Sometimes the greatest needs are the hardest to look at. Or to read about. Domestic violence. That alone will turn some of you off. Ruthann Howell, CEO and president of Family...

Share story

Sometimes the greatest needs are the hardest to look at. Or to read about.

Domestic violence. That alone will turn some of you off.

Ruthann Howell, CEO and president of Family Services, knows it. She has long been involved with trying to stop domestic violence — DV, in the parlance of social-service providers. She’s given speeches about DV to the Lions Club, Rotary and other such groups. She’s watched some in the audience squirm or leave the room.

But she wants you to listen to a batterer. He’s that guy riding the ferry, the one whose ex-wife runs a neighborhood shop, whose kid plays soccer and likes video games. This is a story about a hope for change. It’s a tale unfolding at Family Services, one of the agencies that benefits from The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

The ending of this story is unknown. Sort of like life.

Family Services has been around for 102 years. Its mission is its name: Serve families. Zero in on what harms parents and children. Tackle homelessness, mental illness, unemployment and violence.

The Men’s DV Intervention Program, Howell says, isn’t an easy sell for fund-raising. When the agency decided to publish a 2005 calendar, it went with drawings by homeless children at its Morningsong child-care center.

“You don’t necessarily want to show pictures of hardened men,” Howell says.

But think of the cost of domestic violence, agency officials point out, and how it terrorizes and destroys families; how it adds to an already burdened criminal-justice system; how it costs jobs and demands attention from health and human-services agencies.

How your generosity has helped

Last year
, donors gave more than $550,000 to The Seattle Times Fund For The Needy. Family Services, one of 12 agencies that received support from the fund, used its portion to provide child care for 91 homeless toddlers and preschoolers at its Morningsong Homeless Families Support Center; give diapers, clothing, strollers and car seats for 1,056 homeless children through its Baby Boutique; and treat 49 domestic-violence batterers through its Men’s Domestic Violence Intervention Program.

Source: Family Services

There were 51,589 DV crimes reported last year in the state, with 11,968 of those offenses in King County and 4,904 in Snohomish County. Men committed most of the crimes, primarily assaults followed by violations of protection orders. There were 48 domestic-violence killings.

Family Services started its Men’s DV program in 1979 to help children who live with abuse.

Meet one batterer

If it were up to him, he’d allow his full name and his photo to be published in the newspaper. His ex-wife and his 20-something son agree.

But there are others involved: another ex-wife, a grown daughter, an ex-girlfriend and a young boy. For the boy’s sake, to protect him from any backlash, we’ll call the batterer “James.”

He’s 50-something and silver-haired, a guy who wears a turtleneck and slacks. He conceivably could be one of those “real life” models for a clothing catalog.

James has reinvented himself many times — college student, Vietnam soldier, self-employed businessman, corporate meeting planner, painting contractor. But to change from “abuser” to “non-abuser” would be his biggest source of pride.

He sits in a windowless basement office in downtown Seattle where he attends Family Services’ treatment program for batterers. What brought him here one year ago? He nearly bit a woman.

It’s his second time in the program. The first time, in 2000, he had almost strangled his wife. This last time, he and his girlfriend got into a fight at a ferry dock.

He tells it like this: He had changed his mind about wanting to live together. She got upset. She raised her hand to steady herself when the car lurched forward, but he thought she was going to hit him. He instantly acted “like a maniac,” pulling her out of the car. They struggled. When his face got very close to hers, he pressed his teeth into her cheek, leaving a mark but not drawing blood.

James is loquacious and intense. It’s not like you look at him and think violent — and that’s the point, DV experts say.

Domestic violence is too much a part of run-of-the-mill, ordinary lives. Suits and wingtips; sweat shirts and boots.

Changing a violent mind-set

Family Services’ program focuses on changing the mind-set behind the violent behavior. The program centers on education, not therapy. Its curriculum combines teachings from an abuser-education program based in Boston, and one created by the city of Duluth, Minn.

Duluth officials interviewed female victims to construct a “Power and Control” wheel that highlights a range of abusive male behaviors.

Mark Adams, a Family Services therapist, holds up a poster of the wheel, divided by spokes. Each spoke is labeled: intimidation, coercion, emotional abuse, using isolation, denying and blaming, using children, economic abuse and male privilege.

“When people think of domestic violence, they think of physical violence,” Adams says. “But the key here is look at the wheel. Typically, physical abuse doesn’t occur absent this.”

He points to the wheel, where each spoke notes more behaviors: put-downs, not letting her see her friends, making her ask for money, believing your word is law.

A court or state agency refers most men to the classes, which are held weekly and limited to 12, with men rotating in and out. Group discussions, homework and role playing teach the men to be accountable for their violence and to empathize with their partners.

One of the last exercises is a videotaped re-enactment of the violence. One man plays the “victim,” and the feelings and behaviors of both abuser and victim then are discussed as a group.

That group dynamic is key, Adams says, because old-timers can measure their progress by the beginners, the ones who think the class is stupid or who keep saying “she, she, she” she made me mad; she wouldn’t have sex — before getting to that hoped-for epiphany: I acted like this. I felt this. I was thinking this.

It generally takes clients 14 months to complete the weekly program; at least seven months to show measurable change. Change is measured through the class exercises; interviews with the victim or a current partner; and whether physically violent behavior has reoccurred.

In its most recent report to United Way of King County, Family Services noted that 40 of 49 men had “stayed the course” over the previous year and demonstrated change. The numbers might seem low, but this kind of program is just one tool and shouldn’t be seen as a panacea, said Leigh Hofheimer of the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

Average people

James sits in a Capitol Hill coffeehouse. It would be easy to regard him as a monster, someone entirely different from you or anyone you know.

But ignore his crimes for a second. James is a new-age guy, into mind-body work and taking dance classes. Another client, Al, is a brawny guy who works construction. And W.V., a warehouse worker, speaks English with the accent from his native Philippines.

“By and large, batterers are the average person next door,” Hofheimer says. “People would much rather think of batterers as sociopaths, not average, which is much harder for people to grapple with.”

James always tells his story if it comes up. I’m headed into Seattle for class. What kind of class? Domestic violence.

He says the reaction is silence, embarrassment or fear.

Talking about his violence isn’t penance. It’s his truth, says James, who’s on court-ordered probation for one more year. He vows to stay straight.

“I had this belief that it was all right to do things. That she was pushing my buttons. That I was going to hurt them because they were going to hurt me. I’ve come to grips that I had a choice.”

He continues: “I want it to stop.”

Maybe it will.

Florangela Davila: 206-464-2916 or