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  • Adam Chetcuti

Working with Male Perpetrators of Family Violence

The VFLPN’s (Pathways) winter forum entitled Working with Male Perpetrators of Family Violence occurred on the 29th of June 2017. Key note speaker Scott Mills, Practice Development Specialist for Family Violence at Relationships Australia Victoria, presented on strategies and approaches on how to successfully provide support to a male perpetrator while remaining non-collusive. Anita Morris, Chief Practitioner Family Violence for DHHS, discussed the issue from a child’s perspective and how family violence impacts a child and Elicia Savvas and Nerida Mulvey, Senior Lawyers at Victoria Legal Aid, presented a lawyers perspective of how to best engage a client who has perpetrated family violence and challenge their behaviour while continuing to act in their best interests. The forum concluded with an audience Q and A

Note: The event summary is a generalised account of the forum speaker’s presentation, not a verbatim transcript. This report is designed for readers to get an idea of the forums content in lieu of a reliable audio recording.

Scott Mills – Practice Development Specialist for Family Violence, Relationships Australia


Mills began his presentation by discussing why a practitioner intervenes. When we intervene we need to place the responsibility where it belongs, that is upon the perpetrator, by focusing on the crux of the issue which is that violence is about power and control. As part of the intervention it is important to engage the attitudes that support violence to encourage broader societal change.

He acknowledged that it is difficult to engage with a client and have the difficult conversations with them. Perpetrators are good at painting a picture with their perspective as the truth, it is important to remain interested and curious. He also acknowledged it can be difficult to know what to do and that concerns over whether a particular approach will minimize or increase the risk of violence is common. Mills rebutted this concern by reminding the audience that there will always be risk no matter what and at all stages of the intervention. There are challenges of accountability, how do you hold a perpetrator to account? It is important to bring the focus back onto the perpetrator if they want to go off topic. Remember that it is not the role of the practitioner to punish the perpetrator. If a practitioner treats the perpetrator respectfully then they will be in a better position to challenge their behaviour and work with them. He also noted that it is important to understand who your client is and who you are responsible for, is it the perpetrator, his partner or child? A practitioner has to relate to the perpetrator while working for the benefit of the victims.

Mills defined collusion as:

“An agreement between people to act together secretly or illegally in order to decide or cheat someone.”

Yet in the context of practise, he defined collusion as:

“Any response that encourages the perpetrators violence supporting narrative, this can include; agreement with the clients perspective or silence.”

When attempting to intervene, a practitioner needs to understand what are they trying to achieve? Are they trying to minimalize risk, or have the perpetrator reflect on their responsibility and choices, or to facilitate appropriate referrals. Mills noted it is important to get the referral the right way – because the perpetrator wants to work on their behaviour, not because “it’ll look good in court.” It is important for the practitioner to understand their own perspectives on family violence, and once they have understood leave it at the door. The practitioner should also be realistic about what can reasonably be achieved within their circumstances and the time they spend with the client – if they’re only seeing them over 6 weeks it may not be enough time for a complete ‘recovery’ but merely enough time to lay foundations. He reiterated his theme of respecting the client in that is important to be respectful to the perpetrator in order to relate to them and determine their values. Understanding their values can go a long way in opening doors based on open and curious discussion, do they love their kids? By using what matters to the client they can use it as an entry way to changing their behaviour.

Mills painted the picture of the presenting behaviour of a perpetrator. Perpetrators minimalize their role by blaming their partner and exaggerating their own injuries. They claim that violence is a two-way street or that the incident was just a fight. They may mention that they have been falsely accused of being abusive before, insist on being called a victim, are often very manipulative and claim that the incident was a one-off. Mills indicated that you can find out a lot of information by asking about disputes in their family life, by inquiring how the perpetrator handles the dispute or conflict and how they discipline their children.

Mills made reference to DiCliementre and Prochaska’s Stages of Change graph with reference to pre-contemplation and contemplation behaviour as a useful tool to review the position of the perpetrator. The pre-contemplation stage relates to the perpetrators state prior to the intervention, and the aim of the intervention being to move him into the contemplation stage. Which Mills identifies, becomes a possibility when considering what is possible within the relevant timeframes and focusing on where to move to next. Mills stated that it is the responsibility of the practitioner to meet the perpetrator where he is and to find a relatable position, for example, he has never been a woman experiencing family violence but at some point he may have been a child experiencing violence.

Mills then went through his examples of presenting behaviours of a perpetrator, identifying opportunities, goals and suggestions on how to approach the issue.

When exhibiting blaming behaviour, i.e. assigning blame to someone else whether, it is his partners fault, the police, or the court. There is some opportunity in that the perpetrator is acknowledging on some level that they have been violent. In this situation the goal of practitioner is to support a shift towards the perpetrator owning their own behaviour. This may be approached in a reflective manner by identifying the client’s values, inviting them to reflect on their behaviour in light of their current position, or approached directly. For example, “I’m noticing that your focus is on the behaviour of others, can you tell me more about yourself/your choices?”.

Where a client is minimalizing the impact of the violence on their ex/partner and children, there is an opportunity in that there is again an acknowledgement of the violence that creates an opening for reflection on the impact of their violence. The goal for the practitioner is that they can support the ownership of this behaviour without minimalizing the impact on others. The approach suggested is a reflective one, in that the perpetrator can be encouraged to focus their attention on what was happening for the perpetrator and that it is often hard to acknowledge the impact our behaviour can have on others.

In circumstances where a perpetrator is denying family violence took place, that they are the victim and that the police and child protection are lying. There is an opportunity for the client to acknowledge their use of violence. The aim of practitioner is for the client to reflect on their current position and past behaviour. The approach in this situation may be to directly challenge the client’s claims with your knowledge of the system, i.e. “I know … doesn’t work that way”.

Where the client is acknowledging their use of violence and expresses a desire to address their behaviour, there is an opportunity for the practitioner to support and reinforce the clients focus on their responsibility and choices. The goal of the practitioner is to support the client to engage with referrals whilst they are in a position of taking responsibility. The appropriate response would be for the practitioner to reinforcement the perpetrators acceptance of responsibility and identify the importance of them maintaining this position without moving backwards into blaming, minimalizing or denial behaviours.

Mills concluded his presentation by reiterating that how a practitioner engages with perpetrators will determine how they engage with further support.

Anita Morris – Chief Practitioner Family Violence, Department of Health and Human Services

Anita Morris presented on the impact of Family Violence on Children, she began her presentation by discussing the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. She highlighted the key recommendations and reforms being undertaken, namely, the appointment of 3 Family Violence Principal across DHHS, DJR and the DET, the introduction of information sheering legislation to enable information about victims, children and perpetrators to be shared amongst prescribed agencies, the development of the Support & Safety Hubs to provide first line response to family violence victims, perpetrators and individuals/families seeking support, the CRAF redevelopment as the MARAM (Multiagency Risk Assessment & Mangement) and finally, workforce capacity building to improve access and support to victims and perpetrators through increased staff knowledge and skill based training. A suite of other reforms such as the Child Safe Standards, amendments to Child Safety and Wellbeing Legislation, Roadmap to Reform and the NDIS were also noted.

Family Violence, Morris quoted, is considered to be ‘the most pervasive form of violence perpetrated against women in Victoria’ There were 76,529 incidents reported for the year ending 31 March 2016 to Victoria Police of which 75% of affected victims were female between the ages of 20-44 years (Crime Statistics Agency, 2016). Many women experiencing family violence have children in their care, and there is beginning to be a shift in recognising children as clients in their own right and not just being added on a woman’s experienced.

Victoria’s Family Violence Protection Act 2008 defines family violence to include behaviour by a person that causes a child to hear, witness or otherwise be exposed to the effects of violence after the violence has occurred. Morris stated, that the term ‘experience the violence’ better describes what living with violence can be like for a child as children may not hear or see the violence but they are still affected it. In Australia; 1 in 4 children experiences family violence with Aboriginal children experiencing violence at higher rates.

Children experiencing Domestic Violence see an increased use of health care services, even when the violence occurred before they were born (Rivara et al, 2007) and exhibit higher percentages of social, emotional and psychological problems (Holt et all., 2008). However, 37% of children are found to be resilient (Kitzmann, 2003). Although Morris posed the question, what is the resilient child and stated that it is better to look at indicators of resiliency and not to hold to closely to the concept of the resilient child.

Morris then discussed how fathers use violence and how children understand their relationships with fathers who use violence. She acknowledged that the research she was speaking from was undertaken by Katie Lamb in her PHD study ‘Seen and Heard: Embedding the voices of children and young people who have experienced family violence in programs for fathers.’ She identified that fathers are abusive to children in the context of family violence through harsh discipline and through the disengagement from their children’s everyday lives. Perpetrators use violence to maintain some form of contact with their children, even after separating from their partner. A Swedish study found that the degree of violence the children had experienced had little influence on contact decisions. Instead, higher socioeconomic status and better negotiation skill of the father was linked to more favourable contact decisions (Forsell & Cater, 2015). Fathers often displayed a lack of awareness of the importance of prioritising their child’s needs, or any understanding of the child’s point of view. In circumstances where fathers saw their abuse was harming their children, there was no difference between biological or social fathers to report they would take action to change their behaviour. The author indicated that the research findings suggest that considerable work may need to be undertaken with men to confront the effects of their violence and abuse on children (Lamb, 2017).

A number of scenarios from Lamb, 2017 were presented within the context of how children understand their relationship with fathers, indicating that children are often looking for ways to engage with their parents and keep themselves safe. In one scenario, Peter aged 18, indicated that he was trying to find a way to re-engage with father his who he felt distant to. After talking to his mother, she contacted the father on Peters behalf as he unsure how to approach the issue and from there their relationship improved. Morris discussed how there is often a lack of empowerment for children to voice their feelings. She played the following video as an example of a child’s voicing their experience living with a father who uses violence”

Morris concluded her presentation with reference to her own research in that a child cannot ‘leave’ a violent relationship. Therefore, practitioners can play a significant role in understanding and promoting a child’s agency to negotiate safety in their relationships. Practitioners can do this by promoting children’s resilience, making use of and encouraging informal support networks, by supporting the non-offending primary care-giver, and listening to the child’s voice and encourage others to do so. They also support them by enhancing the children’s relationship with safe and supportive adults and finally, by educating others – the courts, school teachers, GPS, colleagues and other services.

Elicia Savvas, Senior Lawyer Family Violence, and Nerida Mulvey, Senior Lawyer Family Law – Victoria Legal Aid

Elicia Savvas and Nerida Mulvey presented on how lawyers could engage with clients who are perpetrating family violence while continuing to act in their legal interests. Their presentation referenced a case study involving a hypothetical client named Bill with consideration to Victoria Legal Aid’s (VLA) internal Client Safety Framework.

Victoria Legal Aid use the Recognise, Apply and Respond (RAR) Model. The recognise component requires that a lawyer determine the presence of any safety risk indicator as well as any legal issues the client may be facing. Risk Indicators and legal issues may be determined through intake, supporting documentation, and from the client’s instructions. The apply component of the model may be through a conversation between a client and professional in order to consider safety risk , and finally take action, or respond, to mitigate the safety risk with legal advice and referrals.

The safety risk indicators relevant for family violence are client attitudes, behaviours and context. The chart provided below outlines the identified indicators and traits that may indicate the features of the perpetrator.

Family violence serious harm and lethality risk indicators (CHART)


  • entitlement

  • controlling behaviours

  • obsession / jealousy

  • no responsibility


  • harm including threats to harm or kill

  • choking

  • sexual assault

  • weapons (use/access)

  • breaches of FVIO or other order

  • stalking

  • past use of violence/ family violence

  • suicide: threats or attempts


  • escalation

  • separation

  • pregnancy/ new birth

  • unemployment

  • mental health

  • substance abuse

  • isolation

  • openness to help seeking

In relation to the case study, lawyers might see the issues identified in a family violence scenario as:

  • Criminal allegations

  • Injuries or severity of injuries

  • A one-off incident because of separation

  • Allegations as historical

  • Separation as a circuit breaker for violence

  • They are just as bad as each other

However, Savvas and Mulvey identified the importance of focusing on the broader picture, not just treating the incident as a singular issue. In applying the Client Safety Framework they stated that asking about family violence would help not only in clarifying the legal situation but also in ascertaining the support needed to stop the situation from escalating, practical questions suggested were: “do you have any Intervention Orders?”, “What would your spouse or children say in this situation?” The questions identified are carefully worded to provide information but also so the client doesn’t incriminate themselves.

They noted that clients actually admit or reveal the truth all the time through non-plausible denials. Client’s instructions will float between the following categories, they will deny all allegations, they may be a partial admission, admission or they might provide no instructions at all. For the last three, even in providing an admission they may minimalise the situation, shift the blame or try and mutualise their behaviour. The appropriate response to a perpetrator supports the client but not their behaviour. Their response should not leave the client with the belief that their behaviour is acceptable and supports the client to seek help.

A number of examples of ‘do no harm conversations’ were presented, building on the scenario with Bill in which a client exhibited denying, minimalizing, blame shifting and mutualising behaviours. In general, their replies encouraged refocusing the conversation to the issue at hand and encouraging the perpetrator to be reflective with response like “I hear you, but what will the Court be concerned about” or “What do you think the Magistrate would say?”It’s okay to ask a client to stop digging a hole, assure them their frustration/worries are valid and refocus the conversation back to why they are at Court. Limit the instructions to what is relevant to the proceeds.

They identified the need to motivate a referral from a client, and in making a motivating referral a lawyer should identify grounds for referral such as admissions of conflict or other problems within the family. By picking up on and naming a client’s emotions, identifying their stress, anxiety and frustrations, and state it back to them.. By picking up on the client’s desire or goals i.e. reconciling with their partner or seeing their children, they can facilitate a referral A practitioner can use their role to motivate referrals for example:

“I see guys in your situation all the time, some of them it stops here, they see that what they are doing at home is not working, they get help, things improve … Others keep going thinking their behaviour is okay and nothing changes, more trouble with the courts, police, child protection. Give these guys a call…”

And, again, that lawyer’s should be supporting their client, and not the client’s behavior.

The presentation involved a discussion on the professional obligations of a lawyer. A lawyer is required to act in accordance with the client’s interests but they are also required to exercise forensic judgement. The solicitor rules of conduct provide that lawyers are not just a mouth piece for their clients. Similarly, with reference to the Family Law Act it is important to address the best interest’s principles and support the client to advance their position in relation to these principles. Family Violence is a serious risk to children and it is important to give a client frank advice regarding family violence. For example, Elicia indicated that in circumstances of drug use a lawyer would be frank, tell the client to get help and be explicit in telling them about the impact of drug use on their legal proceedings. The same approach should apply to family violence.

In concluding their presentation, Savvas and Mulvey noted that behavioral change takes time, competent legal advice and early referral to appropriate services can help to resolve and prevent legal programs. Finally, lawyers trained in the nature and dynamics of family violence can make a difference in the lives of their clients and can make a difference in the community.

Audience Q and A

The event concluded with an audience question and answer component. An audience me

mber raised a question regarding how private practitioners dealing with middle class forms of violence, such as financial violence, should approach their clients. Elicia Savvas indicated that even if the violence isn’t physical it is nevertheless a behavior choice and the approach should be able challenging that behavior. The audience member challenged that response, indicating that the client would not be so responsive and would walk out. Scott Mills continued on from where Elicia Savvas left off, indicating that it is important to use what motivates the client, find out what matters to them, is it their children? And apply that when challenging their behavior.

Another question in relation to Men’s Behaviour Programs referred to clients who have attended multiple sessions and how to approach clients like this. In answer to the question Scott Mills said that we need to let go of the outcome as we sometimes lose sight of how to connect with the client, the reality is that programs do not run for very long and that it is impossible to cure them in that timeframe but the best we can hope for is to invite them into the space as the first step.

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