Stopping Domestic Violence at Its Source

Oct 15, 2020

In honor of October being National Domestic Violence Awareness Month, we caught up with staff from The Salvation Army’s Partner Abuse Intervention Program (PAIP). Unlike many domestic violence assistance programs, PAIP focuses on the perpetrators, most of whom are referred to our program by the courts or DCFS. Over the course of 26 weeks, these participants meet once a week for two hours to examine the true cause of domestic violence and hopefully learn healthier patterns of behavior.


There’s a lot that people don’t understand about domestic violence. “A big misunderstanding is that this is an anger management issue,” said Joel Paez, coordinator of The Salvation Army’s Partner Abuse Intervention Program (PAIP).

Others suggest that those who abuse their partner lack impulse control. “But many of them don’t act that way at work or in other situations,” said Kayleen Ruthberg, the Army’s Director of City Mission, which oversees PAIP.

Domestic violence isn’t caused by substance abuse, though that certainly exacerbates the problem. It’s also not a mental health issue, a women’s issue, or a couples’ problem, both Joel and Kayleen assert. Violence is a personal problem, based on a personal belief system.

And because all the clients in PAIP are male, the root of their domestic violence is the same: the belief that women are less than men – less important, less valuable, less deserving of respectful behavior.

That is the belief that PAIP uncovers, addresses, and challenges in an effort to change the behaviors of the perpetrators of domestic violence.

The Challenges of COVID-19

Like anger issues, COVID-19 hasn’t caused more domestic violence, but it has certainly created conditions that contribute to its rise. While sheltering in place, partners are in each other’s presence all the time, which can be stressful for even the healthiest relationship. Add in overseeing online distance learning for the children, financial worries, health concerns, and any bouts of the virus, and matters only get more stressful. There’s also less opportunity for an abused partner to get out of the home and stay somewhere safe for the night, and less places to go.  

In the Chicago area, courts shut down for a while in the early days of the pandemic, creating a backlog of domestic violence cases. Likewise, PAIP classes were unable to meet for several weeks while figuring out how to navigate technology and confidentiality issues with online meetings. Thankfully, in mid-April they were able to resume weekly meetings, with participants calling in via their computers or phones.

“I’m really glad we found a way to resume,” Joel said. Still, meeting online is not without its challenges. “Participants are supposed to go where no one can hear them, but that’s not always possible,” Kayleen said. “Their partner might overhear them saying something and get upset. And there’s also no drive home from the meeting to cool down if the participant gets upset.”

Still, PAIP staff members find the rewards outweigh the risks as even in Zoom meetings participants have moments of understanding the consequences of their actions and start to realize that there’s never a justification for violence. 

A Slow but Significant Change

One of the first steps of PAIP is looking at where participants’ belief that women are less than comes from. “Where doesn’t it come from?” countered Laurie Osberg, a PAIP facilitator. “Look at how women are portrayed in culture, media, families, world news, history, the work force.” Facilitators, all trained and licensed social workers, talk about all of these influences in PAIP meetings, as well as family history, the consequences of violence, the example they want to set for their children, patterns of behavior, and much more.

“At first, we’re met with excuses and minimization,” said Joel. Most don’t want to be there and are only present because of a court mandate. Many have been abused themselves, so violence is their reality. But PAIP challenges them to see how violence hasn’t been beneficial for them, and to realize there are other options.

For many participants, about five or six classes into the program, their defenses and denial start to fade. “Their story begins to change,” Kayleen said. “It can start out as ‘I tossed my girlfriend playfully in the snow when the cop happened to drive by’ but then changes to admitting ‘I body-slammed her to the ground five times.’” That’s part of the goal – less denial, more accountability.

“Historically there’s a misunderstanding that PAIP is advocating for the batterers,” said Laurie. “But our job is to teach them accountability and empathy, to confront their beliefs.” She says she especially enjoys working with younger participants of the program. “It’s an opportunity to intervene early on in the process of them pairing up. It gives me hope for them, their partners, and their future children. The help can become exponential.”

Laurie and Joel fondly remember one participant who shared a story in his last session with the group. He talked about how he and his girlfriend were having another conflict, but instead of yelling and swearing he applied things he’d learned in class. “I de-escalated, took time out. She was so surprised,” the participant said, finishing with an incredulous, “This s*** really works!”

Regardless of how most participants land in the class, Joel said, “This is not a class for criminals. This is for individuals who don’t know how to solve problems. PAIP is an opportunity to learn. If they modify their behavior even a little, that’s success.”

For more information about PAIP, call 773.960.3292.

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