limits of probation. Sometimes probation professionals are reluctant to set standards for fear of being held liable and being unable to meet expectations because of limited resources.
There was a sense that yet another specialized focus for probation may cause tension and dissension among staff and stakeholders as there can be conflict and competition among many special needs. Participants emphasized the need to provide culturally appropriate services for offenders and victims, both within probation and in the community. However, they indicated that there is a fine line between culturally appropriate services and using culture to justify violence. As most justice system services are administered by the dominant culture, it is indeed challenging to ensure that services are culturally appropriate. However, participants stressed that the primary criteria for any services for offenders and victims should be a focus on victim safety.
Because of the intensity of working with domestic violence cases, participants urged that probation managers and administrators recognize issues around officer safety, stress, and burnout and provide appropriate support for officers doing this work.
Staff Training and Development
Participants expressed concern that there is a general lack of understanding of domestic violence among probation officers as well as others in the justice system and the community. For probation officers, this leads to a lack of knowledge about the special needs and approaches required by these cases. Staff attitudes also can be problematic. Probation officers may have negative feelings about cases in which the victim wants to stay in the relationship or does not want probation involvement. Both general training for all probation officers and specialized training for those working with domestic violence cases are needed. Training should include topics such as the dynamics of domestic violence as well as specific skills to use with offenders and victims and certain practices to avoid, such as couples counseling and victim-offender mediation.
Flexibility and accountability are other issues, particularly for line personnel. Participants stressed that working with domestic violence cases is a relatively new expectation for probation officers and the research available on the effectiveness of various approaches is not extensive. Therefore, programs and personnel have to put procedures in place and do the best they can but remain flexible to change these if they prove unsuccessful or if better methods are found. Officers also must be accountable for their work performance as well as their personal behavior. If probation officers engage in domestic violence in their personal relationships they must be dealt with as other offenders are.
This Web site is supported by grant number 2001-WT-BX-K011 awarded by the
Office on Violence Against Women, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
1The discussion for this focus group session was limited to probation’s response to domestic violence. Parole and other community corrections responses were not included, although many of the same ideas would apply to all aspects of community supervision of domestic violence cases.
2The feminine gender pronoun is used here in recognition that the overwhelming majority of domestic violence victims are female. Elsewhere in this document, the masculine gender pronoun is used for batterers. However, it is acknowledged that there are a small number of female domestic violence offenders and male domestic violence victims.