Reducing domestic violence: What does the evidence tell us?

HSV Public Lecture by Professor Thea Brown, Monash University, at Hawthorn Community Precinct on 28 July 2016

Professor Brown has been studying family violence for over 25 years. About one in three women report having experienced domestic violence during their lifetime and roughly one in five report experiencing sexual violence. Men are also victims of violence, but within intimate relationships they are more commonly the perpetrators. Violence can take many forms, from physical aggression to psychological trauma, from financial control to stalking and denigrating criticism. Violence affects not only the woman herself, but also her children, her friends and her workplace.

Thea Brown said that many complex theories underpin this topic but that she would confine her talk to a recent research project about behavioural change programs for men who have been violent to their partners.

Until the 1970s treatment in family violence cases was solely for the victims, with programs for men, based on the Duluth model, being developed in the USA later. Australian programs have borrowed from this model. Most run for about fourteen weeks, centring on a weekly group, which meets for an hour. Two facilitators, usually a man and a woman, provide role modelling and input about relationship interactions. The groups provide social support, while also helping the men to acknowledge their violent behaviour, understand the effect of it and develop more constructive skills.

However, the desirability of providing services to the perpetrators of intimate partner violence has been criticised, raising doubts about the effectiveness of such programs.

An audit of men’s behaviour change programs (MBCP) in 2011 uncovered a huge diversity amongst them and a wide discrepancy in their effectiveness. To help clarify the situation the Department of Social Work at Monash University, in conjunction with a Rotary-supported agency called Violence-free Families, under-took a three-year longitudinal follow-up study of MBCPs in WA, NSW and Victoria, from 12 sites overall. The report of this study will be released shortly.

Outline of the study

A total of 270 men were surveyed at the start, 110 completed a second survey at the end of the program three months later. Forty-five returned another hard-copy survey one year further on and 71 a final survey two years after finishing. Their partners, if available, were also inter-viewed. Only about 50% were in a relationship at the end of the program. 78% had children and about half of those had children living with them. 8% were single parents.

Their ages ranged from 20 to 72. 39% were born overseas (a higher proportion than in the community in general), with New Zealand, Africa, India and the Pacific islands being the commonest birthplaces. 3.8% of the Australian born men were indigenous.

An interesting component of the profile of the group was that 46% had completed a post-secondary school qualification, which confounded the stereotype of a violent partner as someone ill-educated and unemployed. Employment rates within the group were, in fact, only slightly lower than the population in general.

35% of the participants had been ordered to attend by a judge or magistrate, with a further 17.5% being recommended to do so by the courts. 36.5% had joined voluntarily and 10% had been involved in a similar program previously.

Results

The outcome measures of the MBCPs in the study showed encouraging results. Violent behaviour was assessed on 15 counts. Two years after the completion of their programs all of the men surveyed were assessed as being violence-free on eight of the measures and 95% were not exhibiting violent behaviour in a further three areas. Older men (those in their 40s or 50s) tended to do better, as did those with a job, a partner or a background of higher education. The men who had been ordered to attend by a Court also did better. This may have been because of having more support from the Corrections system on top of the behaviour change program or alternatively the added deterrence of facing a harsher sentence if they failed to improve.

Evaluation also showed that substance abuse rates fell from 24% to 14% during the course of the study. However, the proportion of men with mental health problems, about a third, which is higher than the general community, remained at the same level. An incidental finding was that the cohort of men attending as a result of a Court order had a lower incidence of mental illness than the rest of the group.

The men’s understanding about the severe effects of violent behaviour on their partners increased and continued to do so over the following two years. The improvement in their understanding of the impact on their children was far smaller, but this could have been due to the minimal focus on parenting in the program, an aspect which should be rectified in the future.

A frequent comment from the partners of the men who attended was that their ability to communicate and discuss issues improved greatly, often replacing a previous tendency to simply shout and berate.

In summary, men’s behaviour change programs are effective for many men, with continued change seen in a significant number of participants two years after completion. The evaluation has shown them to be more effective than Apprehended Violence Orders or imprisonment.

In future it is recommended that more funding be directed to MBCPs, in conjunction with other support services, such as psychological counselling and social work assistance.

Since the Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Andrews government in Victoria has increased its funding of MBCPs. Conferences and a greater dialogue between the agencies in this area could help foster innovation and attention to quality, to enhance effectiveness.

Report by Jennie Stuart