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Charlie Stoops Advances Research on Domestically Violent Men

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Social Work Professor Charlie Stoops is using a summer stipend and fall sabbatical to further his research on men who abuse their domestic partners. Charlie began his study of domestically abusive men many years ago and founded the West Side Domestic Abuse Program in Chicago in 1997; the organization's name was changed to the Center of Advancing Domestic Peace in 2004.

There are many reasons why some men abuse at home. It may stem from the experiences the abuser endured as a child, or from his upbringing, particularly regarding gender-based identity.

As his research on the issue of domestic abuse progressed, Charlie became interested in what could be done to rehabilitate these men and free them from their abusive tendencies. What he found was that the success of the abuser's rehabilitation does not necessarily depend on the type or length of the reformative program, but rather whether he was able to complete it.

Charlie also found that gender-based, targeted crimes toward an intimate partner do not necessarily indicate that a man is violent in all situations. Instead, he may be only violent towards his significant other, especially if there is a hierarchy to the relationship.

"From a violence theory perspective, as long as you have a hierarchy, the more likely you are to have some kind of violence or abuse," Charlie explained. "We live in a society that has hierarchies upon hierarchies. So, not only do you have gender hierarchies but you also have race, you have socioeconomic class – all sorts of things that people are judged on. And so, depending on your own set of beliefs in that kind of patriarchal system or the environment that you have been raised in, the more likely you adhere to these strict gender-based identities and the more likely you are to hold beliefs that make violence seem appropriate to you."

Charlie also explained that successfully working with abusers requires an understanding of their general beliefs about gender and helping them shift from an ideology centered on power and control to one focused on equality.

"I think it's very important to understand that this behavior is a choice," he said. Abuse may feel habitual, however it rarely is. The only instinctual behavior is fight or flight, while all other reactions result from some form of decision-making before they are executed. In his work with abusive men, Charlie helped them understand this and to move past their predispositions through exercises involving identifying their feelings and examining their personal beliefs.

Many men tend to identify with only three emotions: happiness, sadness and anger. Furthermore, many men express anger through aggression. Throughout his work with predominantly court-mandated abuser, Charlie provided his counselees with a list of over 100 words describing feelings and emotions in addition to happiness, sadness and anger. Every group member was required to describe his emotion and each descriptive word was only allowed to be used once within a meeting. This helped the abusers understand that there are more ways to express themselves apart from anger and aggression, and that it is possible to feel more than one emotion. The members were also asked to refer to the persons that they have abused by their first names.

"One of the critical components for humans to be violent to other is an ability to depersonalize their victims," Charlie said. Thus, when a group member recollects the events leading up to his act of violence, he must use his significant other's first name, as it is much easier to remain angry at and unaffected by the feelings of his victim if she or he remains unnamed.

During his sabbatical, Charlie plans to continue participating in a group counseling program for domestically abusive men established through St. Pius V Catholic Church in Chicago. Some men within the group attend voluntarily, while others are mandated to come by court order. Initially, St. Pius had a program set up to aid abused women. However, eventually, these women felt that they couldn't just run away from their husbands or the fathers of their children, and instead asked that something be done to reform their significant others. Ultimately, Charlie also hopes to work with volunteer, non-court-ordered groups to further his studies. 

While he served as dean of the School of Social Work for the past few years, Charlie was unable to keep up with all of the new research pertaining to this subject matter and plans to catch up on recent literature throughout his sabbatical. He is particularly interested in trauma-informed care and new research which shows that the earlier an abuser endures violence or some kind of abuse himself, the more neurological and chemical changes occur in his body and brain, making him more likely to be abusive.

Often, there is a thin line between the beginning of an abusive relationship, which may involve verbal arguments only, and physical violence. The physical violence is eased into the relationship. It can start with subtle suggestions regarding which friends are acceptable to associate with. The more compliant a victim is to these suggestions and demands, the more the abuser increases his control. Repeat acts of disobedience toward this control ultimately result in physical violence, which will continue unless the offender is helped and rehabilitated.

For programs designed to help abusive men change, visit the Center of Advancing Domestic Peace or refer to the IDHS Partner Abuse Intervention Program.

By Patrycia Piaskowski