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  • Adam Chetcuti

Autumn Forum ‘Engaging with Perpetrators of Family Violence’

The VFLPN Autumn Forum focused on the theme of ‘Engaging with Perpetrators of Family Violence’. The event aimed to emphasise the need for perpetrator focused practice and how family law practitioners and case workers can engage with family violence perpetrators. The event was organised in a panel style presentation with speakers Rodney Vlais, Thea Brown and Elena Campbell talking for 20 minute blocks before the floor was opened up for an audience discussion around the issue.

The first speaker, Rodney Vlais, Manager of No to Violence was charged with framing the issue of perpetrator focused practice and the need to engage with perpetrators. He addressed the need to move the focus away from women and questions such as ‘why don’t they leave?’ and instead on holding perpetrators accountable. Men perpetrating family violence cause women to become isolated, whether intentional or not and often take on a victim stance. The perpetrator sets up particular expectations of a woman and when she doesn’t meet those expectations, he believes he has a right to punish her because he feels he is the victim. Thus the perpetrator isolates the woman from other people who have dissenting views. Rodney also raised the issue of children in relationships with family violence in that male perpetrators of violence have a high proportion of directly harming their children as well; children are often affected by the perpetrator’s propaganda of violence. Rodney stated that it is difficult for men to recognise, even after having completed a behavioural change program, that their actions have hurt their children, nor do they understand what they can do to help their children overcome the trauma. In concluding his comments, Rodney highlighted the needs for an organisation to help men to be able to have these kinds of conversations with the women in their lives.

Professor Thea Brown, a social work professor from Monash University, spoke about her longitudinal study on the impact of men’s behaviour change programs (MBCP) on both the male in the program and their partners. The study focused on two questions:

1. ‘How well do MBCPs work?’; and 2. ‘How well do we use them?’.

The study followed men over a two year period – participants were surveyed at the start of a MBCP, at its completion and then one year after, then again the following year. The study also looked at partners of individuals who had completed MBCP but not necessarily the partners of the men surveyed as they were difficult to engage. Participants ranged between 18 to 70 years of age with the median age being around 40 years of age. In terms of why participants were involved in the MBCP: 35% were ordered to attend by the court, 17.5% attended on court recommendation, 12% told by partner and 36.5% attended of their own accord. As the report had not yet been completed, Thea was only able to present preliminary findings which indicated that men improved considerably through the program but they fell short of using ‘no violence’. However, curiously, with further time away from the program participant trajectory moved further towards no violent responses. The study’s preliminary conclusions thus far suggest that the use of MBCPs could be better with more consistent follow up with program participants, that participants with mental health issues should receive additional support while undertaking the program not after, and that MBCP’s should include a component that focuses on parenting. Recommendations for the court were that the court should order - not recommend- and include post program professional support in the orders, and that judges should wait until after an assessment report from a MBCP before making final orders.

The final speaker, Elena Campbell from the Centre for Innovative Justice (CIJ), discussed the 2015 CIJ report ‘Opportunities for Early Intervention: Bringing Perpetrators of Family Violence into View’. Elena criticised the system as being designed to wait until a crime has been committed, she spoke of the failure of a reactive family law system to interact with the broader system as too often the detached operation of the court serves to propel perpetrators away from the system. The perspective of writing the report was to investigate what it would look like if the system became more interactive and what would that change look like. The aim was to encourage perpetrators to interact with the court not as a tertiary response but as an early intervention and in turn promote the court to interrupt the trajectory of family violence by monitoring, re-engaging with perpetrators and making sure they are aware of agencies. Promoting an agile and adaptable approach by the court and a preparedness to work with perpetrators towards change could free the court to deal with more high risk matters. Elena advocated that family violence cannot be pushed out of sight as it is widespread and societal. The predominant issues being that men do not often engage with family violence based programs, nor are they held to account for their violence or behaviour in general as they’re not seeking help for associated issues either. In discussing what can be done to engage with men Elena identified:

 Initial contact with police should include referral to appropriate programs.

 Duty Lawyers should be trained in identifying and responding to family violence.

 Judges need to make more orders - an interesting suggestion was made that in line with a system of ‘patriarchy’, once orders are made men will follow.

 Correction orders and monitoring in prison being used as screening, but also focusing on reform of family violence in prison as family violence sentences tend to be short.

 Crisis accommodation for men committing family violence; as good to remove them from home/their partner’s presence but need to follow with accommodation.

In concluding her discussion Elena tied in the response of the royal commission with her report and noted similarities in that both identified the need to shift fear away from investing in men will detract from women as the aim to help women cannot occur without first attacking the problem. Cultural change is needed, not just societally but within organisations as well who need to shift their attention to a perpetrator focused model.

The last portion of the forum was a discussion panel in which the audience was invited to ask questions – many enthusiastic participants took part. An example from the discussion panel was a question relating to how can practitioners (in this case a lawyer) speak to a client without alienating him but nevertheless challenging their family violence centric dialogue. Rodney fielded the question indicating that general advice can be problematic as it will depend on professional and organisational code of conduct but suggested a practitioner might respond in a way that challenges the client to think about their behaviour for example:

“In a situation where a male client talks about the financial waste of his partner a thoughtful response might be “sounds like money worries are a big thing for you and your family – but how do you act when under this stress, what might others see you do?”.

Rodney indicated that his organisation, No to Violence, offers training that can be tailored for specific professions. The event was concluded with a suggestion from Francesca Gerner, the event’s facilitator, of the possibility of the VFLPN working with No to Violence to offer such training and indications from the audience were positive at such a suggestion.

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