The drama triangle 

Missoula works to catch abusers before they slip away

Licensed professional counselor Rick McLeod points to a triangle drawn in black ink on a whiteboard in his sunlit office just off North Reserve Street. On the bottom right corner, he's written "victim."

"They all portray themselves as victims—of the system, her, her family, the judge, the cops," says McLeod, who oversees group and individual therapy for men convicted in Missoula of partner or family member assault. Across 20-plus years, through his program Men Advocating Nonviolence, or MAN, McLeod has treated hundreds if not thousands of men, and he says just about all of the abusers believe that they occupy moral high ground when they use violence to solve problems. "We call it painting the partner black," McLeod says. "Guys just come in and paint these terrible pictures of their partners."

That's where "the drama triangle" comes in. McLeod, a charismatic counselor with a silver ponytail and a booming voice, works to instill accountability in the men he treats. Abusers are not rescuers, as they often see themselves—that's over here, McLeod says, tapping one corner of the triangle on the whiteboard—but rather, they are perpetrators, he says, again referring to his whiteboard.

click to enlarge Rick McLeod wants to hold abusers accountable. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

That logic appears simple enough. But instilling accountability in those accustomed to shirking it isn't easy.

Accountability is a mantra repeated by just about everybody who works in the criminal justice system, including Missoula County Justice of the Peace Karen Orzech. Orzech, who presides over misdemeanor partner or family member assault cases, arrived early one recent Monday morning to find six new partner or family member assault charges on her desk, a docket that had accumulated during just one weekend. After sitting on the bench for years, Orzech is acutely aware that it's tough to instill accountability in people who don't necessarily understand that they're doing anything wrong. "They've grown up in a violent family, and this is business as usual," she says. "It's a shame, because then you have children who grow up in that environment...It goes on and on, until treatment."

The problem is not going away. In fact, reported incidents of domestic violence in Montana are increasing. According to the state Department of Justice, between 2000 and 2007, domestic violence offenses rose from 391 per 100,000 people to 462. The Missoula Police Department, meanwhile, arrested 171 individuals for partner or family member assault through June of this year. That's up from 131 for the same period last year, although it's unclear whether the increase marks an actual rise in incidents or more reporting.

Partner or family member assault in Montana is a misdemeanor. The first offense is punishable with up to a $1,000 fine and one year in jail. Rather than locking people up, though, judges frequently send abusers to anger management classes like McLeod's. The idea is to use therapy to untangle the root causes that trigger domestic violence and thereby alleviate the social, emotional and financial burdens of the crime on the criminal justice system, individuals and families.

It's a noble goal. However, according to a recent report compiled by the Office of Planning and Grants, four out of five offenders sentenced through the Missoula Municipal Court to attend anger management classes like McLeod's don't finish them.

"A very big amount of people float away," McLeod says. "The system needs a lot of maintenance...There's no follow-through. We don't know who's coming, when they're leaving, who's on probation..."

That's troubling for Missoula Deputy City Attorney Carrie Garber. As a prosecutor, she routinely sees the faces of abused spouses, often a string of women covered in bruises and cuts. "To ultimately get a conviction and then get no consequences is very disheartening for both law enforcement and prosecutors," she says. "Something has to give."

According to a study for OPG, offenders prosecuted through Missoula County Justice Court, presided over by Orzech and John E. Odlin, complete counseling more frequently then those tried through Municipal Court. In fiscal year 2008, Justice Court had a 45 percent counseling completion rate; the city's municipal court graduated 38 percent. Garber says the higher county success rates are likely attributable to its misdemeanor supervision program, which is staffed with probation officers who track offender progress.

The city's Municipal Court does not have a misdemeanor supervision program to ensure offenders actually complete anger management classes, Garber says, adding if offenders don't finish classes after one year, the court loses jurisdiction. That leaves a wide crack for offenders to slip through. "Their sentences expire," Garber says. "And there's just nothing else that we have the power to do."

Facing what Garber calls an "abysmal" success rate, the City Attorney's Office is launching a pilot project that aims to hold offenders more accountable. The city, with help from OPG recently secured a $59,263 grant from the Montana Board of Crime Control. The money will pay for a new part-time position and a new full-time staffer to keep better track of offenders. "It's a totally new model," says Nancy Rittel, OPG grants administrator and co-coordinator of the county's "JUST Response" team, which aims to ensure victim safety and increase offender accountability.

McLeod is happy to hear about the new position. However, he says, even after the changes, society has a long way to go before it holds offenders truly accountable. "I've always said, 'Wait a minute, if I don't pay my parking tickets, you boot my car. Can't you boot these guys' cars? Can't you do something?

"Can I play hide and seek from any other crime? I don't think so."

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