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I had a discussion with a coworker, a fellow LMSW in a FQHC we work for. I said I suspect most perpetrators of DV have PTSD. She had been to a training, that I also attended before I knew her, that villainized domestic abusers. I wrote to the speaker after and told him that I didn't think his talk was trauma informed. I think perpetrators have a disorder that required a degree of isolation from those they would abuse, but don't think shame is constructive.

So here's my request. Does anyone have links to articles, podcast episode or videos that explains the link, that I believe to be true, between trauma/ACEs and being a perpetrator and describes an effective way of treating them?

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β€œOne of the most significant and recurring findings in the literature is that SVCs [Serious, Violent, Chronic Juvenile Offenders] are disproportionately victims of trauma, abuse, neglect, and maltreatment during childhood, as compared to the less severe or non-offending juvenile population. Specifically, new research shows that 90% of juvenile offenders in the United States experience some sort of traumatic event in childhood, and up to 30% of justice-involved American youth actually meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder due to trauma experienced during childhood.” Trauma Changes Everything: Examining the Relationship Between Adverse Childhood Experiences and Serious, Violent and Chronic Juvenile Offenders

ACEs have a significant impact on crime and recidivism. A study on Adverse Childhood Experiences and Adult Criminality concluded, β€œOn the basis of a review of the literature and current findings, criminal behaviour can be added to the host of negative outcomes associated with scores on the ACE Questionnaire. Childhood adversity is associated with adult criminality. We suggest that to decrease criminal recidivism, treatment interventions must focus on the effects of early life experiences.”

According to the Collaborative Global ACE Analysis with WHO, (Hughes, Bellis, Hardcastle et al, 2017 Lancet Public Health) compared to their peers that have no ACEs, those with 4 or more ACEs have a statistically increased risk:

  • 1.2x physical inactivity
  • 1.4x obesity
  • 2.1x heart disease
  • 2.2x smoke
  • 2.2x poor self-rated health
  • 2.3x cancer
  • 2.8x heavy alcohol use
  • 2.8x liver/digestive disease
  • 3.0x respiratory disease
  • 3.6x multiple sexual partners
  • 3.7x early sexual initiation
  • 3.7x anxiety
  • 4.2x teenage pregnancy
  • 4.4x low life satisfaction
  • 4.4x depression
  • 5.6x illicit drug use
  • 5.8x problem alcohol use
  • 5.9x STIs
  • 7.5x victimization
  • 8.1x violence perpetration
  • 10.2x problem drug use
  • 30.1x suicide attempt

Note that a high ACE score drastically increases the risk of being a victim and/or perpetrator of violence.

Woollett, N, & Thomson, K. (2016). Understanding the intergenerational transmission of violence. SAMJ: South African Medical Journal, 106(11), 1068-1070.

β€œIf parents are not only the source of external danger but are simultaneously absent in their duty to protect, those you love become those you fear. This leads to great distress and an inability to regulate overwhelming emotion.[8] People with a history of child abuse expect others to be hostile, rejecting, and unavailable, and they therefore respond to others in a way that is consistent with their expectations or they behave in a manner that elicits these familiar responses in others.[7] This experience is the result of early attachment relationships with abusive caregivers, as the parent-child attachment relationship is the prototype for later relationships.[9] As Bowlby states, 'hurt people hurt people'. Attachment theory holds that individuals who have experienced maltreatment or attachment-related difficulties are more likely to report problems with regard to trust and closeness in subsequent relationships, and to express hostility and anger towards others in a variety of ways.[10]

The mental health aspects of experiencing this violence should not be underestimated. Those who are consistently exposed to violence are likely to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[11,12] The concepts of re-enactment or repetition compulsion are implicated in the intergenerational transmission of trauma, which is the consequence of violence.”

Domestic Abuse: The Cycle of Violence

β€œChildren look up to their parents and model much of their behavior. When an adult is violent with a spouse,  the children pick up on this behavior and learn to behave in this way. And in a similar manner, men and women are more likely to abuse their children if they had been abused as a child. In fact, around 1/3 of abused children will later abuse their own children (Statistics and facts about child abuse in the U.S, 2017).”

Also, the video β€œStep Inside the Circle: Compassion Prison Project”

The documentary β€œThe Wisdom of Trauma (2021)” shows the ACEs of perpetrators through a compassionate lens without condoning the abuse or neglect.

Each individual is complex and can be seen through many lenses simultaneously. The anger and disgust towards the perpetrator is a natural reaction to the profound hurt caused by the perpetrator. That hurt and the consequent feelings are further compounded if there is no change in the perpetrator’s behaviours, no acknowledgement nor ownership of the harm done, and no remorse nor apology.

Yet just as those feelings are natural and valid, so too is it to feel grief for the perpetrator’s abusive and/or neglectful childhood as well as compassion for the perpetrator as an adult since the awful and heartbreaking child abuse and/or neglect has contributed to them becoming an individual whose behaviours are destructive, not only to others, but also to themselves.

The years (or even decades) that the adult perpetrator lost (instead of living a healthy, relatively peaceful life) by engaging in toxic behaviours that were developed as a survival mechanism and are a reactive second nature rather than a choice made in a reasoned  manner. This survival mechanism that got the child through hell, now produces hell in adulthood resulting in strained or broken familial relationships, broken friendships (or even no friendships), perhaps also trouble at maintaining employment due interpersonal difficulties, or obtaining a criminal record and facing prison.

Feeling compassion for a perpetrator is not the same as condoning the behaviour nor is it wrong to feel anger, disgust, or any other emotions.

Feeling compassion for someone is also not the same as forgiving someone, and whether the victim, or community members, forgive the perpetrator is up to each individual. Forgiveness isn’t necessary for healing, and for some, an emphasis on victims forgiving perpetrators can actually harm the victim’s recovery.

Compassion is also not a free pass for the perpetrator to continue abusing or neglecting. Compassion doesn’t erase the truth of what happened nor the consequences. Compassion does not mean that victims must continue to engage with the perpetrator in their lives, especially when the perpetrator is unchanging in their behaviours and remorseless; meaning that it is reasonably foreseeable that further interaction with the perpetrator would very likely be to expose oneself to further abuse or neglect. It is reasonable and healthy to choose β€œNo Contact” in such circumstances.

Then there are perpetrators that do have emotional empathy, which was suppressed by external stressors (such PTSD and Complex PTSD) along with believing that the toxic behaviours are normal because they were subjected to the same and so were many others. These individuals, having seen that they are themselves traumatized, and not wanting to continue the intergenerational trauma, devote to a path towards healingβ€”a difficult and winding road. A road where those that wish to seek help are often faced with stigma and shame, which only hinders progress, not only for the individual, but the overall health and well-being of society.

At the end of it all, if one feels compassion for the victims of today, it would be hypocritical and limited in scope to not also feel compassion for the perpetrators that were the victims of yesteryear.


Images (3)
  • Collaborative Global ACE Analysis with WHO
  • Intergenerational Violence
  • One-Third of Child Abuse & Neglect Victims Become Perpetrators

I don't have a link to a study, but I can informally confirm your suspicions from working in a DV program in Washington state.

I was a state-licensed counselor for two years in a program where we worked with over 60 male DV perpetrators during that time period. We had several sessions where we unpacked past trauma and all but 1 of the 60 men described a childhood that put them on the high end of the ACE scale.

As others have alluded to, shaming these perpetrators rarely produced long last results. It was when we took to the time to "Seek To Understand" that we could begin to see positive results.  It was a balance of seeking understanding while not condoning behavior:

Seeking understanding and compassion for those who have experienced trauma does not mean condoning abusive behavior. Sometimes the most compassionate act we can take as leaders is holding others accountable for their actions. In our DV classes, we would often respond with a Denice Frohman quote when participants would try to excuse their behaviors:

"Your wound is probably not your fault, but your healing is your responsibility."

Seeking understanding simply means looking for the circumstances behind behaviors rather than defining someone's worth by their behaviors.

I find this entire conversation constructive and helpful.  My Aces is very high, yet I find all my life I have maintained a high level of love and respect for my perpetrator.  I whole heartedly believe that the anger issues that motivated the trauma towards me at a very young age changed and transformed to a combination of anger and emotional issues.  You see, the sexual trauma started and combined with the physical after a tour of duty in Vietnam.  I always get asked how can I possibly love my parent.  My response is, how can I possibly not.  It is simply about who I am and not about what I had to endure as a child.

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