Communities Grapple With Abusive Partners Who Also Are Parents

Thanks to Minneapolis Foundation for enabling us to continue deeper content and discussions about gender-based violence in 2024. Our gender-based violence stories and conversations won a 2023 community service leadership award from the Minnesota Newspaper Association. 

The Alex & Brandon supervised visitation center was built in Brainerd by community after two children were murdered by their father in an unsupervised visitation. (photo by Sarah Whiting)

The Alex & Brandon Child Safety Center in Brainerd was created to provide a safe space for caregivers to hand off children to satisfy visitation rights. It was named for four- and five-year-old brothers who were killed by their father during an unsupervised visit in 1996. The community responded by spending four years raising funds to build the center, which opened in 2000.

Melissa Scaia is a long-time advocate for survivors of gender-based violence who also hosts conversations with perpetrators of abuse. She has been a mediator for supervised exchanges of caregivers and children. Her doctoral dissertation research was about how to design a supervised visitation center to meet the needs of children and adult victims of domestic violence.

We talked with Scaia about the dynamics in families with an abusive parent, and what can and cannot be done to change experiences.

Melissa Scaia

Why are parents who have a history of abuse toward a partner allowed access to their children?

The standard in most states, including Minnesota, is to have both parents have contact with the child. The central factor for judges is, “What does the law say about how and if you account for domestic violence in custody cases?” That matters hugely in family law.

I could get a child the best therapist in the world, but the court is still going to give them contact with that parent. So, it’s not that helpful to work with the child if you’re not also working with the abusive parent.

Supervised visitation is a way to mediate that contact, but it does not last forever. I did have one family in which the judge said, “You’re having supervised visitation for these kids until they are 18” — because that dad could never be sober. Those kids really wanted to see their dad. So, we had supervised visitation every Wednesday from 6–8pm.

It’s complicated, because I do think some fathers are unsafe for their children, particularly nonverbal children. Even supervised exchanges, when one parent hands off the child in a public place, need more attention.

The most common supervised exchange places in Minnesota are McDonald’s, Target, and Circle K. Women know they have the good video camera systems, with the best audio on their video, so that if something happens there is a record. Having a third-party witness makes a huge difference in court.

Hearing a child say, “I don’t ever want to go to Dad’s house again. He’s really mean,” can help in a custody hearing. Otherwise, the judges and attorneys can assume there is bias. They hear many people say, “He’s a bad dad,” or “She’s a drunk mom.” The court gets fatigued. So when you have third parties who intervene, it does make a difference.

You will also hear kids who love spending time with [the abusive partner]. I had to get permission to physically remove from a car a five-year-old who didn’t want to leave.

There have been a number of research studies that show that abusers are more motivated to do well by their children than they are their partner. In a recent men’s group conversation, my co-facilitator asked the group, “Tell me about the difference between being accountable for your children, but not your partner.” What is interesting is that abusive men tend to blame their partner in part for their use of violence. Many are stuck in this thinking of “you made me do this to you.” They don’t think the same way about their kids; they don’t think their kids made them hit their mother.

Q: How are community programs working with men who are in prisons and jails to reduce violent behavior?

Not many men actually go to prison for domestic violence in Minnesota. Abusers who end up in prison are often there for other charges. Most men who are being incarcerated in Minnesota for domestic assault are doing local jail time. The law does not allow jails to hold anyone for more than a year.

The culture of incarceration tends not to invest in talking about treatment of women. I was with [long-time survivors advocate] Ellen Pence, talking with a warden in northern Minnesota about all the programming they offered. Most of them were run by churches.

Ellen said, “Warden, I am hearing a lot about them finding Jesus, but I haven’t heard about many of them leaving prison having respect for women.”

I am working with the Domestic Abuse Project [DAP] right now for a proposal to do programming [about gender- based violence] in prison for the Minnesota Department of Corrections. In 2024. We were doing that back in 2015. There were cutbacks, and then they weren’t doing it anymore. We have all these men coming out of prison, a lot of them for drug offenses, who are also very violent to their partners. [We are not doing much to change behavior before they return.]

Alex & Brandon Center (photo by Sarah Whiting)

When men are on probation, we generally know from studies that survivors and children are safer. We also know that when the father is enrolled in a men’s program, they’re safer. When there’s some intervening agency, like supervised exchanges and visits, people are generally safer.

One of the things we’ve also learned, doing supervised visitation since 2002, is that when you have domestic violence, and you have multiple children in the home, it’s quite rare for each of the children to have the same experience.

Most abusers seek out one child to align with. One of the first women I ever worked with, in 1999, is someone I am still in contact with. She told me, “I am not going to be effective in undoing what he has done to our son. He is training our son to be like him.”

That woman’s boys are now grown. One of them, who is 28, recently said for the first time, “Mom, I just want you to know that I know you did your best. I want you to know I saw you trying to just maintain.”

His brother is not the same; he has totally taken on his father’s identity. They grew up with years of seeing the degradation of their mother, and came out of the experience in different ways.

If men don’t live in a culture that motivates them to be better men, that doesn’t help. Toxic masculinity is defined by some as “real manhood.” Since 2016, the culture has shifted.

 

Saint Cloud has a domestic violence court. Can you describe what this does?

Stearns County has created a system of specialized judges and prosecutors for domestic violence cases. They prosecute many more domestic violence cases than any other place in Minnesota. They invest in expert witnesses. They notify the defense about the use of these witnesses, which changes negotiations on the front end.

For example, many victims recant in court — now there is research [funded by the U.S. Department of Justice] about why this happens. With new expert witnesses to explain why victims recant, this fundamentally shifts the conversation.

When all parts of the system have an elevated response, you get the best results. Having a domestic violence court or a good men’s program is great. But if you are a city with a not-so-great police response to domestic violence, then you are spinning on the gerbil wheel trying to help women. If the DAP can’t rely on the Minneapolis police to do what they need to do about violations of orders for protections, for example, that’s not helpful.

 

How do bystanders aware of abuse help to hold people accountable for their actions?

A perpetrator might say, “I just want a loving Jesus in my family.” You ask, “Okay, great. How do you put together that you want love and Jesus in your family with what you’ve done to your family?” I can take his words and let him define it for me. My job is not to say, “Yes, it’s great to have love and Jesus,” when I know part of his reality is that he’s done horrible things. It is okay to point out the contradiction, in a way that’s genuinely respectful.

Advocacy organizations are the best go-to place for helping victims and perpetrators find the help they need, including therapists who know the dynamics of domestic violence — many therapists and pastors do not. Yet Minnesota does not adequately fund Crime Victim Services. I ran a program out of northern Minnesota for 17 years.

For 14 years, we got the same $44,000 in funding to help every woman in Itasca County. That’s ridiculous.

Advocates are among the people in Minnesota who are the least recognized and have the biggest hearts in this state. Can advocates get a retirement plan and health insurance [like our law enforcement officers do]? That’s really frustrating.

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