In the Spotlight

International guest Scott Miller shines light on abuses of power

Our systems are a collection of unwieldly matrixes filled with hoops for clients to jump through and tasks to be undertaken once they figure out each relevant maze inherent within the matrix.  It has rules, those rules are both overt and covert, spoken and unspoken.  Every part of the system has its own offerings and its own blockades.  This is a system adept at self-protection evidenced through policies, quality assurances and procedures.  It is not so adept at client or person-centred work or the protection of those who need safety and wish for holistic wellbeing in their most vulnerable moments.

Internationally renowned domestic and family violence expert Scott Miller, outlined these realities amongst many during his recent trip to Brisbane.  He positioned intimate partner violence amongst the many abuses that occur in society.  The permissions we give to certain privileged groups and the consequences and punishments we level against those seen as less entitled are significant in his analysis of power and control.

Scott asserts that when we look at abuses of power in our society, reflection upon its systems, organisations and institutions is key to understanding how abuse of power plays out in every echelon of our society – systematically and personally.

We often speak of bullying in schools as though children somehow enter this environment and bullying becomes a reality all of its own making.  We point fingers at schools, teachers and others in the institution and we find them wanting.  We also speak of workplace bullying and toxic environments where power over tactics are utilised by those with perceived or real authority over others. These behaviours exist within a paradigm that is much bigger than any single environment we find ourselves in.

We know domestic and family violence is a major blight on the fabric of our society and it is an issue often viewed as insurmountable.  We also know these issues have their origin in patriarchy. Those with entitlement, privilege and power can use their positions, whatever they may be, for harm against those they perceive as less powerful, less significant or less capable.  Power abuses are in every part of our society and in every echelon we experience. Power abuses are evident through our history of colonisation, some would argue corporatisation and they are evident in our families, our society, our businesses and our social services.

The values we uphold that underpin our organisational structure can either thwart or condone power abuses.  Power and entitlement are so much a part of our everyday lives that it can seem like it’s the only way to get things done organisationally, structurally or in our relationships.  Further, when we operate our services on a typical business model as opposed to a social change model, we prioritize decisions that advance the needs of the organization over the needs of the people served and then blame the people served for why the decisions didn’t have the desired outcomes.

Within this analysis of power and power over, the Duluth model stands as an organising mechanism through which victim safety is prioritised alongside offender accountability within a social change framework.  The model guides organisers to build interventions within systems that are aligned with the lived experience of victims whilst always acknowledging the power dynamics at play.

Scott Miller spoke to the overwhelming complexity of the system that regularly confounds clients and victims of violence. This visual highlights how complex the system can appear when victims of violence aim to access supports and safety.

“When women call for help” notes Scott “she calls into a complex system – all these processes have priorities and timelines. Women who are victims often say that everyone is wanting something from me, but nobody seems to be able to meet the needs I have.  By analysing systems through the lens of the victim, we can see how each system can more effectively respond to the needs of those the system seeks to serve.  Systems tend to move in a direction that first takes care of themselves. What the Duluth Model does is flip that and create policy and protocol that adapts the interventions to the needs of those served rather than making those served adapt to the system.  We need to acknowledge that systems can stifle practice.  A domestic violence advocate may become frustrated with a child protection worker but if they move over to work in that system they behave in the same way.  We need to change the way we organize systems rather than change the people who work in them.”

In a sector committed to relationships and wellbeing, serious consideration about how we engage and do our work is paramount. How we operate our ‘business’ is equally significant. Abuse of power comes from constructs that note some within our community hold an elevated position and others are less than.  This is the dynamic that has allowed domestic and family violence to become the scourge it is today –  the entitlement of men to hold their positions as the heads of the household, seeing partners and their children as possessions, telling women what is wrong with all that they do and holding their position that when women don’t listen to the advice of men, they are deficient and need to be held to account and be punished by being so. Scott asserts that: “Male privilege is so big that men are rarely questioned about their behaviours in the home, their parenting and their communication.  If a man never gets up with the baby, who, other than his partner, ever speaks to him about this? Men still believe that their words are more important than women’s and their thinking is always right – at least in differences with their female spouse.”

Scott noted the system of power and control tactics including physical and sexual violence as well as other abusive behaviors such as emotional abuse are reinforced by our culture. “The central message from perpetrators is you do not ever challenge me.  Men have been given many invitations for this way of thinking and have often been raised with these assumptions role modelled by the men around them.”

He is clear that we need to balance the power differential by using the power of the state with a response being programs that focus on changing beliefs with tight sanctions by the criminal justice system on the perpetrators of violence.

He outlines the coordinated response of the Duluth model, in particular that everyone needs to have the same analysis of the problem in order to organise changes. The Duluth Model is a process that utilises a consistent set of principles and a shared understanding of domestic violence to guide the design of each intervention.

Six Blueprint for Safety Principles:

  • Adherence to an interagency approach
  • Attention to context and severity of the violence
  • Recognition of domestic violence as a patterned crime requiring continuing engagement
  • Providing swift and sure consequences
  • Sending messages of help and accountability
  • Reducing unintended consequences and disparity of impact

Scott is clear that integrated service delivery isn’t what he’s talking about.  In Queensland, laws about information sharing have recently been passed to allow for improved information sharing across systems.  He cautions that this can lead to workers being buried in information and the wealth of information becoming just as ineffective as limited information.  He asserts that if this process was coordinated we could have asked each party about what they need and when they need it in order to then work with government to produce the information through the lens of those who receive it – that’s coordinated.  “It’s more work but it makes the work effective.  Uncoordinated systems are not effective.  The lack of coordination allows for repetitive and unhelpful work practices  and it alienates victims because they get tired of the many demands of different services that tend not to  meet her needs.  So, victims give up.”

How do we coordinate better?

We need to have a shared understanding of the problem – we need to have one way of seeing the problem.  “For example, if the Police see mutual the cause of domestic violence as a relationship problem, or family court interprets perpetrator violence as a problem with alcohol, then we’re all viewing the issue from a different lens.  We need to collectively decide how we think about this and come up with solutions.”

A shared understanding of the Duluth model is:

  • There are three types of domestic violence: physical violence, resistive and non-physical violence.
  • The power of the state should be restricted to controlling the illegal activity of the offender.
  • Victims are rarely free to cooperate with the system to hold offenders accountable.
  • Account for power differences between victim and offender.
  • Perpetrators are responsible for stopping their violence.

One of the ways to collectively understand the problem women face and how abusers gain power in these relationships is by understanding the Power and Control Wheel that was developed in partnership with women who were victims of intimate partner, male violence.

“Systems can generate risks for victims when they don’t have a way of taking up the totality of her experience of being abused.  There are so many other factors at play, but violence tends to be the only consideration we take into account.  Victims are likely to also be experiencing poverty, racism, disabilities, lost connections with family and friends, homelessness and lack of self-esteem and personal agency.  Scott reiterates that this is why it is so important that systems are aligned and have a shared understanding of the issues and that the power of the state should be restricted to controlling the illegal activity of the offender.  “Leverage is necessary and has to be meaningful to him.   In England, for example, the right to housing is meaningful.  The risk of losing that is a powerful motivator for change and compliance.”

Scott deems it essential that we always see the power differential between victims and offenders. Perpetrators need to understand how they learned that violence is their tool to get what they want from their family.  “We need a different narrative in the community about the worth of men and women. We need to change the climate of tolerance for men’s violence against women. We need to change what we’re doing in the criminal system by making sure the only state intervention in domestic and family violence is holding perpetrators to account as opposed to dictating to the victim.”

When Scott spoke as the keynote Speaker at the Queensland Youth Housing Coalition’s Platform 1225 Forum he asked: “Why do we do what we do?  We as the responding systems need to be able to collectively answer that question – is it so we have jobs or is it to do the necessary work that changes the tolerance for this kind of violence in our communities?  At this event, Scott shared many personal experiences that have impacted his life personally and professionally.  He noted his need to challenge the privilege he’d been taught as a child and how it impacted his life including the people around him.  Most significantly he noted that throughout the trials and harms of childhood he learned that his life could change in large part to decent people who believed in him and saw who he could be.  He didn’t always believe them but he took a leap of faith, such a leap that he became the internationally renowned expert speaking in Brisbane and many other cities to inspired audiences.

Scott reminded practitioners present that victims of physical and sexual violence tend not to talk about systems but rather the people in those systems who helped along the way.  His invitation to the room of service providers was to “get up every day and do the kind of work, be the person that people like me will talk about for the rest of their lives.  You have the power and capacity to make a difference one interaction and one relationship at a time.”


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  1. Peter Pendlebury on June 4, 2018 at 9:13 am

    An excellent article. Need to save this as a basis of underpinning philosophical framework.
    A lovely summary of a complex issue.

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