There is Always Room for Change

By Nina Birkl, Team Leader, Room4Change Men’s Behaviour Change Program

This editorial originally appeared in the November 2018 edition of Parity: Responding to Homelessness in the ACT

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Men’s behaviour change work in Australia has recently been under the spotlight with increased public expectation and interest in how we might engage men in stopping their use of power, control and violence.

In the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) this has been reflected through the funding of programs such as Room4Change, which aim to improve the safety of women and children and aid to create opportunity for all family members to have space for action.

As a part of considering how as a community we might work towards creating greater accountability for men who use violence, there has been increased debate about how we can build services that support women and children remaining in the family home, instead removing the person whose behaviour has put the family at risk.

This idea of trying to create different pathways for families that are impacted by domestic and family violence is clearly connected with the work of the homelessness sector.

Current service models rely heavily on refuge and transitional housing models for accommodation for women and children, and while there will always be a need for these important services, there may also be occasions where it is more appropriate for the man to be removed from the family home thus allowing his family to maintain some form of normalcy in their lives so that the children can continue to attend the same school, and remain within any current support networks that they may have.

In the ACT this question of how, as a sector, we work with men who use violence more effectively, has led to the funding of programs such as the Room4Change program at the Domestic Violence Crisis Service. The Room4Change program has four main components, group work, one on one case management, partner support and accommodation.

The program has been designed to reflect current optimal standards as set out in the New South Wales ‘Towards Safe Families’.1 As such, Room4Change engages men over roughly a nine to 12-month period, with engagement length varying dependent on a man’s engagement and support needs as well as risk and safety considerations for the women and children impacted by his violence.

The current group work components include; group readiness sessions that aim to provide a safe and inviting environment for men to begin to explore various themes about domestic and family violence such as ‘what is anger vs abuse’ and ‘what does taking/not taking responsibility look like’; a 20-week narrative and invitational based men’s behavior change group called ‘Let’s Talk Respect’ that occurs weekly for two hours; and lastly, there is a 17-week ‘Caring Dads’ group that is focused on the impact of violence, abuse and neglect on children.

In addition to the group work, Room4Change practitioners have one on- one case management sessions with the men focused on his journey through men’s behaviour change. This component is important as it allows an opportunity to address and give space to the man’s own experiences of trauma such as his own upbringing or other co-occurring wellbeing issues such as his use of alcohol and/or other drugs.

The third component, partner support, is crucial to the issue of safety involved in doing this work. Without contact with the people most impacted by a man’s use of violence and abuse, it is impossible to determine if change has occurred, or to manage risk.

This work may, from the outside, present as if the focus is on men. However, in reality, this work needs to be focused on the safety of women and children.

When that focus is lost we run the risk of colluding with the person using violence and we lose the opportunity to effect real change.

Within Room4Change partner support is offered to all current partners of the men in the program as well as any ex-partners with whom he may have had children. Often partner support is also extended to other family members such as the man’s parents if they have also been impacted by his use of violence.

As mentioned above, the fourth, and unique element of the Room4Change program is the residential accommodation provided. Not all of the men who take part in Room4Change will be accommodated by the program. However, for some men this option has provided a number of benefits.

Having accommodation as a part of a men’s behavior change program, is a relatively rare occurrence, with only a handful of programs nationally utilising this model, and where it is used, it is done very differently. Room4Change currently has the capacity to house 11 men in five detached houses. Four of these are co-located in one complex with an office and group room space on site.

This configuration allows for the men to engage with Room4Change practitioners as needed, but also helps to facilitate attendance at group and one-on-one sessions.

The primary purpose of the accommodation is to assist to enhance the safety of those impacted by the man’s use of violence. Due to this, the men’s behavior change is the key focus of the engagement, and the accommodation is utilised as a safety tool.

As this concept is relatively new in the men’s behavior change space, it is hoped that the two-year external evaluation of Room4Change that is currently taking place will add to the literature base in terms of men’s behavior change intervention models.

To date the accommodation has been used in a number of ways and flexibility of use has become paramount for its success. Many of the men who stay at the Room4Change accommodation have been excluded from the family home through a Family Violence Order or through Parole conditions.

Ordinarily, it would not be uncommon for the person impacted by the violence to leave the family home. While in some circumstances this will still be required to maximise safety, in other situations it may be appropriate for the man using violence to leave the home.

Often when men are excluded from the family home there is a risk of them also stopping or reducing any maintenance costs that they may be contributing to the family such as mortgage and rental repayments, in an effort to continue to exert power and control.

It can in some situations, also be financially stressful or untenable for the man to pay current maintenance costs while also paying rent for himself elsewhere. It is not uncommon for men moving into the Room4Change accommodation (where they have been excluded from the family home), to have previously been couch surfing, staying in share houses, or accessing other homelessness services in Canberra that house single men.

The Room4Change accommodation aids in providing him with safe, stable and affordable accommodation while he is in the program that enables engagement and assists in facilitating him to maintain maintenance payments as needed.

The one on one case management sessions can be utilised to support in transitioning men out of the accommodation, with the aim of supporting men to access private rental or public housing rather than re-entering into the homelessness sector.

In practice, due to the length of the Room4Change program men often dip in and out of the accommodation as it is needed and while some men may not have other options, there are a number of men who voluntarily utilise the accommodation as a part of their de-escalation strategy or as a way of creating space for their partner.

Initially the focus on men entering the accommodation was that the residences would be the men’s primary address however as the program has grown this concept has become more fluid. Early anecdotal feedback from partners suggests that the Room4Change accommodation is valued in providing an alternative accommodation option for the men to use when they are feeling escalated.

Likewise, men have commented that the accommodation has supported them to engage in the men’s behavior change work as it has provided a space to ‘stop’ and consider in a supportive environment the changes that they hope to work towards.

Going into 2019, Room4Change is looking to re-imagine the previously run ‘Dad’s Place’, a property where men in the program can have contact with their children (where it is safe and appropriate to do so).

Elements such as Dad’s Place and Caring Dads assist in keeping the focus of the men’s behavior change work on the safety and wellbeing of those impacted most.

Room4Change signifies an important step for the Domestic Violence Crisis Service in providing an opportunity for change for men in the ACT who are wanting assistance in creating respectful and safe relationships, while also supporting and upholding the rights of women and children to be safe within their own homes and families.

The external evaluation currently taking place through the Australian National University will provide future guidance to the program and service in regards to how best to utilise the accommodation and other program components to maximize safety and to support change.

Continuing to reflect on how to do this as well as remaining curious and open to new and innovative approaches is imperative for the growth and development of men’s behavior change work in Australia.

Endnote 1. New South Wales Government Attorney General and Justice 2012, Towards Safe Families, A Practice Guide for Men’s Domestic Violence Behaviour Change Programs, New South Wales Government Attorney General and Justice, Sydney. The Trios Bond by Hans Lyons

This editorial originally appeared in the November 2018 edition of Parity: Responding to Homelessness in the ACT

Subscribe or log in to read the full edition