Out of the Shadows

Dr. Kathleen Carty is in charge.

Standing in front of several convicted offenders inside the Adult Correctional Institutions, she forces them to talk about their abusive behavior. She asks them to check in, to say out loud the denigrating things they’ve done in their lifetime. She hands them a list of behaviors that they read from.

“In my lifetime, I’ve intimidated. Threatened. Coerced,” says one man. “Lied. Minimized. Blamed. Accused,” says another.

As they take turns, one by one, their voices gain a steady pace that creates a hypnotizing, low-drum rhythm in the small, bleak room.

“I’ve yelled. Screamed. Insulted,” adds another man. “Threatened to leave. Threatened to drink and drug. Threatened to cheat. Threatened to kill self. Threatened to kill her.”

The men sit at small school desks, arranged in a semicircle. They’re locked inside Medium II, the big brick building visible from Route 95 in Cranston. They can keep pencils and notebooks, so many take notes. The room smells like bleach, and the fluorescent lights are almost blinding this early in the morning. It’s cold.

The men in Medium II wear beige prison uniforms with either sneakers or boots. And none of them are in cuffs. There is no guard in the room. It’s only them and Carty. And other than a chalkboard, there’s nothing on the walls, no windows that face the outside world, little noise other than the voices in the room. During their check-ins, the men look down. They appear ashamed because they know what they’ve done. Now, many of them, for the first time, own up to it — all of it.

“I withheld money. I gambled.”

After the last man completes his check-in, Carty writes “abuse” on the chalkboard. “The definition, now?” she asks. “What is it?”

There’s an answer; a man reads from a handout she’d given them the week before: “Anything that you do to force someone to do things, say, feel, act against their will, and it causes harm.”

“Does that make sense to you?” Carty asks. She looks around the room. “Because when you guys are giving a dirty look or rolling your eyes, is that forcing somebody to think or feel some way that they don’t want to?”

Carty is a domestic violence therapist who works directly with men and women accused of abuse. Her prison program runs eight weeks. More than 90 percent of her clients are men. They don’t get any time off for good behavior for attending the program; they have to get permission and submit a request slip to get in.
The voices inside the prison sound much the same every week. “Threaten to destroy property. Threaten to harm.” One after another, they have to speak up. They can’t hide anymore. “Tell threatening stories. Imply things.” With Carty, they learn by first identifying how their abuse has hurt other people.

Carty sticks out in prison, not only because she’s a woman, but because she’s an attractive woman, tall and thin, with shoulder-length dirty blond hair. On this particular day, she is wearing light-brown slacks with a purple sweater and high-heeled boots. She’s usually in black, beige or white. Her voice is soft, deep, a little raspy. She often speaks to one man at a time — and she’s usually gentle about it — asking him questions, answering questions, using the chalkboard to define terms the inmates may not have been familiar with before now: coercion, isolation, manipulation, degradation.

But there are times when Carty yells, and when she does, it can be terrifying. She’ll role play and put the men on the spot, making them feel how their victims must have felt when they were attacked, making them understand self-control and the wisdom of not lighting the fuse that sets off an explosion of violence.

“The point is for them to tolerate a not-so-good day,” Carty says. “It’s up to them to decide how to deal with any particular situation.” Because they’re responsible for their actions, she teaches them.

One way to measure the success of Carty’s program is by getting to know her clients. One of them is Charles, just under six feet tall, biracial with a strong build. The state sentenced Charles to serve time in prison for breaking and entering and felony domestic assault.

“I got into an argument, and I slapped my significant other in the face,” he says. “She called the police, and it’s a recurring problem I’ve had with her. Many times.” After Charles pauses, he closes his eyes and looks at the floor.

Since being in Carty’s program, it appears Charles knows what he’s done is wrong. Saying it out loud isn’t so hard for him anymore. At least in prison he can do it in the company of other men who say they’ve also resorted to the same behavior.

Charles — like many, but not all abusers — says he grew up in an abusive household. But he doesn’t hide behind that to justify the behavior that got him locked up. At least not anymore. And when Charles speaks, you have to really listen because his voice is soft, so soft that it’s hard to imagine that he is capable of being as violent as he says he has been. Now he appears in control of his emotions, and he seems to feel sorry for the people he has hurt. Maybe that’s a testament to the effectiveness of Carty’s program; Charles is not new to it.

“This is the thing I’ve learned,” he says, “sometimes the problem is you. Do I think I can change? Yes. Will it be enough of a change? I don’t know.” (Since attending this program, Charles has been released from jail. He is on parole and has not had any other run-ins with the law.)

Carty really does believe people can change. “There’s a feeling of let’s put them away and throw away the key and we’re done. The problem is they get released, and we should be able to work with them while they’re here so that upon release they’re not going, ‘Okay. Now I have to start changing my behaviors.’ ”

The work is taxing. For every day a client can have a breakthrough, there are more days when some of them just don’t get it — like the time Carty played a video for the men in this prison group. In it, an elderly man verbally abuses his wife in front of a camera crew. As the woman dresses her husband, he says to the crew: “She can’t subtract. She can’t add. She can’t do nothing.” Based upon his tone, it doesn’t take much of an imagination to understand how, as his wife describes in the video, he was capable of beating her in his younger, stronger days. After watching the scene, some men in the group laugh. Carty stops the tape, gets up from her desk, crosses her arms in front of her body and walks right up to them: “What are you guys laughing at?” she asks, without raising her voice. One of the men mumbles a sloppy response. She gets up to him — closer: “That’s the way you are?” she asks. “And that’s funny?” “No, it’s not funny,” the man says with a shrug, “but it brought it to my attention.”

Kathleen Carty was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in New Jersey in what she describes as an abusive home. There was a lot of it, she explains. “Everything from physical beatings, to being burned with cigarettes, locked in the cellar. You name it, it went on.” By the time Kathy was four years old, she had almost lost her hearing due to neglect, and she says she wasn’t only abused by one parent, but by both. It was during the 1960s, and at that time in New Jersey and Rhode Island, there were no child abuse and neglect laws to protect victims like her, so Kathy’s parents never faced any punishment.

When Kathy turned sixteen years old, she left home. Her older sister had moved to Rhode Island, so Kathy joined her. She put herself through school, completing her undergraduate and graduate work at Rhode Island College. While she was studying, she worked three jobs and raised two children. She and her husband divorced seventeen years ago. She earned her doctorate at Boston College, where she has been teaching on Tuesday nights; she works six days a week, twelve hours a day.

“I think Kathy is an exceptional worker,” George Sheehan says. He owns the Rhode Island Batterers Intervention Program, the largest program of its type in the state. George went to graduate school with Kathy and saw her grow. “She worked exceptionally hard. That’s why I hold her in such high regard.” He says her dedication is extraordinary as well.

Kathy has been asked if her personal history is what drew her to this sort of work. It’s a question she doesn’t much like. “There seem to be specific types of careers or areas of work that generate that question,” she says. “When I was a bill collector, not one person asked if I had been debt free or a poor credit risk. When I worked as a waitress, no one ever asked if I had been hungry or liked being waited on. No one asked if, as a college student, I was the daughter of a professor or had been denied an education. My personal history, unfortunately, is the history of an increasing number of people in this country.

 “Coming from a so-called good home,” she adds, “is not a guarantee that a child will become a good person. Coming from an abusive home is not a sentence to become abusive, addicted or morally vacant.”

Carty has worked with offenders for a decade, with victims longer than that. She first worked with children in the early 1980s, visiting classrooms and talking with kids between kindergarten and sixth grades about bullies, familial abuse and stranger danger. In 1999, she founded her own Warwick-based agency, Vantage Point. The agency works to end interpersonal violence by preventing it. By law, every domestic offender found guilty in court must be referred to a certified batterer intervention program. What sets Carty’s agency apart from others in the state is its size and how long it has existed. Several years ago, there used to be more than a dozen such programs in Rhode Island. Today, there are only seven — and of those, only three — including Carty’s program — run groups statewide. It’s difficult work and a tough way to make a living.

The prison program, for example, is only made possible through a government grant — in October it runs out. The average treatment cost per inmate is $11.69 an hour. Carty’s agency loses about $400 a month to run the prison program, and right now, she’s the only one in the state doing it.

In addition to the prison program, Vantage Point runs small community groups for those arrested for domestic violence. These sessions run twenty-seven weeks, and the rules are strict. If you’re late, you’re out for that session; if you miss four or more sessions, or three in a row, you have to start all over again. The average age of those in the community program is thirty-five — and the men are separated from the women who attend.

Like the sessions in the prison program, the community sessions define abuse and identify the cycles of abuse and the defense mechanisms people resort to that can lead to it. Carty spends a lot of time coaching clients through stress buildup — that notion of “I just blew up” — by teaching her clients how to take responsibility for such a feeling without resorting to violence. And she dispels the myths of: “It just happened. I lost control. I didn’t even think.”  

The Saturday sessions begin early, at 8:30 a.m., in Vantage Point’s headquarters on Warwick Avenue. The office is small and bare. Soon they will be moving to a larger office in West Warwick.

The walls are pale blue. There are a few bookcases, Carty’s modest desk, some metal folding chairs, a window that looks into the waiting area, and another window that faces the parking lot. There’s a small dry-erase board on the wall that the counselors write on. On this morning, there are six men, between nineteen and forty-seven years old, among them, a welder, a carpenter, a truck driver. Some are more talkative than others. Usually it’s the men who’ve been in the program longer; they tend to be more comfortable with Carty and her approach.

“Is there a time it’s okay to be abusive?” she asks. “Self defense?” one man answers. “How many times have you had a gun to your head?” Carty responds. No answer. Then she shrugs, as if to say, “All right, let’s get real.” That’s typical of Carty’s attitude with her clients, somewhat sarcastic, but direct and never a snub. She can sense a lie and never lets her clients get away with one.

“I could watch Kathy all day,” says Kerri Kyriakakis, a facilitator Carty has trained at Vantage Point. “You can’t manipulate her. People say it all day long. I think she does get tired, but she definitely finds this rewarding and keeps going.”

It’s an interesting process to watch because some of the men in the group are further along than others, and they often talk to each other about how the program has or hasn’t worked for them. This week it’s Ron’s turn. Ron is forty-seven, with a long ponytail and moustache. He’s wearing a long-sleeve gray sweatshirt with black stripes and sneakers. It’s his last day in the group.

“Every week, I learned something new,” he says. “The only way you learn it is in time.” He pauses. And soon he begins to cry. “My children were always in earshot, and I feel bad,” he cries some more. “I feel bad that they had to hear it.” “It,” he understands now, is the abuse that he brought into his home. “If I learned anything here, it’s that I’m sorry for that…. I still have a lot of problems, but I’m working on it.” Ron says he knows it won’t be easy to stop abusing without Carty’s constant presence. “But it’s not impossible either,” she tells him.

While most of Carty’s clients are low- to middle-income men, she does have clients who make more than $100,000 a year. And not all of her clients are men; Vantage Point runs two groups for women accused of abuse.

What is extraordinary about this program is that roughly 10 percent of Carty’s clients are there on their own, not because the court has ordered them to attend. Some have never attended any sort of batterer
intervention program before; others have finished a program, like the one Carty runs in the prison, and they later choose to keep dropping in on her community sessions for more hours. These clients pay between $5 and $10 a session to participate.

 “Anything that she is doing that keeps those voluntary numbers at 10 percent or higher is terrific because that is remarkable,” says Deborah DeBare, the executive director of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence. According to the Coalition, at least eighty-nine Rhode Islanders died between 1990 and 2005 as the result of domestic violence. Nine of the victims were killed in 1999 alone. And every year in the United States, approximately 1.5 million women are physically assaulted by an intimate partner. Taking the initiative, Carty has pushed back into the schools and in younger communities where her experience first began. She has a grant to work in Pawtucket and Central Falls, where she trains teenagers to lead groups on abuse. With her help, the teenagers have designed a DVD in which they get other kids to talk about abuse, defining what it is and why it’s not acceptable behavior in healthy families and communities.

“We learn the definition of abuse,” says a fourteen-year-old girl in one of the Pawtucket groups, “the first four steps of coercion and how one escalates to another.” Another girl, fifteen, chimes in: “Cuz it happens in real life, and a lot of people are getting abused today.”

On a Monday night at Galego Court, a public housing project in Pawtucket, the girls lead a session, one that they hope to bring into their schools. “We’re here to talk about abuse,” they say. “What do you think it is?”

With help from the teenagers in the group, they list a bunch of behaviors on a board: “hitting, yelling, pushing, talking behind people’s backs, cheating.” “Anything else?” one of them asks. “Spitting,” goes up on the board. Carty adds, “Making faces.” A teenage boy adds, “Walking away.” After the list is complete, the teenagers talk about how to resolve such abusive behavior and where to go to for help. They’ve given their group, their mission, a name: Love Peace. “Our goal,” Carty says, “is you’ll be the odd man out if you act this way.”

Back at the ACI, the voices continue in a steady rhythm around the room, week after week:
“Belittled.”
“Criticized.”
“Swore at.”
“Screamed.”
“Insulted.”

It’s a revelation that’s not padding Carty’s pockets, but one person at a time, one offender at a time, she just may be getting through to them. “Does it always work?” Carty asks. “No. Until they’re ready to make a change, they won’t.