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Stuart Birks

Stuart Birks

Rethinking Stopping Violence Programmes

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On 16 February Principal Family Court Judge Peter Boshier gave a speech to a hui in which he questioned the value of stopping violence programmes (Boshier, 2009) . He recognises that there are problems with the current “one-size-fits-all” approach of current anti-violence programmes. Some might see this as a significant development. Others will be sceptical.

His predecessor, Judge Patrick Mahony, made a point about the complexity and diversity of domestic violence at a Social Policy Forum in 2002, where he said, “I note that although the legislation is gender neutral a lot of the thinking behind the Act was based on what is often called the ‘Power and Control Model’ developed at a place called Duluth in Massachusetts which is strongly gender based” (Mahony, 2003, p. 8) .

He then explained: “Research has identified other forms of domestic violence [besides the Duluth model] strongly interactive, sometimes female initiated, in addition to violence arising out of mental illness, and incidents of violence occurring in the extremely stressful period of separation with no history, and no future risk. It is important that through evidence, Courts know what they are dealing with in individual cases.” (Mahony, 2003, p. 9)

Judge Mahony’s words of caution appear to have had little impact in the past six years. Now Judge Boshier makes a similar point when he says, “If we accept that family violence – always a choice on the part of the perpetrator – is enormously broad and complex in nature, then consideration of the causes for the violence must surely be relevant to determining how to stop it.”

Nevertheless, beyond a concern at the lack of evidence about the effectiveness of programmes, Judge Boshier just proposes separate courses for first-time, Maori or Asian offenders, and the opportunity for further, follow-up courses. He makes no attempt to challenge the gendered perspective as a whole, even if he may have some doubts about a particular, dominant gendered model. This might simply be a sign of political realism. He is battling against entrenched attitudes.

In 1999, Graham Barnes, Coordinator of Safer Hamilton’s Zero Tolerance to Family Violence, asserted:

“Understanding family violence is key to making these changes, because how we think about it shapes our response to it. Overwhelmingly it is a social problem of men’s violence against women and sometimes children, and it is based in deep-seated beliefs in male superiority.” (Barnes, 1999)

This gendered interpretation with a heavy emphasis on “power and control” can also be seen in a recent Fact Sheet (New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, 2007) which challenges the studies which find equal levels of violence by men and women (New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse, 2007) . Data on severe violence indicates predominantly male perpetrators, but data used to show large scale prevalence of violence come from these broader studies with gender-balanced results. There are numerous such studies, including the New Zealand Crime and Safety Survey 2006 (Ministry of Justice, 2007) . While the NZFVC document accepts the data on equal violence, nevertheless it does not accept a gender-neutral or gender-balanced interpretation of these data. The writers should consider an observation by Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman (Friedman, 1953) . He noted that, if there is one hypothesis that is consistent with the data, then there are many such hypotheses. Those wishing to reconcile the data with a gendered approach to violence claim that women’s violence is in defence, and does not result in fear. While that may be one consistent explanation, it does not exclude all other consistent explanations, despite their intransigence on the point. In fact, their focus on fear is problematic in a ‘power and control’ theory anyway. Someone could be controlled without being afraid, but victims (male or female) are not asked about that. In addition, survey data suggest that about half of partner violence is mutual, which does not fit well within a victim-batterer model, and a quarter is by the female partner only so it cannot be in response to male violence (Straus, 1993) .

There are strong forces at play that shape the way domestic violence is viewed, as has been described before by New Zealand academics (Fergusson, Boden, & Horwood, 2007; Goodyear-Smith, 2004). The underlying political processes in terms of rhetoric, agenda setting and agenda denial were outlined in a guest column of mine on this site (“Let’s not kid ourselves – politics and reasoned debate”, Birks 2008).

The current approach to domestic violence has along history, and has been a central component of the feminist case that women are disadvantaged. It has been used to argue for gendered policies favouring women for a wide range of areas. These include all aspects of family law, as well as appointment, pay and conditions in the workplace, education, and gendered analyses of proposed law changes. “Economic independence for women” is the first objective of the Action Plan for Women (Dyson, 2004) . Introduced in 2004, the Action Plan “is a whole-of-government approach to improving the circumstances of women in New Zealand, in partnership with women, their communities and the private sector” (Dyson, 2004, p. 1) . Domestic violence is also the subject of a major, gendered, taxpayer-funded social marketing campaign, “It’s not OK”.

There are now a large number of people with a vested interest in these agendas, including stopping violence courses. As has been suggested with affirmative action, once an institutional structure has been set up to further the aims of a particular group, there is a strong tendency for the issues to be expanded, and their severity exaggerated, to justify the continued existence and expansion of the structure (Sowell, 2004) . In relation to ideas and theories, it has also been suggested that most people simply accept the dominant framework (Hardin, 2002; Kuhn, 1970) . Even if attempts are made to change the nature of stopping violence courses, most of the workers at the coal face will have a strong commitment to the current approach.

Nor is it clear that different courses according to ethnicity would be effective. Consider courses for Asians. There is no single Asian culture, many individuals are of mixed background and/or have been born or raised in New Zealand , and ethnicity does not necessarily accurately define attitudes and values. Breakdowns by age, level of education, or nature of violence may be more effective. In any event, as Judge Boshier himself says, we do not have clear evidence that stopping violence programmes work. Presumably, then, we have even less evidence that his proposed changes to these programmes would be effective.

However, one of the most puzzling aspects to me is that we allow interference in our lives to an extreme degree, up to and including the routine destruction of relationships between parents and their children. This is permitted despite the open admission that the theories are questionable, the data are problematic, and the effectiveness of the interventions is unknown. The people proposing and implementing these policies are subject to limited accountability and may not have the training, skills, experience, awareness and impartiality to justify our confidence in them.

This is a general criticism of the way our society is happy to label people as ‘experts’, and to place our trust in them. Given Judge Boshier’s speech, my attention is drawn to those who work in the law. It has long been a mystery to me as to why a legal training qualifies people to represent others and to adjudicate on the wide range of policy issues covered by the law. These include not just domestic violence, but numerous aspects of social policy, along with economic and environmental policy. In fact, politicians rely on the law as a major vehicle of policy in virtually all areas where they are active.

Lawyers do have the Law Commission as a government-funded central advisory body to review, advise on, and develop the law. But then, as Judge Patrick Keene of the New Zealand Law Commission has written in the New Zealand Law Journal, “The [Law] Commission …looks to the media for analysis” (Keene, 2002) .

So is there any real understanding behind these policies, their implementation, and recommended changes? Are we simply subject to the pressures from vested interests and from those who frame issues and manipulate the policy agendas?

Stuart Birks is the director of the Centre for Public Policy Evaluation at Massey University, Palmerston North. He is an economist with a focus on policy formulation and implementation.

Barnes, G. (1999). Summary of presentation. Paper presented at the Children and Family Violence Effective Interventions Now Conference, 4-5 July. Retrieved 17 February 2009, from http://www.justice.govt.nz/pubs/reports/1999/family_conference/author_20.html.

Birks, S. (2008). Let’s not kid ourselves – politics and reasoned debate [Electronic Version]. New Zealand Centre for Political Research. Retrieved 17 February 2009 from http://www.nzcpr.com

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Mahony, P. D. (2003). The child and the Family Court. In S. Birks (Ed.), Proceedings of Social Policy Forum 2002: The child and the Family Court: seeking the best interests of the child (pp. 1-12). Palmerston North: Centre for Public Policy Evaluation, Massey University.

Ministry of Justice. (2007). New Zealand crime and safety survey 2006 – key findings Retrieved 6 June 2008. from http://www.justice.govt.nz/pubs/reports/2007/crime-safety-survey-2006/key-findings/index.html.

New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse. (2007). Family Violence and Gender Fact Sheet. Retrieved 17 February 2009, from www.nzfvc.org.nz/PublicationDetails.aspx?publication=14144.

Sowell, T. (2004). Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study. New Haven: Yale UP.

Straus, M. A. (1993). Physical assaults by Wives: a Major Social Problem. In R. J. Gelles & D. Loseke (Eds.), Current Controversies on Family Violence. London: Sage.