Historically Queensland’s child safety response to domestic and family violence, like many of their counterparts globally, often held the non- perpetrating parent and victims of violence accountable for their perceived failure to protect their children in families where a parent, most commonly the father or father figure, was responsible for domestic and family violence. Change is afoot and such notions are now deemed both counterproductive and unsatisfactory in terms of the response families need to address the violence in their homes inflicted by a family member, to heal and experience holistic wellbeing.

Queensland is in the midst of trial programs that approach domestic and family violence from a child safety perspective very differently.  The WalkingWithDads (WWD) and Caring Dads programs are two such examples.

Steve Lock is Principal Program Officer for WalkingWithDads, Department of Communities, Child Safety and Disability Services. He credits the David Mandel Safe and Together model as a primary foundation for this program.  Mandel’s timing in presenting his model in Australia in 2013 was noteworthy says Steve:

We’d been uneasy about how our child safety systems and practitioners could fall into the trap of taking a punitive approach with the non-offending parent in situations of domestic violence. The Carmody Inquiry had released its final report only a few months earlier and there was a positive energy for trying new approaches. David came with the principles and practice frameworks that spoke to our unease, articulating stuff that we’d thought and indirectly talked about, but in a lot more depth. While the model has layers of sophistication at both systemic and practice levels, and a lot of important subtlety that can easily be skimmed over, it’s also not rocket science.  Think about it? Who should be responsible for violent behaviour?

The Department, however, recognised that a significant shift was and still is needed. Making fathers who perpetrate domestic and family violence visible in child safety practice and holding them to account for their behaviour whilst simultaneously developing partnerships with the non-offending parent trying to protect her family from his patterns of coercive control is a complex process. Holding high expectations of him as a parent is now the aim and what WalkingWithDads and our partner agencies are endeavouring to achieve. We’re on a journey now but we still have a way to go.

WalkingWithDads, a new specialist post, is currently being trialled in four Child Safety Service Centres:  Caboolture, Gympie, Caloundra and Mt Isa. The influence of the program is far reaching as other centres and organisations come on board with the underpinning principles and practices. Steve stresses the importance of partnerships with mothers.  He notes that mums say that in the past child safety have made them feel to blame.  Now they say – the way you’re supporting me and holding him accountable, I never thought it would happen.

Fathers also have positive feedback to offer. Comments such as – your work with me has helped me face up to my responsibilities as a dad to be the best kind of dad I can be. Steve is clear that sometimes change is evident in fathers but there is no place for naiveté in this program. Dads can be adept at saying the right things.

He is clear that listening to mums, children and young people about what they’re experiencing is key. It is also critical that this direct work with dads who are perpetrating domestic and the family is done in parallel process with strong cross agency collaboration. In many WWD cases the Police, Probation and Domestic and Family Violence Advocacy services are safety planning and risk managing while the WWD work continues. In that regard you have the shared perspectives of all parties to work with.  These are high risk cases.  The processes need to be clear and accountability is paramount.  Solid safety planning is critical. At times safety for the children can still involve alternative placement options to their mother. Ultimately however this is a dual process of ensuring the safety of mums and children and holding dads accountable for their behaviour whilst intervening to affect change.

Caring Dads is a community based program offered by Mercy Community Services. This program aims to improve the safety and wellbeing of children. It assists fathers to identify personal parenting struggles and behavioural obstacles whilst equipping them with techniques to become focused on their children and their needs.  The program also aims to enhance relationships in the family home. A 2 year trial for Caring Dads began in May this year in Moreton Bay and south Sunshine Coast and the south west regions of Ipswich and Toowoomba.

In terms of eligibility for Caring Dads, there must be some form of contact with their child, someone working with the child and no sexual abuse history. The program has found that the first few weeks can be difficult but once dads commit the remainder of the program runs far more smoothly and dads appear to attend with ease. They also begin to note benefits in their relationship with their children and their understanding of their own behaviour and the impacts.

Michelle Royes is the state wide Domestic Violence Program Practice Development Manager with Mercy Community Services. She is clear that this program can’t resolve the domestic and family violence issue overall but it is an important addition to the service system. The Caring Dads practitioners work with dads for 2 hours each week in a group process involving 12 participants. This program continues for almost 5 months. As such, this significant time over the duration can impact change in both perspectives and behaviour. Michelle notes that the program is focused on child development and on fathers being more child centred. This often requires a significant shift in behaviour and understanding. The parent impact on child development is a key focus says Michelle. Mercy Community Services advocated for the introduction of this program in Queensland due to the fact that dads were largely invisible in the child safety sector and there weren’t many community programs for them to engage with.

The dads involved in the groups talk about their own family experiences growing up and what kind of dad they’d like to be. Michelle notes that it can be a challenge holding this space whilst dads are held accountable for their behaviours, challenged to think differently in terms of their children’s needs being paramount and ensuring that those working with dads at no stage accidentally collude with any manipulations. She states that this is why case coordination is so essential. Each stage of the process is transparent and open with practitioners who support the mums and children and maintain an overview of their safety.

These two programs demonstrate that Queensland’s Child Safety reforms are robust in dealing with key issues that impact the safety of children, young people and families impacted by domestic and family violence. The shift in perspective from holding mothers accountable for the abuse of violent fathers to holding fathers accountable and holistically supporting each member of the family is music to the ears of many families, practitioners and community members. This logical stance is gaining inroads in our roadmap for reform. One that can tangibly increase the safety of women, children, young people and families across our state.

Visit the WalkingwithDads website for further information.

Visit the Caring Dads website for further information.