First-of-its-kind study compares domestic violence programs and finds promising results • News Service • Iowa State University


Amie Zarling, clinical psychologist and associate professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State. Bigger picture. Chris Gannon/Iowa State University

AMES, IA – A new study from Iowa State University found that men convicted of domestic violence were charged with significantly fewer violent and non-violent charges one year after completing a treatment program developed in Iowa by compared to a model used in most other states. Survey data from survivors still in contact with men has provided preliminary evidence that local intervention can also reduce behaviors such as physical aggression, controlling behaviors and harassment.

The results come from the first randomized controlled trial comparing an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)-based program used by the Iowa Department of Corrections with the Duluth Model Men’s Nonviolence Classes.

Amie Zarling, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of human development and family studies at Iowa State, led the studywhich was published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology and funded by the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women.

“I waited over a decade to do this study. Randomized controlled trials are the gold standard for evaluating program effectiveness, but are very difficult to implement properly, especially in real-world settings,” Zarling said. “The results suggest that the ACT-based program is an effective treatment for reducing criminal behavior and, more importantly, that female survivors of domestic violence report that the male who caused harm has significantly reduced his abusive behavior because of the ACT program.”

A 2015 survey from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found one in three women in the United States had been victims of domestic violence. This includes physical and sexual violence, harassment and psychological assault (eg coercive tactics). However, experts say domestic violence is chronically underreported, so even this stark number does not represent the full extent of domestic violence.

Rather than sending men with a first or second domestic violence charge to jail, Iowa and most other states require the completion of a batterer intervention program. The most widely used program, the Duluth model, dates back to the early 1980s and is based on feminist theory.

Proponents of the Duluth model say the root cause of domestic violence is a sexist society and that for men to change they need to be re-educated and need to unlearn their beliefs.

A new model for Iowa

But when the Iowa Department of Corrections (DOC) conducted an internal evaluation of the Duluth model in 2009, it found that the program did very little to improve domestic assault recidivism compared to no treatment for the everything. The results mirrored similar findings from researchers studying the effectiveness of Duluth and other intervention programs for batterers who had taken a similar approach.

The Iowa DOC decided to look for an alternative and turned to researchers at the University of Iowa where Zarling was then a graduate student.

Combining his training in clinical psychology with input from criminal justice practitioners, Zarling developed the Achieving Change Through Values-Based Behavior, or ACTV (pronounced active) program, which the Iowa DOC piloted in 2010 and has since extended to all of Iowa. Over 500 staff members were trained in the ACTV model and approximately 15,000 men accused of domestic violence participated in the intervention.

ACTV is based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). It is a cognitive-behavioral approach based on a unified model of human development, behavior change and psychological growth.

“ACT-based programs assume that there are many contributing factors to intimate partner violence, including a lack of skills to manage emotions and communicate in healthy and respectful ways, as well as disturbing or harmful beliefs and attitudes towards women and self. A history of trauma, racial discrimination, attachment difficulties, substance use and even mental health can also be factors,” Zarling said.

The Matrix, an interactive tool used to help people identify their values ​​and decide whether certain behaviors move them closer or further from their values.

Zarling developed the Matrix, an interactive tool that facilitators use to help ACTV participants identify how they react to certain situations and whether those responses move them closer or further away from what they value in life. Bigger picture. Photo courtesy of Amie Zarling.

Zarling pointed out that ACT-based programs are a trauma-informed approach to helping people identify their values, relationships and meaningful parts of their lives, and then develop skills to stretch their “psychological flexibility” – the ability to behave in a way that aligns with these values, regardless of thoughts or feelings that may arise.

“From an ACT perspective, our brain works by adding rather than subtracting, which means it’s really hard to suppress a thought, emotion, or feeling that arises. But with psychological flexibility, someone can notice that thought or feeling and how he tries to get him to behave in a certain way, move away from it, and then have the ability to choose more consciously when he responds to that thought or feeling,” Zarling said.

Data collection, findings and limitations

Zarling designed the study to randomly assign 338 men from central Iowa who had been court-mandated to complete 24 sessions of a domestic violence program at the ACTV or Duluth model.

She found that ACTV participants had about half the rate of violent and non-violent charges, such as theft and drug offenses, one year after completing the intervention program compared to men who had been assigned to the Duluth model.

Less than 13% of participants in both the ACTV and the Duluth model were again charged with domestic assault within one year of the intervention. While recidivism was several percentage points lower for ACTV graduates (9%), Zarling said the difference was not statistically significant, potentially due to the smaller sample size of participants. provided that. The original plan was to have a sample of over 400 men, but the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020 ended the study prematurely.

“But using criminal charges as an outcome is only one piece of the puzzle,” Zarling said. “In some ways, the most important finding of this study comes from victim reports, as most domestic violence goes unreported to law enforcement.”

Data from the victim survey showed that physical aggression, controlling behaviors and harassing behaviors decreased compared to men who were on ACTV.

Bridging the gap

Amie Zarling trains ACTV animators on the matrix tool in April 2022.

Amie Zarling discusses the matrix tool with Executive Director Christine Parmerlee and Community Treatment Coordinator Lucas Sampson with the 5th District Department of Corrections in Des Moines, April 2022. Photo courtesy of Amie Zarling.

For the past decade, Zarling has helped the Iowa Department of Corrections train ACTV hosts and provide supervision during their first 24 sessions with participants. She also made recommendations based on her research and that of others.

“Unfortunately, in the field of domestic violence, practitioners are very separate from researchers, in general, and here in Iowa, I’m trying to change that,” she said. “Being involved with IDOC ensures strong researcher-practitioner collaboration and an effective community-university partnership.”

But Zarling stressed that she was not beholden to the ACTV model.

“I want to do research that improves the field of domestic violence. If it includes ACTV, great, but otherwise fine. I am the data,” Zarling said.

With the newly released results, Zarling sees a pathway to help reduce family violence.

This summer, she will conduct a randomized controlled trial of the ACTV program in a prison setting with a second grant from the Department of Justice.

ISU Professors of Human Development and Family Studies Dan Russell and Carl Weems contributed to the study.


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