27 Dec GUEST BLOG: Can men’s behaviour change programs truly partner with survivors?
By Guest Blogger Rodney Vlais
Men’s behaviour change programs (MBCPs) are also known as Batterer Intervention Programs, Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes, Partner Abuse Programs and Stopping Violence Programmes. They can be an important part of a service system’s response to improve safety and “space for action” for adult and child survivors. Ideally, they are operating as part of a coordinated community response. These programs attempt to scaffold and support journeys of accountability for men who cause family violence harm. In the process, the programs contribute to the assessment, management and monitoring of risk.
The effectiveness of MBCPs is contentious. Longitudinal evaluations are expensive. Many studies purporting little or no effectiveness are methodologically limited in their design or in the outcomes they measure. Asking the blanket question, “Do these programs work?” across varied cultural, cohort, service system and implementation contexts might not be very helpful.
The reputation of these programs is not helped by the often unrealistic expectations placed upon them. Many men who perpetrate family violence have done so for many years – some for decades. Their behaviour is often reinforced by peers, structural sexism and the benefits they gain from the use of gender-based power. For some, complex trauma, chronic shame, and ongoing oppressive experiences of being part of a minoritised community contribute to their choices to cause harm. Others exploit multiple forms of advantage and ‘privilege levers’ over the survivor to degrade, exploit, humiliate, regulate and dominate them (and their children).
Accountability for men’s behaviour change
It is, therefore, no wonder that these programs often produce only incremental change. Rather than asking, “Do these programs work?” perhaps we could ask, “How do these programs contribute to men’s longer-term journeys towards becoming safe and accountable men?”
Funders and providers of these programs often argue that they help to hold men accountable for their use of violent and controlling behaviour. Yet what does accountability actually mean? How we think about accountability has major ramifications for the ability of these programs. Not only to contribute to survivor safety and wellbeing but also to partner with them.
Accountability is often thought of in terms of justice system responses – criminal charges, imprisonment, protection orders and the like. In this sense, accountability takes the form of consequences that are administered to men who cause family violence harm. Unfortunately, this is often done in a transactional way. The mere administration of the consequence is equated with ‘holding him accountable’ and promoting survivor safety. Whether these measures do reduce risk and improve safety for the survivor, however, varies on a case-by-case basis.
MBCP practitioners often think of accountability as a journey that the man is invited and supported to take. One where he increasingly realises how his behaviour contradicts values, aspirations and strivings for himself and for his community. MBCPs attempt to build internal accountability in terms of how the man wants to see himself and be seen as a father, partner, man, and member of his community. For some men from less individualistic cultures, internal accountability might mean less about “becoming the man I want to be” and more about “becoming the man and role model that my community needs me to be.”
Meaningful accountability in men’s behaviour change
These considerations of internal and collective accountability are crucial for men to genuinely participate in a behaviour change journey. They must sit with the discomfort and feel experiences of shame that arise. Men must acknowledge a meaningful proportion of their harmful behavior. They must understand the harm that their behaviour has caused. Yet what does it mean to not only acknowledge harmful behaviours but to be accountable for the harms caused?
MBCP providers and practitioners emphasise that their main purpose in engaging men is to work towards the safety and wellbeing of women and children. Safe MBCPs employ a survivor advocate as part of their MBCP team and/or develop close relationships with specialist survivor services. Through this, current (and in some situations former) partners of the men are offered support parallel to the man’s participation in the program.
Survivor advocacy workers support women’s and children’s efforts towards safety, dignity and space for action in their lives. They work closely with the men’s practitioners and other services to assess and manage risk. They also monitor whether the man’s participation in the program is causing survivors more harm. These workers provide adult survivors with information about the MBCP, enquire about the impacts of the program on the man’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours, and identify and support referrals that meet the survivor’s needs.1
Focus on children’s safety in men’s behaviour change
Survivor advocates also, to the extent possible, incorporate a focus on children’s safety and wellbeing, and the impact of the man’s behaviour on family functioning. They do this by attempting sensitive conversations with survivors about family circumstances and about impacts on children. MBCP-related survivor advocates rarely, however, have direct contact with children. And, unlike child protection and family support practitioners, they generally do not engage in proactive outreach into the family home.
The nature of and resourcing for survivor advocacy services that work in tandem with MBCPs varies significantly. Some can offer in-person engagement with the survivor; many, however, rely on phone contact. Some survivors choose not to participate in the service. That includes when the perpetrator gatekeeps her away from services as part of his patterns of coercive control.
Tool for accountability
Survivor advocates support survivors in their journey to resist and overcome the impacts of the perpetrator’s behaviours. However, they generally do not engage in perpetrator pattern mapping processes such as through the use of the Perpetrator Pattern Mapping Tool. Men’s MBCP practitioners, who contribute to ongoing risk assessment through information obtained directly and indirectly from the perpetrator as he participates in the program, also do not commonly use these tools. Both sets of practitioners – guided by their agencies’ and jurisdictions’ risk assessment frameworks – obtain some information about the man’s patterns of behaviours and their impacts.
Safe MBCPs also operate as part of a coordinated community response. Where possible, they can obtain information from statutory and non-statutory agencies that have engaged with one or more family members. And, where possible, can obtain information from statutory and non-statutory agencies that have engaged with one or more family members. However, the picture obtained of the man’s behavioural patterns is often incomplete.
Mapping men’s behaviour change
I have a strong interest in how to build the capability of a range of workforces and sectors to respond safely and effectively to adults who cause family violence harm. I supervise a number of workers from family support services in Australia. Family support practitioners trained in the Safe & Together Model and/or in Response-Based Practice have opportunities to map perpetrator patterns of coercive control. They also can partner with the survivor in ways that MBCPs often can’t.
Family support practitioners don’t rely predominantly on fortnightly phone contact with survivors as many MBCP survivor advocates do. They go into family homes. The practitioners spend hours talking with the adult survivor. They get to see the ways in which she struggles for some degree of normality for her family. Also, they see how she resists the impacts of the violence by attempting to keep some spaces for action open for her and her children. They map what the father is doing to impact family functioning in a range of different realms of day-to-day life. They also map the incredible efforts of adult and child survivors to find dignity in spite of the father’s behaviour.
Based on this understanding – and influenced by the survivor’s perspectives and preferences – the family support service then attempts to shape an intervention with the father. How the family support service attempts to engage him – and the goals that the service works towards when engaging him – are shaped by the survivor’s perspectives and needs. The intervention with him is tailored based on the specifics of the perpetrator pattern map.
This comes back to the notion of ‘perpetrator accountability’. Family support services attempt to work with the man to be accountable for the specific impacts of his behavioural patterns. This includes accountability for the specific needs of his family members arising from these impacts.
For example, say he has modelled misogynist attitudes to his son (to the extent that his son is starting to bully girls at school). He is then accountable for attempting to repair this harm through modelling respect for girls and women. He may also identify non-violent male role models to bring into his son’s life. For example, an impact of his patterns may have been to isolate his partner from services and supports. He is accountable for making efforts to portray her to others in a more positive light.
A long way to go for men’s behaviour change
Of course, what I am describing here is the ideal. Family support services are still at an early point in their journey to apply the principles and practices of the Safe & Together Model. There is still a long way to go to build practitioner capabilities in working safely and effectively with fathers who use family violence. Family support services do not in themselves provide MBCPs. Their work with fathers generally does not have the intensity of what an MBCP can offer. Many fathers avoid engagement with the family support service. They are metaphorically ‘hiding in the shed or attic’ when the service attempts to engage him.
Still, to me, at least, the differences between the MBCP and family support contexts of engaging men who cause family violence harm appear striking. Each context has advantages and disadvantages.
However, the differences lead me to wonder how MBCPs can truly partner with the survivor in the way that family support services sometimes can.
For instance, how they can:
- individually tailor and plan their intervention with each man based on a detailed understanding of the man’s behavioural patterns.
- incorporate individual sessions with the man so that the intervention is responsive to the impacts of his behaviour. (How do they do this without jettisoning the group-work component of these programs that can potentially provide considerable intervention power).
- hold the man accountable for the specific changes that his family needs him to make arising from the impacts of his behavioural patterns.
It seems to me that a flexible, responsive, and tailored approach to working with each man might look different from the way we currently run MBCPs.
This raises the question: How can we commission, fund, structure, and integrate these programs with other services so that they can truly partner with adult and child survivors?
Check out our resources for working with men:
 A succinct practice guide outlining quality practices in MBCP-related survivor advocacy work can be found at https://www.anrows.org.au/project/prioritising-womens-safety-in-australian-perpetrator-interventions-the-purpose-and-practices-of-partner-contact/
Liz Kelly and Nicole Westmarland, “Domestic Violence Perpetrator Programmes: Steps Towards Change. Project Mirabel Final Report,” London and Durham, London Metropolitan University and Durham University (2015) https://www.dur.ac.uk/criva/projectmirabal
Coming Soon! David Mandel’s book, Stop Blaming Mothers and Ignoring Fathers, early 2024
By Guest Blogger Rodney Vlais
Rodney Vlais is an independent writer, trainer and change agent focusing on struggles to end gender-based violence and intersecting forms of harm. They are influenced by the politics, principles and practices of transformative justice, and by everyday acts of solidarity towards upending oppressive systems and structures.