Working with fathers who perpetrate family violence

Working with fathers who perpetrate family violence

2 December 2013
Working with fathers who perpetrate family violence

Rodney Vlais outlines programs being developed which address the visibility and accountability of men who perpetrate family violence.

There are a number of reasons why men who perpetrate family and domestic violence have historically been invisible in child protection casework,2 including:

  • The association of children’s welfare almost exclusively with mothers and mothering, due to embedded patriarchy within our social and cultural institutions, and men’s unearned gender-based privilege and entitlement.
  • Inconsistent understandings of the gendered nature of intimate partner violence, and the dynamics through which men choose to use this violence.
  • Lack of confidence and skill in engaging perpetrators (given the complexity of the issues) amongst child protection and family services workers
  • The progress that still needs to be made for family violence and child protection practitioners, where relevant, to adopt the lens of the other in their casework.

The resultant tendency to blame non-offending parents (principally mothers) for ‘failing to protect’ their children can unfortunately support men’s efforts to avoid responsibility for their use of violence, and place the family further at risk. This is especially the case given many perpetrators’ indirect or active attempts to destroy their partner’s sense of worth as a parent, and to harm the mother–child bond (see the DVRCV report, Bad Mothers and Invisible Fathers, for more details).

The work that needs to be done to improve practice, and systemic responses, at the family violence and child protection intersect has increasingly been recognised in recent years. In the US, for example, attempts to substantially strengthen practice at this interface have been occurring for at least fifteen years, such as in Olmsted County, Minnesota, and Boston, Massachussetts (for a brief description of these, see pages 5-7 of the NTV 2012 conference workshop article Living messages within a dominant narrative).

The Safe and Together model, a comprehensive approach towards improving outcomes for children and families exposed to domestic violence, has now been rolled out in ten states in the US (the model founder, David Mandel, ran workshops in Queensland and Melbourne in mid-November 2013). In Australia, possibly the most coordinated, state-wide approach towards improving perpetrator accountability in child protection practice is occurring in Western Australia, through the Department for Child Protection (DCP). No To Violence was commissioned to research and write a practice resource to assist child protection practitioners to work with men who use family and domestic violence, which we have followed up with 2-day training events. DCP is working towards strengthening the sustainability of these reforms, by supporting practice leaders to encourage reflective practice through supervision and local practice development opportunities.

Systems building work to improve collaboration is also occurring in other regions, such as the Changing Family Futures initiative in Gippsland, and through the Gold Coast Domestic Violence Integrated Response. The next ten years appears an opportune time for child protection, family violence and family services agencies to work more closely together in placing responsibility onto those who are perpetrating violence within the family.

2. Slides, audio and transcript of a CFCA webinar on this topic, presented by Rodney Vlais, can be accessed here.


The feature image is by Diego Dacal, CC BY-SA 2.0.


"Possibly the most coordinated, state-wide approach towards improving perpetrator accountability in child protection practice is occurring in Western Australia." If only this were true. As someone who is passionate about accountability in practice I am aware of the practice resource mentioned; however I regret to say that it is not widely known amongst Child Protection and Family Support workers; most of whom are relatively young and inexperienced and who receive supervision from within a culture that is only just beginning to reflect on their practices in the area of DV. On the whole, workers here in WA are carrying on the age-old tradition of looking to the mother to protect her children whilst completely ignoring the father and the fact that it is his actions which require the need for the children to be protected; let alone the fact that, as the other parent he has equal responsibility to protect the child(ren) - a task immeasurably easier for the perpetrator than the adult victim to achieve!
Yes, this is an important reality-check, thanks for the comment. For a number of reasons, cultural and systemic change work in this respect is slow, and promoting change momentum when there is significant staff turnover is challenging (though not impossible). One of the resources which David Mandel provided in his recent workshops in Queensland and Victoria was a continuum chart which outlined, in detail, the different stages of a child protection system's journey in strengthening its understanding of family violence, including perpetrators' patterns of coercive control - and what this understanding means not only for engaging perpetrators, but also in supporting non-offending parents and the mother-child bond. There probably aren't that many examples of systems anywhere that have achieved the advanced stages of this continuum. I think we are seeing some promising starting points in some parts of Australia, and relatively speaking, in terms of government commitment to perpetrator accountability, WA does appear to be at the forefront. But this isn't the same as deep, embedded systemic change. Some of the applications of the Safe and Together model in the U.S. involve many days of collaborative training (for both child protection and family violence practitioners), cross-sectorial policy and protocol development at multiple levels (high level through to local), and other concerted systems building work to achieve progression across the continuum. So it is very important not to under-estimate the amount of work required here, and the timescale we are looking at for systemic change. And there are also some political pressures operating in the reverse direction in one or two instances (not in WA as far as I'm aware), which have the potential to accentuate 'failure to protect' practices. This reminds me of Vikki Reynolds' training and work which invites us to reframe our narratives around burn-out and disillusionment ( It's not our clients that burn us out, but rather attempting to work the best we can in a political context that unfortunately hinders rather than supports our efforts towards social justice.
Rodney Vlais

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Rodney Vlais

Rodney Vlais is a psychologist and Policy and Practice Co-ordinator with No To Violence Male Family Violence Prevention Association

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