Working with Indigenous men in behaviour change programs

Helem Yumba Queensland Healing Centre


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Content type
Practice guide

April 2014

Mary Stathopoulos, a Senior Research Officer at ACSSA, interviews Edward Mosby (Psychologist, Therapeutic Team Leader, and program developer) and Gil Thomsen (Behaviour Change and Addictions Counsellor, and program facilitator), both at Helem Yumba in Queensland.

Helem Yumba Central Queensland Healing Centre is a community organisation in Rockhampton, Queensland, which offers support and counselling services for individuals and families at risk of domestic and family violence.

Mary Stathopoulos, a Senior Research Officer at ACSSA, interviews Edward Mosby (Psychologist, Therapeutic Team Leader, and program developer) and Gil Thomsen (Behaviour Change and Addictions Counsellor, and program facilitator), both at Helem Yumba in Queensland.

Can you please tell me a little about your roles at Helem Yumba and what you've been working on lately?

EDWARD MOSBY: I am the Therapeutic Team Leader so my role is to oversee the therapeutic aspects of our service. As the Psychologist I will conduct assessments and deliver therapy and other interventions as required. Much of my work is report writing, collaboration with multiple other agencies and working with individuals and families. Another significant part of my work is staff training and supervision.

Helem Yumba is a healing service for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, however we do also get referrals for non-Indigenous families at times. Most notably, in central Queensland we are recognised as a preferred service provider for family and domestic violence and related matters. The majority of our referrals will come from the Family Court of Australia, Magistrates Court, Queensland Legal Aid Service, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service (ATSIL), Probation and Parole, Corrective Services, Department of Child Safety and other non-government agencies. For a high percentage of our referrals the person is mandated to attend in one form or another. We also sometimes get referrals from family members or the community and these are treated as third party referrals. In addition, we are getting more and more self-referrals, which is rare but encouraging. We systematically review these referrals and make sure they are appropriate for us and we will get in touch and refer on to other agencies as required. We run both programs for groups but also tailored individual support and plans, which are facilitated by our team and also with other agencies.

GIL THOMSEN: We recently completed a ten-week program in prison called Dads on the Inside, so that has been very time consuming for the last few weeks. We run a fathering program that I have some input into, and today we start a new eight-week program. Apart from that, we also do one-on-one counselling.

Can you please tell me more about the Dads on the Inside program?

EDWARD MOSBY: We know there is an over-representation of Indigenous males in every incarceration facility nationally. Our sense is that one of the most significant reasons is because of violence-related offences. Putting this next to the growing rate of children being placed in care; and what are the reasons they are being placed in care? Generally, on many occasions, it is because of the violence that is going on in the family and general environment. Further, we know that for a lot of Indigenous men, recidivism rates across all incarceration facilities are going through the roof. These guys only represent 2 or 3% of the population but 30 or 40% in these facilities. As an Indigenous non-government agency providing a service to the community, prison is where we as a healing service need to be because if we're not in the prison then we are going to miss out on time with these guys, because the majority of our guys that get referred to us in the community are going to do some time at some stage for their offending behaviour. Most of our referrals are repeat offenders, most of them have done multiple periods but we haven't even talked about how these guys are set up to fail. If they are lucky enough to do a program or even choose to do a program we may have some hope of addressing these issues, however the validity of these programs needs to be ensured. After release, these men go back to their communities, they aren't given accommodation, they get dropped off at the same place they were picked up from and they haven't engaged with their partners to make sure they are all right, they haven't been given any skills to manage anger, relationships, how to get employment or particularly, where we are interested, been validated for their own trauma, grief and losses. However, we expect them to change, have no belief that they will change, and don't take responsibility for setting the conditions to support any change.

GIL THOMSEN: So basically what I've learnt over 30-odd years is to talk to the person's conscience, and we have together developed this work and we believe that we can't change any one but ourselves, it is their conscience that has to change them. We have seen evidence of this working, for example if a man can't sleep at 2 am they can't sleep because their conscience is bothering them, and they start to think about things. We have men incarcerated that have done our behaviour change program before being incarcerated, and they have said to us, "I thought I'd be able to come in here and forget about my children and just do my time and then get out". And they have said to us, "I haven't been able to shut my mind down, I haven't been able to stop thinking of my children". And so that's a huge shift from when they are first mandatorily referred and don't give a rat's about anyone else other than themselves basically. We prepare them over time to go and do our behaviour change program so when their legal matters catch up with them, they have the program content that has stimulated their conscience.

Is it easier to work with these men in prison rather than the community? For example, are there less distractions, such as drugs and alcohol, or is that an issue in prison also?

GIL THOMSEN: Not so much drugs and alcohol but we were surprised just how many distractions there are in prison, we thought we would have a captive audience so to speak but we were to realise we had so much competition, it was just as bad as the outside.

Like what?

GIL THOMSEN: Like going to the gym, going to work to earn money, you know, going to the laundry or whatever their job is. They're paying off gambling debts, you know. They often start gambling compulsively when they go inside, looking for other mind-altering activities, then they have to do extra work to pay off their gambling debts. If they owe a debt to someone then they'll do that person's job too. Then they gamble more as a way to pay off debt. Also things like Christmas - we had Christmas in the middle of the program, some of the Dads that did our program were wanting to buy things for their kids at Christmas, so they would do extra hours to try and save money. So in prison, there are not drug and alcohol distractions, however there are lots of other distractions that take them away from the programs.

EDWARD MOSBY: I think if you can manoeuvre them into a position where you have their attention while they don't have to worry about paying the rent, they don't have to worry about things like taking the kids to school, all the daily activities, other daily appointments that they have to do outside, if you can get them to regularly turn up to a group, then that's a good thing. Because the challenge that you have, the very behaviour that you are trying to break down, is the one that has allowed them to survive in prison. What we realised in about week 4 or 5 of our prison program was that the content of the program was such that it was hitting right to the bone and we needed to engage in individual counselling or therapy, as well as the group therapy, just to keep them in the program. We were having instances where guys were becoming motivated, they would go back to their block, they were talking about what they wanted to do but there were other guys there that were there for a longer period of time, they would be putting the wood on it. Basically talking about their children was not encouraged by many of the other inmates for several reasons and much pressure would be applied to cease these conversations. However, there were many indications that this was going to be a very important subject when it came to behavioural change and finding an angle to approach such ingrained behaviour.

GIL THOMSEN: The guys in the program would be hearing from other prisoners, "Don't be coming down here talking about family matters, don't be talking about our children, we are trying to block them out of our minds while we are in here". Men from the group were saying, "come up to the group, its great; we are having good honest yarns up there".

You're working with Indigenous men, do you also work with the community more broadly?

EDWARD MOSBY: We've found that we can't just work with one person. We need to work with the wider family members and we generally know that a family that is engaged in family and domestic violence will most likely be involved with a lot of services and we quickly try to identify what those services are and to talk to them and engage with them. There has been a real need to highlight to those services, for example, a lot of Indigenous families have children in care because of family and domestic violence, so when a perpetrator is referred to us to do one of our programs, we generally know that he is probably going to be reporting to probation and parole and he probably has some requirement under the Department of Child Safety as well as several other services. Ultimately, we spend a good amount of time highlighting from our assessments the crisis point that these families are in. We've spent a lot of time in the last four years reviewing what we do and it has been a hard road travelled and now we have a much better understanding of men, their behaviour, their reality and those things we've learnt we try to share with other service providers and the community.

Can you please describe the context in which all this is occurring? What's the cultural landscape like and how does it facilitate or inhibit engagement with these men?

GIL THOMSEN: These men are a product of the system that's colonisation, and when they come to our service they have got their survival mechanisms and skills, their deflection skills, like denial and justifying, projection and so on, they are highly skilled at that. I've got a saying that we deal with liars, cheats, thieves and con artists, but know, that's what the men do to survive in the system. In saying that, I've got to sit here as a person and not judge them. That is really important. When we talk about engagement, this is what engagement is all about, this is sitting down and having a cup of tea and saying, "Tell me your story brother, where have you been and where are you from?" And to listen when he says that he has been kicked from pillar to post and back. Then you've got all the lateral violence that stems from colonisation - these are skills that therapists need to develop and understand.

EDWARD MOSBY: What I do need to probably say is that Uncle Gil and I - we are Indigenous men and so when we look at the violence that is perpetrated and the impact that it has on children, it touches us deeply. We have been accused of colluding, but we spend a lot of time yarning about and reflecting on this real risk in this line of work. We have, probably more than many people, much investment in this issue around family and domestic violence because it is actually our family, our community, our people. We might make comments that these men are liars, con artists and cheats, we don't say that in a derogatory sense, the meaning is respectful but the way we say it is such to get people's attention. Our intent is to encourage the truth because if we are not being real and honest about an Indigenous man's reality then we will never see the truth. What we are referring to here are the very serious tactics that many people engage in just to survive in "the system". Our role is about behaviour change and about healing. Unfortunately, we have been told that we condone and support the violence that women experience and we think that children don't deserve to be safe and we do this by supporting violent men. Now I take that as disrespectful to us. We don't sympathise, we think it is the empathising that is important. To truly understand the lived experience of a violent Indigenous man. We don't take the privilege of judging our brothers, fathers, uncles because we walk in their shoes. Perhaps, we should ask ourselves what does wellness and wellbeing mean to an Indigenous man. Ask ourselves how important is kinship, cultural identity, speaking language, the relationship with family and community, and other matters which could come under the umbrella of spirituality. There appears to be a couple of cultures at play here which are very different. There is this culture around violence and there are these Indigenous cultures that violence of this nature was not a part of. We see many of these men make bad decisions but we need to ask ourselves, do we see them as bad people? Let's go down there and let's encourage these 15 guys that we know are offending and in prison for the third time for the same thing and let's perhaps not make it voluntary but strongly encourage them to participate in behaviour change.

GIL THOMSEN: We have been accused of collusion with these perpetrators but we are saying these perpetrators are worthy. We do not condone violence, we have zero tolerance to violence, we always say that preceding anything, our service has zero tolerance to violence in any form, but you have to respect that man and where he is coming from. But these are the things, like taking time to listen - that's how we engage these men. For some of them it is the first time they have been listened to.

In your experiences, what are the important elements in providing services and behaviour change programs that are unique to Indigenous men?

EDWARD MOSBY: We had to go through and review our procedures. Our principles include respecting a man in his place of reality and another one is not judging and being aware that we can't judge. As part of a starting point for Indigenous men this is beneficial because if you do not take the time to appreciate the life and lived experiences of a male Indigenous offender, he will not connect with you and you will not connect with him.

This can be difficult, in my previous life, I started by requesting that the other person tell me all about themselves, whereas much of my time now is sharing things about me and encouraging them until they are ready. It is doubly difficult to do that when you're sitting in front of a man who has viciously assaulted his partner in front of his children and when you look at some of the crimes he has committed. So why do we say that we need to be respecting that man in his place of reality? Because that at least provides for us the opportunity to map out where this man is at. And not judging, that is very difficult, particularly when you have the police report and you know the history of the guy - to be able to sit there as a therapist and not judge this person, is quite difficult, particularly when they are giving back to you everything from aggression, to anger, to mistrust, to not connecting with their conscience. There are guys that don't care whether they are on an order, they don't care if they go to prison, they don't care whether the Magistrate says this or the probation or the parole officer says that. They don't sometimes even care about their kids, not on the surface anyway. Do they care about their partner? Not really, they probably have some connection with them but the thing we learnt is that we really have to spend some time working out how we engage with these men. They have and want a voice also.

GIL THOMSEN: If you go back to colonisation, let's start there, and now we have lateral violence and that sometimes starts with service providers. The lateral violence is also what he experiences when he goes into an organisation for help and is confronted with prejudice. Just think, if who you were born to be is not okay because of the colour of your skin. If the government of the country you are in puts out White Australia policies and assimilation policies and all that sort of stuff, just think about the impact that has on Indigenous people. You're not acceptable. Who you are, is not acceptable. You have to become like them to be acceptable. We will put you on missions and we will put you out in the bush somewhere so no one has to live next door to you, and that becomes innate and that is in that person. It hurts. And then we talk about trust. We have to establish trust with this person and somehow let them know that we are not just some organisation getting government funding and driving around in big cars and wearing nice shirts.

Are you confronted with racism at times? And if so, what kind of impact does it have?

EDWARD MOSBY: How does racism impact on the individual? How does racism impact on the policies that influence that person? I think there's multiple layers, we are not just talking about one person who can walk down the road and a car drives past and someone can lean out and call him all the profanities under the sun, we are talking about a guy who is under an order that doesn't acknowledge his role as the father to a child, probably under a child protection order and policies and procedures that probably haven't adjusted to the needs of an Indigenous family. For example, his court hearing might be conducted in an environment that isn't conducive to him - or he hasn't been engaged with by the appropriate people in the appropriate manner to actually give him a fair hearing. There is a high rate of Indigenous people not turning up to court hearings and it is astounding. When there are multiple organisations around, they still don't get it. The number of times I've had my own Indigenous staff come back from meetings held to talk about families interventions, they are in tears, because of the way they were treated, disrespected and intimidated. That's only one incident, but when you start engaging with those people that were involved in that situation you can get some really not nice feelings. I am not scared to use the word racism because it goes on, absolutely it does. I get it every day. Maybe I get a little bit more lenience because I have got a couple of extra qualifications. I see the attitudes - and this is racism at all levels - the perpetrator, the aggrieved, the children, the family members, racism towards organisations. We have had to fight so hard for these services to make our men accountable for their actions. People say I'm a bit of a party pooper, you know, here comes grumpy Ed again, but you know, the reason I'm so passionate is that if we get rid of racism then we can start doing the real work, we can start some type of healing. I think that one of the reasons we have staff burnout is the poor collaboration efforts and the frustration that they have talking with other services. I feel much of this friction comes from factors I'm comfortable in putting under the banner of racism.

GIL THOMSEN: And I would say that 95% of our people that go to court - their legal adviser says, "just plead guilty it will be better for you". They don't even hear their case, they don't even say what happened when they read out the list of charges - what the person has supposedly done - that person shakes their head and they say to me outside the court, "half of that I didn't even do". And yet they plead guilty to the lot because their legal advisers see them for five minutes before they walk into court. So you know, all these systems are ... And again, this is obvious to us in a lot of ways, that is, if we were defending women - we have female counsellors as well and they are developing up a female behaviour change program - and so we see these aggrieved female perpetrators as well, our service is not prejudiced. But we are seeing these Western models saying that male perpetrators come from a very privileged place; well we believe that our men don't. Most of our men are unemployed - 99%.

In my other jobs we have been very instrumental in getting funding for women's causes, but with the male behaviour change program - the domestic violence mainstream is not ready to accept some of the stuff we are saying. So that is where we are getting kicked back all of the time.

EDWARD MOSBY: We say that further to that, our thoughts are that these men are not coming from a position of privilege. They are unemployed, they don't have an education, they have poor health, they are going to die 10 or 15 years younger than their non-Indigenous counterparts, they're lucky to finish Year 9 most likely, they've been incarcerated multiple times, they're marginalised in society, but their poor health is shocking and what privilege is there in that? There are some challenges in how we face this - it is quite significant, we are saying something that is going against the grain, saying the same message, and we are actually seeing other cogs turning. We had an interesting conversation with the women's yarning group about domestic violence and we run regular engagement activities with our traditional owners and elders in the community, and these are real opportunities where growth and learning can happen at a very rapid rate. And you know women will at times say that they still love their men, they love the fathers of their children, but they just want the behaviour to change.

What other things are you hearing from the women and other family members who have had to endure violence? What are their wants and needs?

GIL THOMSEN: I go out and sit out under the trees at the women's shelter out there and I have a yarn with the women out there. They want to talk about their partners or their perpetrator and why he is walking and stalking them up and down the road in front of the women's shelter. And those women say to me, "see, look at that - he's free, I can't leave, I'm stuck in here for my safety, and I am afraid out there but he's a free man and he's got a warrant out on him but look, there he is still walking up and down the street". They regularly say that. The system just compounds the situation.

EDWARD MOSBY: There are discussions in Queensland now about how the men in families where the children have been removed because of violence, there is a real lack of making them accountable. The mum has to do all the programs and jump through all the hoops but what is he doing? He is not doing anything. And so we sat back and listened to all of this and it rang true for us, because I'm living in central Queensland and it has the highest rates and growing numbers of people engaged in family and domestic violence from both Indigenous and non-Indigenous families, and the rate of children going into care or notifications being made are increasing. So I would expect multiple calls to my service with referrals - and I'm one of two service providers certified to run programs for families experiencing domestic violence and related matters - I would expect my phone to be ringing hot every day, but you know what? It's not! Neither are the phones of the other service.

I have to go to all these organisations and say - it's like pulling teeth - and say this is what we run, these are our programs, this is our philosophy and so on. We have been here ten years and yet we are always having to push to get some referrals. These clients, they need behaviour change programs, we are evaluating it - getting it better each time - at least it's a start. There have been some good outcomes that we have been fortunate enough to have, there has been an uptake in some of the referrals from some government agencies and that is all good on the surface, but when I review what it took to have that occur, it is concerning for me. It is concerning for me that even now, all these services - we have got another program and when we went out to all these services and after we had delivered our presentation, I still had to chase them up and say do you have anybody to refer? And we can say that because we talk regularly to all those services and all the Indigenous services and because we are connected in the community, so we know that there are families now that should be doing these programs. If we are serious about change, they should be doing these programs now. I've got people coming in now that are going to get their kids back in June and I say to them, "Well what have you done?" and they say, "Oh nothing, I haven't done any programs". They've continued to use drugs, they've got an appearance in court for another breach, but they are still on the radar to get their kids back and then you've got grumpy Ed going over there to the Court recommending against it and saying no, because nothing has changed. I'm sick and tired of seeing children cry. I'm sick and tired of seeing children follow in their father's footsteps. The majority of boys who have a father incarcerated, at some point in time, will enter into the juvenile justice system, and most of them will transition into the adult system. This is the current state of play.

Do you think the interactions you have with extended family members and community members ever has a preventative effect? Or do you think there are too many things working against that?

EDWARD MOSBY: We talk about this when we're evaluating and designing a program - it's that we are probably thinking about generations down the track. In this program for Indigenous dads, we are thinking about the children of the men and the children of the children of the men. Unfortunately, although most of our work starts off as reactive, we are definitely spending more and more time in the preventative stage. But I feel there is a void with preventative-type work, in central Queensland anyway. Our young people's voices, we don't hear them enough and we don't provide them with the tools. I am doing a healthy relationship presentation in schools because I felt it was so very important. I went to one particular school and the presentation was only given to the children that were on the verge of expulsion - you do this program or you're out. So I did the first presentation and eight kids turned up, I did the second one and it was 15 kids, then the third one, 32 kids turned up and they all talked about their relationships and domestic violence and how they wanted it to stop. They were so bloody passionate about stopping the violence. I learnt so much from those children. After a night of violence in the family homes, these are the kids that are just expected by the families to put their backpacks on and go to school as if nothing ever happened. These kids need a voice and one of the reasons we say perpetrators of violence should do behaviour change programs whether its with us or some other validated program - do it because your children want you to. Change your behaviour - stop the violence because your children want you to. Further, we also say stop the violence because the mother and grandmothers of the children want you to. That is the message that is getting some real traction with these guys. So with the kids, I think engaging with them is important. One because I think it is to do with resilience and helping them to cope with what is happening, but also because they have some insight. One of our theories with the current program is that using the relationship between a man and his children - as a mechanism for his change through dealing with his trauma, in addition, that relationship is also a mechanism for dealing with the grief and the trauma in that child's life at this point. So we are exploring those avenues and I think we are getting some traction.

Finally, I wanted to ask you how important is it to be culturally competent and appropriate while running programs for Indigenous people and communities?

EDWARD MOSBY: I look at us as an Indigenous service, but we have to revisit this ourselves. We had to go back and look at our cultural competence and appropriateness so the message about this is that we need to be realistic, it is quite difficult. I've worked in agencies where I've been told that I have to go through cultural competency training. I've been given pamphlets and booklets that say read this and you will be culturally competent. As a junior I sort of took that on board and said, "you ripper, I'm armed with all this knowledge and ready to go, I've got it all". But you know it didn't work like that and it doesn't work like that. This is hard work.

And for many people, not just for Indigenous people, my experience is that once you start talking cultural competence and safety and so on, the hands go up and they are waiting for the "r" word to come in, they are waiting for racism to be talked about. It's not about that - I think that cultural competence takes time and some people get it and some struggle with it. I encourage people to do a NAIDOC1 march, not to tick a box but to feel what it is like to walk down the main street of a major town when the rest of the people of the community of mostly non-Indigenous people are looking at you. What does that feel like when you have all of those eyes on you and you are seen to be part of this very marginalised group? This is for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people to take on board, that when you are engaging with your clients, or with the families, what other considerations are you thinking about? If you are not measuring your service on its achievement of these, perhaps this isn't the game to be in because its disrespectful, it further traumatises people, families and communities, it is unprofessional and its counterproductive when it comes to healing. There are multiple resources and opportunities to promote one's own cultural competence. It's the courage, the willingness and the desire for people to engage in this that is rare. Gil, do you want to say something about cultural competency?

GIL THOMSEN: Yes. I run programs that are culturally grown and built, that's what we are guided by. We spend time talking to elders and traditional owners - for instance, I don't have the right to just stand up in public and talk about that community that we visit out there weekly and talk about their shame, for example. I am employed in this job but I don't have the right to just go all around the district and talk about their shame. I follow protocol and I go and talk to the appropriate people and I receive their permission. So when I stand up at a conference to talk about something or other, I need to be given permission to do that. Another example is how the programs that are developed are done so with the wisdom and knowledge of elders and traditional owners and through collaboration. When I developed that behaviour change program I thought, how do I respect each man in his place of reality, and his beliefs and his culture? Because it is a myth to believe that every Aboriginal person has culture. So we have developed a program that a woman could come and do, that a man from Thursday Island could come and do, or an Aboriginal man could come and do and I would respect each of the three of them for their own beliefs and culture.

EDWARD MOSBY: I think in terms of competence and of ability, for any clinician or worker to work with Indigenous people, as with anyone. As a minimum, knowing what the impact of the Stolen Generations is, the Death in Custody reports,2 all of those sorts of things. Understanding who the local families are, what the local tribes in the area are, what the history is. That is all important stuff. Learning the protocols and procedures as respected by that particular culture in that local area.

We throw away words, like trans-generational trauma, but we don't really appreciate the impact that it has, perhaps ignorantly because it started many years ago. I did a series of presentations on cultural competence and I was amazed at the number of people that had been spending time in Indigenous communities that always complained, "we are only here for a day and a half but we keep talking about what happened 200 years ago". What is the relevance, they would say. But what happened 200 years ago is relevant to today.

GIL THOMSEN: This stuff hurts me deeply, because you know, that was my grandmother. That's how recent it is. My grandmother was displaced and abused and put on a mission and all of that, so it is not 200 years ago, it was my grandmother and it is in my family still and it will be for generations yet. That compounding trans-generational stuff is still there. So when someone says, why should we say sorry or why should we even give them time? Because it is relevant today. You know, being culturally competent or appropriate, it is really just being able to understand and be sensitive to other people's various sets of experiences.


1. NAIDOC - National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee.

2. For more information, please see: Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody from that, we also do one-on-one counselling.


Stathopoulos, M. (2014). Working with Indigenous men in behaviour change programs: Helem Yumba Queensland Healing Centre (ACSSA Working With). Melbourne: Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault, Australian Institute of Family Studies.