What to do about men

Men are the perpetrators of most family violence and child abuse. They are also the neglected key to tackling New Zealand’s tragic record on child welfare, writes Bruce Munro.

Police register a new family violence investigation every five and a-half minutes. They estimate, however, that 82% of domestic violence cases - physical, emotional and sexual - go unreported. Photo: Getty
Police register a new family violence investigation every five and a-half minutes. They estimate, however, that 82% of domestic violence cases - physical, emotional and sexual - go unreported. Photo: Getty

It was while he was trying to beat his drug addiction that Brett’s past came back to haunt him.

Things had changed for the better a long time earlier. When the Otago lad had turned 9, a new stepfather, a good man, had come on the scene. From him, Brett (not his real name) had learned right and wrong, how to treat people properly. There was still anger from his early years, and a degree of self-loathing. But his own physical violence towards a family member, that was new.

Now a father himself, Brett and his partner were on the methadone drug treatment programme, trying to get free of significant opiate addictions.

"It was during the transition to the programme that we had a big argument and an altercation happened," Brett recalls.

He goes into detail. It was not the top end of violent offending but it was physical, it was damaging, and it bore all the hallmarks of what he had experienced as a young boy. Brett’s act of violence was one of more than 100 "dwelling assaults" Otago police responded to that month. He was arrested and ended up in front of the court.

The usual adjectives are unworthy descriptors of New Zealand’s high rates of family violence and child abuse. Appalling, horrific, shameful ... such words trivialise the lives warped or destroyed by members of their own families.

Police register a new family violence investigation every five and a-half minutes. They estimate, however, that 82% of domestic violence cases — physical, emotional and sexual — go unreported.

Those that come to public attention are terrible, and terribly frequent. In New Zealand, an average of 14 women, six men and 10 children are killed by a member of their family every year.

Chris and Cru Kahui, Nia Glassie, J. J. Ruhe-Lawrence, Jyniah Te Awa ... We recognise the names but the details blur into each other. And it is not only happening in someone else’s patch. Bradley and Ellen Livingstone were killed by their father in their Dunedin home, in February 2014.

In January, a Central Otago man who sexually abused two young female relatives for several years, was jailed for nearly eight years. Later this year, a court inquest will investigate the 2015 death of an unnamed Southland toddler less than a week after Child Youth and Family sent him back to his home despite knowing it was unsafe. Just over a month later, the mother’s partner, who pleaded not guilty to murdering the 17-month-old boy, was found dead in custody.

Associate Professor Nicola Atwool says the solution to family violence is too often seen as...
Associate Professor Nicola Atwool says the solution to family violence is too often seen as simply imprisoning the male perpetrators. Photo: Gregor Richardson.

Whether it is the 142,249 cases of possible child abuse or neglect reported to police last year, or the Expert Advisory Panel’s 2016 report highlighting how badly children in state care fare, it is clear that change is urgently needed. That is the opinion of Associate Professor Nicola Atwool.

"We cannot go on doing what we have been doing, which quite clearly has not been effective," she says.

Prof Atwool was a Child, Youth and Family specialist services staff member and then worked in the Office of the Children’s Commissioner, in Wellington. She now trains the country’s future social workers at the University of Otago. More than one change is needed if New Zealanders want fewer lives wasted by family violence, she says. Some of that change has begun. But a key component in the equation, which so far has been neglected and marginalised, is the 85% of perpetrators: men.

"The men are really important," Prof Atwool says.

"We need to have a more positive approach to what we can achieve if we focus on men, in terms of supporting them to make change, rather than just punishing them for the criminal acts they have committed.

"Some victims won’t like to hear that ... But if we are only dealing with victims then we’re only dealing with half the problem."

Prof Atwool says the standard approach to family violence is to provide services to the women and children but not the men. The men are often left marginalised, only interacting with police and the Department of Corrections.

"What we have tended to do ... is see the solution as her leaving him or putting him in prison.

"Prison is not a particularly effective way of reducing men’s violence because it’s a very violent environment and they often have to do a lot to survive there.

"And we haven’t understood that even if she leaves him, he’s still a problem because he probably will go into another relationship.

"We haven’t gone to the heart of the matter, which is the dynamics. Generally, when you’ve got violence, you’ve got a father who has suffered horrendous abuse as a child. And a mother who has suffered horrendous abuse as a child."

There is growing understanding of how brains and behaviour are shaped by trauma, Prof Atwool says.

"Trauma wires the brain so that you react without thinking. 

"So, while we are not wanting to condone violent men’s behaviour, we need to understand that his brain is wired in such a way that he is highly likely to be reactive. He goes from action to reaction in a nanosecond. It’s not that he doesn’t care. It’s not a simple thing.

"He needs to learn to recognise the pattern so he can read his own body cues and know how to manage that. Understanding those patterns comes from talking about the past abuse. But, most often, that can only happen when someone has come alongside and built a trusting relationship.

"Men have to be in a very safe place before they begin talking about that stuff.

"We haven’t been good at reaching out to dads."

There are very few organisations specifically targeting men and violence, a fact that those agencies themselves know too well.

"We don’t market ourselves" Stopping Violence Dunedin (SVD) manager Cinnamon Boreham says.

"We need to be able to but we are not funded to ... There would be a much larger demand if we did market ourselves."

As it is, the domestic abuse intervention organisation saw 400 individual clients during the past year.

It is only a small group of  men who want to behave violently, Mrs Boreham says.

"We work with people who want to be better and don’t know how ... A lot of our clients have been severely traumatised. There’s lots of sexual abuse, lots of other humiliating and denigrating things have happened to them and they have passed them on. And they hate themselves for it."

Agencies such as Stopping Violence Dunedin (SVD) can become an important place of connection for...
Agencies such as Stopping Violence Dunedin can become an important place of connection for men who have been violent but want to learn a different way of being, SVD manager Cinnamon Boreham (left) and SVD family violence specialist Tarn Felton say. Photo: Bruce Munro

Change does not come quickly, Tarn Felton, an SVD family violence specialist, says.

"We need to be thinking seven generations forward on this. We need to be thinking of it as an investment in our future and our children’s futures.’’Until his stepfather’s arrival, Brett was raised just by his mother. He also spent time with his biological father.

"It was pretty difficult for my mother. She would be physically and verbally abusive when she was strung out," Brett says.

His father did not hit Brett, but it was not uncommon for Brett to see him yell at, and stomp on, his current partner.

By his late teens, Brett was starting to follow his father down the same road.

"He’s been a drug addict for years and years, in and out of prison for ‘male hits female’ and all that sort of s***.

"I would have turned out just like him. Constantly getting in trouble and blaming everyone else."

Mike Tonks, who is director of Catholic Social Services, runs Game On, Dunedin’s only parenting course specifically for men.

He says many traumatised men genuinely want to be good fathers but have never had good role models from whom to learn how to parent without threats and violence.

"There is a need for more services that are affirming of men’s abilities to do a great job as parents," Mr Tonks says.

It illustrates another reason why men are key to tackling domestic violence, Prof Atwool says.

"If that man is a father, if he is able to change, you get an immediate impact into the next generation. Because, if the children are being worked with and supported and they see dad change, it’s far less likely that they will become violent, whereas at the moment the intergenerational transmission of those patterns is pretty entrenched."

What is needed, she says, is more services focused on men, and also a revamp of the way social services operate.

"Rather than just putting the bandaids on to ameliorate the worst impacts, we deliver services in a sustained way so that violent men are able to become non-violent.

"You don’t do that overnight and you don’t do it with a six-week CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) programme. It’s a much longer operation."

Sustained, and collaborative.

At present, there are some services for men who have committed family violence. There are also services for women who are victims. And some services for children.

"But they are all separate. And while there have been inter-agency meetings where information gets shared, it is a whole step up to not just sharing the information but also having an integrated response."

That costs money.

But Prof Atwool believes the Government may be ready to invest.

In its first couple of terms in power, the Government thought it could reduce family violence and child abuse by "tweaking the existing system", she says.

With time, however, has come some knowledge and understanding.‘‘I think they now realise some of the holes are so big that they will have to spend some money and some things will have to be done differently.

"The Government has finally got the message about how much of the taxpayer dollar is being spent on the things that are least effective because they are after the event ... and that only a very small percentage was spent at the community level in the sort of services that are trying to help people to make the changes they want to."

The payback from such an investment will not be quick; between 10 and 15 years.

"Long-term, I’m completely convinced these changes can pay for themselves. But ... you have to start spending money before you can save it."

There’s just one fly in the ointment. Investing in a well-resourced, integrated, sustained effort to break the intergenerational cycle of family violence is great. But if inequality and poverty are allowed to persist, new generations of violent abusers remain inevitable.

"Your change effort will be undermined by the ongoing crises families are exposed to when they are living in poverty," Prof Atwool says.

"One of the important things, if you want people to make change, is that they feel safe. It is very difficult to feel safe when you are living in poverty."

Levels of inequality in New Zealand have remained historically high since they spiked in the late 1980s. The number of working poor is increasing rapidly. During the past five years, the number of employees earning the minimum wage has grown almost 250%, from 64,000 people to 153,000.

For Brett, assaulting his partner was a wake-up call. He signed himself up to an anti-violence course even before the court could order him to do one.

That was almost three years ago.

"I learned to stop and and think rather than just yelling and screaming back," he says.

"I’m able to handle my kids with more care and empathy."

He volunteers as a mentor for other men at SVD, but has been unable to get work.‘‘It’s not easy making ends meet. It’s literally week to week.

"That does put your relationships under pressure."


The facts

Children at risk*

• 6657: Physical and sexual assaults against children during 2016.

• 16,394: Substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect during 2016.

• 142,249: Notifications for possible child abuse or neglect during 2016.

• 212,000: New Zealand children (20% of all under-17-year-olds) live in income poverty** during 2015.

*From the State of the Nation report by Salvation Army, February, 2017.

**Income poverty: Earning less than 50% of the median income after housing costs.


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