Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand’s Women’s Research, Advocacy and Policy Centre recently released the report of a Practice Inquiry into intake and assessment practices within Men’s Behaviour Change Programs across two regions in Victoria. Report co-authors Yvonne Lay and Sarah Squire (@SquireSarah) provide a summary of findings in today’s analysis.
As awareness and understanding of family violence increases, so too does the demand for perpetrator interventions for men who use violence against family members. Perpetrator accountability featured strongly in the report of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. Holding perpetrators accountable for their use of violence against women and children is also one of the six priorities of the Commonwealth Government’s Third Action Plan 2016-2019 of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022.
The concept of perpetrator accountability is broad and includes keeping women and children safe, ensuring legal and police responses are adequate and include penalties for breach of orders, and a focus on encouraging the perpetrator to understand and take responsibility for their actions.
Although there is a growing evidence base in relation to perpetrator interventions, much of the research has focused on theoretical frameworks, program design, and evaluation of program effectiveness in reducing recidivism. What has been missing is a detailed exploration of the engagement techniques that practitioners employ, and intake and assessment practices more broadly.
Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand’s Women’s Research, Advocacy and Policy Centre recently undertook a Practice Inquiry to address this knowledge gap, interviewing frontline practitioners across five services in two regions of Victoria. In partnership with the Bayside Peninsula Integrated Family Violence Partnership and the Southern Melbourne Integrated Family Violence Partnership, the report adds to the understanding of men’s behaviour change programs’ intake and assessment practices, including practitioner engagement techniques.
What are Men’s Behaviour Change Programs?
Men’s Behaviour Change Programs (MBCPs) are a central platform for intervening with men who use violence. MBCPs seek to challenge attitudes and reform individual behaviours in a group engagement environment. Although it is commonly accepted that behaviour change can be difficult, even in ideal situations, MBCPs remain the most common intervention to address violent behaviours in the context of family violence within Australia. MBCPs proliferated in the early 1990s, emerging from the feminist movement as a means to challenge violence-supportive attitudes and reform individual behaviours whilst simultaneously promoting the safety of women and children.
Voices of practitioners who work with male perpetrators
Focus groups and interviews with 21 MBCP practitioners from five providers reveal the complexity of intake and assessment practices. Whilst working in line with the Minimum Standards which govern all state-funded MBCPs, practitioners are often required to work to a far more multifaceted set of objectives, highlighting the degree of skill required to undertake this line of work.
The Practice Inquiry found that intake and assessment processes at each of the MBCPs offer a critical opportunity for tailored, client-focused interventions. Practitioners highlighted that the intake process - for men who both voluntarily make contact and those who are mandated to attend – can influence the manner in which men perceive the service, its workers and how they engage in future. As one practitioner said:
“The initial assessment is ‘make or break’…It is integral to engagement.”
Practitioners indicated that at the point of intake the focus should be on offering support, building a respectful relationship with the client, and tapping into his values. This approach is essential as it allows practitioners to uncover what is important to the man. By drawing on individual motivation, practitioners are able scaffold men’s intentions and inspire them to maintain engagement, as well as identifying contextual issues that may present as barriers to effective engagement.
The time invested by practitioners in the intake and assessment processes is critical. As stated by practitioners, where assessments were short or rushed, men were more likely to ‘fall off the wagon’ and not be as engaged. This not only increases the risk to disengagement, but importantly can also increase the risk of harm to women and children. As one practitioner reflected:
“We need to slow it down – the men have been hyper vigilant up to this point – we say to them ‘this is important for you and your family’. The assessor needs time to pick up that hook, otherwise the message sent is that the man is just a number.”
Similarly, it was highlighted that allowing perpetrators to share their stories in a one-on-one assessment – whilst not colluding with the man – is an important part of the process. Intertwined in this element of the process, practitioners introduce a challenging conversation with the man whereby he is encouraged to reflect upon his own degree of accountability. At this point practitioners can identify factors that may hinder a man’s completion of a MBCP, including:
a man’s sense of shame
trauma and poor mental health and/or
Just as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is inadequate for meeting the needs of victim survivors of family violence, it is also inadequate for perpetrators who, voluntarily or otherwise, are directed to change their violent behaviour. To this end, practitioners expressed frustration relating to court-mandated clients, namely that the determination of MBCP eligibility for these men is made by the courts rather than MBCP providers. As a result, some court-mandated men fail to present to the MBCP service provider as ‘group ready’ at the assessment interview, therefore requiring practitioners to refer clients back to court in order to seek order variations. In situations were variations are not granted, the responsibility then rests with MBCP providers to persist in trying to accommodate disruptive or otherwise non-group ready men into group sessions. To remedy this, practitioners identified the need for greater flexibility to be built into court-mandated orders to allow for a broader suite of interventions.
Where to from here?
Privileging the situated wisdom of frontline workers provides a unique understanding of the day-to-day challenges of behaviour change work. Our findings underscore the importance of engaging with practitioners during a time of substantial change within the family violence sector. Consistent with several policy responses stemming from the Royal Commission into Family Violence, including the Building from Strength: 10-Year Industry Plan for Family Violence Prevention and Response and the Victorian Government’s Diversity and Intersectionality Framework, we recommend changes across four domains as summarised below:
Intake and assessment practice
Increase the suite of interventions to which assessment workers can divert men who use violence.
Ensure that MBCPs are complemented by other services.
Ensure that service provision to men’s partners/ex-partners is consistent.
Increase resourcing to meet the needs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities, LGBTI communities and people with a disability.
Professional and workforce development
Develop specific actions to address health and wellbeing for frontline practitioners, including: the high burnout rate, lack of pathways into the profession, cost of qualifications, and ongoing development needs.
Practice development, learning and peer support resources should also be improved, including establishing a central repository of resources to support best practice and facilitate peer support opportunities.
Standards and guidelines
Establish a mechanism to ensure MBCP providers are adequately meeting minimum standards, with an emphasis placed on: evidence-based theories of change underpinning each program, robust initial assessment processes that maximise engagement, and the embedding of an intersectional approach.
Justice and court processes
Court orders should provide for a broader suite of responses, including therapeutic interventions, to address the needs of men unsuited to MBCP group work.
The role of the Respondent Worker at each of the Magistrates’ Courts should be elevated so that they can provide greater support to presiding Magistrates and the intake processes of MBCPs. This could be achieved by having the Respondent Worker give recommendations to the Court as to the Respondent’s readiness for MBCP, as well as identifying additional supports the respondent may need either in conjunction with attending a MBCP and/or prior to attending.
We are currently in a time of major changes within the family violence sector. This research improves our understanding of intake and assessment processes for MBCPs and identifies areas for continuing development within the context of increased government investment and sector reform.