COLUMBIA — Despite its success, a lack of funding has left Columbia's Men Employing Nonviolent Directives program struggling to provide male batterers with services.
Ted Solomon, a counselor who teaches MEND classes, said he and other leaders of the program first learned about funding cuts in July. The program was funded by a state grant, but that particular grant is going toward only funding programs for domestic violence victims and children—not batterers—this fiscal year. “I’m not saying that’s a bad priority,” Solomon said. “It’s just no longer available for us.”
"We've been receiving this funding for years," Susan Schopfiln, the director of marketing for MEND, said. "Last year, we had an increase in the number of participants being referred. In response, we requested more funding."
While reviewing the request, the state decided that MEND shouldn't have been receiving the money from that grant in the first place.
Now, the organization is seeking other sources of funding.
“We’re trying to get the word out in the community that this is one of the few programs out there that is successful," Schopflin said. "If you really want to decrease the cycle of violence in the community, you need to work with the offenders. I think people forget that component.”
"The reality is a significant number of women stay [in relationships with offenders]," Mark Koch, who works as a victim's advocate, said. "Certainly we want everybody to be safe."
Participants in the program learn how to improve their interactions with others, Solomon said. In a supportive environment of their peers, the program teaches them how to use nonviolence, become accountable for their actions and handle emotions like anger, jealousy and control.
"We tell them, 'You get what you get from other people, you can’t control that. You can try, but you can’t really control it,'" Solomon said. "What you can control is how you respond to the situation."
Most participants are first-time domestic violence offenders who are court-ordered to complete the program along with probation. The course is 27 weeks, and each session costs $40. The program used to offer participants a sliding scale based on income. Now, the cost is $40 a class regardless of ability to pay. That adds up to $1,080 paid by each participant for the entire course.
Some just can’t afford it.
“The staff are telling me we’ve had a decline in men being able to complete the group,” Shopflin said. “They say it’s a significant number.”
What happens when an offender cannot complete the program that he is required to?
“We haven’t run into that yet,” said Assistant Prosecutor Andy Hayes, who is part of Columbia's Domestic Violence Enforcement unit. If it does happen, “there’s no clear-cut answer,” Hayes said. “For each individual case we’ll have to look at the circumstances of the person.”
MEND program facilitators are trying to avoid that situation by letting participants take longer to complete the program. Offenders used to be required to complete the program within a year of starting their sentence; now the court has been letting them complete the program within two years.
“If [offenders] need to stretch it out even over a year because of the funding issue, I think they’ll let them do that,” Hayes said.
The important thing is that they complete the program, Schopflin said.
Probation officers are also giving offenders a little bit of leeway so they're able to complete the classes. They have let some offenders who are unable to come up with the costs of monthly intervention fees put off paying some fees until the end of their probation.
"The first priority is getting court costs paid, the second is paying for MEND, and then we'll work with [them] on the monthly intervention fees," said Julie Florence, a probation officer who oversees a lot of domestic violence offenders. "The [MEND program] is addressing the more immediate need."
Solomon said that historically, the program has seen very little recidivism among participants, although he knows that many domestic violence incidents go unreported. “I don’t want to give false hope to people and say our program fixes almost everybody,” he said. “Our group gives people an opportunity to work on their issues connected to relationship violence.”
Joy Rushing, assistant to the court administrator, said that Boone County Circuit Court has filed a grant application to fund MEND through a special category for providing programs for batterers.
Until more money comes through, prosecutors, judges, and MEND facilitators will continue to figure out ways to accommodate the missed classes and deferred payments.
"It's a juggling act," Florence said. "We're not sure how it's going to end up."