2023 Presidential Scholar Essay Contest Dr. Amie Zarling

By Alexandra Feigin

Let me begin by saying how grateful I am for this essay contest.

I had never heard of Dr. Amie Zarling, but reading about the program she designed to help decrease domestic violence recidivism with sexual offenders immediately piqued my interest, not only as a student of behavior analysis but also as a teacher, a woman, a mother, and a partner. Her dedication to this public health emergency is nothing short of inspiring and gives me pause to think how I will use my powers as a behavior analysist when that time comes.

Dr. Zarling’s work with The Iowa Department of Corrections honors the field of behavior analysis in many ways. Her efforts have produced behavior change by using evidence-based procedures, the premier goal of behavior analysis. It is improving the lives of millions of children and their families. 95% of kids living in homes with domestic violence are directly exposed to violent conflicts. That means 15 million children in the United States are affected.

I cannot imagine a better way to improve the lives of others than to tackle a serious public health crisis like domestic violence. By reducing family violence, Dr. Zarling is breaking chains for generations to come. She is quite literally eliminating children’s exposure to traumatic events.

The most widespread model to combat domestic violence began in the 1980’s, called the “Deluth” model. A sociological and community-based approach, it holds perpetrators accountable for their abusive behavior using cognitive interventions. While it sounds like a reasonable intervention it has, unfortunately, been shown to be ineffective. Dr. Zarling noted that while there was a wealth of information regarding the characteristics of these perpetrators, their personalities and cognitions, there was little progress in treating them.

In response, she created ACTV (Achieving Change Through Value-Based Behavior), a program aimed at reducing recidivism among violent offenders. Based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which relies on behavior analysis principles and techniques, the program focuses on achieving change through value-based behavior. On average, domestic violence offenders experience four–five traumatic events in their lifetime whereas the typical individual may have one. By taking a trauma informed approach, her goal is to work with this population in a more holistic way. Rather than cognitive intervention which focuses on unlearning what one knows, ACTV centers around acceptance and compassion.

During her research, Dr. Zarling realized the biggest obstacle to effecting change was not with the offenders but with the program’s facilitators. She reasoned that if she could teach them how to be more compassionate and less punitive in their approaches with this population, effective change could happen.

While working with them, Dr. Zarling came to discover the ways in which they interacted with these domestic abusers had more to do with their own issues, their own biases, and triggers than who the offender happened to be. In many cases, it mattered most if these offenders had taken responsibility for their crimes. Dr. Zarling instructed the facilitators that if these issues were not in service to achieving the goal (for example, to reduce rearrest), to let them go. What a powerful message. If not in service to achieving the goal, let it go. And they did. They learned to let go. Dr. Zarling described many of them reporting back that the program was changing their own lives, as well.

As behavior analysts, we are reminded to be compassionate with each client interaction. We assume that any person in our care for problem behavior has experienced numerous adverse events, so we are mindful of our own effect on them. Dr. Zarling is training her program facilitators to interact with these domestic abusers in the same way. That is, to consider the possible childhood trauma these offenders experienced, to consider their mental health, to consider their negative thoughts about their self or women. To begin to look at these abusers as individuals who do not have the skills to be good partners.

In a one-year follow-up study, data from victims of domestic violence was the strongest indicator of ACTV’s success. Women, whose partners had completed the ACTV program, reported that their partners had significantly lower levels of anger and less adverse experiences than previously. The men also had fewer violations and committed fewer nonviolent crimes. In other words, it worked.

Dr. Zarling has been asked to extend her program to other states. Hopefully, she will find the support she needs to accomplish this. Anything that helps reduce family violence must be given our full attention. As far as disseminating the process and principles of ACTV, I would think Behavioral Skills Training would be the perfect fit, showing (once more) a strong connection between her work and behavior analysis.

We cannot ignore the fact that many more domestic violence crimes are committed and never reported.

Although it is clear more preventative measures need to be sought out, one cannot help but feel hopeful after ACTV’s progress. Using a trauma informed approach, Dr. Zarling has joined the countless number of behavior analysts who work with vulnerable populations to make their lives better. By teaching them these needed skills and giving them the tools to become better partners, Dr. Zarling is giving the entire family a second chance. I look forward to reading about her future work and seeing ACTV implemented in more parts of the United States and the world.

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