Hfjs552v 1475560821

To stop domestic violence, we need to change perpetrators’ behaviour

The logic is that violence is a choice, so men can be reasonably expected to stop. luxorphoto/Shutterstock

To stop domestic violence, we need to change perpetrators’ behaviour

The logic is that violence is a choice, so men can be reasonably expected to stop. luxorphoto/Shutterstock

Behaviour change programs for domestically violent men are designed to address abusive and violent behaviour. Unlike anger management programs, the focus is on changing the perpetrator’s desire to control his partner by targeting his attitudes and behaviours.

The long-term effects are difficult to measure, as very few men are followed up after treatment. But international studies indicate behaviour change programs can reduce the rate of further assaults and other abuses. Still, around 5% of participants continuously re-assault, regardless of any effort to intervene.

Australian states and territories have behaviour change programs in place in both prison and community settings. But they are often underfunded and under-resourced. Though many jurisdictions are placing more priority on new perpetrator programs, thousands of men sit on waiting lists every year.

What types of programs are used?

Behavioural change services in Australia use a mix of approaches:

  1. The Duluth model: court-mandated programs with a focus on power and control

  2. The feminist socio-political model: a focus on men’s violence as a product of gender inequities

  3. Psycho-educational approaches: a focus on individuals and learning better impulse-control using cognitive behavioural approaches

  4. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) models: targeting relationships between thinking feelings and behaviour.

Work with Aboriginal men has included a focus on restorative justice and healing. It acknowledges the impacts – historical and ongoing – of colonisation on these communities.

Behavioural change program approaches that include a mix of the above have been shown to be most effective and appropriate for most perpetrator programs. These models allow facilitators to focus on both the context of individual perpetrators’ lives and how this might affect their offending, while acknowledging the social and political influences of gender inequality.

As well as variation in the content of programs, they also vary in length – from 12 to 26 weeks – and intensity.

Ideally, the program intensity (and duration) should be matched with a perpetrator’s assessed level of risk.

Perpetrator interventions that show the greatest effectiveness internationally are those with robust lines of communication between all agencies involved. This includes ongoing assessments of perpetrator risk, feedback mechanisms if any safety concerns arise, and “swift and certain” criminal sanctions when protection orders are violated.

How do you judge effectiveness?

Evaluations that just measure a single outcome, such as violent re-offending, are rarely useful. “Family and domestic violence” covers a continuum of abusive behaviours that are devastating for women, but may not be in fact illegal. Though physical violence may reduce or cease, other forms of abuse either may continue or escalate.

Research indicates that men who maintain a desire to control their female partners continue to use other coercive forms of abuse such as making unreasonable and non-negotiable demands, stalking, restricting her daily activities or destroying her relationships with friends, family or co-workers.

There is some evidence that matching perpetrator intervention intensity to specific “stages of change” promotes greater effectiveness. This means men could be placed in programs based on: their suitability for treatment; their levels of risk; whether they’re dealing with other problems such as housing, mental health, drug and alcohol abuse. But success in this area is contested.

Researchers have argued it’s problematic to measure success solely in terms of individual men’s behaviour change. Success can also mean many things for women: it could, but doesn’t necessarily include, the cessation of all forms of violence by the perpetrator.

On the other hand, “effectiveness” can be judged by a woman as being able to leave safely, or the man abiding by a court order.

Addressing other problems in men’s lives

Violence against women is a gendered phenomenon and perpetrators are fully responsible for the decision to assault.

But trying to engage a man to address his behaviour is extremely difficult when co-existing factors – such as significant mental health concerns, drug and alcohol misuse, unemployment and/or homelessness – are also present.

Though none of these factors is either a necessary or sufficient cause of family and domestic violence, in such cases, even experienced workers can struggle to maintain a focus on perpetrator accountability and women’s safety.

Perpetrator programs have the potential to assist men to have more emotionally enriching lives through attitudinal and behaviour change. But these are secondary aims. The primary focus must be on the steps necessary to maintain the victim’s safety.

While perpetrator programs are no panacea, they’re more likely to be effective if they are part of well-integrated responses to domestic and family violence that include police, courts and corrective services and program providers.

As with many social problems, significant increases in women’s safety will require sustained and increased funding for best practice programs nationally.


Tony Fletcher will be online for an Author Q&A between 10:30 and 11:30am AEDT on Thursday, 6 October, 2016. Post your questions in the comments below.