Victims central in response to male violence

Those working to stop family violence must consider both victims and the violent - but those at greatest risk of harm must be paramount, writes Julia Tolmie

If we are to stop family violence, then offenders need to stop using violence. It follows that we need to engage more effectively with those using violence.

For this reason the sixth report of the Family Violence Death Review Committee, Men who use violence: Ngatane ka whakarekereke is to be welcomed. (The FVDRC was set up in 2008 to prevent family violence and family violence deaths.)

The report is timely because Covid-19 lockdowns around the world have resulted in a dramatic rise in pleas for help from women and children confined at home with abusive men. In other words, family violence has never been of greater concern.

There is much to applaud in the sixth report. For example, the need to train professionals to work effectively with men who are parents and using violence; identifying the role of schools in responding to children experiencing violence and in providing them with a safe space.

Importantly, the report highlights the limited support currently available to men who want to change their patterns of behaviour. Stopping violence programmes offer interventions that are limited in time, not accessible to all and do not provide wraparound, integrated and ongoing support.

More generally the report discusses the need for equitable health, education and social services, the need for social care and protective responses to be based on indigenous world views, the need for trauma-informed and community-based responses, the value of Kaupapa Māori services, and the structural harm that indifferent or discriminatory agency responses have on Māori.

However, despite the many strengths of the report, I am concerned it tackles only part of what is required to address men’s use of violence against their female partners and children.

Many men who came into contact with services because of their use of violence in the FVDRC death reviews were not seeking help for their violence. Some were mandated to undertake programmes because of the harmful impact of their abusive behaviour on others, others were attempting to mitigate the consequences of their behaviour for themselves. In some instances, agencies not connected into a broader family violence safety response assumed the men were taking responsibility for their behaviour when in fact, they were continuing to use violence. Other agencies unwittingly colluded with men by minimising and excusing their violence and insisting the victim take partial responsibility.

Some men using violence had voluntarily sought help for issues other than their violence. There were instances where agencies responded to men who were suicidal or depressed as though they were vulnerable (which they were), but tragically failed to understand that they were also very dangerous.

The focus of the report on restoration and rehabilitation for men seeking help provides little guidance to on how to respond to those men who are not currently committed to stopping their use of violence.

Responding to family violence takes place in the complex space where, as the FVDRC points out, “one size fits all” solutions are ineffective and potentially dangerous. If we are to respond effectively to men using violence we must do many things at the same time – respectfully engage with them so that they are “connected and in sight”, hold them in places where proper holistic help and culturally responsive support is available to them should they choose to address their harmful behaviours, develop ways to contain their abusive behaviours so that we can keep victims safe, and escalate consequences for the continued use of violence.

In other words, as well as supporting men who genuinely want help, we need to provide incentives to stop using violence and, most importantly, take responsibility for keeping victims safe.

The vulnerability and needs of those men who use violence and also suffer from trauma are well highlighted in the report. The danger that they pose to those around them less so.

It is impossible for me to forget the violence used by these men against their female partners in the death reviews – it was brutal, degrading, often involved premeditation or planning, and was ultimately deadly. Similarly, some of the children harmed by their mother’s boyfriends or step-fathers had experienced injuries similar to those of a serious car accident. Talking about this behaviour is not to dehumanise the man who uses it. It is simply to be truthful about what is at stake.

Family violence work requires that we hold both victims and people using violence in our purview, and that we keep front and centre the safety of those who are most at risk of harm. Victims are the ones who will suffer the greatest consequences if we do not get it right and they are the ones who have paid the price for the knowledge that we have. In other words, we have learned about the lives of men using violence because of the suffering they have inflicted on victims and, in the context of the death reviews, their victims have paid the ultimate price for what we know.

The report mentions victim safety throughout but it feels absent as an animating principle. By way of contrast, it is widely acknowledged by those with expertise in this area that victim safety must be built into all responses developed for those using violence because, if it is not, there is the risk that these will unwittingly be dangerous and ineffective.

Although trauma may be part of the histories of many men who use violence, many men and women who experience trauma do not use violence against their partners and children. The death reviews evidence that many of the female victims had also been abused as children, as adolescents and by multiple male partners. Concerningly, these women had repeatedly experienced negative and unsafe responses from professionals, services and systems in their attempts to seek safety from their partner’s lethal violence.

Where men who use violence have experienced abuse and neglect and structural violence over their lifetimes, practitioners need to acknowledge these experiences while still holding them responsible for their use of violence. Te Kupenga Whakaoti Mahi Patunga/The National Network of Stopping Violence Services, speaking from 30 years of experience working with those who use violence, is clear about the fact there are never excuses for violent behaviour.

The report is correct in saying the criminal justice system and, in particular, imprisonment cannot be seen as the only response to family violence. The report is also correct in highlighting the disproportionate and damaging use of imprisonment generally for Māori men.

However, it does not discuss the disproportionate impact of colonisation on Māori women, who today bear a significant burden of the violent victimisation in Aotearoa New Zealand. Over-incarceration of Māori men (and women) runs parallel to a long history of state under-protection of Māori women and children. As a recent report highlights - for many Māori wāhine trying to keep themselves and their tamariki safe, the response of those services charged with helping them can be far worse than the violence they experience from their male partners (E Tu Wāhine, E Tu Whānau; Wāhine Māori keeping safe in unsafe relationships (2019)).

The criminal justice system remains one site in which we can put boundaries around abusive behaviours and mandate people to undertake programmes. However, we must rethink the criminal justice response so it becomes an effective part of the family violence safety response. For example, ensuring that it is only a part of a broader multiagency response to family violence that wraps support around the family and whānau and provides for multiple complex needs; and reorientating sentencing away from retribution to victim safety. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that, as noted in the sixth report, the majority of men using violence are not Māori and responses to Māori tane and tauiwi men will need to be different.

Whilst Māori men remain a minority of those men who use violence against their partners, one could be forgiven for losing sight of this fact in reading through the report. The concluding recommendations are to uphold Te Tiriti o Waitangi; decolonise services; address racism; and address structural inequity. Few would disagree with these as aspirations. Nonetheless, the violence of Pākehā men and the multiple forms of violence against Māori women slip from visibility. Sexism, despite the inherently gendered nature of family violence, and its intersection with racism and oppression, is not on the agenda.

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