Working with perpetrators

Home Truths: Rethinking Our Approach To Family Violence

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Domestic violence is not gender neutral. The prevalence of violence, severity of physical injury and the level of coercion and control from all forms of violence are greater for women than for men. Men overwhelmingly perpetrate violence against women.

There is no domestic violence without a perpetrator. Perpetrators make decisions to use violence and can make decisions to stop using violence. Historically we have failed to hold men accountable for their violence and we have relieved them of most of the parenting responsibilities. It is now recognised that engaging men and holding them responsible for their deliberate and patterned use of violence are key to ending violence against women and children.

Why are men not held accountable?

A  number  of individual, communal, organisational and social factors combine to excuse or relieve men of their responsibility for violence. These include:

  • attributing violence to the  use and effects of alcohol and other drugs
  • adopting a victim stance and excusing violence on the basis of a family history of violence (or other difficult background)
  • excusing  violence  on  the  basis of  religious  beliefs  which condone or excuse control over women
  • justifying violence or blaming it on their partner – holding her responsible for provoking the violence or for making him feel angry
  • having rigid gender roles and identities that do not support gender equality - men are seen as socially superior and who have a right to discipline and control women and women are seen as subservient and compelled to accommodate men’s needs
  • tolerating  or   normalising   violence  through  exposure  to violence against women in families, communities, friendship groups or through the media.

At a practice level, we often don’t engage with men because we:

  • fear doing harm or making things worse
  • fear for our own safety as a practitioner
  • lack of confidence and skills to engage without colluding with him
  • underestimate the importance of knowing how perpetrators organise the family and its routines around his violence
  • believe that we either need to be optimistic or pessimistic … that we can’t be both forensically astute about risk and set high expectations for change
  • place responsibility for keeping children safe on mothers
  • have low expectations of fathers’ responsibilities shaped by cultural and structural patriarchy.

Why engage perpetrators?

The protection and safety of children is the mandate of child protection agencies. Men’s violence directly or indirectly ( sabotaging and affecting the mother’s parenting and their relationship with their children or by damaging the family environment) harms children. Children’s safety and development are tenuous until the perpetrator is held to account and no longer uses violence against women and children. Other reasons to engage perpetrators include:

  • It makes visible the perpetrators’ deliberate and patterned use of violence against women and the harm it causes to them  and  their  children.  It  requires  them  to  take responsibility for ending the violence
  • It enhances the safety of women and children through the involvement of a range of services that together create a network of accountability around the perpetrator and safety around women and children
  • It lets men know their behaviours are being watched.
  • Engaging with perpetrators monitors the risk they pose and their capacity to work towards safety, respect and support for his and his partner’s parenting which contributes to children’s development
  • Some men who are violent will be able to change with the right service system interventions. Seeing men as having a capacity to control violence and who hold hope of being a better parent is respectful and can assist in the behaviour change process.

Perpetrators use of violence and pathways to harm

There is no single cycle of violence. In each situation it is crucial to explore the multiple forms of violence and the deliberate tactics used by perpetrators to intimidate, control and cause harm to their partners, their children and their family ecology. Some of the forms and tactics perpetrators use to cause harm are detailed in table 1.

Perpetrators often choose to use these forms of violence interchangeably in response to women’s efforts to resist violence or as the circumstances of the family change. Perpetrators think and then re-think about the ways they can control and cause harm. They make deliberate choices about their use of violence.

Perpetrators make a series of choices to cause harm to children and women. Assessments are often incident oriented and focus on the harm caused by a specific incident of violence. It is important to explore a perpetrator’s pattern of control and abuse and the different ways he causes harm to mothers and children. Exploring how men’s violent actions disrupt the family environment and functioning and how they undermine a mother’s parenting and her relationship with her children ensures that interventions are attuned to women and children’s lived experienced of violence.

Table 1:  Forms of violence and perpetrator tactics (NSW  Department  of Attorney General and Justice, 2012)

Form of violence

Tactics of violence


Humiliating, degrading, shaming, blaming,

withholding affection, creation of co-dependence. Attacking women as mothers –undermining or alienating her relationship with her children


Threatened or actual attack in another person’s safety and bodily integrity or destruction and harm of property, possession and pets


Actual or threatened sexual contact without consent.


Limiting, disrupting and controlling women or

children’s social activities and networks, curtailing mobility and denying or restricting social communications


Limiting women’s access to share or use of

financial resources. Denying women access to employment opportunities


Denigrating a woman's religious or spiritual beliefs

and preventing her from practising her faith

Implications for Practice: Working with perpetrators

As a child protection worker, you are responsible for helping to put into practice ways to hold perpetrators responsible for their violence. Child protection services have a responsibility along with other agencies and services to create a web of accountability around the perpetrator. It is not just about what women and men need to do - it is about what we need to do. Some of the ways to embed perpetrator accountability into our practice include:

  • Let  men  know  that  they  are  responsible  for  their  choice  to  use violence against their partner and the impact their violence has on their child’s life. Men make decisions to use violence. Use language that reinforces his accountability, e.g.“his violence”, “your choice to use violence”
  • Let men know that their violence poses a risk to children’s safety and that their violence is the reason that they have entered the child protection system. Engagement with perpetrators must be underpinned by deliberate and continued attention to the risk posed to women and children by his violence
  • When engaging with a perpetrator, explore his beliefs and attitudes about his use of violence and his understanding of how his partner and children are harmed by and respond to his violence. Hearing his story, his reasoning and insight into his belief system provides a more accurate picture of the perpetrator’s readiness to change which informs safety and risk assessments, case planning and any court proceedings
  • Explore the multiple ways men cause harm to their partner and their children. Think beyond the physical harm or trauma created. Be curious about and document how men’s use of violence disrupts family functioning and a mother’s parenting capacity. Join the dots – make it clear how issues such as homelessness, poverty, education neglect or disruption may be caused by men’s violence
  • Avoid colluding with the perpetrator’s efforts to apportion blame for the  violence  to  a woman’s  behaviour.  Be  alert  to the ways  men minimise or justify their violence.  Bring the conversation back to the perpetrator’s behaviour. Provide consistent messages in your conversations and documents that perpetrators are responsible for the violence
  • Keep  the  perpetrator  in  the  picture.  Whether  they  are  physically present or not, men who are fathers, partners, husbands, matter to their families. It is important to explore the level and type of influence, good or bad, he has on family members and family functioning.  A broad view of the perpetrator enables practitioners to walk in the shoes of women and children and appreciate the different ways children and partners experience and feel about the perpetrator
  • A man’s choice to use violence against his children is a parenting choice. However when it comes to parenting we usually have higher expectations of mothers than we do of men. We expect mothers to be responsible for, and share information about, their capacity to meet the basic needs of children, relationship choices, childcare choices, employment choices and her social networks. In contrast, we ask and expect little of men as parents which effectively relieves them of their parenting responsibility
  • Ask men about their parenting. Ask how they meet children’s basic needs, their employment choices, their child care choices and their role in supporting mothers. Respectfully engaging men around their parenting role, their expectations for their children and the father they would like to be expands our understanding of them and provides new opportunities for interventions. It helps align interventions with a perpetrator’s desire to act in the best interests of a child
  • Men may minimise or excuse the violence. It is rare that a man denies that the violence took place at all. Separate the man from his behaviour. Recognising the deliberate nature of the violence and asking men about times when they were able to control themselves and not use violence is respectful to them. It provides an opportunity to engage with them around their capacities, deliberations and ability to control their actions
  • Share and seek information from other agencies to ensure a comprehensive and accurate picture of the violence and identify current or future risks to the safety of children and women. Services have a responsibility to work together to create a web of accountability around the perpetrator
  • Document women’s experience of violence and the multiple harms caused by the perpetrators violence. Accurate documentation is essential to demonstrating women and children’s victimisation that is required by multiple legal systems
  • Have realistic and clear expectations when engaging with a male perpetrator.  Some men will not be able to change and some will be more willing to change over time. Be wary about signs of remorse and be cautious interpreting his progress.  It can take many years for behaviour change to happen and in some cases, it may never occur. If you are experiencing difficulties in approaching a perpetrator, consider contacting the Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491
  • Stay within the parameters of your role – change is enhanced through the work of specialist men’s domestic and family violence services. Good referral practices include:
  • Men’s behaviour change   programs   are   designed specifically  to  address  his  use  of  violence.  Refer directly to these programs
  • Do not refer him to an ‘anger management’ program – this is not appropriate for men who perpetrate domestic and family violence. The violence in domestic violence isn’t an over-reaction it is a tool perpetrators use to control women.  Anger management may be used in other areas of casework but it is not appropriate for perpetrators of domestic violence
  • Do not refer to couple counselling – this could reduce her  safety,  provide  a  disempowering  experience  for her, and promote that his violence is acceptable- supporting narratives that hold her at least partly responsible for his violence. Referrals to couples counseling and anger management classes are inappropriate for perpetrators of domestic violence
  • As the referrer, support his participation in the men’s behaviour change program or other intervention – stay involved, and assist with case planning.

Expect that some men will not take responsibility, or will make no or insufficient changes to their behaviour.

To hear more about working with perpetrators watch Rodney Vlais’ presentation here.