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  • Sean Cuthbert

Empathy for perpetrators of family violence

Over the past five years, family violence has rightly become front and centre as a legal and societal issue, particularly since the death of Luke Batty. Most of the focus since this time has been in the criminal justice arena and the legal response to the perpetrator. This is important, because for a long time family violence had been treated as a private matter rather than a legal one, and law enforcement bodies may not have taken it as seriously as other crimes that played out in the public arena. And in the wake of this shift to viewing family violence as a criminal issue, there was also an enormous amount of effort and government money put into consciousness raising around the issue (Rosie Batty became Australian of the Year, and started her own foundation), and victim support services were improved. In Victoria, there was a Royal Commission which handed down 227 recommendations for improving and integrating the way the current system responds to family violence.



But probably the most common sense statement that I had heard in a while was last week posed by Pru Goward, the outgoing Minister for the Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence and Sexual Assault. She said that while the progress made was an important leap forward in preventing domestic violence, that understanding the perpetrator was central to domestic violence prevention. "We have to get much better at understanding an offender instead of always focusing on the poor victim," she said. Broadly speaking, currently the perpetrator is in the picture in only in the sense of being an object of blame.

Recently, I was at a forum where the presenter talked about the new family violence "support and safety hubs" (aka orange doors) where services are co-located under one roof as containing something she labelled "perpetrator services". When I wondered what "perpetrator services" were she clarified without irony saying Men's Behavioural Change Programs (MBCP). MBCP are groups where largely mandated men meet in groups for 20 weeks to undertake what are essentially cognitive behavioural therapy interventions around their violent and controlling behaviour. These programs existed prior to the recent legal and cultural shift around family violence, but it was only recently a tenuous evidence-base was established around their effectiveness. These programs have an underlying foundation in feminist theory and interventions are designed around challenging the excuses, rationalisations and minimisations observed among male perpetrators, and challenge assumptions of men’s right to control “their” women. While this is important work, it really doesn't begin to understand the complexity of the perpetrator and how they arrived at a point where assaulting someone they cared about became an option.

Ms Goward said the next frontier in family violence treatment - and probably a bigger challenge than charging someone with assault or diverting them into mandated groups - was understanding the drivers that got them there in the first place, and then taking this as a focus for treatment. "Mental illness, the role of drugs ... if they have grown up in extremely violent homes," she said. "We have sometimes not looked hard enough at the various drivers and that to me is the next stage.

Having worked with innumerable perpetrators in therapy, I can safely say that very few come to treatment without a history of their own trauma whether it be exposure to family violence in their own childhood home, and/or sexual abuse from an adult they should have been able to trust. Typical among survivors of childhood trauma are difficulties regulating emotion. Traditional masculine values which still hold sway in society espouse avoidance of "weak" emotions like sadness and fear, and support "strong" emotions like "anger" or "rage" despite it's obvious societal impacts (if you think traditional masculine values are dead, just take a look the recent response to the Gillette ad which sought to challenge them). Along with this is usually a drug and alcohol issue which supports the avoidance of "weak" emotions mentioned above. When men are mandated into treatment groups that shame them for behaving in a way that society implicitly supports without seeking to understand how they got their in the first place, I would argue that part of this isn't treatment, it's just more abuse. We need to do something courageous, lighting the way forward as Ms Goward suggests, and have empathy for the perpetrator, and heal the parts of them triggered into the behaviour which has consequences for all of us.

© 2020 created by Sean Cuthbert, Clinical Psychologist