Washington County is months into a new Batterers Intervention Program (BIP), which has so far served 17 domestic violence offenders.
Deputy District Attorney Leslie Ridge, who oversees the special victim’s unit, anticipates the BIP will offer potential changed behavior in dealing with domestic violence cases.
“It was something we really needed because we deal with this on a daily, weekly and monthly basis,” she said.
The program was written two years ago by Kate Vozar, a licensed professional counselor who works for PA Professional Health Services, a mental health private practice based in Uniontown and Houston. She presented that 26-week program to President Judge Katherine Emery, court administration and the district attorney’s office.
A similar program may soon be implemented in Fayette County. Representatives of the Fayette County Court of Common Pleas, Crime Victims Center, PA Professional Health Services, the Fayette County District Attorney’s Office and adult probation and Domestic Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania met earlier this year to discuss BIP.
“We’re trying to see what works and doesn’t work as Fayette County is trying to determine how they want to follow suit,” said Lisa Hannum, executive director of Domestic Violence Services.
She said Fayette County officials could either tweak the program or duplicate it.
“I would be more than happy to have that kind of program here,” said Fayette County District Attorney Rich Bower.
A similar program could later be implemented in Greene County, Hannum said.
On Feb. 28, County Judge John DiSalle signed an order approving a set of standards for the program in Washington County, including a committee to oversee it, which provides individual or group therapy sessions for offenders. A separate order would be needed in Fayette County, Hannum said.
“The main purpose of the sessions is to hold offenders accountable and to ensure the safety of victims,” the standards read. “Participants learn to take responsibility for abusive behavior and explore the negative effects of violence.”
The standards also explain people may voluntarily enroll in the BIP or be referred by the county or magisterial courts, the probation and parole office or a local human services agency.
In DiSalle’s order, he wrote the committee will include a magisterial district judge and representatives from probation, the district attorney’s office and Domestic Violence Services of Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Hannum said their nonprofit organization has been serving domestic violence victims in Washington, Greene and Fayette counties since the 1980s.
“We serve the victims of domestic violence, so we have a vested interest in ensuring the batterers get the help they need,” she said.
They also offer a 45-hour training for BIP providers, like PA Professional Health Services – which is the only provider for Washington County.
“There really wasn’t any treatment for domestic violence offenders,” said Vozar, who manages the Houston location for Professional Health Services. “For example, in a typical simple assault case, they’d go to jail for three months and come out with no treatment and probably worse than they came in.”
Previously, a defendant in a domestic violence case would be referred to an anger management treatment, general counseling or couple’s therapy, according to Hannum. Vozar and Ridge said anger management isn’t the appropriate treatment for domestic violence offenders.
“BIP focuses on the individual’s need for power and control over their victim,” Vozar said. “Domestic violence offenders always have an identifiable victim. They truly believe that they have to have that control, so the BIP focuses on changing beliefs and behaviors.”
Vozar, who is the only facilitator of the program, said it begins with screening for mental health and substance abuse issues. Then offenders go through a workbook based on the “Duluth Model,” which emphasizes accountability and the negative effects of victim-blaming, she said.
They’ve had six people complete the program and 11 are currently in it, Vozar said. Ridge said it’s too early to determine if the program has made an impact across the county, as people are just starting to complete the program.
“It’s a tool that the courts can use as part of a sentence used to address the issues that we see in batterers,” Vozar said. “It’s a great thing that the assistant district attorneys want to make this part of a sentence.”
Vozar said the people participating are “taking it very seriously.” She said though victims are not present during any portion of the program, they can provide impact statements.
“We read them out loud to the group,” Vozar said. “That’s the quietest I see these guys – when they hear the more severe statements, and they listen to the victim describe those offenses, and they can see some of that in themselves.”
Vozar said she hopes the program will decrease the number of domestic violence cases in the county. She also said while her company’s services are available in Greene and Fayette counties, they are trying to work with those courts to implement referrals.
According to Ridge, Washington County is getting recognition around the state for this program because several other counties have not yet implemented it.
“We need to start moving toward BIP because research is showing that’s the most effective tool in trying to combat domestic violence,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to know you have a program that has been proven to work in other places.”
Herald-Standard staff writer Alyssa Choiniere contributed to this report.