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Domestic Violence Counseling Plan Draws Criticism

Evening Edition

Above: Former prosecutors contend couples counseling proposed in new San Diego pilot program endangers lives and contradicts research.

Women often don’t leave abusive husbands or boyfriends even if the violence is severe. The San Diego City Attorney’s office is embarking on a pilot program targeting 50 families by linking them with services that may include couples counseling. But former prosecutors contend couples counseling endangers lives and contradicts research.

Half the couples in San Diego with temporary restraining orders because of domestic violence remain together.

“Believe it or not, they might love each other," said Andrew Jones, Executive Assistant City Attorney in San Diego.

“There might be financial reasons. And that’s part of that cycle of violence that occurs.”

The city attorney’s office hopes to end that cycle with a new program called THRIVE. The office is teaming up with the district attorney, the public defender, the county sheriff and police to match up victims, defendants and their kids with services.

Dawn Griffin is a forensic psychologist and president of the San Diego Domestic Violence Council. She helped design the THRIVE program. The Alliant University professor said experts will evaluate the whole family to see what each member needs. She said what’s unique is the family will be asked for input.

“Do we understand you? What are we missing? Because believe me, we are missing so much of the picture," Griffin said. "They’re the experts of them.”

Based on that input, THRIVE organizers could hook parents up with job training. Their children up to 5 years old might be referred to therapy. Parents may be offered individual therapy for substance abuse and to get at what Griffin calls the root causes of violence which could stem from childhood trauma. And she said parents also might be offered couples counseling.

“Often when an individual goes in for therapy and their partners don’t, this person may learn a lot and the partner remains the same,” Griffin said.

Joint counseling could include teaching the abuser how to recognize triggers and develop ways of responding non-violently, Griffin said.

But former San Diego domestic violence prosecutor Chris Morris said that sounds a lot like the city’s mandatory anger program for abusers. The only difference is victims aren’t included in that program.

“We don’t send victims to counseling in any other situation," Morris said. "This is not a problem with the victim. This is a problem with the defendant’s behavior.”

Morris saysid joint therapy can be dangerous. If victims tell the truth in front their abusers, they’re likely to suffer more after those therapy sessions. Morris said victims may also feel compelled to say yes to joint counseling if their abusers want to go.

Executive City Attorney Jones and Dawn Griffin emphasize that couples will only be offered joint counseling after a threat assessment has been done and if both partners want to participate.

But former San Diego City Attorney Casey Gwinn said that’s not what Jones told him.

“He told me that he was going to use the power of child welfare services to engage them in counseling," Gwinn said. "The threat of use of child welfare services to take a woman’s child away is absolutely appalling to me. Now he’s backing off of that statement he made to me.”

Jones denies Child Welfare Services will be used as a prod to encourage victims to participate.

Even so, Gwinn said victims are unlikely to feel they have a choice.

“Whenever you have a government actor in the middle of this, this 'only if you want to' becomes almost an amusing statement for them to make," Gwinn said. "You've got child welfare services as a partner and you’ve got the (police), and the city attorney’s office and the district attorney’s office as partners … 'only if you want to?' Really?”

THRIVE might include only misdemeanor cases. But 90 percent of domestic violence cases are classified as misdemeanors though some victims are hospitalized with injuries. Gwinn said the city actually has no legal authority to even administer such a program.

“If you’re going to use the power of the state to engage these people – a batterer and a victim together – you better be darn sure you know what you’re doing because the day that that batterer kills that victim after you have re-engaged them in a real relationship together," Gwinn said. "The liability for the agencies involved is significant.”

Executive Assistant City Attorney Jones is confident, however, that THRIVE’ team of experts will be able to ferret out any threat .

Video by Nicholas McVicker

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