"For me it was normal": Some initial findings from the family violence perpetrator study

Dr Bronwyn Morrison
Principal Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Marianne Bevan
Senior Research Adviser, Department of Corrections

Author biographies

Bronwyn Morrison has a PhD in Criminology. She has worked in government research and evaluation roles for the last 13 years. Since joining Corrections as a Principal Research Advisor in 2015 she has undertaken projects on prisoners’ post-release experiences, family violence perpetrators, remand prisoners, women in prison, and Corrections Officer training.

Marianne Bevan started at Corrections in May 2014, and has completed a range of research and evaluation projects related to women’s offending, the case management of women in prison, family violence offending, prisoners’ trauma exposure, and youth units. Prior to working at Corrections, she conducted research, and implemented projects on gender and security sector reform in Timor-Leste, Togo, Ghana and Liberia.


“The violence is normal, the drugs is normal, the crime is all normal and that’s my life, how I’ve lived for 24 years, how I was raised, how all my family are, generations, and generations, and generations.”

“My dad used to beat me up, my dad used to beat my mum up, and I just thought it was normal just to beat people up if they make you angry. But now I realise it’s not.”

In 2017/18 over 10,000 people started Corrections’ managed sentences where the lead offence was family violence. In August 2018, 26.5% of the current prison muster were serving sentences for family violence offences. Family violence is therefore a key area of focus for the Department. Despite a plethora of research on family violence over the past decade, comparatively little attention has focused specifically on family violence perpetrators (Centre for Innovative Justice, 2015; Polaschek, 2016; Morrison et al 2015). As a consequence, our understanding of people’s pathways into family violence offending, the relationship between family violence and other general forms of offending, and the crossover between intimate partner violence perpetration and broader forms of family violence is limited. Knowledge of people’s treatment pathways is also lacking (see Morrison et al 2015).

Launched in 2017, the family violence perpetrator research project started to address these gaps. Specifically, the research investigated people’s pathways into family violence and the relationship between the onset of other offending and family violence perpetration. It examined the overlap of intimate partner violence (IPV) with more general forms of family violence, and sought to understand how family violence perpetration changed across time and different relationships. In doing so, it explored the distal and proximate factors which people believed contributed to their behaviour. In a context where there is no record of who has attended family violence programmes across different government agency referral pathways, the research explored where and how people first received treatment and the nature, dosage and perceived effectiveness of the treatment(s) received. Through the perspective of participants, it examined what aspects of treatment were useful (and which aspects were less so) and gaps in existing service provision. The research also examined people’s views about desistance, and, crucially, what they felt would help or hinder their attempts to desist from family violence. In doing so, the research makes an important original contribution to our knowledge of family violence in New Zealand and identifies promising directions for service development.

Method and participant characteristics

The family violence perpetrator study involved in-depth qualitative interviews with 48 people in prison for family violence offences, most of whom had two or more previous convictions for family violence. [1] Selection of participants was weighted towards those who had completed some form of rehabilitative programme during their current sentence. While the majority of those interviewed had completed just one programme, several people had completed multiple programmes. A small number had not completed any programmes on their current sentence but had done so on previous sentences. Eight participants were found to have completed the Department’s prison-based family violence programme [2], although 71% of those interviewed had previously attended a family violence programme in the community at some stage.

Figure 1: Participants’ self-reported family violence treatment programme “dosage”

As demonstrated in Figure 1, 27% (n=13) participants had attended two or more family violence programmes, and a similar proportion (29%) had never attended a targeted family violence programme (although these people had attended general criminogenic programmes and/or drug and alcohol programmes which often contain healthy relationship components).

Almost four-fifths of the sample was in prison for offences involving actual use of physical violence, with offences ranging from murder and kidnapping through to male assaults female and common assault. Several participants claimed to have primarily engaged in psychological violence,[3] which they often described as being “worse” than physical violence, while many others reported perpetrating psychological violence alongside physical violence. It is fair to say that a lot of the physical violence perpetrated by participants was at the more extreme end of the spectrum, with over half utilising weapons in the course of their assaults, and a third of offences involving strangulation. Given that the sample was drawn from those serving prison sentences, this finding is not particularly surprising, but does mean that the study makes no claims that the findings are generalisable to family violence perpetrators in the New Zealand population more broadly, or, indeed, perpetrators within other settings, such as the community and/or non-criminal justice settings.

The sample was dominated by those who committed offences against intimate partners or previous partners (43 out of 48). Six people directly offended against children (including three people who also offended against partners/ex-partners as part of the same incident or series of incidents), although children were reported to have witnessed the violence in half the accounts, and were living in the household where violence occurred in two-thirds of cases. One person had offended against their father, while another had assaulted her brother’s partner.

The sample included 12 women and 36 men. Three-quarters identified as Māori, a fifth were NZ European, and three were Pasifika. The average age of participants was 35; with the eldest participant aged 56 and the youngest aged 20 years old at time of the interviews. Participants had an average of three previous sentences involving family violence, with two having ten prior sentences. Ten participants were serving their first sentence for family violence.

Semi-structured interviews were carried out across three men’s prisons and two women’s prisons between January and May 2017.[4] In addition to interviews, the research utilised information from administrative records, including provision of advice to courts (PAC) reports, parole reports, and summaries of fact (or judicial sentencing notes when summaries of fact were unavailable). Summaries of fact were sourced internally, with NZ Police providing assistance for a small number of people whose summaries were not able to be retrieved from our internal records.

Qualitative data from the interviews and summaries of fact were combined with quantitative data (drawn from administrative records and also extracted from interviews) for analysis using NVivo, a specialist qualitative data analysis software package. Individual case studies were also produced for each participant. Thus, whilst only including 48 participants, the volume of data is vast, and in-depth analysis is still ongoing at the time of writing. Consequently, the results detailed below should be considered provisional in nature. A full report of the research findings will be completed by December 2018, with presentations to follow. This article presents initial results on the following topics:

  • The onset of family violence offending and stability of violence over time and across different relationships
  • The proximate triggers of family violence
  • Treatment experiences
  • Prospects for desistance: what helps.

The onset of family violence

For most, family violence started later than general offending. Almost half of the participants were convicted of their first family violence offence in their 20s, while a quarter were first convicted when under age 25, and just over a quarter were 30 or over. This differed by gender, with women more commonly having their first conviction later, typically in their 30s, although this is in line with gender patterns found in general offending. Given the sample was prison-based it is not surprising that three quarters of participants had convictions for other offences. As demonstrated in Figure 2, most had accumulated convictions for other forms of offending prior to being convicted of family violence, with over half (60%) receiving their first conviction for other offending under the age of 25. Over two-fifths of these convictions were for violent offending against non-family members, while a fifth involved traffic offences, and a fifth involved dishonesty or burglary offences. Consequently, most people were involved in the criminal justice system prior to coming to attention for family violence offending, although this does not necessarily mean that they were not perpetrating family violence concurrently.

Figure 2: Age at first conviction for family violence versus other offending

Pathways to family violence

People in the study often found it hard to pinpoint exactly when and how their family violence offending had started, and had varying understandings of what family violence encompassed; however, some distinct patterns were evident. For many, family violence started in their first serious adult relationship. This was the case for over half of people in the study. Adult relationships often introduced a range of new “stressors” into people’s lives, such as challenges associated with cohabitation and parenting, which, in turn, generated tensions around the apportioning of domestic responsibilities, and managing increased financial pressures.

For some men, adult relationships exposed strong underlying beliefs about traditional gender roles. This played out in a number of ways. Some described losing confidence and self-esteem when they could not meet the family’s economic needs (often associated with loss of employment) or resolve household problems. These perceived inadequacies were often a source of shame and conflict with partners, and partners’ families. This was the case for Jeremy[5] who was 17 when his partner had their first child. A combination of stress associated with working long hours for low pay, alongside a lack of parenting experience, preceded his use of violence against his partner and child: “that pushed me over the line, yeah … never a punch in the head, yeah, until we had our daughter and it just, I couldn’t just deal with life.”

Others struggled when their ideals around “men as financial providers” and “women as homemakers” became inverted, often following a loss of employment. Finding themselves in the domestic sphere, such men often expressed dissatisfaction about the ways in which their female partners had been raising children or doing housework. They also felt annoyed when female partners went out socialising after work, leaving men at home to mind the children. Several men mentioned a loss of self-esteem and/or masculinity associated with becoming confined to domestic roles. Conversely, some men involved in gangs reported that they struggled to manage conflicting gang and familial responsibilities. The “gangster lifestyle” often generated considerable relationship tension when it involved spending large amounts of time away from family, the frequent consumption of drugs and/or alcohol, and, occasionally, liaisons with other women.

In contrast to this group, others spoke of violence against a partner being a natural extension of existing patterns of general violence. A number of these people committed their first family violence offences at younger ages, and often against other family members (such as parents or siblings) prior to engaging in violence against their intimate partners. As a male participant explained, violence, whether against partners, friends, or strangers, was simply a functional means to achieve goals: “[Violence] gets you places, and it gets you things”. As is discussed below, such attitudes were often linked to childhood exposure to family violence.

Growing up violent

While recognising that the relationship between childhood exposure to family violence and subsequent perpetration of family violence is complex, and acknowledging that not all those who witness or directly experience family violence go on to abuse, international research has shown that a sizeable proportion of those who perpetrate family violence either witnessed or experienced violence as a child (see, for example, Dutton, 2006; Barnish, 2004). This finding was also borne out in the current study, with the majority of participants (83%) claiming they witnessed or directly experienced family violence as a child (92% for women, 81% for men). This level of childhood exposure to family violence is substantially higher than that found for the general prison population (53% overall, and 68% of women and 52% of men, see Bevan, 2017). While some had grown up around healthy relationships, the majority reported violence in relationships being a normal part of their upbringing (similar findings have emerged from other New Zealand-based research, see Roguski and Gregory, 2014). Many spoke about the intergenerational nature of family violence in their lives, noting that violence had been in their families “for generations and generations”. As the title of this article suggests, therefore, while people recognised that violence was not OK, for most it was a normal experience.

Childhood exposure to violence impacted participants in a variety of ways. Some felt that by virtue of growing up in violent households they had unconsciously developed violent behaviours, while others felt they had “inherited” a violent nature from their parents. Such people often described having an inherent “violent streak”, demonstrating a low level of perceived agency insofar as they often felt their violence was beyond their control to manage once triggered.

“I want to fix myself up … I don’t want to keep coming back [to prison]. [Interviewer: what do you think needs fixing?] Oh, just my violent streak. I think it’s just from my family and what I have seen. It just comes out of me.” (Tony, Māori male with over ten previous convictions for family violence).

For others, violence against partners became a functional mechanism though which to achieve goals or get people to understand their point of view. For example, one male participant tried to get his partner to stop shouting at him:

“I was just wanting her to shut up and me hitting her was a way … because that’s how it worked with my Mum, that’s what my Dad did.  So I think maybe I was thinking about how did my Dad do it? Bang: get out of my way.”

Others explained how the emotional intensity associated with serious adult relationships could trigger latent trauma, anger, and shame. For example, in the context of domestic disputes when they perceived themselves to have been threatened, criticised, or “shamed”, this echoed past abuse experiences and invoked disproportionately strong emotional and often physical reactions. These people described difficulties communicating, and discussed how arguments quickly escalated to the point of physical violence. This was the case for Fraser, a NZ European man in his 30s, who concluded that his violence “all stems from abuse, child abuse … [I was] violently abused as a kid.” Because of these experiences, he claimed to have low self-esteem and often felt “overwhelmed” in arguments with his partner. Physical violence, in this context, became his way to stop uncomfortable feelings and regain power: “It’s a way to stop something, it’s a way to win because you feel powerless, because of how you are feeling; you feel powerless and hurt.  And then it’s just you lash out and it’s the wrong thing to do.” In a similar vein, one female participant noted:

“My dad used to beat me up, like, really bad. Like break my ribs and like smash my face up. Lots of things. Kick me in the face and all sorts of things. Then I started fighting back and then it just got worse and worse … getting hidings, and then I saw [violence] as a way of protecting myself so nobody could ever beat me up like that and just if I was scared or I felt intimidated my instant reaction was just to attack people.”

Relatedly, participants who had previously been victimised in intimate relationships (mainly women, but also a few men), talked about a need to “take control” when they entered new relationships, becoming the primary aggressor in order to prevent further victimisation. Alongside such behaviour was often the underlying belief that “real relationships” involved someone hitting and that violence was a normal way in which strong emotions – such as love – were expressed:

“Well it was just like I turned into my ex-partner … I liked having that control because for two years I was under the control of my ex-partner, … you know where I didn’t even leave the house and I was only like 13, 14 and you know, like he would bash me and bash me, and so when I got into this new relationship and we didn’t have [violence], it was kind of strange, so then I started hitting him.”

Two female participants had also committed violence against partners in situations where they themselves appeared to be the primary victim. No men reported committing violence in such circumstances. It is also notable that most of the family violence reported by female perpetrators in this study did not fit the pattern of “violent resistance” whereby violence was only used in response to a partner’s violence (see Johnson, 2008, Kelly and Johnson 2008).

It was also apparent that childhood exposure to family violence affected people’s relationship choices. “Poor relationship” choices were often mentioned by participants, particularly men, as a reason for violent behaviour. For male participants, such choices often involved the selection of what they termed “damaged girls” – women who had grown up with violence, often in gang environments, and who had been abused by previous partners. Some men acknowledged that they intentionally chose these women, as they felt they would have lower expectations from the relationship and be more accepting of violence.

This was the case for Justin, who described the onset of his violence occurring within relationships characterised by jealousy and mistrust, which he believed was driven in part by the “type” of women he chose:

“When I look back on it, a lot of the times I have been attracted to damaged people as well, in a way. I don’t know what it is, like to, have a normal [relationship] … I just found it attractive. They are not expecting too much of you. They are probably used to being let down.”

Having experienced extensive bullying from his siblings growing up, Justin’s poor relationship choices reinforced his belief that he couldn’t trust those close to him. This also had implications when it came to seeking help for his violence.

Variability of violence across time and different relationships

Having started behaving violently in one intimate relationship, many participants went on to use violence across all subsequent relationships. For instance, just under half of those who had experienced multiple intimate relationships said that their perpetration of violence was a recurrent feature of all their relationships. This was less common for women, whose use of violence on the whole was more likely to be intermittent. Just over a quarter of all participants reported that their use of violence did not extend to every relationship, and that they had successfully managed to have non-violent relationships during their lifetime. Just under a quarter claimed that their current relationship was the first that had involved violence, although this was more common in younger participants.

While some described a worsening of violence over time both within, and across, relationships, others claimed that the severity of their violence lessened in later relationships. A number of people also reported long gaps, sometimes decades long, in their use of violence. For example, Moses was first convicted of a family violence offence when he was 21 with his first serious partner, but following the birth of their children there was a 15-year gap in offending, before his use of physical violence resumed when that relationship ended and he entered a new relationship. Such findings potentially raise challenges to commonly-held beliefs about the inevitable escalation of violence over time. They also imply that relationship dynamics may play an important role in family violence perpetration for some people (for elaboration on this point, see desistance section below).

Proximate triggers of violence

In addition to experiencing violent and/or traumatic upbringings, as shown in Figure 3 below, participants identified a wide range of factors which they felt more directly contributed to their most recent use of violence. The three most common factors identified were the use of drugs, most typically methamphetamine (51%); jealously in relation to trust or infidelity issues (50%); and abuse of alcohol (42%). Over a quarter of participants also mentioned anger, and the same proportion mentioned grief as contributory factors, while just under a quarter mentioned financial stress. While 42% of the sample had mental health concerns noted in their administrative files, only 19% claimed that mental health difficulties had played a role in their latest offending. Conflicts surrounding child custody and/or access issues were also noted by 13% of participants.

Although drugs and alcohol were often mentioned by participants, few claimed to be directly under the influence of either substance at the time of their offending. This was an interesting finding in a context where male participants in particular often resisted taking responsibility for their violence. Even if they were using at the time, few saw their own use of drugs and alcohol as directly causing the violence. Rather, drug and alcohol use was often conceptualised as a contributor to more general relationship conflict, irrespective of whether it was their own use, a partner’s use, or both parties. Several men, for example, talked about conflict arising after they had disappeared for multiple days while using methamphetamine, then turned up at home while coming down.  In this latter state there was a tendency for arguments to erupt over their neglect of domestic responsibilities, concerns over infidelity, or simply because they felt tired and irritable owing to a lack of sleep:

“Been on meth. Been out for days, start coming down, start getting ugly and nag one another, yeah, that’s how commonly it always started … Not to be in touch with my partner … you know she’s worried about me being out for days, going home empty-handed. Stuff like that you know.” (Sam, Māori male in his 30s who had served multiple prison sentences for family violence).

Several men also mentioned conflicts arising because they failed either to share with, or provide drugs to, their partners.

Figure 3: Self-identified proximate causes of violence

While acknowledging alcohol was a factor, people tended to believe alcohol exacerbated existing problems in the relationship or “shortened” their fuse, without necessarily “lighting the fuse” in the first instance:

“Alcohol is not the cause of the anger … I just found that when I’m under the influence of alcohol my fuse gets shorter.” (Moses, Māori male in his late 30s who had multiple previous convictions for family violence).

Mentioned by a quarter of participants, grief was also seen as a contributing factor. Grief was often associated with the loss of parents described by participants as “abusive” either to themselves as children or to their other parent. Often these parents had never acknowledged or apologised for their abuse, which could now not be “put right”. This, in turn, left people feeling very angry but also sad that matters would now never be resolved. In this sense the grief experienced was complicated, which contributed to difficulties managing emotions more broadly and further exacerbated problematic drug and alcohol use to mask uncomfortable or confusing feelings. People reported feeling similar types of grief in situations where their children had been removed by child protection services.  They often felt responsible for such losses but also felt grief over the loss of their children. They often felt such grief was illegitimate because their behaviours had contributed to the removal. Many also reported feeling censured by members of their wider family about the loss of children. Child, Youth and Family/Oranga Tamariki were reported to be involved with the household in over a quarter of the people’s most recent offending, although this figure is likely conservative, as not all participants were directly asked this question.

Financial stress was more typically reported to be a contributing factor by men. A number of men spoke about losing work, which meant that they were more likely to be at home during the day and “getting in each other’s faces”. As noted above, financial stress was often strongly correlated with challenges to strongly held gender role assumptions about men’s and women’s “place”.

In terms of mental health issues, people mentioned suffering with depression, post-natal depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and paranoia. In such cases, violence often followed when people had stopped taking medication, although it appears some had never received treatment for their condition. A number of these people appeared to be self-medicating with drugs and/or alcohol around the time of their offending. Several mentioned feeling isolated and unable to seek help for mental health problems which compounded their anxiety and frustration. A small number of participants claimed to have “blacked out” for the entirety of their latest offending and said they had no recollection of their actions during the event.

Treatment experiences

“I’ve always said you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.  But the horse that leads itself to the water will get the result because it is willing and wants to.  I think this is why this has been a success for me.  I didn’t hold back on anything.  It was really empowering” (Tom, NZ European male in his late 40s, who had recently completed the Department’s prison-based family violence programme).

Almost three-quarters of people had started one or more community-based family violence programmes prior to their imprisonment. These were commonly referred to as “anger management programmes”. In the main, the people interviewed for this research were of the view that these programmes were ineffective.[6] This may not be surprising given that the sample consisted of individuals who, at the time of interview, had subsequently been imprisoned for further family violence offending. Despite this generally negative view, several participants reported achieving cessation of violence for long periods following their attendance at such programmes.

The main reason offered as to why these programmes had not helped was that participants felt they were “not ready to change”. There were a range of reasons why people felt they weren’t ready, including being too young and immature, their continued drug/alcohol use during the programme, or that their motivation for attending was primarily to obtain a reduced sentence (or avoid further sanction), rather than based on a genuine desire to address their behaviour. The latter was not surprising in a context where most participants had been mandated to attend programmes via the District Court and had not voluntarily opted to attend treatment. People also mentioned feeling intimidated by the size and composition of community-based programme groups, with comments referring to the presence of overt gang members, the older age profile of participants, and the apparently entrenched criminality of other participants. Others mentioned feeling confronted by the judgmental tone of psycho-educational approaches used in family violence programmes, and not feeling “heard” or understood. Comments were also made about “inauthentic” facilitators who had “only learnt stuff out of a book”. Proposed solutions which lacked real life applicability, or which they had tried and failed, such as “just walking away” when conflict arose, were also identified as limitations.

In quite stark contrast, several people who had undertaken the Department’s family violence programme were effusive in their praise:

“I was in a good place and when I got the family violence programme, I was very open to looking for change and I wanted to embrace change and that I think the programme is so exhilarating.” (Ray, NZ European male in his 50s who had just completed the family violence programme on his first prison sentence).

In fact, a number had enjoyed the programme to such a degree that they had asked if they could repeat it.[7]

Departmental family violence programme graduates often evidenced a sound understanding of the factors contributing to their violence, including relationship dynamics, and the strategies they were going to put in place to address these factors following release. Many appeared to already be making use of various “tools” learned on the programme, with several having memorised the various acronyms associated with techniques they had learned and able to describe situations where they had successfully used these in prison. More broadly, people mentioned programme facilitators as a key strength across all Departmental programmes, particularly when facilitators were perceived as authentic, (i.e. “being real”), non-judgmental, and knowledgeable. People generally stated that they enjoyed learning in a group, although many preferred smaller group sizes (eight or less) and noted the importance of developing group bonds early in the programme, which appeared to be a factor in maximising treatment gains. A reasonable proportion also noted the added value gained from completing cultural programmes alongside offence-focused interventions. Finally, people expressed a general preference for treatment delivered within a therapeutic unit such as Drug Treatment Units, or kaupapa Māori units.

Desistance and what would help

Participants generally expressed a high level of anxiety and uncertainty about the prospect of re-offending. There was often considerable tension in people’s accounts, and many felt conflicted about whether their use of violence was within their control. Many spoke about external triggers, especially the behaviour of partners, which might “cause” them to re-offend:

“I’m not going to fall into being baited and that. I will keep a calm and rational mind, try and stay out of the emotion, her getting me emotional … the less I have to do with her the better. It’s going to be hard when I get out. This time I know I’m going to do things totally differently and not give her the chance to put me back [in prison].” (Simon, NZ European male in his 50s, serving his third sentence for family violence).

Others viewed violence as something that came from within, something almost innate, which was, nonetheless, still outside their control:

“I feel like my anger is capable of killing and that’s something that scares me … I am scared that when I get out what’s going to happen when, you know, I’m not locked away.  Like, I’ve been to Parole and I have told them that same thing. Like, I could have got out, but it’s not about getting out, you know, it’s about stopping. You know, he’s the father to my kids. I don’t want to hurt him no more.” (Ariana, Māori woman serving her second prison sentence for violence against her partner).

People identified a wide variety of strategies to avoid using violence in the future. The most common strategy mentioned was ending the relationship in which the violence occurred and/or minimising or avoiding contact altogether with ex-partners. Of those participants who committed offences against partners, and whose partner was still alive, more than half (n=25) said that they either planned to end the relationship or that the relationship had already come to an end following their recent offending.

While a number talked about avoiding relationships altogether, “I suck at relationships, so I think I’ll just avoid them”, others talked about making “better” relationship choices. Typically such choices involved a complete departure from previous selection criteria and occasionally some quite particular requirements. For example, one man reported he had decided to seek a woman who was a “Christian vegetarian with no kids” following his release. However, while recognising that “toxic” relationships contributed to violence, the fact that many men thought a different “type of girl” would curb their violence again implied that the cause of violence lay with the female partner, rather than in the ways in which they interacted with that partner. While people often took responsibility for making “poor” relationship choices, therefore, this responsibility seldom fully extended to their use of violence within such relationships. Indeed, several men talked about women “knowing what they were like” (i.e. violent) before they entered into the relationship, suggesting that such partners had thereby implicitly consented to the violence that subsequently ensued.

A number of people talked about applying the lessons learned in treatment. Generally speaking, those who had completed the Department’s family violence programme appeared to have taken a much greater level of responsibility for their violence than those who had completed community-agency interventions. Graduates of the Department’s family violence programme were more likely to focus critically on their behaviours within relationships and their expectations around gender roles as a possible cause of, and therefore a solution to, violence. For example, they often talked about developing empathy for victims, thinking about how they communicated with partners, and how actions or words could be unhelpfully misinterpreted in relationships. Better communication in relationships was often seen as a key means to avoid future violence. Such men were also more likely to report planning to seek formal support in the community (through organised men’s non-violence support groups) and informal support from friends and families to “talk” through problems. Most of these people viewed violence in the same way as addiction: something to be actively managed rather than ever fully overcome. A number of people in this group also indicated that they had a high level of personal agency and self-determination:

“So I’ve spent a lot of time looking inwardly as to who I am and what I have and that you don’t have to be attached to someone to feel value … I am of value and I can’t change the past, but I can change my future actions. You know, be a better person.” (Ray, NZ European male in his 50s, serving his first prison sentence for family violence offences).

In contrast, those who had recently completed Departmental criminogenic programmes, with a narrower offence-specific focus, were more likely to say they planned to use proximate situational avoidance techniques. For example, “just walking away” was the most common strategy reported for dealing with future “high risk situations” among this group. Such strategies were often voiced in the absence of any deeper understanding about what factors contributed to the development of “high risk situations” in the first place, nor how emotions could be expressed in more constructive, and less aggressive, ways. For some, emotions were still something that needed to be suppressed or avoided: as one man noted, “What I need to learn is how to be more of a man and stop being a baby and take control and help myself: I need to walk away and rise above emotions”.

In addition to these techniques, people talked more broadly about “sorting” their lives out. More general desistance strategies, such as moving away to a new area, getting employment, taking up new sports or hobbies, avoiding or minimising negative peer associations and putting in place better support systems were all offered as options which would increase chances of desistance. One factor around which more ambivalence was apparent was cessation of drug and/or alcohol use. Despite routinely mentioning alcohol as a broad contextual factor in their family violence, few saw it as a direct trigger. Thus, while a small number of people claimed they were going to pursue sobriety on release, many more suggested that they would continue drinking and using drugs. For example, one man noted “I thought about it and the drinking is not the problem, it is who I choose to drink around … one of the main issues I am going to be talking to my partner about is not drinking around her”. Female study participants, in contrast, were much more likely to report that they were going to avoid drugs and/or alcohol entirely.

Next steps

This report presents a preliminary overview of some of the themes that have emerged from an in-depth study of perceptions, views and experiences of offenders serving sentences for family violence offending. Further analysis of the qualitative data is continuing. Particular areas of interest that will be further developed include the role of methamphetamine in family violence perpetration, stability and change in family violence perpetrator typologies, understanding family violence desistance processes and “turning points”, and exploring the implications of the findings for treatment programmes and service delivery, including the role of trauma-informed practice in future programme provision. A full report of the main findings from the study will be produced by December 2018, with articles and presentations planned to follow.

Endnote: The authors wish to acknowledge John Davenne and Ella Lynch for their assistance during the fieldwork stage of the research.

[1] This criterion was relaxed slightly during the course of the study, although the majority (79%) had previous convictions for family violence. There were also some difficulties associated with reliance on the NZ Police generated family violence flag to assess the relevance of historic offending, which meant there was merit in loosening this criterion for those with long offending histories.

[2] This programme has since been discontinued alongside a broader redesign of existing criminogenic programmes such as Kowhiritanga, Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme (MIRP), Mauri Tu Pae, Saili Matagi, and the Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation Programme (STURP).

[3] These individuals were most commonly in prison for contravening protection orders and/or attempting to pervert the course of justice.

[4] The researchers wish to thank prison directors, principal programme facilitators, case management and custodial staff for their assistance identifying and approaching potential participants, and accommodating the subsequent fieldwork.

[5] All names have been changed to protect the identities of participants.

[6] A number of participants had undertaken family violence programmes many years prior to their most recent offending and/or several years prior to their interview depending on how long they had been in prison. Consequently, these views are not necessarily reflective of current or recent family violence programme delivery. Recent improvements made through the Ministerial Working Group are therefore not represented in this work, although such changes are anticipated to improve treatment effectiveness.

[7] While the Corrections’ Family Violence Programme is not available in NZ prisons at the time of writing, family violence rehabilitative needs continue to be addressed through general criminogenic programmes.


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