Working the program

Is court-ordered treatment for spousal abusers helping or hurting participants in the county’s Domestic Violence Court?

GETTING HELP Karen Knight, director of the Family Violence Education Program, talks to a Domestic Violence Court participant.

GETTING HELP Karen Knight, director of the Family Violence Education Program, talks to a Domestic Violence Court participant.

Photo By Tom Angel

There was a time in this country, not even that long ago, when it was considered OK for a man to beat his wife. Women were expected to have babies and do dishes, and if they stepped out of line it was, “Pow! Right in the kisser!” as The Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden used to say.

Thankfully, society has evolved. Domestic violence is taken seriously as a crime nowadays, as law enforcement and the courts finally figured out that it not only takes a generational toll on its victims, but also ties up scarce resources and almost always leads to more-serious crimes down the road.

But that evolution hasn’t been easy, nor is it complete. Solving what is basically a psychological or emotional problem by locking people up apparently doesn’t work. The courts have increasingly been doing that at least since the 1960s, and it has been proven time and again that, once the abusers are released, they generally either go right back to abusing the same victim or find someone else to torment. The worst part of it is that children living in homes where violence is taking place often grow up to become abusers themselves, completing the cycle and adding a new and unnecessary burden on the criminal justice system.

In Butte County, the courts are trying to keep up with, and hopefully someday even break, the cycle of domestic abuse. But the way they are doing it has raised questions lately, with some convicted abusers alleging that they are being ripped off, berated and victimized by the demands of their probation-ordered treatment program.

Led by an ex-cop lawyer and egged on by a series of articles in the Enterprise-Record, program participants are coming out of the woodwork to share their negative opinions about the Family Violence Education Program—the only program currently certified to conduct court-ordered domestic-abuse classes in the county. Much of the criticism has fallen on FVEP’s director, Karen Knight.

Knight’s for-profit counseling center provides a multitude of services and classes for spousal abusers, their victims, sex offenders, substance abusers and others with behavioral problems. But some of the people in those classes say Knight overcharges them, belittles them and keeps them in the program longer than they need to be there. When contacted for this article, disgruntled participants—most of whom would only speak anonymously—offered the following comments:

“[Knight] put me through the gates of hell.”

“She’s greedy. She’s only in it for the money.”

“We live in fear of that woman. She has total control over that class, and she abuses it.”

A few former participants have hooked up with local attorney Raymond Simmons in hopes of suing Knight. Simmons recently filed a claim against the county Probation Department alleging that Knight harassed a participant and illegally searched through a family’s house and belongings.

Knight said she regards the accusations as unfair and worries that the publicity is creating problems for those in her program.

“It stirs up all our participants—they read this stuff and they just get whipped into a frenzy,” she said. “They think, ‘I always knew she was a bitch, and now I’ve got a newspaper even saying it.’”

Ever since the media spotlight has begun shining on her program, Knight said, she has been worried for the safety of her staff. Recently, she said, three of the tires on her car were damaged while it was parked outside her office.

THE LITIGATOR Attorney Raymond Simmons believes Karen Knight’s program may be overcharging participants and keeping them in the program longer than they need to be.

Photo By Tom Angel

“We deal with violent people. You don’t come here because you thought of something, you come here because you did something,” Knight said, adding that she believes much of the criticism she has received has more to do with the type of people her program brings her into contact with than with the program itself. “What’s our population? Well, it’s 92 percent male, and most of the male violence is against women. So, obviously there’s an issue with women, and they come in and see me. That just doesn’t make their day.”

So what is really going on? Ask Knight’s colleagues, and they will all say that FVEP’s program is working. What’s more, they say that the complaints about Knight’s program are being generated by individuals who resent being treated for their problems.

“The court, the community, the public safety and the participants are well served by this program and Ms. Knight,” writes lead domestic-violence prosecutor Helen Harberts. “In my view these complaints are specious and are made by troubled offenders. …”

Steven Trenholme, who up until recently has been the public defender for more than 90 percent of those who go before Butte County’s Domestic Violence Court, writes, “Each month the number of successful completions … far outnumbers [those] defendants who are unsuccessfully terminated from probation and incarcerated.” Trenholme credits Knight for “lower incarceration costs and healthier individuals and families.”

Probation Chief Bill Wardell and District Attorney Mike Ramsey both concurred that Knight’s program gets results. In fact, every county source contacted for this story gave her a glowing report, and at least 20 individuals wrote letters of support for her after seeing her name in the daily paper—people ranging from a minister who said she helped him overcome his domestic-abuse problems, to abuse survivors she has counseled, to a former board member of a local rape crisis center.

So what to make of claims such as those made by Vince, a former career gang member who was terminated from Knight’s program a few years ago? Vince, who has spent most of his adult life behind bars, is close to completing a 52-week, court-ordered domestic-violence program that he is taking in Glenn County. He says that program, run by the nonprofit group Alternatives to Violence, has helped him develop a better attitude toward life. In contrast, he said he felt constantly belittled in Knight’s program, and that he was relieved when he flunked out and landed back in prison.

“I just hated that class, I hated everything about it. Just a female yelling at you constantly, it’s the wrong way to approach somebody,” Vince said. “I told my parole officer, ‘I’m not going to go to her program. You might as well put me back in prison.'”

Vince, on a smoke break from his meeting in Orland, told the CN&R that Knight’s class was like a long lecture, during which Knight would yell at participants, telling them they were all “pieces of crap.”

“Over there, you don’t speak until you’re spoken to. You have no input. You can’t go in there and give a demonstration of what makes you mad. She tells you what makes you mad, like she’s knowing everything that’s going on inside your head. You don’t have a chance to tell her, ‘That’s not what makes me mad; this is what makes me mad.'”

Inside Vince’s meeting at ATV, the seven participants, all male, sat around folding tables and told each other what had stressed them out over the past week and what they had done to control themselves.

They were the picture of diversity. A few 20- and 30-something white dudes, a Hispanic or two, an Asian guy who never talked. One black guy in a Raiders cap lent a few dollars for the class fee to a fellow Raiders fan—a menacing, muscular guy with tattoos showing through the stubble on the back of his head. Across the table sat a weathered old man in a flannel shirt and a cowboy hat, who was hooked up to some kind of medical device through tubes in his nose.

As each one talked in turn, group facilitator Tom Barberra (another vocal critic of Knight) listened and sometimes interjected, offering advice on what each person was doing right or wrong in his quest to control his anger.

“You guys have been trained by your culture to be racist, to be sexist, to be homophobic,” Barberra told them. He paced around the room, his voice becoming loud and emphatic. “That’s why you punch someone in a bar, or get violent with your kids, or punch your wife.” He paused for effect and asked, “The unexamined life is what?”

“Meaningless?” offered one participant.

MADDENING Tom Barberra conducts an anger management class for domestic-violence offenders in Glenn County. Barberra says many of his students have been in Knight’s program and have complaints about the way they were treated.

Photo By Josh Indar

“Close. Not worth living! It isn’t worth it!” His volume rose to a controlled roar. “If you want to stay an ignoramus and be brutal to the people around you, do yourself a favor and go up to Alaska and stay away from the rest of us!”

Barberra’s showy tirade, one of many during that meeting, was reminiscent of the stories told about Karen Knight, how she supposedly yells at people and calls them names. But nobody seemed to take it personally. Several of the men in the room, including Vince, even nodded their heads in agreement with Barberra.

The unanswerable question thus arises: If Karen Knight, a woman, told these same convicted abusers the same thing, would they sit there and nod their heads or would they fume and fidget and plot their revenge? Outside on his smoke break, Vince said he’d gained insight from Barberra’s rants and didn’t take offense to them. “That’s just him. You get used to it,” he said. So why is he so offended by Knight?

In person, Knight doesn’t seem like someone who would generate much controversy. A diminutive woman with rapid speech and an alternately jabbing and self-deprecating sense of humor, Knight admits that she can be “confrontational,” but denies that she yells at participants.

“I will say, ‘Stop! Listen, this is unacceptable,'” she said, adding that the only time she’s ever yelled at anyone in class is when that person got out of his chair and threatened a classmate.

“My belief is that if I have a two-hour class, I don’t want to be talking for more than 15 minutes,” she said. “Research shows peers have more of an impact on peers than authority figures anyway.”

Knight said she would hire male and female co-facilitators for each class if she was able to, but the program couldn’t afford it. But another reason some of her participants have problems with her, she speculated, is because she follows the county guidelines. Those guidelines are very stringent, which partly explains why Knight’s program is currently the only game in town for DV Court participants. Up until 2000, there were two programs available, but one was de-certified over failing to file paperwork. The Probation Department is currently in the process of reviewing other programs for certification and hopes to have another program available within the next few months.

Getting (and staying) certified to run a batterers’ program in Butte County is no easy task. The Probation Department’s standards are outlined in a 40-plus-page booklet that stipulates everything from how records must be kept to what can and can’t be taught in classes. The primary goal, the booklet states, is the safety of the victim, not the maintenance of the relationship between the victim and the abuser. In Knight’s experience, about 60 percent of abusive relationships can be salvaged.

Program facilitators write case notes for every participant after every class and compile those notes into reports that must be shared with Judge Stephen Benson, the DV Court judge, at every appearance the participant makes. A good report keeps a person in the program. A bad report might mean a 24-hour stay in jail. Termination from the program is treated as a probation violation and often means a lengthy jail or prison time for the offender.

Nothing Knight said about the way she handles her classroom can be verified because she could not allow a reporter to audit her class—some of the participants apparently objected. (It was confirmed through a current participant that she put the matter to a vote in class.)

One of her most convincing supporters is a man who is currently taking Knight’s “stalking” class. Bill, a hotel manager by trade who was arrested and served prison time for threatening his ex-wife, said he was very unhappy with the program at first. “I was one of [the program’s] worst critics,” he said. “I did not like her when I first met her, and I told her that recently. But I warmed up to her, because I saw that she does act with compassion.”

Bill said he has learned valuable coping skills in the class and refutes other participants’ claims that Knight is a tyrant. He suspects many of those in the class are just resistive to treatment.

“I’ve never heard her yell at anybody. One of the primary things we strive for is to treat each other with respect and honesty. [But] some people who are there don’t feel like they deserve to be there, they don’t feel they’ve done anything wrong. People don’t like to be forced into doing something, so they rebel. [But] there is no way a program like this can hurt.”

But even Bill voices a common complaint: The fees for the class are too high.

PROBATION NATION A typical scene in Domestic Violence Court in Oroville: Karen Knight, an unnamed program participant and Public Defender Steven Trenholme listen to a probation report.

Photo By Tom Angel

“One major downside to the program is that it’s very expensive. I’m disabled, so I’m on a fixed income. I pay $25 a week, $100 a month, and my state disability is only $560 a month. The amount of money it costs causes ill feelings.”

Almost every participant contacted for this story has a problem with how much the program costs. Since there are no taxpayer dollars available for running the program, participants have to pay for the whole thing.

Knight said most of the people in her class pay between $20 and $30 each week. Some pay as much as $40, which is standard in many out-of-county programs. Knight said that despite needing to make at least $21 per participant just to break even, almost 30 percent of her clientele is considered indigent and pays at a substantially reduced rate.

Probation’s Wardell confirmed those figures, citing the department’s most recent audit.

Ray Simmons, the attorney who recently filed a claim against the Probation Department alleging abuses by Knight, said he isn’t out to close down Knight’s program. He told the CN&R he has a “gut feeling” that spotty oversight has allowed FVEP to overcharge participants and violate their rights. He is in the process of preparing as many as six lawsuits against Knight and/or the county.

“I’ve had 57 phone calls from people in these programs. They’ve given me information about problems going back two years,” Simmons said. “Something’s going wrong. There are not enough checks and balances. I’m all for domestic-violence classes, but you can’t have a blind eye.”

Simmons, who is clearly leading the charge against Knight, is a former sergeant with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, an ex-military-intelligence officer and the author of a recently published thriller novel. He accuses Knight of harboring gender biases against males, overcharging class participants, intimidating participants, and generally running a faulty program.

His claim against the county alleges that Knight, who was accompanying a probation officer on a routine search, illegally rifled through some personal possessions belonging to the Marmols, a family that Knight had been brought into contact with through facilitating Luis’ Marmol’s court-ordered treatment program. Knight denies that she touched any of the Marmols’ belongings and said she acted ethically while she was in the Marmol home. Knight is required by the county to spend at least eight hours a year accompanying law enforcement agencies when they have contact with DV court participants.

Simmons’ claim states that probation officers violated the Marmols’ Fourth Amendment rights by allowing Knight to participate in a search. It goes on to claim that a subsequent search, in which the Marmol’s children were taken into protective custody, was initiated as punishment for making complaints against Knight. The claim seeks $100,000 in damages and is currently being reviewed by county lawyers.

Luis Marmol was on probation because he had been convicted of choking his 12-year-old daughter and striking his wife Gina with a belt. The Marmols have a history of family violence, with police records showing some 20 visits to their Columbus Street home in Chico during one four-month period. One program participant claims the Marmols were at one point handing out flyers in the parking lot after FVEP meetings that read, “We are following these programs. … We are going to sue for overcharging. Interested? P.S. We have a reporter etc. & a lawyer, etc.”

Simmons said he doesn’t see any problems with the Marmols’ credibility. Luis Marmol is currently serving a two-year jail term. Simmons said he has been trying to reach Gina Marmol for comment, but she is currently homeless. Marmol previously claimed to an E-R reporter that the payments her husband was making to Knight’s program had broken the family’s bank and were the reason she was soon to be homeless.

As for Simmons, he conceded that many of the people who contacted him about FVEP were probably just making complaints because they had a grudge with the system. But he also said that talking to scores of FVEP participants has convinced him that there are serious problems with the way FVEP handles its accounts. He believes many participants have been financially ruined by the program.

“I don’t bring lawsuits willy-nilly,” he said. “There’s a family [the Marmols] that, because of this program, has been thrown into the street. I just believe in wrong and right. If it turns out that what these people have told me is not true, then I will publicly come out and say that. But in my opinion, there is enough information here to begin litigation.”

Whatever the truth is about the Marmol case, it is hard to ignore the fact that the population served by Domestic Violence Court is on the whole a difficult group of people. Around 85 percent of court participants are addicted to drugs and/or alcohol, according to DV Court administrators. Almost by definition, court participants have anger issues, and many resent being forced to deal with their problems. A large portion of them don’t even recognize that they have a problem, insisting that they were “set up” by the victim, or that the threats they made—the ones that got them arrested—were made in jest.

Simmons told the CN&R that he has clients that Knight double-charged or kept in the program longer than they needed to be, just to squeeze more money out of them. The truth is, some participants do stay more than the court-mandated 52 weeks. Knight said that is because she operates on a “group-accountability model,” wherein participants vote on whether their peers are ready to graduate.

The Probation Department guidelines offer no limit on how long one should stay in the program and don’t suggest either way whether it is acceptable for a participant’s peers to decide when they are ready to leave the program. The guidelines do stipulate that participants must be violence-free for six months, accept responsibility for their abusive behavior and demonstrate that they have changed.

Simmons said his cop’s intuition tells him something is wrong with Knight’s program and her relationship with the county. He added that he hopes the Probation Department will make good on its promise to certify another domestic-violence program, because, as he puts it, “Any time you only have one circus in town, that’s where some of these problems come in.”

Until then, or until someone actually proves an allegation against Knight, all any of the players involved in Domestic Violence Court can do is continue, as the 12-steppers say, to “work the program.”