The Federal Government’s distribution of funding in its $100 million domestic violence scheme has been challenged by activists and spokespeople for male behavior change programs.
The backlash follows last month’s announcement that only 2 per cent of the total funds would be allocated to the Mensline referral service, which does not deal exclusively with help for domestic violence perpetrators.
Jerry Retford, a reformed abuser who now campaigns against domestic violence, told The Newsroom he believed the Federal Government scheme was only a “Band-Aid” for Australia’s domestic violence problem.
“The $100 million, whilst it’s necessary to be there to help women in these abusive relationships, is not going to stop domestic violence. All it’s going to do is move the problem to another relationship,” Mr Retford said.
As co-founder of the non-profit organisation Films4Change, Mr Retford aims to raise awareness about domestic violence within Australia. However, unlike a majority of organisations that deal predominantly with victims, Films4Change focuses on male perpetrators and their need for rehabilitation. Mr Retford said there was a lack of government funding in this area of domestic violence assistance and it was something that needed to change.
“Helping women survive and get out of abusive relationships… It’s what’s always been done, which is necessary but it’s not going to stop the problem because the guys are the problem and they’re the ones that need to be stopped… They’re the ones that need help, ” he said.
But Wesnet chair and spokesperson, Julie Oberin, told The Newsroom she did not believe in prior abusers becoming part of the solution. She cited the case of American rapper Chris Brown who, despite his 2009 assault of then-girlfriend singer Rihanna, wants to be granted a visa to tour Australia, while raising awareness of domestic violence at the same time.
“Violence is a choice,” Ms Oberin said.
“Men who have made the decision to commit domestic violence should not be speaking out in an effort to raise awareness as it could be counter-productive… I’d much rather ask a man who has never been violent why he made the decision to never do so, and have him speak publicly about this reason.”
Crime statistics have shown the number of repeat domestic violence offenders has doubled in the five years from 2009 to 2013, with one in four having committed prior offences. Mr Retford claimed that, in order for this to change, greater attention within domestic violence services needed to be paid to abusers.
“It’s politically unattractive to offer help to a group of men who the public and media call dogs and lowly cowards,” he said.
“We need to identify the behaviour not the person.
It’s like when people say once an abuser, always an abuser.
Well … behaviours can change”
Mr Retford attributed the government’s decision to give only 2 per cent of its funding to Mensline to this fact, saying empathising with male abusers was seen as offensive and insensitive.
“It’s easier to empathise with a cause which is saving people than to give a hundred million dollars to a group of men who are committing these violent acts… But, until we actually start to empathise and understand the act and where it’s coming from, all we’re going to keep doing is Band-Aiding,” he said.
Mr Retford said another problem with which abusive males struggled was society’s tendency to define them as violent people, rather than people with violent behaviours: “We need to identify the behaviour not the person. It’s like when people say once an abuser, always an abuser. Well … behaviours can change.”
Talking about his own experience in a reform program, Mr Retford said it was this mentality that made it so challenging for abusive males to come forward and seek help.
“When I asked for help nine years ago, [there] wasn’t the mass media demonisation of men there is today,” he said. “It’s even harder to come out now… Until we can find a better language and people that are willing to understand that violent abusive men in a majority need help, it’s just going to keep going.”
David Nugent, founder of a privately-funded men’s behaviour change program, the Heavy M.E.T.A.L Group, echoed Mr Retford, saying many of the men he worked with struggled with other people’s views that they wouldn’t be able to change.
“There’s an underlying belief that a leopard won’t change it’s spots, and that’s one of the hardest things blokes struggle with,” Mr Nugent said.
“Sometimes a guy will slip up and then it’s thrown back in his face that he’ll never change. But there might have been lots of improvement. You can’t expect perfection from the outset. We’re all human.”
Resourcing required for behaviour change programs
Mr Nugent also said the lack of resources in government-funded programs within Australia left many abusers without the help they needed.
“There are lots of men who put their hand up and say, ‘I don’t want to be like this anymore’, but government-funded organisations don’t have the man-power to deal with all of them. Some of them have waiting lists of up to 9 months before these blokes can actually go and speak to someone,” he said.
He added that men who asked for help should not be made to wait because of the high risk of reoffending.
“I don’t have a closed group, I have an open group. So, if a man says, ‘I want to join, I want to change’, I won’t say to him, ‘You’ve got to wait three months before the program starts’. I’ll take him on.
“I’ll even have him come on the last night…They get here and they say, ‘Geez I wish I came here years ago. I wish I knew about this. I’m really glad I’m not the only one.’”
Rodney Vlais, chair of No to Violence, a family male violence prevention organisation, said while he believed the majority of funding should go to services for women and children, male behavior change programs needed more funding.
“Men’s behaviour-change programs offer very valuable support to partners and former partners experiencing violence, in terms of safety planning, supporting her journey as she tries to make sense of the changes he might or might not end up making through the program,” Mr Vlais said.
“From this perspective, of men’s behaviour change programs contributing to coordinated community responses, they are definitely worth investing in, as they work towards the safety, wellbeing and human rights for children and women affected by men’s violence.”
Mr Vlais pointed out that the $100 million was quite marginal, considering that on a state level Tasmania recently increased its funding for domestic violence. Last week the NSW Government announced a $60 million injection into domestic violence services, with more than 30 per cent of that going towards male rehabilitation programs.
“On a national scale $100 million over three to four years is not actually a lot of additional funding for addressing family and domestic violence,” Mr Vlais said.
“For example the Tasmanian Government recently announced an increase of $25 million over three to four years, and of course Tasmania has only a small proportion of Australia’s population… The funding for addressing family and domestic violence is mostly a state/territory responsibility.
“What we (No to Violence) are calling for is for the Commonwealth Government to support a national standard and accreditation for men’s behaviour change providers…We have standards for this work in Victoria but they are old and we need funding to update them.” – Sophia Rambaldini
Top photo by Ben Atkinson-James.