Like many others during the quarantine, Brian McHugh has discovered that there are some things that are best done in person, namely support groups for perpetrators of domestic violence.
That’s why McHugh, who co-facilitates these men’s groups through YWCA Evanston/North Shore’s “Alternative to Violence” program, is anxious for his current group to start meeting again. They haven’t met since Illinois’ stay-at-home order due to Covid-19 was initiated in March, but they plan to reconvene in early June as the state moves into its next phase of reopening.
While there has been an uptick in domestic violence globally since the pandemic and subsequent quarantines began, McHugh said that although this is a concern, it isn’t the primary focus for his current group because most of the participants are no longer with their partners.
“The group dynamic and the ability of these guys to be there for each other is what’s important right now,” he said. “We thought about meeting through Zoom, but because of privacy, technological needs and the special thing that happens when they’re together in the same room, we decided it wouldn’t really work.”
Instead, McHugh and co-facilitator Cindy Brunson have stayed in touch with group members through texts and phone calls.
“We ask how they’re doing, check in about their homework, which includes reading the book ‘Radical Responsibility’ and watching TED talks by people like Brene Brown and Jackson Katz, if they can,” he said. “It has helped, but we really need the in-person group because it’s what generates energy and a sense of community, like guys being able to read someone’s emotions and say, ‘I feel that way, too.’”
YWCA’s “Alternatives to Violence” program began approximately five years ago as part of the organization’s intensified outreach to men.
“The YWCA is committed to tackling domestic violence from all angles,” said McHugh. “You can’t work to end domestic violence without involving the men themselves.”
Each “Alternatives to Violence” group, which includes fewer than ten men, meets once a week for 26 weeks in a local church. The men who participate are either mandated to do so by the courts or they come voluntarily, often discovering the program through the YWCA website. McHugh said they represent all walks of life.
“You can’t stereotype perpetrators of violence,” he said. “We literally have had rocket scientists in their 70s sitting next to 20-year-old gang members. We have never turned anyone away.”
The purpose of the group is to give these men a safe place to talk, educate them about healthy relationship dynamics, and provide conflict resolution skills.
According to McHugh, one of the most important goals of the program is to help them learn to be accountable. “At the beginning, the men come in as victims,” he said. “They say things like, ‘She got me arrested; she got her feelings hurt.’ They don’t see themselves as playing a role.”
He added, “We start with language. We talk about how a partner is not ‘my lady’ but a person with feelings. And when a guy says he was ‘pissed off’ about something, we stop and say, ‘You were angry, but what were you feeling? Were you hurt?’”
After about five sessions, McHugh notices a shift. The men are able to talk about their feelings without masking their fear with anger and they’re more accountable, using phrases like “I need to change.”
“These guys hurt others because they’ve been hurt,” said McHugh. “We give them an opportunity to heal from their traumas and exert control over their own lives – and break the cycle of abuse.”
McHugh seems as anxious as the participants to meet in person again. “I’ve got the bleach wipes, masks, thermometers, and I’ll set the chairs six feet apart,” he said. “We need to be together again.”
For more information about YWCA Evanston/North Shore’s “Alternatives to Violence” program and other services for men, visit www.ywca-ens.org/violence-prevention/alternatives-to-violence/.