Practice implications for child protection and domestic and family violence

Dr Silke Meyer is a social worker and criminologist by profession. She moved to Australia from Germany in 2006 to do her PhD on the help-seeking experiences of female victims of intimate partner violence. Currently she is Senior Lecturer at Central Queensland University (CQU) teaching in the Domestic and Family Violence postgraduate program. Her core teaching areas are working with victims of domestic and family violence and the intersection of domestic and family violence and child protection. The latter focuses on the intersection, challenges, shifts in practice and theoretical issues pertaining to understanding the impact of domestic and family violence on victims and children. She also focuses on accountability for perpetrators and the myriad of issues this highlights in research and practice.

Silke works on a variety of research projects, most recently working with and understanding victim and perpetrator experiences of domestic and family violence in domestic and family violence-related court proceedings and child safety settings. Currently Silke is working on two contracted evaluations for Child Safety. These include the Walking With Dads (WWD) and Caring Dads program evaluations.

“The current focus of engaging with dads has strong practice implications for child safety and organisations providing father-focused intervention programs” notes Silke. “This is a practice shift of working with families where there is domestic and family violence with the aim to keep mums and children safe and at home by engaging the father and working with each member of the family.”

Queensland has undergone significant shifts in practice both with regard to child protection and domestic and family violence. Silke notes that the Carmody Inquiry recommendations and those of the Not Now Not Ever report have had significant impacts. The desire to have children remain safely at home is demonstrated in frameworks and practice.

With regard to this growing trend in working with families impacted by domestic and family violence, the intent is to work with the perpetrator of violence on generating ownership for this behaviour rather than continue to hold the victim – which tends to primarily be the mother or female carer in family households – to account for her ‘failure to protect’ her children if she does not separate and is otherwise unable to control the perpetrator’s behaviours. This practice shift is evident in the ongoing evaluation work Silke is currently conducting: “It is exciting to see the shift, with reflection on past practice and enthusiasm for current and emerging practice with genuine excitement about the domestic and family violence-informed frameworks, practice tools and philosophy of working with families. My impression is that after talking to child safety workers in the WWD trial regions about the key benefits of such a shift in approach which includes identifying strengths of each family and building on these by working with the Mum and bringing Dad into the conversation to assist his understanding of the impact of his behaviour on both Mum and the children that staff are implementing these new approaches. Staff are doing some really cutting edge work under the Walking with Dads framework, which is designed to raise the perpetrator’s awareness that he is making a parenting choice when he uses violence against the other parent because this has an impact on his children.”

Silke is clear that whilst research evidence is not yet available, there is reason to be optimistic about outcomes thus far: “Anecdotal evidence is that Child Safety manages to keep more children safe in the home by working differently under the Safe and Together model. The outcome is that mums and children are safer and more children are able to remain with the non-abusive parent. This is significant, both from a Carmody and Not Now, Not Ever perspective.”

These practice changes have brought with them a number of challenges for the wider child protection sector along with other child and family support services. The most significant being that Working With Dads is a new experience for child protection staff. “Traditionally Child Safety hasn’t engaged much with dads. Having to bring dads into the conversation, especially in the context of domestic and family violence when dads can be potentially scary and aggressive and the staff don’t know what to expect or do, is confronting.” Silke asserts that significant skill development and training is needed. She notes that in the case of WWD, having the specialist worker on site is very useful. That worker provides domestic and family violence-specific training and staff can consult with the WWD worker or bring them into the family work. “This is a really important resource in terms of doing the tricky work, especially in high risk cases. The sad reality is there are a large number of high risk cases. More than we expected when we began these evaluations.”

Feedback has been that there are many high risk, crisis interventions where everyone is on high alert from Child Safety to police to domestic violence staff because of the history and extreme behaviours. “We’re expecting practitioners to engage with perpetrators who are manipulative, fantastic at image management, know how to work a system and how to control and intimidate their (ex)partner. To both engage them and then encourage that they take ownership of their behaviour takes high levels of expertise.” Silke is concerned that in the wider child safety context such staff are often social workers who may have undertaken a relevant subject or two but aren’t trained in men’s behaviour change. “We are asking workers to do a very tricky area of practice, often with little domestic and family violence-specific training.”

This highlights the importance of training around domestic and family violence that outlines aligning with the primary victim, engaging with men and holding them accountable. “It requires something like the Walking With Dads worker who can resource staff until the Safe and Together model has been made available to all frontline staff and is totally embedded and part of everyday practice. This specialist worker is key,” says Silke. She believes the same applies to other father-focused perpetrator interventions, such as the Caring Dads program. “Working with perpetrators of domestic and family violence requires certain skill sets. Without the relevant training around men’s behaviour change, we risk setting program participants as well as practitioners up for failure.”

Given the myriad of complexities noted, how do we develop a workforce with expertise in working with men? Silke notes that there has been limited training in universities. Swinbourne University was once alone in offering post graduate qualifications in this area. CQU now offers a men’s behavioural change postgraduate program. That equates to only two universities that focus on this work. “It hasn’t been seen as important. The Not Now Not Ever report has generated enhanced government attention to the need to work with perpetrators. Unless we work with perpetrators, our work with victims and children will only ever be a temporary solution. In order to work with perpetrators in a meaningful way, we need a skilled workforce.”

In building a workforce that is competent in working with perpetrators, Silke asserts that we need to work with men in their role as fathers and make it a sector wide commitment to expand capacity by committing to educating and training staff to gain the relevant skill sets to do this work.

“Without men’s behaviour change training, workers and group facilitators can easily inadvertently collude with perpetrators.” Silke also recognises that it takes a particular type of practitioner and personality to do offender intervention: “You are the inconvenient person holding men to account. Selection criteria for these programs really need people who have all the knowledge around parenting, attachment and trauma and essential skills around men’s behaviour change. These are men who are tricky to engage and know how to work the system.”

Our workforce has a way to go in managing the changes to the way we intend to practice according to Silke’s observations and conversations with others. “We’ve seen more commitment and we’re seeing growing numbers in our CQU program. There is interest and individual worker commitment to do more training but it comes with cost. Employer organisations have a responsibility to support this, through time commitment and some financial assistance. To incorporate study into the role is one option. We’ve seen commitment from the department in terms of scholarships. They’ve made several places available to non-government organisation’s graduate training in domestic and family violence practice at CQU.”

The ideal case scenario would be a whole of system commitment to build capacity in the sector that engages with the whole family, especially when a perpetrator is part of the family. “We need a general shift in social attitudes towards fathers and our concept of ‘good’ fathers. Part of the reason perpetrators fall of the plate is fathers in general are accepted to fall of the plate.” As a society we place less onus on fathers to parent than we do mothers. This needs to be redressed. We need champions to drive organisational change. Silke believes that one of the reasons why we are seeing substantial emerging changes in child safety practice is that Child Safety has champions who are committed to driving this change.

Silke believes that we also need to look at what is being taught in relevant undergraduate degrees in universities and include more domestic and family violence subjects. She highlights that training from experts such as David Mandel and the Safe and Together model is always a huge success in terms of numbers and interest. “The interest is there, we need to build the opportunities for people to access this training. Forums and training options need to be more widely circulated so that all organisations and the wider sector working with children and families can engage with this vital information.”

Given the over-representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families in the child protection system, Silke is aware that our processes with regard to our First Nation’s people need serious rethinking. She notes that building a workforce able to work holistically with families, including those who experience violence, must include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers. Many workers with whom she engages have noted that it is significant to have a male and female worker to support men’s business and women’s business. She notes that we need a culturally informed, appropriate and respectful workforce. Whilst some programs can be adapted for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities, significant consultations about what may be suitable and what can be shaped to meet need are necessary. Overall we need more organisations that are community controlled, have direct input and workers who are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. It is essential to have someone driving each program who is really passionate about the work and ensures that all key stakeholders are involved and considered. “Unless you work with communities around culturally specific design it is unlikely that we see the buy in, the passion and the drive you need to make these programs successful.”

Silke’s most recent undertaking is a new piece of work whereby CQU is developing an evaluation framework for perpetrator intervention programs in collaboration with an organisation that runs a number of programs in different Queensland locations. She is confident that this process will also assist in building the capacity of the sector through the organisational engagement in this collaborative approach.