What has happened to you? Changing how we think about family violence and justice

Dr Ian Lambie
Chief Science Advisor for the Justice Sector

Author biography:
Dr Ian Lambie is Chief Science Advisor for the Justice Sector (Ministry of Justice, Department of Corrections and Police) and Associate Professor in Clinical Psychology at the University of Auckland, where he teaches clinical, forensic, child and adolescent psychology. His specialist clinical and research interests are in child and adolescent mental health, childhood trauma and youth justice, building on more than 30 years’ experience working with children and adolescents with severe conduct problems and trauma, and their families, carers and service-providers. Ian continues to maintain a small private practice supervising psychologists and working with children with severe behavioural problems and their families.


Every 4 minutes: A discussion paper on preventing family violence in New Zealand (Lambie, 2018)came out late last year as part of a series by the author in his role as Chief Science Advisor to the justice sector.[1] It focused on the role of family violence as a precursor to offending, and as a community – not just an individual – problem.

It asks whether we can change the lens through which we view those in the criminal justice system – from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?”. That is, to ensure we understand some of the latest research on the effects of family violence and child maltreatment on the brains and behaviour of babies and infants, on the challenging behaviour of children, and on those who end up in the youth and adult criminal justice systems. It argues that family violence is a preventable problem – that the cycles of violence can be stopped.

What is the scale of family violence?

As the report explains, agencies use the “every 4 minutes” idea to try to get at the scale of the big trouble that happens behind closed doors in all suburbs, that affects the childhoods of many of us, and that impacts on adult relationships, family relationships, and thus subsequent generations, which is hard to measure definitively.[2] The scale of family violence in relation to subsequent criminal justice involvement is also hard to measure. Of course, not everyone who has been exposed to family violence ends up offending; but the vast majority of those who do offend have been exposed to such violence. For example, a review of more than 16,000 New Zealand child and youth offender records since 2013 (New Zealand Police, 2017) showed that 80% of child and youth offenders under the age of 17 had evidence of family violence in their homes (and that is just what had been documented).Also, Figure 1 highlights that more than 5,000 young children, in just one New Zealand police district, were exposed to such episodes in 2017/18.


This is a solvable problem

The paper takes the position that family violence is a solvable problem. Family violence can be seen as largely a “symptom” of underlying social and psychological issues, that are indeed multiple and complex, but are associated with many of the drivers of other social concerns.

On one level, the paper points out that solving family violence and child maltreatment is about common sense – stuff that all of us could know and understand:

  1. People should have access to help when they need it (healthcare, trauma recovery, addiction recovery, early intervention to prevent lifelong harm); they need ways to stay healthy (housing, income, food, clothes) and ways to stay involved (jobs, education, social activities, communities and cultures to belong to).
  2. It’s about showing kindness, compassion and thinking of others, in our families, neighbourhoods and communities, knowing that all of us can face hard times, regardless of the resources we have.
  3. It’s about services talking to each other and working together to build a trustworthy, sustained relationship with a troubled child and their family/whānau at the centre (so that child does not have to grow up to be an equally troubled adult), or to ensure adults have the help they need to stop the cycle of violence now.
  4. It’s about having local, accessible, face-to-face support that is promptly available, culturally responsive and evidence based. (Lambie, 2018, p. 9).

Early intervention is key

More knowledge of the effects of family violence, not only for those within the system, but also for people in our neighbourhoods and communities, will lead to change in the way we deal with those who are exposed to it, including those who come into contact with the justice system. As a leading scientific journal, The Lancet, explains (Britto, Lye and Proulx, 2017, p. 100):

The science is clear and the evidence convincing that our earliest experiences matter …

We must draw on this knowledge to take action to support parents, caregivers, and families in providing the nurturing care and protection that young children deserve.

A trauma-focused approach (e.g., Johnstone & Boyle, 2018) means instead of asking, “What’s wrong with you?”, we need to be asking:

  1. What has happened to you?
  2. How did it affect you?
  3. What sense did you make of it?
  4. What did you have to do to survive?

That is, children can “make sense” of maltreatment and the violence they are exposed to as somehow what they “deserve” and just how the world works. That includes trauma in all its forms, from individual and family-based to intergenerational and cultural. The “survival” strategies to cope with overwhelmingly negative feelings can involve substance abuse, rage and violence towards self and others, eventual offending, and so the cycle continues. Instead, how can we change what happens to children, parents, families and communities in the first place, to improve lifelong wellbeing.

A community response is what is needed

The report’s aim was to share evidence from science for more informed debate, as the community is such a crucial piece of the jigsaw of violence prevention. Children and families exposed to family violence live in our neighbourhoods and communities, go to our schools, support our sports teams, shop in our supermarkets―and some end up in our criminal justice system. The author poses a couple of community questions to which there are no simple answers:

  • How can I get involved in evidence-informed action and change? Rather than this being just another report, how can it help people to act? Why is it, in a country as small as ours, we fail repeatedly to act on the many good recommendations that have been outlined in so many reports (many still on the Corrections and other government websites)?
  • How do we collectively address cultural factors? How do we stop getting in the way of Māori flourishing? Of Pacific non-violence? How do we build social norms that mean the full spectrum of New Zealanders can have violence-free lives, regardless of their socioeconomic, family or disability status, or their cultural, gender, sexual, social or religious identity?

It is also a systems issue

As those at the frontline well know, systems that support more collaboration across services are vital. The report mentions a child who, by age seven years, had already had 26 family violence episodes reported, 32 A&E visits (for respiratory illness, but often with a comment that the caregiver seemed “stressed”) leading to a DHB “child protection” alert with services offered, Oranga Tamariki involvement, an NGO referral – and assessment after assessment and bits of intervention, often ending in “did not attend” or “mother was hard to engage” and a closed file.

It is enormously frustrating for those in the field not to have the resources, skills and supervision to be able to join the dots for that mother and her child, the father who was perpetrating violence, and the other children and family members affected. What would it take for that to happen? And – for those of us in the justice sector – how would better preventative action stop the journey of that child and his siblings into challenging behaviour, youth justice, intimate partner violence, family violence perpetration and maybe adult prison?

So, what are the barriers to action?

Why does “practical common sense” consistently fail to be enacted in relation to ending family violence? As the report points out, in order to act, we have to acknowledge that children of all ages are being badly hurt (emotionally, even if not physically) and that adults who are supposedly in loving relationships are being tormented (in intimate partner violence). It is not pleasant to think about such things, we like to think there’s something especially “wrong” with “those people” to make them different from “us”. Such attitudes keep us “feeling safe” but the truth is that, at times, we all struggle to try and be better human beings and change our behaviours.

As the author writes, “We do not like to think about the journey a child might have taken from being very, very frightened to being very, very frightening (in terms of criminal offending).  It’s about personalities, politics, power and control issues, lack of leadership, lack of sustainable vision, bad press. Who wants to ask people to consider such matters when we would rather fret about property prices?” (2018, p. 9).  It really is about strong and courageous leadership – from community to government. It is not about political point scoring but about having the necessary vision to change to a more compassionate justice system and a more compassionate society as a whole.

So, what are the strategies to prevent violence?

Table 1 from the report (p. 27) summarises strategies drawn from international evidence to prevent family violence and its effects throughout our lives. These areas must be culturally interpreted and adapted to fit with the local communities in which they serve – they are broad categories of action that need to be led by appropriate communities.

On one level, the “evidence” is again very much common sense. For example, we need to challenge the difficulty we seem to have as a society with doing what’s needed to act on and change family violence rates forever, like intervening early to stop cycles of intergenerational disadvantage and violence. We need to reflect on our social norms about relationship behaviour, parenting, alcohol use etc., and build plentiful, trauma-informed, culturally appropriate support. But it is undoubtedly complicated to wrangle systems and services, currently measured by individual outputs, to work together better to meet family and community needs. It is challenging to build sustained leadership that ensures staff are trained and supported to work well across sectors and diverse communities.

As the paper concludes (Lambie, 2018, p. 51):

Preventing family violence is very simple and very complicated.
Day-to-day, it’s about not ignoring the way your friend’s partner behaves towards her, or not judging the disruptive kid at school and just wanting him kicked out.
But it’s also about reflecting on our beliefs about relationships; who is responsible for family wellbeing in our communities; and how public and private resources should be applied. …
Talking about the wellbeing of babies seems a long way from arguments about the prison muster, but that is where the evidence says we must begin.

Table 1: Preventing family violence


1.  Understand the effects of adverse childhood experiences

Broaden public and professional understanding of the effects of adverse childhood experiences to drive community-wide commitment to early prevention and intervention and ending family violence.

2. Change social norms   to support positive parenting, healthy relationships and a non-violent NZ experiences

Social and cultural norms about relationships and families, alcohol and violence, and legal-system responses all affect how individuals enact or respond to family violence. Understand the media focus on victim blaming and individual service failure vs. awareness raising and change.

3. Strengthen economic  supports for families

Family violence occurs at all income levels but having financial resources can enhance options for leaving a violent relationship or keeping children safe. Financial demands on parenting are high, and economic disadvantage increases household stress and reduces access to safe housing, healthcare and help.
4. Build workforce capacity and capability

Trauma-informed care has at its centre the voices of children and young people affected by violence and maltreatment, and the voices of partners and parents experiencing violence. Staff in all sectors need to be adequately resourced to understand and respond to family violence and avoid re-traumatisation.

5. Enhance parenting   support and skills to promote healthy child development

If violence has primarily been modelled in parenting, it is important to be able to learn other strategies. Targeted, evidence-informed, home-based and sustained programmes can help high-risk families. Feeling part of the neighbourhood, community and culture helps lower child abuse risk for all.

6. Provide quality early childhood care and education

Early home-based support from pregnancy; high-quality early childhood care and education; school engagement and intervention around early challenging behaviour can all reduce risk and promote resilience.

7. Intervene to lessen harm and prevent future risk with a trauma-informed approach

Coherent, collaborative service delivery is needed, drawing on child-focused interventions, positive youth development, advocacy-based help, family support, intervention for addictions and trauma, work with perpetrators, risk prediction and technology tools as appropriate.

8. Implementation science: Take action, measure it; do more of what works; allow what is learned to inform next steps

A well-planned implementation strategy is vital, to balance evidence-informed programmes and real-world contexts, evaluate appropriately and maintain programme fidelity when scaling up. Support for emerging and promising practice, and funding for research and evaluation relevant to diverse, local, social and cultural contexts, are needed.

[1] The series of reports includes Using evidence to build a better justice system: The challenge of rising prison costs and It’s never too early, never too late: A discussion paper on preventing youth offending in New Zealand. All are available on the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor website (www.pmcsa.ac.nz).

[2] In the Every 4 minutes report (2018), the number is derived from the 158,921 care and protection notifications, including Police family violence call-outs, that Oranga Tamariki Ministry for Children received in 2016/17, relating to almost 60,000 children. There are 525,600 minutes per year; hence, one notification every 4.42 minutes. Of course, not all of those reach the “threshold” for court cases and bureaucratic involvement, but they hint at what is so hard to measure.

[3] The family harm statistics presented here were derived from available operational data and should be considered provisional. These statistics are not comparable with official statistics published by Police elsewhere.


Britto, P.R., Lye, S.J., Proulx, K., et al. (2017). Nurturing care: promoting early childhood development. The Lancet, 389(10064): 91-102.

Johnstone, L., & Boyle, M. (2018). The Power Threat Meaning Framework: An Alternative Nondiagnostic Conceptual System. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, OnlineFirst August, 1-18. doi:10.1177/0022167818793289

Lambie, I. (2018). Every 4 minutes: A discussion paper on preventing family violence in New Zealand. Auckland, NZ: Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor.

New Zealand Police. (2017). Family harm: A new approach. Wellington, NZ: New Zealand Police.