Supervising the DV Offender: What I’ve Learned from the Field. An Interview with Sara Mahoney

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Justice Clearinghouse on 2/1/2018 by Christina McCale

Domestic Violence offenders require a different approach to supervising them. Cunning and often manipulative, they can be among the most challenging of probationers to supervise.

Join us March 22, as Sara Mahoney returns to discuss: 

  • the tactics/characteristics of a DV Offender and a victim
  • how these characteristics impact the ongoing supervision of the offender,
  • the advantage of having a specialized caseload,
  • circumstances and factors in determining supervision level and
  • the frequency of reporting, and recommendations regarding sanctions.


Justice Clearinghouse Editors (JCH): This webinar is specifically about the Domestic Violence offender. In your experience, what makes this criminal unique?

Sara Mahoney: A domestic violence offender is dynamic; although they have certain patterns of behavior, attitudes and beliefs, their main goal is power and control. So, when a particular tactic doesn’t work or is no longer getting them what they want, they change. They can be chameleons, there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to this offender. It’s been my experience that these offenders are not only very good at leaving their victims confused and feeling that they are to blame for the way they are treated; they are also extremely adept at manipulating the system. They know how to be compliant and charming, but when challenged or confronted they can easily change that to being aggressive and threatening. Many perpetrators lack coping skills and have trauma histories of their own and these things need to be made part of their supervision. They won’t be able to acknowledge that their behavior is a choice until they can gain insight and work through the underlying beliefs that they use as their excuses.


“[Domestic Violence] offenders are not only very good at leaving their victims confused

and feeling that they are to blame for the way they are treated;

they are also extremely adept at manipulating the system.”


JCH: What are the most common myths about the DV Offender?

Sara: If you Google “myths about DV Offenders” you will get a long list of articles and publications all about this topic. Those of us that embed ourselves in these cases every day are all too familiar with common misconceptions surrounding this population.

  • Myth #1: There is no “one size fits all.” This was mentioned in the first question. Some perpetrators are not ever physical with their partners, some don’t have jealousy issues; all have a subset of “go to” behaviors that are specific to their relationships, but those behaviors are ever changing depending on the situation.


  • Myth #2: The status, or the assumption that domestic violence only affects certain populations. Domestic violence is alive and well in every neighborhood and across the globe. From the poorest of communities to the richest, this epidemic knows no bounds and does not discriminate. Financial exploitation and abuse often gets overlooked but may be an easy way for an offender to maintain control of their victim, especially if the abused partner is planning to leave or has left. Issues of alimony, support, housing and employment are a big piece of an overwhelming puzzle for a victim and a “trump card” so to speak for an offender to continue the abuse all while maintaining whatever image it is they are trying to uphold. In addition to finances, cultural or religious differences can also create a blurred line, especially for those that don’t understand the dynamics of abuse. This blurred line can be used as a justification to turn the other cheek and not address the problem.


  • Myth #3: The victims in these relationships are “weak.” Some of the strongest, most courageous people I have had the honor of knowing are the victims in these relationships. The victims make the choices they do to survive. How many of us have to go day by day, minute by minute thinking about ways to offset a potential war zone in our own homes? Many confident, independent people still end up in abusive relationships. Making the assumption that they don’t respect themselves or deserve it because they stay only serves to empower the abuser more. To allow victim blaming takes the spotlight off of the real reason for the problem-the abuser’s choices.


  • Lastly, Myth #4: “It’s a family problem.” It is society’s problem! Think of your neighborhood or the street that you live on even. The statistics say that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will be abused by an intimate partner, that domestic violence accounts for 19% of all violent crime, and that 1 in 15 children are exposed to domestic violence-with 90% being eyewitnesses to the violence! Think of those numbers and the effects these numbers have on our society as a whole. Think of the impact these statistics have on our mental health systems, medical systems, schools and the workplace. Every person in this country, in this world, are affected by the impact domestic violence has on these systems and yet it remains easier for people to “hear no evil, see no evil”. Interestingly, when people do decide to address the problem, the first question that gets asked relates to why the victim doesn’t leave, which only creates another barrier for that person. If we are going to effectively start acknowledging the violence for what it is, the questions need to lie with the abusers themselves. They are the only ones who can stop the abuse from continuing.



The Statistics: 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men will be abused by an intimate partner,

domestic violence accounts for 19% of all violent crime,

1 in 15 children are exposed to domestic violence, with 90% being eyewitnesses to the violence.



JCH: What are the biggest mistakes probation or parole officers make when first starting to supervise these types of offenders?

Sara: I think when we lose sight of our main role working with any case, but especially this caseload is a major issue. As line officers, we are responsible for keeping the community (victim) safe and holding the offender accountable. If we aren’t allowed or don’t take advantage of regular specialized training about domestic violence and all of its facets, we are potentially creating more risk to the victims and ourselves. When we buy into the myths and have predisposed judgements about the offenders as well as their victims, we are creating an atmosphere of ignorance; that will not only make it easier for an offender to manipulate us, but also give the victim more reason to distrust a system that has probably blamed them and not believed them historically. We don’t want to create or uphold an environment that shuts out the victims, keeping lines of communication open can be as beneficial for them as it is to us. We can’t assume that we know more about these offenders than they do, and if we are going to accomplish victim/community safety and offender accountability we need them to feel comfortable giving us information.



How many of us have to go day by day, minute by minute

thinking about ways to offset a potential war zone in our own homes?



I also never understood the importance of motivational interviewing until I started working with this population. DV Offenders especially don’t like admitting that it was their choices that led to the position they found themselves in. They also don’t like the idea of changing because they don’t feel they need to or they don’t know how. Their perceptions of relationships and interactions with others, particularly their partners don’t often line up with what is acceptable in society. Being comfortable with the tenets of motivational interviewing will get you much farther with this population than just telling them what they have to do; that will only end up in a power struggle. These offenders often have no respect for authority and don’t think the system should get involved in their “private matters”. Getting them on board means that we have to be willing to meet them where they are to an extent and having them find the benefit of changing their behavior. Granted, not all offenders will do this and we as Officers will have to do what is best to uphold our responsibilities. I have found that for many of the offenders that I work with, they’ve never had anyone tell them or show them that they are more than the “monster” they say the system has painted them to be.



“Remember, these offenders are someone’s dad, uncle, husband or brother.”

~Jim Henderson



JCH: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received that you think could benefit others in your field?

Sara: The biggest thing that has really stayed with me I heard a year ago in a training with James Henderson. Jim and I initially met when I attended the Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention’s Advanced Course in 2016. Before he became a trainer, he was a PO in Michigan who supervised DV Offenders. I found in talking with him that he and I shared a lot of the same thoughts and beliefs surrounding working with this population.

Last year, he did a training session with Casey Gwinn, Founder of Alliance For Hope and the Strangulation Training Institute. They were talking about childhood trauma, its effects and the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Although I had taken a certification course on Trauma-Informed Clinical Foundation and had learned a lot about trauma-informed care and its importance, I never really thought of it in terms of working with offenders; that is, until Jim said this…”Remember, these offenders are someone’s dad, uncle, husband or brother.”

It really drove home for me that just because they perpetrated in their adult life doesn’t discount that they likely have trauma from their childhood that hasn’t ever been identified, acknowledged or processed; and that there may be some of them that really do want to be a better dad, husband or man in general and if I am doing my job to the best of my ability, then I am going to do what I can to try to make that happen. When these abusers come on our caseloads, we can either look at our work with them as a catalyst to realize they are the only ones responsible for their behaviors or continue perpetuating the same cycle that only leads to more pain, trauma and death.


Click here to Register for: “Supervising the Domestic Violence Offender: What I’ve Learned from the Field.”