It Is Always a Choice


He was living life as he knew it to be — as he and other young boys just like him had learned from watching parents, grand- parents, aunties, and uncles. It was a life of male-dominated power and control — until his life went spiraling out of control.

"I was convicted of domestic abuse by strangulation. That is a felony charge. I also got caught using meth and my brother got taken away, all at the same time," said Joseph Charette, a Mille Lacs Band member. "I was not in a good place with my life."

That was five years ago.

Joseph’s life has drastically changed, and as he put it, "I made a choice to change my life — to change my behaviors and take responsibility for my actions. I learned to be accountable. I'm going to be honest — it wasn't easy. I had to work at it, and I knew if I didn't change and didn't put in the work, it would be the same all over again like a merry-go-round."

"It is always a choice," said Desiree Montonye, M.S., the Mille Lacs Band Behavioral Health Department’s Batterer's Intervention facilitator. "The use of violence and power and control tactics over another person is always a choice. These are learned behaviors and they can be unlearned. Domestic violence is caused by a belief that you have; it is not caused by alcohol, drugs, and anger — those just make it easier to do and to validate the behavior."

Desiree explained that BIP is focused on keeping women, children, and families safe while working with the community to create an environment free from violence through educa- tion, awareness, and social change, and return to communities of equality and respect between one another. It is a 28-week group education program that meets one time a week for two hours. It began with a grant from the Violence Against Women Act with training and curriculum used from the Duluth Model that has been implemented all over the country. After the initial three-year grant was over, the Mille Lacs Band Health and Human Services Department saw the value in the program and continues to provide funding. The Mille Lacs Band program is designed with the Mending the Sacred Hoop program material, which is specific to the American Indian communities.

"The program is open-enrollment," Desiree said. "Participants can start anytime, beginning with an orientation to the program. Orientation walks them through what the group will look like. We want them to be comfortable, because they have to participate fully. They have to share and talk about the violence they were convicted of and also the violence that maybe nobody has ever been told about — not just the things they got caught for. This is a no judgment zone. But they have to participate and they have to be respectful to one another."

She continued by saying most of the group members who are participating are also currently in the Mille Lacs County Domestic Violence Court, or are under ISR (Intensive Supervision Release), regular county probation, Department of Corrections Probation, or are self-referrals.

Don't put it off

After Joseph was arrested, charged, and released from jail, he was living in a halfway house in September 2014 and trying to live a sober life, he said. "I kept putting it off [enrolling in the BIP] because I was trying to get all that other stuff done. At the time, I didn't think it was very important, you know?" he said with a smile. "Then I started the class in October and I didn't like it. I did not like the fact that she was telling me my beliefs were wrong. I felt attacked because that was what I believed my whole life. I was told by all the females in my life — my mom, grandma, aunties — that if she is man enough to hit you, she is man enough for you to hit her back, or do anything I want to her, like strangle her."

Desiree explained that children who witness domestic violence while growing up may repeat the pattern of abuse by becoming a victim or an abuser themselves when they get older. The group discusses the Equality Wheel (healthy relationships), the Power and Control Wheel (unhealthy relationships) and focuses on Action, Intent, Belief, and Effects through group discussions and role playing, Desiree said. "We also discuss cultural history and social influences that contribute to domestic violence. We focus on the belief that violence is a learned behavior and it can be unlearned. We learn that we each need to be held ac- countable for our actions and be responsible for our behaviors — that it is always a choice and we have to be responsible for our choices." Joseph kept going back to the group. "I was going through the classes and staying sober at the same time. I thought to myself, I just have to do the class and do it to the best of my ability. It forced me to look at my behaviors and take responsibility. Sometimes you don't like to look at the bad stuff you did. But it is an important part of change."

Joseph admitted he did have a relapse. "I'll be honest. I got a DANCO violation. And I kept minimizing it, saying it wasn't that big of a deal," he said, shaking his head. "Apparently I didn't learn my lesson the first time. And I was almost done with the program."

"If you miss more than two classes or re-offend, those are rules for termination," Desiree said. "That is part of the accountability."

"I made the decision to hop right back in. I knew I had to start the class over because of one mistake," Joseph said. "I went straight to Desiree to talk to her about it."

As he finished up the program in 2015, Desiree encouraged him to consider becoming a co-facilitator in the class. "What I saw in him was he didn't hide it. He owned it. It's not easy. I always tell the groups, 'You are more than what brought you here, but because what brought you here was kind of ugly, we have to talk about it and work on it.' And it can be done. Joseph also has a way of connecting with people that is real. He is very polite and appropriate with other group members."

Stepping up

There have been times in class where other members try to make excuses for their behavior, Desiree said. "But Joseph steps up and says, 'hey, I went through the same thing. It is always a choice. You have a choice to come here every week. You have a choice to be sober. You may not always like to hear it, but it is always your choice. It's all on you.' He doesn't call them out, he simply reminds them of their choice."

About six months after he finished the class, Joseph agreed to go through the training to become a co-facilitator and went through the vetting process. "I felt like I was missing something — like I was incomplete," he said. After he was approved, he went through training in the Duluth model and continuing education with OJP conferences.

"You have to be willing to really look at yourself and do the work you need to do to change. Yes, there is some shame. What I did was shameful," Joseph said. "But I am not going to hide it. I know I have to take responsibility for my own actions."

Joseph said his outlook has shifted. He realized that he had been using all of the tactics of power and control most of his life and he didn’t realize he was doing it. "I do now," he said. "You can't go back. You don't get a do-over. There is nothing magic about it. It is easier to go back to your old beliefs. Change is hard. But it's worth it."

"It is all about shifting that paradigm and looking at things through another's eyes," Desiree said. That paradigm shift is the change that happens when the usual ways of behavior and beliefs are replaced by a new and different way.

Joseph said his mission is to continue to grow and to share his experience. "Everything I went through, and the help I got from this class...I hope I can return that and help others — anyone who wants to get help."

BIP meets two days a week at the Public Health building in D1 and in Hinckley in D3. For more information, contact Desiree at the Behav- ioral Health Department at 320-532-8909.