Helping Boys Be Boys, Not Abusers


At school this year, 14-year-old David studied geometry, biology and the usual eighth-grade curriculum. At home, he took in lessons of a different dimension.

"Like if I had a wife and I hit her, she would leave me, and then she would not be my wife anymore," David said.

With his mother, two younger sisters and little brother, David fled a violent father just over a year ago. The comfortable old Victorian house that has sheltered them since has offered refuge and reeducation, a place where they could learn to be a family.

As part of a novel domestic violence prevention effort geared to mothers and their adolescent sons, David took classes this year aimed at avoiding the abusive behavior he saw growing up. With other boys his age who also moved into the home with their mothers, David learned how healthy families express anger. He learned about respect. With counselors intent on keeping these vulnerable young males from becoming the next generation of abusers, David and the other teenage boys talked about girls and dating--"all the stuff that's usually secret," David said.

In the Mothers and Adolescent Sons house--the acronym is MAS, Spanish for "more"--the steady, trusting atmosphere contrasts sharply with the volatile worlds these boys left behind.

Gradually they have warmed to the attention of trained and caring staffers. At nightly meetings they addressed the hard truths behind domestic violence--a pattern of behavior experts say is hereditary and intergenerational. Before they moved into the home, David's mother said she worried nonstop that her sons would repeat their father's violence.

"Todo el tiempo," she said through an interpreter: "All the time."

The intensive, residential program launched here by New England's largest system of shelters for battered women and children is highly unusual. In domestic violence circles, teenage boys often are seen as potential predators: too disruptive, too defiant to be helped. Most shelters will not accept boys 12 or older. So mothers face the impossible choice of staying in a violent home, leaving a teenage son with an abusive father or further splitting the family by farming out the boy.

"It was a recurring issue that came up often when people called our hotline for help," said Monica Roizner, director of clinical and community services for Casa Myrna Vasquez Inc., the parent organization for MAS. The nonprofit network of battered women's shelters and services is named for a Puerto Rican actress who fought against domestic violence.

Roizner said she looked around the country but could find no model for a facility that houses as many as six sets of mothers, adolescent sons and younger children. Other than MAS, she could find nothing with the joint goal of treatment and prevention, "no specific program designed for boys," Roizner said.

To Roizner, the decision to focus on adolescent males reflects a maturing within the quarter-century-old domestic violence movement. "In the past, people were thinking about the women and about little kids," she said. "Teenagers just don't present as friendly, or as warm and fuzzy."

But psychologist William S. Pollack, director of the Center for Men at Harvard University's McLean Hospital, said the oversight was less benign.

Worse than just being overlooked, adolescent boys were excluded from domestic violence rehabilitation efforts "based on the unwitting belief that boys are toxic and are going to become more toxic as they get older. The idea was you wanted to keep them away, because they were going to become men who are dangerous anyway," said Pollack, author of "Real Boys."

Boys, Pollack said, "were given the message that they were unsafe objects. They were seen as potential perpetrators, and the very thing we didn't want them to do, which was to become perpetrators, we were virtually pushing them into."

The prophecy about boys and domestic violence turns out to be self-fulfilling. Social psychologist Angela Browne of the Harvard School of Public Health cited a study that ranked boys raised in violent homes as five times more likely to become violent in future relationships than boys reared in non-abusive settings.

Browne, author of "When Battered Women Kill," praised the MAS approach as "a significant national model." Allowing adolescent boys to remain part of a family if they are forced to move from a violent home is crucial, she said.

"And terribly important, of course, to mothers who love their sons," she pointed out. "As a society, we should never have forced women to choose between living in a home where they and their children face violence and going to a shelter where they must leave behind one or more of their children."

Because they fear retribution, David and his mother asked that their full names be withheld. While David listened and his younger siblings drew pictures on a recent afternoon, his mother told the story of how they came to seek safety at the MAS house.

Fifteen days into her marriage in 1985, her husband began beating her, the 47-year-old nurse from Mexico said. "I thought this was normal, and that someday it would pass," she said.

But the violence grew worse, to the point that her husband would not let her out of the house to go to work. Though her children were not targets, they began "acting tough"--especially David. When one child developed a persistent rash, the doctor said it was psychosomatic--a result of "going through all the violence."

Through a speaker in her English class, the mother learned about Casa Myrna Vasquez. Fortunate timing, she said, made her the first mother to move with her children into the MAS house last year.

But David said he made the move reluctantly. Leaving his friends, his neighborhood and his school was hard, and at first he found it lame to sit around with other boys and a social worker and talk about their experiences. Soon, David changed his opinion.

One big lesson that came from these sessions was what to do with anger--something David said his father has yet to learn.

"You try to calm yourself down," David said, "then talk, so you won't get into fights."

By learning more about their mother and her efforts to keep the family together, David said he and his siblings came to feel "more united" as a family.

They are the first family to graduate from the MAS house and are preparing to move to an apartment near Boston this month. Roizner said Casa Myrna Vasquez staff will stay in close touch with the family, with hopes of conducting long-term evaluations of each set of mothers and children.

After a year in the old Victorian residence, David said, "I don't want to leave."

He takes with him a deep abhorrence for domestic violence.

"What's the point of it?" David asked. "If you love someone, why would you hit her?"

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World