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Respectfully Engaging Court-Ordered Clients in Treatment

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by Michael Mesmer, MFT

     
    This article was first published in the "FAVTEA Bulletin" (Spring/Summer 2004), published by the Family Violence Treatment and Education Association. www.FAVTEA.com
     
   

Court-ordered clients often present for treatment as victims of an "unjust" justice system whose "punishment", including any psychotherapy, anger management class, or 52-week batterer's program they are ordered to attend, outweighs their crime. Viewing such assertions as evidence of "denial" or "resistance" establishes an adversarial atmosphere of mistrust between provider and client.

Alternately, teachers and therapists can adopt a cooperative approach with the goal of discovering what will engage such a client in his or her own treatment, so that the client has a personal motivation to participate and succeed. Then, instead of dragging clients on a journey they view as pointless or unnecessary, we have active colleagues with which to work towards mutually agreed-upon goals.

In a cooperative atmosphere, court-ordered clients feel less anxiety about having their points of view heard and understood, and they are more likely to seek out the potential benefits in a course of treatment (especially since they have to do it anyway) when it is geared to helping them get what they want in life.

When asked, court-ordered clients may say they want more "respect" or "love" in their families. Rather than trying to establish the "truth" or "falseness" of these statements with a client, we can use them as a reference point: "I think that's great that you want more love with your spouse. Help me understand - how were you showing your love when you hit her with the baseball bat?" Or we can ask, "Do you think your partner respects you more when you yell or when you are calm in times of stress?" or "Are you the kind of person who is pushed around by his emotions or do you stand up to them?"

Questions such as these, derived from a narrative therapy approach to working with violent and sexually abusive men (A. Jenkins, 1990, "Invitations to Responsibility". Adelaide: Dulwich Press), reflect an understanding of violent behavior that is based on a theory of constraints rather than causes. Such a view holds that it is more useful and respectful to ask a client, "what keeps you from behaving respectfully?" rather than "what makes you behave violently?" - especially if our goal is to promote a sense of responsibility in our clients.

Causes are convenient "outs" for someone dodging responsibility - "oh, it was my childhood that caused me to be violent" - while a theory of constraints assigns responsibility for his or her own life to the client, albeit in the face of considerable obstacles and constraints. Treatment then becomes about overcoming these constraints in pursuit of respectful and loving relationships.

This approach, because it does not require chastising or reprimanding the client, can seem to some victims or their advocates like collusion or a failure to confront the client on his or her denial. But in fact this way of working with court-ordered clients makes it possible to include a discussion of violence, in great detail, from the outset. When client's are honest about the hopes in life, their violent behavior is all the more painful to admit to but also more important to overcome. When we can connect the client's behavior to their situation in life, we invite them to consider the powerful impact that treatment will potentially have on their life. It is the difference for many between success and failure - and, for some, between life and death.

In conclusion, it can be difficult to treat respectfully those who have behaved violently or abusively. Our "counter transference" can be strong, and we can inadvertently fall into ways of working that hinder our and our clients' best efforts. Respectfully seeking to engage clients in their own therapy, instead of struggling to get them to accept a program they think has been forced upon them, makes our work easier and the clients' work more rewarding.

 

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