Program’s powerful curriculum built on founder’s real-life experience
October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month
Cherie McNaulty, a crime survivor, turned a horrible ordeal into educating San Quentin residents on the impact of domestic violence. The Healing, Empowerment, Accountability, Restoration and Transformation (HEART) program helps incarcerated participants to recognize the patterns of domestic violence and address the issues surrounding abuse.
“I am a survivor of horrific acts of violence in my childhood, as well as part of my adult life,” said McNaulty, founder and organizer of HEART, in an interview. “The thing that motivated me to start this program was that I needed to reach others by sharing my story and to help them understand that there are alternatives to the cycle of violence.”
McNaulty’s story and experience prompt many of the participants to reflect on their offenses. Many from the group approach her with apologies and tears for their victims. Responses like these give McNaulty hope that she can turn everything she suffered into purposeful work.
“For me it is a dream to be able to share my experiences and have a positive effect on others. I know and want to believe that if my abusers had this information, then maybe they would have made different choices,” said McNaulty. “And now others that have abused may make a different choice with this information in the future because [the] bottom line for me [is] I believe that people can change.”
The HEART class currently consists of 60 participants who gather in circles of ten, called “home groups.” Incarcerated facilitators join with participants to form six such circles, and then the workshops begin. The groups comply with COVID-19 social-distancing protocols.
The two-hour class is held once a week with focus on the members’ written reflections, known as prompts, followed by group discussion. There are three modalities: the Duluth educational model, CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy), and Family Values (predisposed to family violence). All are trauma-informed.
“This domestic violence program is a blessing for me. It allows me to further my insight into my distorted belief system that contributed to my violence against women,” said Tare Beltranchuc, a San Quentin resident and HEART facilitator. “It is my hope that one day I can bring this information to the men in my community in Mexico, where it is much needed.”
In order to address and fix patterns of domestic violence, participants have to recognize the issues surrounding abuse. Until that happens, one will fall short of healthy relationships, says McNaulty.
She asks class members to examine their idea of family values and the role of a man.
“They don’t take this course and are then just cured,” she said. “To understand beliefs and values, that’s the hardest thing to challenge. To develop pro-social skills, to learn what positive and negative relationship looks like … first, it’s about defining domestic violence, because if you don’t know, you don’t know. The main thing many don’t know is domestic violence does not have to be physical.
“Men being open and showing compassion for each other and self is key, and they are really good at sharing with a lot of transparency,” she added.
Module 1:6 asks participants to define sexual assault. Why does it happen? Who are the victims? What types of emotions do you think are involved? What are some of the myths surrounding sexual violence? And, finally, can men be sexually assaulted?
McNaulty asked her participants, what is “dharma”? After listening to a few of their responses, she explained that dharma is like a chair where you feel safe and no one can take the space from you.
“I believe most perpetrators of harm were victims themselves, and I hope that I could turn the curse into a blessing,” said McNaulty. “I have to consistently work on healing the inner child because that person wants to be recognized and healed and loved because that person wasn’t heard as a child.”
McNaulty’s domestic violence curriculum is both a response and a challenge to the way other programs sometimes use shame tactics that stop the destructive behavior temporarily but do not change the participant’s belief system with regard to domestic violence.
“The Cycle of Shame” incorporated into her curriculum consists of four prompts that are written about, followed with open discussion. The prompts were to discuss a time you made a mistake or engaged in destructive behavior; a time you felt shame, guilt and regret to justify thinking or doing abusive things to yourself; if you ever dwelled on a mistake or felt too depressed to have a plan to make amends or correct your mistake; and finally, a time you decided to cheer yourself up by engaging in risky or destructive behaviors such as bad bad habits or addictions.
McNaulty reminded the class that they cannot make anyone else do anything; they can only control themselves. She shared how triggers can lead to violence, but how they now have the tools to walk away from conflicts.
“Not everybody is where you are at, not everyone has done the program,” she stressed. “At some point in time you need to believe in yourself. People can be addicted to the drama and the cycle of it … You will attract the same type of people, the same person with a different name. It’s about mindfulness of what [you are] bringing to the situation.”
McNaulty has been volunteering at San Quentin for over seven years. She started with restorative justice circles for the No More Tears program before founding the HEART program. She’s grateful for the support the prison’s administration has extended to keep the program going in the face of a succession of lockdowns caused by COVID-19 variants.
Program participants are also appreciative. “I am really grateful that they have a domestic violence program here at San Quentin,” said participant O. Reitz. “This program will help to build healthy relationships.”
Participant Robert Kuikahi added, “I am interested in obtaining positive input that I can apply to future relationships. I grew up in a dysfunctional home; not as much physical but mental and verbal abuse.”
Because of her own experience with domestic violence, a lot of people ask her, “How can you even be around men?”
“I get challenged a lot out there, ‘Why do you do this? Aren’t you afraid of them in there?’ I am not afraid when I am here [in San Quentin],” she said. “I see genuine hearts seeking answers to the challenges they have faced as humans, and we can discuss these issues on common ground and that’s when healing happens,” she said.
“It’s cliché, but the program really is my heart. I was really excited to come up with the acronym that fit,” said McNaulty. “It’s a process and everyone is learning and I am, too. If we all really work on having healthy relationships, the world would be a better place. Healing starts in the heart.”