• Do men’s behavioural change programs actually work? (E+)Source: E+
Do men’s behavioural change programs actually work?
Sharon Verghis

17 May 2021 - 9:00 AM  UPDATED 17 May 2021 - 2:39 PM

As a child growing up in New Zealand, Mac witnessed first-hand the long, horrific shadow cast by domestic violence.

Male anger can wreak devastating fault lines across generations, he says – too often, the sins of the father are visited on the sons. As an adult, he and his wife, a fellow abuse survivor, fostered children hailing from violent homes.

Now, as a senior domestic violence facilitator at a pioneering Perth-based men’s behaviour modification program, he continues to do what he can to stop the cycle.

Billed as the first residential men’s behavioural change program in the Southern Hemisphere, Communicare Breathing Space is a fulltime six-month residential program for domestic violence perpetrators based on intensive group and individual counselling, with cognitive behavioural therapy as the primary model, and incorporating drug and alcohol counselling as well as training, education and employment support.

Involvement is purely voluntary; men come to the program either directly from the prison system upon release or from within the community. Participation is never court-mandated, Mac says. “This is an aspect they have to want to change in their lives so they contact us and apply to come into the program.”

There is a seemingly endless pipeline of prospective clients, it seems – driving a seemingly intractable epidemic of violence against women and children across the nation.

Every nine days in Australia, a woman is killed by her current or former partner – a cataclysmic tide of violence documented in SBS’s three-part documentary based on Jess Hill’s ground-breaking book See What You Made Me Do.

Part of a wider suite of therapeutic programs in Australia to address domestic violence outside the traditional custodial models – programs like Breathing Space are modelled on therapeutic programs in the United States addressing the seeds of violent behaviour and helping male perpetrators acknowledge their actions and develop strategies to stop – far more effective than simply jailing them and throwing away the key, proponents claimed.

For Mac, this holistic approach makes sense. At Breathing Space, participants - ranging from ex-bikies to white-collar workers - work on everything from parenting, interpersonal skills and anger management to development of self-control and empathy.

The latter is a key area of focus, Mac says: only by putting themselves into their victims’ shoes can they truly understand the damage they are wreaking. One of the key measures is getting the men to write a letter of apology to their partners and read it out in a group setting, he says.

For many, it’s often a powerfully emotional turning point: he’s witnessed everyone from hardened former gang members to suburban dads weep in front of their peers as they accept blame and show vulnerability for the first times in their lives.

Shame and guilt can be positive emotions in gaining insight into why they act the way they do, he says. Sometimes, the transformation is startling.

“The main one I remember is this guy who was an ex-gang member who had a real lightbulb moment where he recounted the fear he saw in his partner’s eyes due to the violence he had perpetrated against her.

“He stood there weeping - he came across as really humbled and quite broken. The change we saw in him was incredible. …His whole persona and presentation changed after that. He left the local area and volunteers at the local footy club now, runs a youth group as well, and is heavily involved in the local church. The people who knew him in the past and who know him now, they just can’t believe he’s the same person. They can see the real difference.”

But can a violent man’s psyche really be rewired? Do these programs actually work?

To critics, it seems too good to be true. How can any success be objectively measured when subjective observation is the key mode of assessment?

Mac understands the scepticism. While a women’s advocate who independently observes the men and their interactions with their families is a vital part of the program - so too long-term support and outreach programs – genuine change can be tricky to measure.  

While studies like Project Mirabal have shown some evidence for the effectiveness of such programs, observers say more longitudinal studies are needed.

Elena Campbell, associate director of the Centre for Innovative Justice at RMIT University, says it is critical to understand that such programs are not silver bullets that can erase a lifetime of exposure to a culture of toxic masculinity and attitudes around power, gender roles and control.

“What these programs attempt to do is start a man working towards a change. While some men will really find significant insight into their partner’s experience…some will be highly resistant. So sometimes, the best we can get from a man’s involvement with a program is that he is more likely to be on the system’s radar and experienced practitioners like the facilitators at Breathing Space are able to have a lens on the risk he may pose.”

Ultimately, an integrated approach involving reform across courts, sentencing, police culture, child protection and mental health is critical.

Even more importantly, Campbell says, we need to shift historically and culturally entrenched misogynistic attitudes towards women - something she has seen surging in her recent research groups with male domestic violence abusers as traditional social structures of power and privilege are questioned and dismantled.

As mother of three daughters and a son, Campbell takes heart, however, from the passionate advocacy for gender equality and social change among the current generation.

“While there is a definitely backlash occurring, they are leading the charge and changing the narrative.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing family violence or sexual assault phone 1800RESPECT/1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au. For counselling, advice and support for men who have anger, relationship or parenting issues, call the Men’s Referral Service on 1300 766 491 or visit ntv.org.au. 

See What You Made Me Do premieres 8:30pm Wednesday 5 May on SBS and SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly, and every episode will be simulcast on NITV. (Episodes will be repeated at 9.30pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND from 9 May).

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