Duluth treatment model is 30 years old; its effectiveness hotly debated

Helped by 'Duluth Model'
Amy, of Duluth, was helped out of a 20-year-long abusive marriage by the "Duluth Model" program. She did not want her last name to be used.
MPR Photo/Bob Kelleher

A domestic abuse intervention program developed in Duluth 30 years ago is the most widely used approach for treating domestic violence. The program, dubbed the "Duluth Model," has been adopted in more than 4,000 communities in all 50 states, and at least 26 countries.

But as the program prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary this weekend, its effectiveness is hotly disputed.

Amy, a 45-year old woman from Duluth, was helped out of a 20-year-long abusive marriage through a domestic abuse response program based on the Duluth Model.

Amy, who does not want her last name used, had endured physical abuse from her husband for years. She finally left, along with her five children, after fearing another attack from her husband and discovering he had cut the phone line to the house.

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"I needed to call 911 again, and he had already cut the phone lines. So that's when I knew that I was not safe," Amy recalled.

Her husband was arrested, and a court order separated him from the family. The terms of his probation forced him to attend group counseling sessions.

Her children visited their father in a supervised setting, in a basement room of the Domestic Abuse Intervention Program. After he'd completed treatment, he was allowed unsupervised visitation. But the marriage ended within two years. Scott Miller, a team leader with Duluth's Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs, describes the Duluth Model as a way of engaging a community in a process.

"Study after study after study shows the Duluth Model fails abysmally."

"We coordinate the efforts of all the different practitioners -- from 911, all the way through to a batterer intervention program at the end -- so that everything that one agency does enhances the ability of the next agency to do their job," Miller said.

The different parties work together to increase safety for the victims, and make abusers accountable. The model calls for mandatory arrest when there are bruises or other evidence of physical abuse.

A judge determines the level of risk the victim faces, and issues a no-contact order if necessary. And the abuser can be ordered to a rehabilitation program, like the Duluth Domestic Abuse Intervention Program's 26-week men's group sessions on power and control.

Miller's organization tracks the progress of abusers who have been through the program for eight years after their last contact with the criminal justice system. He says only three out of every 10 return to court. He says that's strong evidence that the Duluth Model works.

The approach has spread worldwide over the past 30 years, and Duluth has become something of an international training center in abuse intervention.

But the body of research on the Duluth Model is mixed at best, and a fierce debate over the program has raged for years.

Donald Dutton, a University of British Columbia psychologist, and one of his colleagues, have blasted the Duluth model as "a data-impervious paradigm and a failed strategy."

"Study after study after study shows the Duluth Model fails abysmally in being able to separate itself above a control group, and show that it actually does something to improve and keep people who've been through treatment from not repeating violence," Dutton said.

Dutton says the Duluth model views assault as a choice, made by men acting in concert with the norms of a sexist society. But he says that ignores factors such as poverty, stress, chemical dependency, anxiety, or the man's own lifetime experience of being victimized.

Supporters of the Duluth Model criticize Dutton as biased, and simply trying to steer funding towards a different approach he supports.

Researchers at the National Institute of Justice say their review of the most common batterer intervention programs shows they do not change batterers' attitudes toward women or domestic violence, and that they have little to no impact on the rate at which they re-offend.

The institute's concerns date back at least as far as 2003, when it issued a special report posing questions about Duluth Model's effectiveness.

But that analysis is disputed by State. Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who worked with the Duluth program in its early days.

"The NIJ report -- even the authors acknowledge that some of their research is flawed," he said.

Paymar says you can't compare communities that don't adopt the model in its entirety. Paymar says the model's strength is the combined arrest, the prosecution, the sentencing, the monitoring, and then the counseling program.

Organizers and supporters gather in Duluth Saturday to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Duluth Model, even as the debate continues.