ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — A Spectrum News 13 Watchdog investigation uncovers no government agency is monitoring a state program meant to prevent domestic violence offenders from reoffending.

What You Need To Know

  • No government agency overseeing Batterers' Intervention Program

  • Estranged husband of Nicole Montalvo was in program at time of her murder

  • "Families Against Abuse" coordinator says people are falling through the cracks

In fact, no one at the county or state level could supply any data tracking whether offenders completed the training or not.

Batterers’ Intervention Program, or BIP, is meant protect survivors and children. It’s a 26 to 29-week program meant to address behaviors involving power and control.

One high-profile murder suspect had been assigned to take the course. Christopher Otero-Rivera, the man charged with killing his estranged wife Nicole Montalvo, was enrolled in a court-ordered BIP program at the time of her murder.

Ann Rufiange, the owner of the BIP “Families Against Abuse,” believes these programs are vital to breaking the cycle of violence.

Rufiange explains there aren’t a lot of training programs focusing on the batterer.

“Unfortunately these same people after they go through the program or after the domestic violence, they’re still parents, and they’re still going to be seeing their children,” she said.

That is why Rufiange is so concerned with how BIPs are currently handled. She told Spectrum News 13, she believes individuals are falling through the cracks.

Before 2012, the Department of Children and Families oversaw BIPs. DCF reviewed each program. If it met state criteria, DCF then certified the program. But in 2012, Florida lawmakers voted to end that oversight and hand the responsibility to each judicial circuit court — a responsibility Ninth Judicial Circuit Court Judge Alice Blackwell says they don’t have the funding for.

“Unlike pre-2012, when DCF would go out and check to make sure they were doing that, we don’t have that check now, and we’re having to rely on the self-reporting of the program,” Blackwell said.

Blackwell told Spectrum News she has concerns about whether BIPs uphold the court’s standards.

“Pre-2012, I had some sense of confidence that DCF was checking and knew what was going on,” she said.

Cathy Mathwig, the director of the BIP “Abolish Abuse,” worries not every program actually meets the required standards. She wants lawmakers to put BIPs back under DCF’s oversight.

“We know it’s around more than four women a day are dying at the hands of their domestic partners. It’s a serious problem,” Mathwig said.

It’s a problem once again in the spotlight after investigators found the body of St. Cloud resident Nicole Montalvo dismembered in October 2019. Her estranged husband, Christopher Otero-Rivera, and his father Angel Rivera are now charged in connection to her murder.

Otero-Rivera has a history of domestic violence against Montalvo dating back to 2016, according to court records.

In June 2019, a judge ordered Otero-Rivera to enroll in a BIP. Court records indicate at the time of Montalvo’s death, Otero-Rivera’s BIP status was listed as “in progress,” but documents do not list a specific program.

Blackwell says while she is not allowed to comment on pending cases, in general, when a person is enrolled in batterer’s intervention and making progress in the course, it is one of the times that is typically the safest for survivors.

Does the program work?

We asked the court for recidivism rates to pinpoint which programs have the highest rate of repeat violent offenders. The court told us it doesn’t track that data.

Spectrum News compiled our own data, examining 155 cases dating back to 2015.

Twenty-six were ordered to attend a BIP. Less than half the offenders successfully completed the program, and some offenders who failed to enroll went on to offend again.

Of the offenders who did graduate the program, in the cases we looked at, none went on to re-offend.

“That’s the true value of the BIP is that it gives people the chance, if they’re willing to make a change and, they’re changing something they’ve learned from a very early age,” Blackwell said.

We spoke with Wilfredo Perez, who enrolled in “Families Against Abuse” earlier this year after an incident involving the mother of his children.

Perez, who graduated his program, says he wanted to share his story and is grateful for the understanding and insight he’s learned. 

“Honestly, I felt it was important because there might be someone out there in my same situation, and if I can help one person that can change a lot, because that one person can help another person and so on and so forth,” he said.

According to the Florida Courts website, there are currently 11 BIPs in the Ninth Judicial Circuit. In 2012, the last year DCF had oversight, there were 4.

Our Spectrum News 13 crew filmed some of this video before the pandemic.