The Cumbee Center to Assist Abused Persons helps victims of domestic violence. The Aiken-based organization also coordinates a program that offers counseling services to the perpetrators, who are commonly known as batterers.
“We do things to keep a victim safe, but those are just Band-Aids,” said Kay Mixon, the Cumbee Center's executive director. “If there is ever going to be a change, we have to do something to deal with the real problem, which is the abuser.”
The Cumbee Center started its Unity Program in 1993, using a $10,000 grant from the United Way of Aiken County.
“It is a state-certified, Department of Social Services-supervised intervention program,” said Bill Trezza, a family therapist who handles the Unity Program's clinical side for the Cumbee Center. “The vast majority of the participants are referred by magistrate court and pretrial intervention. But referrals also can come from circuit court, parole and probation agents and attorneys. Sometimes there are self-referred individuals who say, 'I'm going down the wrong path. From what I hear, this is the place to go.'”
Trezza treats both men and women in the Unity Program.
“Locally, the arrest rates for women for criminal domestic violence used to be about one in 20, or 5 percent,” Trezza said. “These days it's probably four in 20, or 20 percent.”
The Unity Program is 26 weeks long. Each participant is required to pay $50 for an overall mental health assessment, and then $21 for each session. The total cost is $596.
“You have to hold the abusers accountable for their actions, and so that's why I feel very strongly that they should have to pay for this,” Mixon said. “What better way is there to reach them than through their pocketbooks?”
Unity Program participants receive counseling from Trezza in groups. Each group has up to 11 members, and all are of the same sex.
“Group intervention definitely is more effective than individual intervention,” Trezza said. “You're dealing with psychological defenses and individuals who are very good at making a situation seem like less than what it is. But when they are sitting in a group of people who may be a lot like them and they hear someone else tell their story, all of a sudden they realize that it's the same as their story. That goes a long way to cutting through their defenses.”
Trezza described his approach to therapy “as a delicate balance of creating safety, so an individual will take off his or her armor and deal with what is really going on, and cutting through the crap.”
There also are important lessons that the Unity Program's participants need to learn, according to Trezza.
“One of the things I teach them is that nobody was put on this planet to live up to their expectations and anything anybody does for you is a gift,” he said. “I also teach them how to recognize humiliation, fear, frustration, confusion and a variety of feelings that individuals have in the hope of showing them how to use language in a healthy way instead of intimidating, control behavior.”
Trezza estimated that 75 percent of the people who attend the first group therapy session end up completing the Unity Program. Based on local sources of information, such as booking and incident reports, 60 percent to 70 percent of the Unity program graduates don't get involved in domestic violence again, he added.
“If you can change even one person's behavior, that's a plus,” Mixon said. “That's better than nothing at all.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.