NPR recently reported on a new program that Iowa has implemented to try and change the behavior of those who have been convicted of domestic violence. The 24-week program was created by Amie Zarling, a domestic violence researcher at Iowa State University. It is called Achieving Change Through Values-Based Behavior, or ACTV, for short.
Unlike accountability-focused classes that are currently used in most states, ACTV “teaches that when most people get violent, it's because they don't understand their own emotions.” One exercise that was done in an ACTV class involved having domestic violence offenders hold a piece of ice in their hand for several minutes. The course instructor then asks the offender how they felt while holding the ice. According to NPR, “[t]he hope is that by getting abusers to recognize and tolerate uncomfortable feelings – like a freezing cold ice cube in their palm – they can stop themselves before they explode into rage.” By recognizing their feelings, they have a better “situational awareness.”
Exercises are just one part of the course; NPR reports that “[m]ost of the ACTV class time is spent on discussion, talking about the participants'' values and how the decisions they make can get in the way of the lives they want.” The offenders are taught that thoughts and feelings are temporary but that “impulsive actions driven by emotion can have long-term ramifications.”
This program is a departure from the widely used Duluth Model. This model came about in the 1980's and “teaches that abuse grows from broader societal issues, including poverty, racism, and misogyny” and “focuses on changing the power dynamic between men and women, encouraging offenders to take responsibility for their actions and then replace domineering thoughts with respectful ones.”
However, ACTV's creator doesn't think this approach works. She stated that “the theory about the root causes of domestic violence may be correct in many cases, but addressing societal issues isn't effective at the individual level.” She stated that “changing someone's thoughts is impossible.” Rather than asking offenders to change what they are thinking, her program asks offenders to “respond differently to their thoughts.”
The program was implemented throughout Iowa after the results of a study conducted by Zarling.(Though she expressed concern there wasn't enough research yet, the director Risk Reduction for the Iowa Department of Corrections is confident that switching to ACTV was a good idea.) The study compared two groups of men, one participating in ACTV and one in the previous curriculum. The results showed that “[i]n the 12 months after they took the classes, the ACTV participants had about half the rate of new domestic violence arrests . . . and they were about a third less likely to commit any new offense.”
Some of those who have participated in the program believe it has helped them. One participant stated that “he's more self-aware and is learning new ‘mind tricks' from ACTV.” He believes that the class is making a difference and has noticed changed in other areas of his life, like at work, as well. A program facilitator also stated that the things he has heard the most is people asking why they had never heard anything similar before and that these skills would have been useful when they were younger.
There are detractors, however, as one victim advocate group pointed out, there haven't been any studies conducted yet concerning how the program helps victims of abuse. But this may soon change. According to NPR, “ACTV recently received a nearly $392,000 research grant from the Department of Justice,” and some of that money, according to Zarling, will go towards the impact the program has on the victim.