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How do you stop a person from abusing a partner? Iowa's experimenting with teaching new patterns of behavior through mindfulness. As Iowa Public Radio's Sarah Boden, reports some in the state worry there's no proof that the curriculum works.
SARAH BODEN, BYLINE: About a dozen men sit on black plastic chairs in the basement of a former Catholic high school in Des Moines. This court-ordered class is for domestic abusers. According to police reports, one man here kicked his wife several times in the stomach. Another threw a lamp at his girlfriend's head. For tonight's lesson, each holds a piece of ice in his palm.
LUCAS SAMPSON: The physical sensations may change slightly or a lot from moment to moment. Be a curious observer of any discomfort you may have.
BODEN: Lucas Sampson has been facilitating the Achieving Change Through Values-Based Behavior Program - or ACTV - for about four years. He's using the ice to get the men to observe their feelings.
SAMPSON: All right, so tell me about your experience. What did you feel?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Burning.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Numbness.
SAMPSON: Numbness, OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Tingling.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Anger.
SAMPSON: What? Anger.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Anxiety.
BODEN: ACTV teaches that when most people get violent, it's not because they're bad but because they don't understand their own emotions. By getting abusers to be aware of and tolerate uncomfortable feelings, the hope is they can stop themselves before they explode into rage. Most programs attempt to change offenders by getting them to take responsibility for their actions and then replace domineering thoughts with respectful ones. Iowa State University domestic violence researcher Amie Zarling created ACTV because she says that approach doesn't work.
AMIE ZARLING: We need to be nonjudgmental and allow them to learn the tools to change their own life as opposed to forcing it on them with shaming and confrontation.
BODEN: Zarling says changing actual thoughts is impossible. So instead, she wants to change an abuser's relationship to those thoughts.
ZARLING: You know, it's kind of like if I told you to forget that you know how to speak English. Like, it's really hard to unlearn that. And some social scientists and behaviorists would even argue that you can't unlearn something. Really, you can just add additional learning.
BODEN: Zarling compared a group of men who completed ACTV classes to a group who completed the old curriculum. She found in the first year after the training, the ACTV participants had about half the rate of new domestic assault arrests compared to the other group, and they were a third less likely to commit any new offense. Those early results were considered so promising that now Iowa's corrections department is switching all its batterer intervention classes to ACTV.
And the program's getting national attention. In fact, Vermont has begun testing it, too. An ACTV participant I spoke to says he's learning new skills from the class. We're not using this man's name to protect his victim.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: My past mistakes have affected me a lot. I'm working towards the end goal of spending more time with my kids and whatnot.
BODEN: He says he's noticed changes since starting ACTV, like having more patience with employees.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: I can't go to them and say, you're an idiot. You got to go at them with a grain of salt and say, listen, you're doing it wrong. This is how you should be doing it. Please do it this way, or go home.
BODEN: But domestic violence prevention advocates are wary about ACTV. They don't think emotional awareness will stop abuse. Survivor and advocate Tiffany Allison adds that recidivism data doesn't tell the whole story. Some victims may stop reporting assaults, and there are types of abuse that don't get you arrested, like controlling someone's money or calling them names.
TIFFANY ALLISON: We need to talk to the people who are most affected. We need to find out if this is actually working in reality, not in this reality that we want to create.
BODEN: Allison wants to see evidence that switching to ACTV will help victims, and ACTV creator Amie Zarling agrees. Even she's not sure there's enough research yet to justify ACTV going statewide.
ZARLING: I have concerns about that, but it wasn't really up to me.
BODEN: But Beth Skinner of the Iowa Department of Corrections says she's confident this is the right decision because data shows ACTV is making people safer.
BETH SKINNER: This is how the field moves forward in terms of innovation and programs and practices, is that since we have good results, we want to continue to expand that out and continue to evaluate it.
BODEN: We should find out soon if Skinner is correct. ACTV recently received a nearly $400,000 research grant from the Department of Justice. Amie Zarling says victim impact will be part of that work.
For NPR News, I'm Sarah Boden in Des Moines.
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