Domestic violence series: Interview with an abuser

(Originally published Dec. 3, 2009 in the Pioneer. This story was part of a series that won third place in the Michigan Press Association’s Enterprise Reporting contest in 2010. It was a finalist for the MPA’s public service award as well.)

A local man, convicted of domestic violence, talks about trying to change his life

By Lindsey Wahowiak

Pioneer Associate Editor

Editor’s note: “Mike,” a Big Rapids man in his 30s, is a father of several children, a lifelong resident of the community — and a repeat domestic violence offender. In one county alone, he has been found guilty of at least seven violent crimes, including a domestic violence charge in November. Growing up, he said his family had issues with alcohol and anger. He wants to break that cycle of violence, but isn’t sure how — and he may not be ready to do that yet. He agreed to talk about his criminal and family history with the Pioneer, which will keep him anonymous in order to protect his and his family’s privacy.

BIG RAPIDS — At 19, Mike didn’t expect to be a husband or a father. That was his life in the early 1990s, however. He was taught not to hit women. He wanted to provide for his family. But his frustration was growing.

One afternoon, his 16-year-old wife, fed up with him sleeping in after working second shift, planted her feet into his back. She yelled at him to wake up. Mike snapped.

“I grabbed her by the throat. I told her ‘Never do that again,’” he said.

Then he went to jail.

Years ago, Mike said, it didn’t matter who had started a physical fight between the two; if the police responded to his home he was going to be arrested. In all his record of domestic violence spans more than a decade, with nearly a dozen convictions for domestic violence, assault and battery, eluding police and drunken driving.

He doesn’t deny hitting, choking or otherwise injuring his wife. Nor does he deny becoming physical with his current girlfriend. Now that he’s on medication for bipolar disorder, anxiety and depression, he said, he believes his family life will be much better.

There’s a lot of history he needs to work through first.

Today, Mike lives with his parents. He can’t go home to the house he bought for his family, because the court system has placed a no contact order against him for his girlfriend. It’s part of his most recent arrest for domestic violence. He rarely sees his children, to whom he seems devoted.

Before his 2009 arrest, Mike was a stay-at-home dad who looked after the couple’s younger children while the older ones were in school. His girlfriend went to school and work, trying to earn more for the family. Eventually, she’ll have a college degree; Mike dropped out of high school.

He doesn’t mind “switching roles” with his girlfriend; he said he likes to spend one-on-one time with each child.

He doesn’t want to be a bad dad — and he doesn’t think he is. But he’d sure like to see his kids more often.

“It’s such a mess,” he said. “My kids have seen a lot. We have a lot of problems, but things were looking better. Even though violence isn’t good for them to see, now it’s hard on them, too.

“I don’t like to have my kids visit me in jail.”

In their years as attorneys and on the bench, Circuit Court Judges Scott Hill-Kennedy and Ron Nichols have seen the devastating effects domestic violence can have on families. Even when children aren’t abused themselves, witnessing abuse can have lasting effects on them, the judges said.

Sometimes, witnessing that abuse manifests itself in children becoming abusive, perpetuating a cycle of violence. Others react by drawing inward, setting themselves up for abuse, local school officials said.

If you want to spend time in jail, keep it up, otherwise it’s not working. Hill-Kennedy said.

“That’s the thing I see that’s most striking,” he said. “One individual has children, and how clueless they are at times to allow that person to spend a lot of time or move into that home. Folks that are otherwise loving, conscientious parents invite that predator in.

“I don’t know how to give them a better set of glasses to see the situation better.”

In his most recent arrest, Mike is accused of domestic violence against his girlfriend, and assault against several other people who were in their home. He said a family argument escalated. He said he tried to remove his girlfriend from the home, when her mother stepped between them. He grabbed his girlfriend, possibly knocking into other people in the room, Mike said.

The police were called. Mike was arrested, another domestic violence charge added to his rap sheet.

Despite his domestic violence history, Mike said he never wanted to hurt his girlfriend.

“My intentions were not to hit her,” he said. “It’s not like I’d go home and say, ‘I’m thinking about beating up my old lady.’”

Regardless of his intentions, he hit her anyway.

After his first domestic violence arrest, Mike’s parents posted his bond to get him out of jail – a cycle that keeps repeating.

In court for his first domestic violence trial in the early ‘90s, he said, he was found not guilty. He was free to go home, back to his wife and young child, where financial troubles and tension were escalating. When things got too stressful, when he was drunk, Mike said he would explode. He can’t remember how many times he hit her, or how many times he was arrested for it — at least three, he said.

His file in Mecosta County District Court includes other violent crimes as well: Resisting a police officer, assault and battery, disorderly conduct.

Small things set him off: Drivers cutting him off, his children not listening to him.

“Without even thinking about it, I would turn to violence,” he said. “I would just grab somebody.”

Even though he was raised to believe hitting women was wrong, Mike remembers his home life as a child was fraught with tension and violence. He described his father as a “weekend alcoholic.” His mom would “wig out,” throwing anything she could reach at her husband and children. He said that behavior carried over into his own home life, though he never hit his children or threw anything at them.

After he and his wife divorced, Mike met his current girlfriend. They’ve been together, on and off, for six years, and for nearly all of that, he said, they’ve had physical confrontations. He doesn’t like to talk about every instance; there are more than he can remember. He said with everything he’s done, he probably should have done “major time,” but because he’s taken plea deals (sometimes, he said, when he thinks he should have pleaded “not guilty”) he hasn’t been to prison.

In Michigan courts, first-time domestic violence offenders are charged with a 93 day misdemeanor. If the same offender is found guilty again, he or she faces a one-year sentence. If the offender is convicted a third time, he or she will face a two-year felony sentence in prison.

Mike hasn’t spent time in prison, but he’s spent months of time in jail and on probation. He said court officials have scared his girlfriend, telling her he’ll be sent to prison for years. In turn, he said, she tries to convince him to take a plea deal for a shorter sentence.

Law enforcement and Department of Human Services officials hoped those guilty pleas and jail time would help Mike accept responsibility for his assaults. Until now, he said, he wasn’t ready to do that.

Part of Mike’s sentence, and the sentence for many domestic violence offenders in Michigan, was anger management group therapy. Right away, Mike resisted. The program he was assigned to was held in a church, with a former state trooper leading discussions.

Mike didn’t want to pray about his problems. He was tired of police telling him what to do. He said he left the classes feeling belittled, and angrier than before.

“It made it worse,” he said. “They didn’t want to find out what’s causing (the violence), with as many violent crimes as I’ve had. You’d think they’d want to know I didn’t want to be that way.”

Mike also resisted intervention with his girlfriend. Because of his prior violent crime convictions, the Department of Human Services has intervened with Mike’s family. DHS workers are concerned about his children and their safety. One official told Mike that one of his children is afraid of him because of the way Mike treats his girlfriend. He doesn’t believe that.

His girlfriend also has been visiting Women’s Information Service Inc., which counsels victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. Mike doesn’t think his girlfriend needs WISE’s services.

“They’re telling her she’s staying with me because she’s insecure,” he said. “But she’s not insecure. We’re together because we care about each other.”

Nichols has attended these anger management classes to see what his clients, and later, his convicts, go through in the program.

He believes these programs, and women’s support systems like WISE, help families work through their issues.

“It’s a structured program with excellent results,” Nichols said. “It doesn’t stop all people from repeating (their crimes) but it cuts down on recidivism.”

However, both judges noted that not everyone is willing to learn from the anger management classes, just like not every victim wants to receive assistance from WISE or other victims’ advocates.

Hill-Kennedy said he’s seen plenty of victims who just aren’t able to leave their abuser; they don’t have the support of WISE, police or friends. When victims find themselves in these situations, he said, it’s a recipe for continued control and abuse.

“(The victims we see) seem to get under complete control, and need someone to lean on,” he said. “They don’t seem to have any ability to pull themselves out from under that.”

And, he added, some offenders aren’t willing to change, either.

Though he didn’t want to admit it, Mike knew his incarcerations, his time away from his family, all came back to his violent outbursts. So after his most recent arrest, he decided to get help.

Mike sees a counselor, one-on-one, who is helping him sort out why he let his anger bottle up and explode.

It took him a long time to get here. Mike said for years, he promised his girlfriend he would get help, promised he’d sort himself out.

He never did. This time it’s going to be different, he promises.

“Even I’ve had enough,” he said. “I finally quit lying about it. I think about my family … I want my kids to be in a good spot. I really want to get right.”

He understands why the courts have split up his family for the time being, even if he doesn’t appreciate it. He said he’s using this time to get himself together. He’s stopped drinking. He’s trying to find a job, so he can raise money for his court fines and for his kids.

He’s looking forward to when he can spend more time with his kids, fishing or just hanging out. He said he feels a lot better now that he’s not lashing out. Mike is trying to grow up into a different man.

“I’m a better me,” he said.

While he appears to be willing to take some responsibility for the actions that landed him in jail and took him away from his family, he blames the court system, and society, for some of his problems.

His time in jail has taught him to identify fault in others, and allows him permission to project his guilt on others.

Despite all its efforts to help him and his family, Mike still harbors some resentment for the court system. He doesn’t believe jailing someone in a domestic assault helps a family situation. He said inmates become twice as irritated, wondering what their girlfriends or wives are doing “…or who they’re doing,” he commented.

Some 30 or 40 years ago, he says he probably would never have been arrested for domestic violence in the first place. It wasn’t until the mid 1990s that police were required to arrest someone if there was evidence of a physical altercation.

Mike called domestic violence a “family issue” back then. He believes in some instances, it still is. All assaults in a romantic or family relationship are considered domestic violence: Hitting, choking and slapping, but also verbal abuse, threats and intimidation as well.

If someone is arrested, Mike said, that means the family will have to pay bond fees, court costs and other fines, affecting the whole family.

He believes there should be levels of domestic violence, describing how severe each act is, much like homicide or criminal sexual conduct.

It’s a struggle he seems to know this all too well.

“Putting a woman in the hospital should be a lot different than a woman who threw a knife at her husband and he hit her,” he said. “But if I was in the court’s shoes, I’d probably do the same thing.”

Judges Nichols and Hill-Kennedy are quick to point out that domestic violence is, in fact, a crime that is punished at different levels. Repeat offenders get more and more jail time; a first or second offense is a misdemeanor while a third offense is a felony. Aggravated assault (when the victim is  gravely injured) also calls for a longer jail sentence.

Law enforcement officials, from police to attorneys and judges, hope the increasing punishments will offer an incentive for abusers not to hit their partners again.

But for those repeat offenders who don’t respond to anger management, probation, hundreds of dollars in fines and court costs, even jail and prison time — the judges said there’s just no getting through to them.

Even as an attorney, Nichols said, for some of his clients, there was nothing he could do to protect their partners, or to convince them not to be abusive.

“They’re idiots,” he said. “They’re stupid. If you want to spend time in jail, keep it up, otherwise it’s not working.

“An abuser’s an abuser,” he added. “The next relationship might not have the chemistry where the partner would tolerate it. But they won’t stop.”

This story can also be found behind a paywall on the Pioneer’s website, http://www.pioneergroup.com/articles/2009/12/02/the_pioneer/news/local_news/doc4b159e29770a8853342666.txt

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