Client perpetration of family violence is relevant to the core work of AOD services. Attempting to ignore a perpetrator’s behaviour during AOD service delivery is not only ethically dubious, but also not in the client’s best interests.
By Rodney Vlais, consultant, trainer and policy advisor in family violence perpetrator interventions and perpetrator intervention systems
Your client’s therapeutic goals
Working towards therapeutic goals in AOD service provision often necessitates a holistic assessment of the client’s life. AOD use can be complex. In many situations it is not sufficient to present a client with a ‘bag of tricks’ for them to try to change the behaviour. Central AOD therapeutic processes such as motivational interviewing, case planning and relapse prevention require at least some consideration of the client’s AOD use in the context of their whole life.
Family violence perpetration is also highly complex behaviour, and is reinforced through multiple social learning influences at many levels. Men—and it is mostly men who cause family violence harm—make choices to use violence against family members to maintain power and dominance in their relationships. The violence is often intentional and it ‘works’ for them through using fear and control to exert their will and to get their way. Their use of violence, however, can come at a great cost to them in the long-term.
Perpetrators utilise a sophisticated way of thinking and defences to avoid facing up to and taking responsibility for their behaviour. They often have highly entrenched beliefs and attitudes through which they perceive themselves as the victim. By adopting this victim stance, they provide themselves with permission to use family violence, and are either blind to or do not care about the impact on family members.
There are several ways in which a client’s unaddressed use of family violence can significantly interfere with the effectiveness of an AOD intervention:

  • While substances do not generally cause a perpetrator to choose to use violence, many perpetrators choose to use substances (paradoxically) as a tactic of control. Many victim survivors understandably feel especially frightened when their partner uses substances, due to the correlation between substance use and the severity of violent behaviour. Many perpetrators deliberately use substances as part of creating this climate of fear, and to ‘punish’ the victim-survivor for asking him to drink or use less.
  • Substance use conveniently enables perpetrators to ‘excuse’ their use of violence on the substance.
  • Motivational interviewing requires the careful unearthing of dissonance between a client’s behaviour and their underlying ethics, goals and strivings for themselves and their life. For many perpetrators, the continued use of violence requires ongoing suppression of these underlying goals and hopes to avoid experiencing this dissonance.
  • Perpetrators who want to do something about their behaviour, but are not participating in specialised behaviour change programs to do so, can feel much shame about their behaviour, and low self-efficacy about their ability to change. It can be difficult for them to set and feel confident about meeting substance use reduction goals in this context.

In summary, family violence perpetration can have a significant impact on a client’s motivation and efforts towards meeting AOD service intervention goals. Ignoring this behaviour is not in the client’s best interests.
The clients who aren’t in the room
Behind every perpetrator, there are adult and often child victims whose lives are substantially impacted by the client’s behaviour. What an AOD practitioner doesn’t see, when working with a client who causes family violence harm, are the injuries and psychological torment that many victim-survivors experience. The severe restrictions on their lives. The trauma they experience. The child’s developmental delays. In some cases, the threats to their survival.
AOD practitioners—like many other sectors and services that have contact with family violence perpetrators—have an ethical responsibility to victim-survivors who are not in the room. Family violence requires all of us to think beyond the person in front of us. People’s lives—both the fact of their lives and their ability to live free dignified lives without fear—depend on this wider vision.
You do not need to do it all, nor alone
It is not an AOD service’s responsibility to attempt to ‘fix’ a client’s perpetration of family violence. Generally, only specialised family violence perpetrator intervention services—such as men’s behaviour change programs—will make a significant difference to a perpetrator’s violent and controlling behaviour. It’s such highly specialised, challenging and complex work, and outcomes achieved even by these services are mixed.
However, AOD services can do their bit as part of a wide range of efforts across many service sectors to open doors towards engaging perpetrators carefully and productively, and to open windows onto the risk they pose to family members. The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence described this as the collective responsibility that we all potentially have, to support and scaffold perpetrator journeys towards responsibility-taking and internalised accountability for their behaviour.
Of course, perpetrator engagement—by any service or service sector—requires particular skill and caution. Well-meaning but misguided attempts to engage with perpetrators can make things worse for both current and future victim-survivors impacted by the perpetrator’s behaviour. Over-stepping one’s role and being blind to associated risks can contribute to danger. Training and practice guidance is required to lean or step into engaging perpetrators about their use of family violence in ways that will help rather than harm victim-survivors and that simultaneously have your client’s best interests at heart.
With sufficient skill and care, and depending on the circumstance, AOD services and practitioners might be able to:

  • Identify clients who are perpetrating family violence.[1]
  • When safe to do so, be upfront with the perpetrator that his behaviour is not acceptable, and needs to stay within view of the AOD intervention.
  • Identify relevant risk factors, or assess changes in the client’s behaviour or circumstances that indicate possible increased risk for family members.
  • Share information appropriately with other services who can help to manage this risk, authorised by new family violence information sharing legislation.
  • In some situations, help to directly manage the risk that the perpetrator poses to family members, at least in the short-term.
  • Use motivational interviewing to plant seeds and ‘inch’ the perpetrator towards developing some readiness to participate in a specialist family violence behaviour change intervention.
  • Use skilful, warm referral processes to scaffold the referral process to specialist services.

For guidance and advice about how to address a situation when someone has been identified or is suspected of using family violence, contact the Men’s Referral Service (MRS) on 1300 766 491. MRS staff are trained and experienced men’s family violence practitioners, and receive hundreds of contacts from agencies each year seeking secondary consultations about or referral options for a client perpetrating violence.
1. Note: It might not always be safe to make this identification explicit with the perpetrator. Sometimes, the safest option when identifying or suspecting that a client is using family violence is to share relevant information with other services that might be able to reach out to offer safety planning and support to his family members.