Fathers who use violence

Options for safe practice where there is ongoing contact with children
CFCA Paper No. 43 – June 2017


Domestic and family violence (DFV) remains a chronic and destructive aspect of family life in Australia (Cox, 2015). Its pervasive reach into the lives of women and children creates fear, undermines health and wellbeing, is the leading cause of homelessness for women and children, and costs the community an estimated $21.6 billion (Our Watch, 2016; Price Waterhouse & Cooper, 2015). While the problem often appears intractable, the movement to end DFV through primary prevention has found many champions and allies in the community and government (Nixon & Humphreys, 2010). The strategies for working to respond to and prevent DFV have also broadened and changed as new issues gain attention and the evidence base strengthens (Our Watch, 2015).

This paper responds to a challenge that has continued to frustrate workers attempting to intervene to support women and children living with DFV. This is, namely, that the DFV intervention system is structured around women and their children separating from men who use violence. This is a pattern of working developed in both the specialist women's DFV sector, as well as statutory child protection. However, many women and children may not be in a position to separate from their abusive and violent partners, and some women and children's wellbeing and safety may not be enhanced by separation.

There are a wide variety of reasons that make separation difficult or impossible for many women and their children: 

  • Violence and abuse may escalate with separation.
  • Post-separation arrangements for children often ensure continuous, unsupervised time with fathers who use violence and abuse, leaving children no safer.
  • Homelessness and poverty may result from separation and are particularly acute in the current rental housing crisis.
  • In rural and remote areas, geographical and social factors, and lack of support services, make separation difficult.
  • Resident status may be dependent upon the violent partner for some women who have migrated to Australia.
  • For women with disabilities, their abuser may also be their carer.
  • For Indigenous women, leaving a partner may mean leaving their land and community.
  • Women may still be emotionally attached and loving towards their partners despite the abuse and may not wish to separate at the current time. 

To explore this contentious issue, we are responding to the questions:

  • What is the practice or evidence base for working with families where the perpetrator remains in the home?
  • Are there safe ways to work with women and children living with a perpetrator of DFV, or for women and children who still have significant contact with a perpetrator post-separation?

In particular, we are interested in fathers who use violence and whether there are strategies for working that engage and address the issues for children, women and men who are continuing to live with DFV.

Box 1: Terminology and patterns of domestic and family violence

Domestic and family violence

Although the literature examined used various terminology to refer to violence in families, including intimate partner violence, domestic violence, family violence, partner abuse and so forth, domestic and family violence (DFV) is used throughout this report. The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Their Children 2010-2022 (Council of Australian Governments (COAG), 2009, p. 2) defines domestic and family violence as:

… acts of violence that occur between people who have, or have had, an intimate relationship. While there is no single definition, the central element of domestic violence is an ongoing pattern of behaviour aimed at controlling a partner through fear, for example by using behaviour which is violent and threatening. In most cases, the violent behaviour is part of a range of tactics to exercise power and control over women and their children, and can be both criminal, and non-criminal. Domestic violence includes physical, sexual, emotional and psychological abuse … Family violence is a broader term that refers to violence between family members, as well as violence between intimate partners … the term family violence is the most widely used term to identify the experiences of Indigenous people, because it includes the broad range of marital and kinship relationships in which violence may occur.

Further, the authors situate their understanding of DFV as contextualised within the wider socio-cultural context of gender inequality and the violence supportive attitudes that undermine respectful relationships (Our Watch, 2015). However, it is clear that some authors in the studies reviewed hold a contrasting understanding of DFV. Violence is named as a high conflict problem of communication (e.g., Todahl, Linville, Tuttle Shamblin, Skurtu, & Bell, 2013). The Australian and international evidence base does not support this perspective (Walby & Allen, 2004; Cox, 2015).

In keeping with the dominant patterns of domestic and family violence, throughout this report, victim survivors are referred to as women and children while perpetrators are referred to as men (Cox, 2015). The authors recognise that this is the dominant but not only pattern of DFV. Women can be perpetrators and men may be victims. However, these are minority patterns and the paper's language reflects this majority pattern.

Patterns of domestic and family violence

The Australian Personal Safety Survey (ABS, 2012) and additional analysis of the survey (Cox, 2015) showed the following data:

  • One in 20 (5%) men experienced physical violence or threat from a co-habiting partner.
  • One in six women (17%) experienced physical violence or threat from a co-habiting partner.
  • The rate of violence against women was substantially increased when all intimate partners (not just co-habiting partners) were taken into account, increasing to one in four women.
  • Fear or anxiety after the most recent violent incident from an opposite sex partner was reported by 4.3 times as many women as men (Cox, 2015).

Further data is provided by the British Crime Survey (Walby & Allen, 2004). This survey of 23,000 men and women in the UK showed quite high levels of physical violence or abuse in couple relationships from both partners, with 13% of women and 9% of men reporting a physical incident of abuse in the previous 12 months. However, the survey data also showed that:

  • where there were four or more incidents of violence:
    • women were victims in 89% of cases;
    • of all incidents, 81% involved women as victims;
    • women were the most severely injured (three times more likely to be badly injured than men); and
    • women were more fearful (again, three times more likely).

As such, the data from the UK does show that while there is a group of women who use physical aggression or violence in their relationships, there is not enough known about the context for this violence and the extent to which it is self-defence. The evidence does show, however, that the patterns of violence are gendered and that fear and severe injury are experienced by a much greater proportion of women than men.