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Domestic violence program lets abusers, abused talk it out

What bothered Carrie Banks were the women who kept blaming themselves.

Banks, a longtime advocate for abused women kept hearing women survivors of domestic violence and rape say the same thing, that it was their own fault.

'It just seemed like they should be able to ask someone who can answer them,' Banks says.

That's why Banks created Domestic Violence Safe Dialogue program in Washington County. Banks, executive director of the nonprofit, wanted those women to hear it wasn't their fault from someone they would believe. They couldn't hear it from the men who had abused and raped them, she figured, but they might be able to hear it from men who had abused and raped other women.

Safe Dialogue so far has matched up about 70 domestic violence victims with domestic violence offenders. A facilitator joins each couple in a room at the Washington County courthouse, and the man and woman can each have their own counselor there as well.

When she started the program, Banks says, many in the domestic violence community had a hard time accepting it.

'They didn't think survivors were strong enough to go through something like this,' she says.

But they are strong enough, Banks says. The meetings, which last about two hours, can be eye-opening, and often as instructive for the batterers as the battered.

'If you abuse someone you build up a wall, you dehumanize them,' Banks says. 'This is someone sitting across from them who they have no relationship with, and they're able to hear the actual effects of what abuse has done to them. Sometimes for the first time they're really hearing it.'

Most of the men referred to the Safe Dialogue program are on probation or parole. The women are referred by area counselors.

Banks recalls a man listening to a woman describe her abuse. 'He said, 'Wow, he really did that to you?' And then it dawned on him, he had done the same thing.'

Banks says she started her program with a woman's bias, and hadn't given much thought to how the program might help men. Now she believes the dialogues she is promoting might hold a key to reducing domestic violence overall.

'I went into this thinking this is going to help women and help survivors,' she says. 'Abuse and domestic violence are absolute learned behaviors and these guys have been dealt a bad card. It can be fixed.'

To contact the Safe Dialogue program, call 503-327-5350.