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Skills shortage compromising Australia’s frontline response to domestic violence

Published:14 January 2021

Dr Brian Sullivan is a researcher with CQUniversity's Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research.

Behaviour change programs for domestic violence perpetrators are stalling as they struggle to recruit trained facilitators, a leading domestic and family violence researcher has warned.

CQUniversity academic Dr Brian Sullivan fears the shortfall is leaving more women at risk, and more men emboldened to continue offending.

And Dr Sullivan says stopping the epidemic of domestic violence requires good men to step into the breach.

“Men’s behaviour change programs are a key part of the national response to domestic violence, and they require co-facilitation with male and female facilitators,” Dr Sullivan explained.

“Some services in Queensland and others around the country just can’t get men to fill these positions, and even in the training pipeline women are the vast majority of students preparing to take on these roles.”

“We need good male facilitators in this specialised space -as good role models and effective professional practitioners.”

Brisbane-based Dr Sullivan is senior lecturer for CQUniversity’s Graduate Certificate in Facilitating Men's Behaviour Change, and its range of Domestic and Family Violence Practice courses.

A Red Rose Foundation Board Member and associate of the Queensland Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research at CQUniversity, he has also led frontline intervention programs and professional training for the past twenty years, and said the work is confronting but vital.

“We need men and women to take these roles, not just with noble intentions, but with strong training, risk management awareness, a sophisticated understanding of working with perpetrators in an accountable and safe way,” he said.

“We can’t stop this epidemic of domestic violence without good men standing up, not to shame and vilify offenders, but to offer them an opportunity to be better men, choosing respect and non-violence to become better fathers, and safe and respectful with women. And offenders need to know that if they don’t take this opportunity, then more punitive consequences should emerge. We need a strong criminal justice response and the provision of services focused on supporting men for change.

“Our health system, police, courts and victims’ services can’t do it alone – we need a collaborative response, and that requires well-trained professionals working with perpetrators.”

One in three Australian women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and one in four has experienced physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show.

Dr Sullivan said ongoing gaps in domestic violence response systems were seeing perpetrators increase their offending, or step up coercive control of their partners.

“I know of some courts in Queensland where domestic violence cases are about 25 per cent ‘cross orders’, that the perpetrator is accusing the victim of being the cause of the violence – essentially, using the system against her, in a vexatious way, to exert his control,” he explained.

But Dr Sullivan said he’d personally seen the positive impact that effective intervention can achieve.

“I’ve seen men change, becoming less aggressive, more reflective, aware of their negative affect on others, and willing to be better men – for some, you can even see their faces change as they are led to rethink their destructive beliefs and attitudes,” he said.

“But this takes time and effort working with skilled practitioners who encourage and challenge them in change. Unfortunately, there are few guarantees in this work and certainty of long-lasting change is not something we can promise. Maintenance programs, case management, mental health counselling, drug and alcohol services, etc. can all provide support for the men’s domestic violence intervention program. The whole system matters more than any one part of the system in stopping domestic violence”.

Dr Sullivan said demand for behaviour facilitators was increasing as Australian governments stepped up their response to domestic and family violence, and that training for the roles could suit people currently working in probation and parole, social work, counselling, psychology, criminology, or community services.

CQUniversity’s postgraduate courses in domestic violence practice are available for flexible online study, with options to complete in six months to 18 months full-time.

Part-time options are also available, find more information here.