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  • Cristiana Tomasino and Adam Chetcuti

Summer Event: David Mandel - The Safe and Together Model

The following is a summary of the days event not a verbatim transcript of the training nor should be used in lieu of training. Any inaccuracies are the fault of the writers.

Event Summary:

The VFLPN (Pathways) presented: David Mandel – The Safe and Together Model on the 15th of February 2017. The event was a one day workshop; David Mandel was the main speaker and facilitator of the workshop with opening remarks provided by Tracy Beaton. Tracy set the scene and outlined the local context for David’s model while highlighting how David’s work is relevant in an Australian context. Tracy introduced David Mandel who then provided an introductory session on The Safe and Together Model. The workshop outlined the assumptions, principles and critical components of the model and explored key concepts and skills associated with a successful perpetrator focused domestic violence intervention. An important focus of the model is to partner with the domestic violence survivor, focusing on the safety and well-being of children. The workshop featured a variety of activities, group discussions and scenario work throughout the day.

David began the session by discussing the need to tell the story of violence to the Courts, emphasising that Courts simply respond to the issue presented and it is the professionals who have an obligation to relay the facts effectively. He acknowledged that male perpetrators repeatedly attempt to manipulate the system using their gender to gain leverage. Low expectations associated with men as parents result in perpetrators being perceived as ‘good fathers’ simply because they want access to their children and are willing to appear at Court. David asserted that fathers must be held to the same standard of care as mothers, and encouraged a shift in the dialogue of violence by taking away the responsibility misplaced on the mother and redirecting to the parenting choices of the perpetrating father.

The need to change the discourses and language describing domestic violence was a prominent part of the workshop. With ambiguous language such as ‘the couple has a history of violence’, David highlighted how such cryptic descriptions perpetuate superficial assessments of violence.

David acknowledged there are often difficulties in integrating or prioritising multiple issues with presenting clients. For example, where a mother experiences domestic violence and simultaneously has a drug abuse problem the domestic violence may be seen as secondary, or the result of her poor choices affiliated with drug use. When in reality, the mother may be failing to complete her drug program because of the violent partner’s actions (i.e. by preventing her from attending.) Therefore the pattern of domestic violence and drug use are circular with one factor influencing the other and must be contextualised in a holistic framework.

A key concept of the Safe and Together Model is that domestic violence perpetration is a parenting choice. Treating parenting and domestic violence as separate issues is ignorant of the huge overlap between the two and the fact that there are multiple pathways to harm. David indicated that the failure to acknowledge this connection is directly attributable to the deaths of children in domestic violence cases. Furthermore, it produces severe health impacts on the abused mother with direct implications for the child’s development; for example, a mother may develop mental health issues as a result of the domestic violence which in turn impacts on her ability to properly care for the child.

Violence towards the partner, whether or not the child is present, constitutes bad parenting and has flow on effects upon the child and on the family. The perpetrator needs to be made visible as a parent, the perpetrator’s behaviour and choices impact the family and they should be identified as such. Often the responsibility is taken away from the perpetrator by failing to acknowledge their footprint when it is not physically present. The scenario David provided was one in which the child was presenting behavioural problems while the father was in prison and labelling it an attachment issue with the mother at fault, the diagnosis ignoring the reality that the child’s behaviour is actually attributable to the father’s behaviours. As such, there needs to be more focus on how the perpetrator’s actions have impacted the functioning of the child and parent.

Context is important in to determining who is being the ‘good parent’. The behaviour of the perpetrator is necessary to understand the context of the victim’s actions. For example, in a situation where the child doesn’t have the phone number of his mother, on the face of the issue it would seem like bad parenting. However when contextualised it is revealed that she changed it so the perpetrator does not obtain it from the child, as has occurred on previous occasions. This scenario further outlined another issue of concern; when child contact with perpetrators post-separation is still maintained with no assessment of the father’s parenting or if the violence extended to the child. The dominant discourse in this situation is often mother-centric, the violence being viewed as a siloed ‘relationship issue’ between parents. However more questions need to be asked about the perpetrator’s behaviours by using evaluation tools to determine the risk of danger to the child.

David provided an outline of a domestic violence continuum which highlighted practices that a system could be measured against. The continuum categorised poor systemic responses to domestic violence as:

  1. Domestic Violence Destructive: systems that increase the danger and pushes away people from accessing system (e.g.; including expectations that it is up to the victim not to expose children to violence).

  2. Domestic Violence Neglectful: a one size fits all approach to domestic violence which fails to acknowledge the distinct characteristics that impact children and families differently. (e.g.; court systems that permit perpetrators and victims to stand side by side and expect the victim to be able to respond in this context).

  3. Domestic Violence Pre-Competent: systems which have a face value awareness of the existence and impacts of domestic violence but where staff is often not adequately trained to respect correctly.

Domestic violence-informed Child Welfare Systems, and the characteristics of an ideal system on the continuum, were identified as being:

  1. Domestic Violence Competent: systems with identifiable policies and practices that use child centred, perpetrator pattern based and survivor strength-based approaches, with a view that domestic violence is perceived as a core part of child welfare practices.

  2. Domestic Violence Proficient systems have policies and practices that are consistent, dependable and used throughout the entire welfare system.

A central focus of the Safe and Together Model involves looking at perpetrator pattern-based behaviours as part of domestic violence assessments. Perpetrator pattern-based approaches clearly define perpetrator behaviours instead of focusing on the behaviour of the adult survivors as the source of danger to the family. David outlined how it is more effective to describe the behavioural patterns instead of focusing on the relationship status of the couple. The model assumes the adult survivor is more likely to be an ally to child protection so it is important to learn what the survivor has tried to actively do to protect the child, understand the context of their actions, the background facts and day to day acts. By pointing out the good aspects of the victims’ actions and parenting you’re empowering the survivor and also encouraging good relationship building. This approach also promotes a higher standard for men as parents by asking questions about their behaviour in relation to rearing the child – what does the father specifically do to meet the child’s needs? The aim being to level out parental expectations and unpack the reality of experience so as to move away from gendered norms which hold fathers to a lower standard than mothers, in turn apportioning parental accountability.

When it comes to engaging perpetrators, David asserted that engaging fathers in conversations about their parenting behaviours and asking them to focus on the needs of the child was one of the greatest facilitators for positive change. By inviting fathers to question whether they are being held accountable as a parent, using accountable language and open ended questions, encourages them to reflect on the impact of their behaviour on the child and the functioning of the family as a unit. This further reemphasises the focus as being upon the behavioural patterns of the father and away from the conceived failures of the mother.

There needs to be a shift in focus about the status of the relationship, safety and well-being of the child, as separation will not always be the answer; these characteristics are not symbiotic. A geographical change of location does not automatically equate with safety, whether living at home or in a changed location. Perpetrators can maintain a stronghold over the victim through other means outside of a shared home. To place pressure on a victim to leave may only serve to unnecessarily antagonise them and move accountability away from the perpetrator’s behaviour. Additionally, the perpetrator’s behaviour produces ongoing effects notwithstanding their physical absence and the lingering effects of trauma can continue to disrupt family functioning long after their departure. Therefore assessments related to children and domestic violence must be focused on patterns of behaviour and their impact on family functioning opposed to geography or relationship status.

Drawing on the above premise, David invited the audience to consider the multiple pathways to harm which impact on the child, family functioning and the victim’s parenting; including loss of income, mental illness, housing instability, coercive control and more. These pathways are inherently interwoven and converge to collectively impinge on family functioning and the child’s wellbeing. As an example he highlighted how moving house has a multitude of negative ramifications for the child, including disrupting schooling and social ties, challenging the authority of the moving parent, which then may translate into child behavioural problems, and so forth.

David postulated that the overarching interventionist framework must be premised on child welfare, by asking the question, “What are we doing to intervene with the perpetrator to improve child and family functioning?” and focusing on four outcomes: safety, healing from trauma, stability and nurturance.

Throughout the day, David offered a range of practice tips, working scenarios and skills for professionals to apply in their relevant fields. Attendees participated in a practical activity which involved watching a short film then writing an example case plan from both a domestic violence destructive and perpetrator pattern-based perspective, in order to draw comparisons and identify best practice. He again reiterated that high standards need to be set for perpetrators as parents and suggested this be imbued in case plans, and further outlined a child welfare perpetrator checklist and family law practice tips built upon this premise. Notably, he strongly encouraged enhanced information sharing between service providers by making communications more domestic violence informed to facilitate accountability across the board, and partnering together to support and strengthen the victim’s ability to act in ways that are supportive of the child and family functioning in the context of the domestic abuse perpetrator’s behaviour pattern.

An outline of the key themes, principles and discussion of the workshop can be outlined as follows:

  1. If you can’t describe a perpetrators pattern of behaviour it will be hard to a risk assessment as you’re not able to see the full picture of the situation.

  2. Abandon perception that thing that equates to protecting the child is to leave the relationship – not realistic, can be unnecessarily antagonistic to the victim.

  3. Domestic violence perpetration is a parenting choice; important to acknowledge that to the victim- builds trust and a better working relationship, reaffirms confidence.

  4. Safe and Together Principles :

  5. Keeping child safe and together with non-offending parent

  6. Partnering with non-offending parent as default position

  7. Intervening with perpetrator to reduce risk and harm to child.

  8. Vast majority of children exposed to violence still have contact with the perpetrating parent; child’s safety in relation to the perpetrating parent is often not assessed.

  9. Domestic violence-informed continuum – DVD, DVN, DVPC, DVC AND DVP.

  10. Focus on Perpetrator Pattern – Base.

  11. Gendered expectations of parenting – negative effects on child and family functioning.

  12. Multiple Pathways to Harm – perpetrator exasperation of issues…and practice tips.

  13. Tips and skills – discussions and scenarios throughout the day.

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