Family violence is a ‘wicked problem’, deeply ingrained in our society, with no one simple solution. It damages the social and economic fabric of communities, as well as the mental and physical health of individual women, men, adolescents and children.
Tackling it requires multiple responses by all sectors of the community. And while over the last decade, we have seen marked investments to address family violence, both in Australia and overseas, we still clearly have a long way to go.
Importantly, we need to understand how we can help men stop using violence in their relationships; not just how to protect women once the violence has started.
This is something we are working on at the University of Melbourne’s Safer Families Centre of Research Excellence.
The story so far
To date, the primary focus when it comes to family violence prevention has rightly been on the victims; women and children.
In particular, we’re improving primary prevention approaches (stopping violence before it happens) through measures like Our Watch community awareness campaigns and respectful relationships training in schools.
We’re also working on tertiary prevention measure (stopping harm from ongoing violence) through integration of specialist services in Support and Safety hubs in Victoria and better collaboration between police, justice, family violence and sexual assault services.
Together these approaches are ensuring every Australian understands that violence against women is not acceptable and that there is no ‘wrong door’ for women to enter the specialist system responding to family violence and sexual assault.
The next steps lie in secondary prevention or early intervention, targeting at-risk populations and underlying risk factors for family violence at the earliest time point in a family’s journey.
This means working with universal services like health settings, social media, schools, workplaces, Centrelink offices and even hairdressing salons.
Our Centre’s focus is on developing and testing health system approaches at an organisational level (leadership, policies, changing culture and environments), at a staff level (resources, skills training and support for health professionals’ own abuse experiences) and at a patient level (patient-centred care and trauma and violence informed care).
We are using websites, apps and social media to reach a wide range of families and developing clinical tools to support practitioners in their work.
Early intervention also requires a pivot in the focus of policy and practice, from responding not only to the main victims of family violence (women), to include the most common perpetrators: men.
The importance of focusing on men
While both men and women use violence in relationships, men use domestic and family violence more frequently and severely so that female victims are more likely to fear for their lives.
For their children, the trauma of domestic violence accumulates if left unrecognised, and is associated with social, behavioural, emotional, and cognitive problems, which persist into adulthood.
It is imperative we focus on children to change the trajectory for families. Early intervention has the potential to disrupt the intergenerational transmission of violence, which may avoid some children (particularly boys) becoming victims or perpetrators as adults.
Ultimately, intervening with men has real potential to improve their mental and physical health. And of course it should also have real benefits for women and children; reducing the physical impacts on women, which include injury, illness and even death, and reducing the stress, trauma, and developmental problems experienced by children.
Focusing on interventions to support women, has yielded promising results – including improved mental health and reduced violence in many families.
We hope to be similarly successful with men.
Helping men change
Men’s use of violence is rooted in common constructions of what it means to be a man.
As help-seeking is often seen as feminine behaviour, it can challenge men’s view of their own masculinity. Because they tend not to directly seek help, helping men using violence change their behaviour is a non-linear process that addresses their values, their relationships and the way they communicate.
Research shows that helping men identify their actions as domestic violence is an important first step towards changing behaviours. Many perpetrators are so conditioned to violence, often as a result of their own upbringings, that they can struggle to recognise what they’re doing, and its impact on their families.
We have worked with men using violence and with No To Violence, the peak body for services, to understand what messaging is needed for men to change their use of violence.
The resulting Better Man website (which is still in development) helps men identify their behaviour as domestic violence and develop a greater readiness to change and seek help.
The website has three modules - Better Values, Better Relationship, Better Communication. After completing these men will in turn be prompted to contact an appropriate service, like the Men’s Referral Service.
We are also involved in an evaluation of the Caring Dads program, a 17-week group program for fathers who have used violence in the home.
Developed in Canada, Caring Dads is an intervention for men who have abused, neglected, or exposed their children to family violence. Its primary aim is to enhance the safety and wellbeing of children and an integral component is addressing men’s behaviour towards their children’s mothers.
So far, we have found a high level of motivation from men to engage with their behaviour in the context of being a father; an increase in their knowledge of child-centred parenting; and a decrease in all forms of abuse immediately after the program.
Key areas for further research will focus on the sustainability of these changes, attitudinal changes towards the mother and the strength of connection of Caring Dads with other support systems, like child protection.
Adjusting our focus to include men is an important part of changing the intergenerational patterns of violence that cause our communities so much harm.
Too many women have died this year from family violence; and the need to try new approaches is urgent.
University of Melbourne academics have also developed an online toolkit for health professionals to respond to family violence.
The Safer Families Centre for Research Excellence is running the first International Domestic Violence and Health conference on November 20 and 21, focussing on how the health system can change to assist all members of a family experiencing abuse and violence.