ReNew is a partnership pilot program between Carinity Talera (Talera) and Ipswich’s Domestic Violence Action Centre (DVAC). The concept for ReNew came about when Anna Jones of Talera and Rebecca Shearman of DVAC were doing Abuse on Contact training alongside the Women’s Legal Service. This training was designed for practitioners working with children and young people court ordered to spend time with a parent who had perpetrated violence and abuse. They noted the significant number of young people coming through organisations who were engaging in violent behaviours and demonstrating difficulty in impulse control.
They were keen to work with these children and young people and their protective parents from a family therapy perspective. From concerns noted via their observations, Talera and DVAC created ReNew. Talera’s Program Manager Andrea Edwards is ReNew’s co-Author. “We looked at putting a group program together to address these issues. It was really fortuitous as Dave Burke was doing his PhD in the area of child to parent violence at the same time. He’s made a key contribution to this work as the co-Author.”
Andrea noted that the Abuse on Contact work is fraught. Most often this is because many family report writers contracted to write reports for the family court have no training at all in domestic and family violence. Due to the court orders in place, children then have ongoing contact with parents who have harmed them. She noted young men are impacted by their experiences of violence and often angry with their Dads because they’d never been held to account. Amongst this trauma it was recognised that improving relationships with Mothers was the reframe. “Abuse of contact stuff can be blatant but also so subtle. Encouraging splitting between siblings for example. The psychological abuse. Navigating the space is a minefield.”
With regard to ReNew, Fathers can actively work to sabotage the program. In shared decision-making, mandated in some court orders, Fathers can deny access to the program. Sometimes the levels of coercion and control by Dad can put the children and young men at risk. In such cases, it isn’t safe to offer the program. Dads can accuse Mums and practitioners of brainwashing and turning children and young people against them. This means that at times ReNew can only support Mums on their own. In such scenarios the reality of children and young people acting out in violent ways against their Mothers and family members becomes a hidden issue. Mums often don’t speak out about it because of the risk of child safety notifications around violence towards siblings.
ReNew are keen to have all in the sector engage with this work rather than Mothers fearing retribution for speaking about the realistic consequences of domestic and family violence for children and young people who have been affected. Andrea is clear that Mums take on all the guilt for anything that goes on with children. She asserts that we need to look at the construction of motherhood that holds women to account for everything. “The way they have to parent and the nuanced decisions they have to make needs to be seen. Some of those decisions are heartbreaking. We need to acknowledge the amazing capacity they had to navigate highly conflictual partners whilst parenting.”
ReNew is an Australian-first program aimed at breaking the cycle of domestic violence. It is focused on early intervention through the renewal of healthy relationships. The program works with male adolescents aged 12 to 17 years, together with their Mothers who have experienced domestic violence. To be eligible for the program the boys must be displaying abusive, controlling or coercive behaviour towards their protective parent and have been a witness to domestic violence. They must not be living with their abusive parent and reside within the Ipswich, Brisbane South or Brisbane West regions.
In developing ReNew, Andrea and her colleagues were clear they wanted to create a program that would address the pain and trauma young people had experienced as a result of domestic and family violence as well as the fractures in family relationships. They realised that a focus on behavioural modification would miss the mark and were intent on working therapeutically with the multiple complexities families face when living with, then recovering from, domestic and family violence. “We knew we didn’t want to take a purely behavioural approach. We looked at all the nuances – the way in which the attachment relationship is sabotaged which is often deliberate. Mum’s preferred way of parenting is often impeded and as such the way she has to parent when she has a perpetrator in the home is different. We wanted a no blame approach and an understanding of the difficulties for Mum parenting in a violent relationship and the many quagmires she needs to navigate.”
The program, which is free, runs over 20 weeks, and involves group therapy, individual counselling and joint Mother and Son counselling sessions. When looking at the behaviour of the Son, they do so through the lens of trauma, attachment and also from an understanding that they’ve been exposed to domestic and family violence and concepts of hyper-masculinity. “They’ve been raised in an environment where hyper-masculinity was role modelled daily. Domestic violence is relational trauma and relationships are sabotaged directly and indirectly. People heal within relationships so when relationships have been harmed that’s where we need to intervene” said Andrea.
Their focus is on ensuring as much time as possible with Mums and Sons together throughout their processes. They deal with the multitude of issues the families have faced and delve into gender beliefs also. Andrea notes that 20 weeks is a huge commitment for families to make. Interim evaluation has found some really positive results. Most significantly, this is one of the first programs outside of domestic violence services where Mums don’t feel blamed and the context of the difficulties they face due to the impact of domestic violence are understood. All involved in offering the program understand the myriad of issues Mums face in parenting children within such a complex environment. As such they also understand that Mums cope in the best way that they can.
“Our work is trauma informed, so for Mums we work around grounding relationships and assisting them in understanding their own trauma symptoms as well as their Son’s whilst understanding that their Sons may display symptoms and behaviours quite different to their own. However, they’re all dealing with similar traumas and the way they manifest is the point of difference for all to understand and begin to make sense of.”
Andrea is all too aware of the irony of how we sometimes work in our sector as evidenced by our construction around the concept of ‘failure to protect’ in that it is based in gender and the feminine traits of being a Mother – yet we use the feminine traits against Mothers and accuse them of being too gentle or weak when unable to stand up to the behaviours of perpetrators. These dynamics are complex. So too is the way we approach them as practitioners and service providers. ReNew is keen through this program to change some of these paradigms. “These men can be so charming and undermine Mums in so many ways without them even noticing at first. We’re working with that trauma. We’re also well aware of the huge guilt that Mothers carry. They often feel responsible for everything that happens to their children. Part of what we aim to do is unpack the constructs of Motherhood and Fatherhood and what it means to be an adolescent male all at once. It’s just one tool in the tool kit. This is something we can put out there and share for practitioners to adjust for their own cohort of clients” said Andrea.
ReNew has run 4 groups of 20 weeks so far, 3 of which have been evaluated. The final group being evaluated will run next year. The final research findings are expected to be released in August 2019.
Part of the benefit of the program is the connection built between the Mothers who attend. They meet others going through the same situation and build supportive relationships. This also works for the boys attending who build similar relationships with their peers. “The boys turned up each week, which surprised us. Their use of violence is often quite extreme but in being understood they began to enjoy spending time with their Mums. We noted more physical affection occurring and relationships beginning to open up by around week 13” said Andrea.
Before holding the next group, ReNew intends to speak with key stakeholders and look at what can be improved upon in their preparation for the final group being evaluated. This is a pilot program and as such an important learning process.
Referrals come from far and wide from Brisbane South suburbs and Ipswich. The next group is based in Ipswich. They can work with up to 20 participants. They’re currently looking at how to make the group more accessible and reduce the burden of treatment without impacting the important processes offered.
ReNew offers service to a niche cohort – young males using violence towards Mums and siblings with the backdrop of having been exposed to domestic and family violence themselves and beginning to engage in those behaviours. Why isn’t this service offered to girls? The research notes that girls’ behaviours peak until 13 years of age then decrease. Boys’ peaks at 13 to 17 years and the violence increases. If they’re using violence at this stage they’re at risk of using violence in adult relationships. As such they’re the identified cohort most in need of this service.
There is a boldness to the work being undertaken and an innovation by all partners, both through the original Abuse on Contact training and now through ReNew. These services, and most significantly, the leaders and practitioners within them have a willingness to enter terrains previously seen as fraught and subsequently avoided by many organisations and practitioners. In responding to the need of their clients, Talera and DVAC have consistently gone above and beyond in formulating new ways of working to enhance the lives and wellbeing of those with whom they work.