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Ground-Breaking New Zealand Family Violence Death Report Highlights the Safe and Together™ Model as an Example of Change

The New Zealand government has just published a ground-breaking family violence death review. While many government reports focus on a list of recommendations, this report contains no recommendations. Instead it is a call for shifting the thinking underlying the work or as the report says “changing the narrative about family violence.” Key aspects of the thinking transformation include:

• Shifting to a perpetrator pattern-based approach to the problem of family violence
• Viewing family violence through an entrapment and coercive control lens
• Breaking down the silos between the child abuse and neglect, and domestic violence fields
• Moving toward a true strengths-based lens where adult domestic violence survivors’ actions are viewed as resistance to violence and abuse

The report emphasizes the importance of a perpetrator pattern-based approach to major systems change.

“Thinking differently about family violence means understanding that family violence is not a series of isolated incidents affecting an individual victim. Rather, family violence is a pattern of abusive behaviour used by an identifiable individual that can encompass multiple victims (children and adults) – past, current and future.” (p. 13)

“Understanding the entangled nature of IPV (intimate partner violence) and CAN (child abuse and neglect) in the child protection context shifts the focus from assessing the protectiveness of adult victims to assessing the level of risk and danger a partner’s/parent’s abusive behaviour poses to both child and adult victims.” (p. 13)

“When it is appreciated that IPV is a pattern of harmful behaviour that belongs to the abusive person (not the relationship) and is bigger than the incidents of physical violence that occur on any particular occasion, a number of shifts automatically take place in our thinking.” (p. 36)

The focus on a perpetrator pattern-based approach is just one aspect of this far-reaching report that addresses the intersectionality of family violence, substance abuse, mental health issues, and histories of individual and community trauma. It especially highlights the need to recognize and integrate the current and historical colonization and oppression perpetrated against the Maori as part of any meaningful systems transformation.

The report’s emphasis on survivors’ actions and choices as resistance to violence is refreshing and an essential part of any truly strengths-based approach to the intersection of family violence and children. It insists that the focus on the individual protective capacities of the adult moves systems away from holding perpetrator responsible for harm,and the need for a collective response to safety.

“Mothers are positioned as being capable of preventing their children’s exposure to their partner’s use of violence. Practitioners often envision this as being achievable through the mother’s separation from their partner or by attendance at couple counselling to learn how to communicate better (depending on the practitioners’ understanding of the dynamics of family violence). Mothers are perceived as neglectful and complicit in the abuse of their children if they ‘choose’ to remain with abusive partners or if they are unable to protect their children from further harm….The ‘failure to protect’ paradigm assumes that adult victims of IPV have the ability to choose to stop the abuse, while rendering invisible the systemic barriers (coercive control, structural violence and inequities) they face in doing so. Focusing on the protectiveness of the adult victim as the means to achieve safety for the children leads practitioners to focus primarily on the actions the adult victim is taking to keep her children safe. This diverts attention away from the abusive partner/parent and the responsibility he must take for using violence. It also shifts the focus from what practitioners can do in order to support the safety of the adult victim and her children.” (p. 57)

The report generously cites the Safe and Together Model’s including its “multiple pathways to harm” framework. It recognizes the Safe and Together Model as an example of the trend in child protection which is “focused on addressing the behaviours of the abusive person.” (p. 101) It even references the Safe and Together Model associated concept of “IPV-informed” child protection systems. (p. 103) It is clear that the Model’s focus on “multiple pathways to harm,” a perpetrator pattern-based approach and a gendered perspective on the strengths of adult survivors and the responsibility of the perpetrator is deeply aligned with the message of the report.

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