Why is the Coalition funding couples counselling in instances of domestic and family violence?

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Hidden away amongst supplemental papers to the recently-released Coalition budget papers is a line item for $10 million earmarked to support counselling for families experiencing domestic violence. In today’s election platform analysis, Hayley Foster (@HayleyFoster82) of Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service NSW (@wdvcasnsw) explains why this funding goes against both the evidence base and the recommendations from the domestic and family violence service sector. This piece is adapted from a media statement that WDVCAS NSW recently released, which can be viewed here.

Women and children’s safety advocates are dismayed to learn that the $10 million pledged for so-called ‘Specialist Family Violence Services’ is to go to a select list of family relationship services to provide a range of services including couples counselling and mediation with a ‘whole of family approach’. In the grant documents released on 5 April, the services were described as “contribut[ing] to filling the gaps in service provision for victims of domestic and family violence”. However, this flies in the face of years of consultation with women’s safety experts and survivors of domestic, family and sexual violence. We have set out clear guidelines for reform in this sector, and drawn attention to a number of crucial service gaps, neither of which this funding will address.

The services are said to fall under the twelve-year National Action Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. Yet, fundamentally, they do not fit with the agreed-upon principles and actions of this plan. Nowhere is there the suggestion that we should be going back to the days where we are recommending couples counselling or couples mediation in the context of family violence – except in the case of highly specialised family dispute resolution for family law matters involving specialist legal and domestic violence services.

The National Action Plan explicitly recognises the need for all governments to work more collaboratively, build the evidence base, share information and track performance. However, this announcement from the Morrison Government indicates a blatant disregard for the advice of women’s safety experts and domestic violence survivors, and the high-quality research of the national research body for women’s safety, ANROWS, which has informed the three-year Action Plans under the National Plan.

More victim-blaming? Counselling is founded on the principle that both parties want to change. When one partner is looking to control the other, counselling is not only likely to be ineffective, it can be dangerous.  Photo credit: Pexels .

More victim-blaming? Counselling is founded on the principle that both parties want to change. When one partner is looking to control the other, counselling is not only likely to be ineffective, it can be dangerous. Photo credit: Pexels.

We are also concerned that the Federal Government is not up to speed with the excellent work being done at the state and territory level to tackle domestic violence and how it can best support this work in a coordinated way – see for example Safer Pathway in NSW and Victorian Flexible Support Packages . State and Territory Governments have listened to experts and survivors and recognise that services for women and their children who have experienced domestic violence need to be highly specialised and that men’s behaviour change programs need to be rigorous and standardised.  The Federal Government must do their share by investing in the programs and initiatives the sector has highlighted as the crucial gaps, rather than adding new services which don’t fit within the existing service system and reflects a poor understanding of how to keep women and children safe.

Also missing from the Grant Guidelines are requirements for a gender-responsive approach consistent with specialist women’s domestic violence services, and to meet standards for men’s behaviour change. Indeed, there is no requirement whatsoever that the relationship service have experience delivering specialist domestic violence services.

The unfortunate truth is that expanding services which invite families to undertake couples counselling or mediation in the context of domestic violence, outside of a highly specialised environment with the appropriate safeguards and supports, not only has little evidence for efficacy, but will put women and children’s safety at risk. Women’s safety experts, including men’s behaviour change practitioners, know this from our work with families. And we, along with domestic violence survivors, have clearly communicated this to the Government, so there is no excuse for policy making ‘on the fly.’

We are calling on the Morrison Government to reconsider this funding. Consult with the sector experts and their State and Territory counterparts for advice as to the most urgent areas of need for essential funding. We can’t muck around with policies which place people in danger. We’re losing more than one woman a week to this scourge, and it is the single biggest preventable cause of death disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 years. Funding is urgent. And it must go where it’s needed most.


This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens, and this piece is part of our Federal Election series 2019. Photo credit for the voter’s box in our logo: Flaticon. View our other policy analysis pieces here and follow us on Twitter @PolicyforWomen