By Mags Bouffard, Communications Manager at YWCA Evanston/North Shore
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Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, Brian McHugh stands at the entrance of Grace Lutheran Church to greet each man as they walk in. The handshakes and “how are yous” set the tone for the session: communal, warm, and welcoming. Not what you might think of when you envision a program for perpetrators of domestic violence.
“It’s a non-punitive group,” McHugh says. “This is a group where men can come to get support and support each other. 99% of domestic violence services are for the victim and only one percent for the offenders. That’s where we focus on treatment.”
The Alternatives to Violence (ATV) program in Evanston has been run by McHugh and Cindy Brunson for over 15 years. The 26-week program serves as a learning and support group for men who have been arrested for domestic violence or have issues with anger and expressing emotions. Over the years, the curriculum has grown and changed with increased domestic violence research. In the early days of this work, the Duluth Model was widely used to identify the aspects of power and control present in abusive relationships. In recent years, McHugh says “we have evolved to more trauma-informed work.” The program now uses tools like the ACEs Assessment to pinpoint traumatic events that have contributed to violent behaviors.
The majority of ATV participants experienced abuse or power dynamics in their households as children, and the group serves as a safe space to process that trauma. “One of the most important things that I became aware of is my upbringing. How my parents treated each other, how they treated us as children— the good and the bad,” one participant says of a lesson that stuck with him. “One of the things that we talk about is our own childhood experiences of shame and how we carry that with us into our adult lives,” says McHugh. “Childhood experiences are the number one predictor of how our behavior will be later in life.”
Most participants are court mandated to enter the program. After the intake process, where McHugh gathers information on the dynamics of the relationship and the incident where the arrest occurred, new participants are invited and encouraged to share their story with the group. “I was a little resistant,” said one participant recounting his first group session. “I felt like the court was punishing me. I felt like I didn’t do anything wrong.” Other participants attend the group voluntarily. One participant says, “I had such a horrible anger outburst. After that, I found out that my wife had a safe place identified, and that she was going to call the cops if it happened again. So, I knew for sure that I needed help.” Despite the discomfort of the first session, participants began to feel comfortable in the space and learn insights about themselves while listening to the stories of others.
Although the group has a structured curriculum, participants are happy to switch gears if someone needs more support, “There are nights where if one of the guys is having a bad night, we rally around him,” says another participant. “The entire session would turn into an effort to support him, and the information in the book would come back in other ways [during these sessions].”
It often takes a few weeks for participants to be comfortable sharing their stories. McHugh and Brunson have developed creative methods to build community and a safe space. One evening, Brunson presented an activity to the group to make necklaces and bracelets with twine and wooden beads. One participant recalls, “I thought it was kind of weird, but we started making them, and the younger guys that were usually quiet started to open up. It was actually really cool.” Brunson explained that the distraction of the activity helped to spark conversation that wasn’t forced or with a certain outcome in mind. This conversation led to more openness among members and strengthened trust in the group.
ATV participants build gainful skills for romantic relationships as well as other interpersonal relationships. “One thing that Brian impressed upon me was the concept of responding, not reacting,” one participant said, in response to how to approach deescalating a situation with his wife. Patience and empathy are two major outcomes of this work for many of the men. When one participant’s 19-year-old son ran his car out of gas and called him for help, the participant was able to respond calmly to solve the problem. “Three years ago, I would have yelled and swore and said, ‘you figure it out,’” he says. His son can now share more with his father without fear of anger, and they have strengthened loyalty and mutual respect in their relationship. McHugh points out that this work breaks the cycle of violence by reducing shame passed on through generations.
For alumni who have completed their 26 weeks, many continue to come back to be group because the work is never done. “What I’ve learned here is stuff that I will keep practicing for the rest of my life,” one participant says. The group has also built a support network for men who may not have had one before. “You may not know how much progress you’re making, but the other guys in the group can see it.” Participants provide each other encouragement and acknowledgment of the work done. “Every night I leave [the group], I feel thankful.” The combination of skills learned and supportive community has set many men on a more caring and compassionate path. The gratitude in the room was palpable. “It’s like a family away from your family.”
Alternatives To Violence is a program of YWCA Evanston/North Shore. For more information or to enroll, please call (224) 420-3304 or visit our website here.