"Once you've looked at family violence you can't turn away" - meeting the 'adaptive challenge' of family violence

With a Royal Commission about to report in Victoria; a second Australian of the Year in a row listing family violence as a priority topic; a Family Violence Index on the cards; a new national evidence-based framework for prevention with bipartisan support; and significant commitment at the political level in both countries, family violence has never been more topical for Australian and New Zealand public servants. Sophie Yates (@MsSophieRae) reports here on insights from a family violence learning and leadership challenge conducted by the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG).

The complexity of both the problem and the response make family violence an ideal area for public sector professional development training. Late last year, 40 senior public managers participated in a ‘live case study’ on Consolidating Victoria’s Family Violence Response System as part of ANZSOG’s Towards Strategic Leadership program. This exercise was facilitated by Leigh Gassner, the former Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner responsible for family violence under Christine Nixon.

Kick-started by a two-part written case study looking at reforms to the system over the past 15 years, the live case had participants travelling across Melbourne to speak to 18 expert contributors,* including a survivor of family violence. Their task was to bring together all this information and frame the ‘adaptive challenge’ back to these and other key stakeholders in a meaningful way.

In my role as ANZSOG Research Fellow I observed the process and put together a thematic paper capturing some of the key insights that came through the consultations, three rounds of presentations to stakeholders, and subsequent Q&A/discussion.**

Putting the family at the centre

Wrapping systems and services around families is crucial but is not a key feature of the current response system, despite individual workers’ efforts at bending the rules to increase client focus. We expect families to fit into the service system, and not the other way around. The response focus tends to be on the primary presenting issue, rather than underlying issues the affect the family as a whole. Further, the system takes an episodic rather than lifecycle approach, missing important windows for effective early intervention. Better ‘safe at home’ strategies are needed to minimise the significant disruption and post-separation violence that often occurs when the survivors and children are the ones who leave. As one participant group reflected:

“[The survivor] outlined to us a system that did not meet the needs of her family. We’ve come to realise from our reading and listening that her experience is not unique. There are things that are common to family violence survivors across the diverse range of socioeconomic, geographic and cultural segments of our community. ...The system was based on primary responsibility falling on the victim/survivors of family violence, the focus being the victim/survivors removing themselves whatever the cost - mentally, economically, physically. Our response was to ask why the victims bore this responsibility, and our adaptive challenge was framed as altering the default approach on which many processes and services currently in the family violence system are based. We want to reimagine the system with the family at the centre.”

The importance of prevention

Participants identified prevention as being an important but neglected facet of addressing family violence in Victoria (and indeed worldwide).

“Family violence is a problem that’s fundamentally driven by gender inequality, and as a country and a culture we really need to elevate this issue and drive a common understanding of what we consider acceptable. This needs to be led by our political leaders at all levels and across jurisdictions.”

Participants were clear that by using the term 'gender inequality' they were taking their analysis further than harmful stereotypes and attitudes  - meaningprevention efforts go well beyond respectful relationships programs and the masculinity-reifying narrative of “real men don’t hit women”. Prevention should encompass reducing women’s economic inequality; increasing access to childcare; paying attention to intersecting factors such as disability, sexuality and race; and addressing the gendered division of labour. And behaviour change efforts must begin early, in places where people “live, work, learn and play”.

Training non-core workers in what to look for

An effective family violence system cannot operate without education and training for non-core family violence workers. School teachers, GPs, vetshairdressers, housing workers and many others are regularly exposed to pieces of the puzzle, but don’t currently have the tools to identify the problem and respond appropriately.

“There are many indicators along the way that someone is experiencing family violence, and often these are dealt with in isolation and not looked at overall. One person like a vet or a hairdresser or a dentist might pick up on one small element, but unless you have that bigger understanding that this is or could be a family violence issue, that can be missed.”

A tool like Victoria’s Common Risk Assessment Framework could be further extended to allied professionals. In particular, court interpreters, magistrates and other legal professionals require training in the dynamics of family violence to avoid putting survivors (usually women) and children at further risk.


Finally, governance challenges include strong leadership at the government and agency executive levels that can be relied on by the sector; and a commitment to system stewardship that goes beyond the life of a government or chief executive tenure. Co-design, working across boundaries, building the evidence base, standardising language and definitions, and giving up turf are all important for the family violence system to function as well as possible for vulnerable Victorians. One team was honest about the limitations of traditional public service ways of working:

“We really need to rethink how we do things in the public service. I don’t think any of us in this room would say we’re very good at working across departmental boundaries. The constraints of budgets and ministerial reporting lines should not be an excuse not to work with each other. We need to really meaningfully collaborate and figure out how we can put structures in place to allow us to cut across portfolios and drive outcomes for Australians.”

This was a profound experience for many Towards Strategic Leadership participants, and some felt a new responsibility to make change happen in this area:

“Once you’ve looked at family violence you can’t turn away, and I think that’s probably something we’re all going to carry with us now throughout our careers.”

Click here to read the full report.

* Contributors included representatives from Victoria Police, Our Watch, Women’s Legal Service Victoria, Domestic Violence Victoria, the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria, women’s refuges, men’s behaviour change programs, and an Integrated Family Violence Committee.

**  The response to family violence is a vast and complex policy area, and it was understand that TSL participants would not have been able to talk to all relevant stakeholders, cover all relevant angles, or ‘solve’ the problem in their two days of immersion. The aim of this work was to platform the issues that TSL participants felt had significance in this policy area, and to present them for discussion.

Posted by @MsSophieRae.