“I can’t change my past, but I can change my future”: Perpetrator perspectives on what helps to stop family violence

Dr Bronwyn Morrison
Acting General Manager Research and Analysis, Ara Poutama Aotearoa (Department of Corrections)

Marianne Bevan
Fieldwork completed while Senior Research Adviser, Ara Poutama Aotearoa (Department of Corrections), and analysis undertaken while O'Brien Fellow in Residence at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, McGill University, Montreal, 2019

Phil Meredith
Manager Strategic Analysis, Ara Poutama Aotearoa (Department of Corrections)

Author biographies

Bronwyn Morrison has a PhD in Criminology from Keele University, UK.  She has worked in government research and evaluation roles in Aotearoa/New Zealand for the last 16 years. She joined Ara Poutama Aotearoa (Department of Corrections) in 2015 as a Principal Research Adviser. Her current role is Acting General Manager, Research and Analysis. She has previously conducted research on women, drinking and disorder, post release experiences, the needs of people on custodial remand, women’s imprisonment, family violence, victimisation prevalence, crime in tourist and outdoor recreation areas, and public perceptions of crime, safety and the criminal justice system.

Marianne Bevan was a member of the Research and Analysis team at Corrections from 2014 - 2019. During this time, she worked on a range of projects, including: 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. She was a 2019 O'Brien Fellow in Residence at the Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, McGill University, Montreal. She has subsequently worked on the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the terrorist attack on Christchurch masjidain on 15 March 2019.

Phil Meredith has worked for the Department of Corrections for 19 years. He started his Corrections’ career as a Probation Officer and held positions as Senior Probation Officer and Service Manager prior to joining National Office in 2008. He has since worked in a variety of analytical roles, including making significant contributions to the Community Probation Change Programme. He joined the Research and Analysis team as a Principal Analyst in early 2014. He is currently Manager, Strategic Analysis, working for DCE Māori.


Each year around 7,000 people start a Corrections-managed sentence for which family violence is the lead offence,[1] and one-fifth of people on a Corrections sentence at any given time will have a family violence conviction associated with their sentence. Over half of men and a third of women currently in New Zealand prisons have either current and/or previous convictions for family violence. Further, survey data suggests that over half of all prisoners (53%) have experienced family violence victimisation in their lifetime, with 48% experiencing family violence as children (Bevan, 2017).

Women in prison reveal especially high levels of exposure to family violence victimisation, with 68% of women (compared to 52% of men) having experienced family violence victimisation.[2] Statistics reveal that Māori arrive in prison with very high levels of exposure to family violence, with 60% of Māori in prison having previously been a victim of family violence, and 63% of Māori men and 37% of Māori women having prior convictions for family violence.

Reductions in family violence would be expected to have a significant impact on imprisonment and victimisation rates in Aotearoa, New Zealand, particularly for Māori. Understanding how to help people stop using violence constitutes a key area of focus for Ara Poutama Aotearoa, and will be a critical enabler of the Department achieving the goals set out in Hōkai Rangi: Ara Poutama Aotearoa Strategy 2019-2024.

Research led by the Department as part of the Ministerial Review of Family and Sexual Violence in 2015 revealed considerable gaps in our knowledge about those who perpetrate family violence in New Zealand (Morrison et al 2015). The review found that there was limited understanding about when and why people start using violence against family members, and how the nature of people’s violence evolves over time and across different relationships. While frequently speculated upon, it found that the links between family violence victimisation and perpetration were typically poorly evidenced. Little was known about the volume or mix of interventions people had received across their lifetime, and how effective these interventions were from the perspective of those receiving them.

Responding to this need, the Department embarked on an in-depth study of people in prison for family violence offences in 2017. This article presents the results of this research in relation to people’s treatment experiences, including what they believed helped or hindered their journeys towards living from violence, and what other assistance they felt was needed.


The research was based on in-depth qualitative interviews with people serving prison sentences for family violence. Fieldwork was conducted by Department researchers across five prison sites between January and May 2017, including three men’s prisons and two women’s prisons. Interviews ranged from 45 to 90 minutes’ duration and took place in private rooms within prison units. In total, 36 men and 12 women were interviewed. Three-quarters of the sample identified as Māori, a fifth identified as Pākehā/NZ European, and three identified as Pasifika. The average age of those interviewed was 35, with the youngest participant aged 20 and the eldest participant aged 56 at the time of interview.

While broadly comparable to other prison-based family violence offenders, participants for the study were selected primarily on the basis of having recently completed a treatment programme. This criterion was in place to increase the likelihood that people would be willing to discuss their family violence offending, having recently discussed this within a treatment setting, and with recent treatment experience on which to draw. This aspect of the study group means that their perspectives may differ from those who had not experienced interventions. By virtue of being in prison for family violence, this group is also likely to differ in important respects to other populations of community-based family violence perpetrators. For example, study participants had typically committed serious offences, with over half of people’s recent family violence involving weapons and a third involving strangulation. Most had multiple convictions for family violence and had previously served prison sentences for this type of offending. As they were in prison for family violence re-offending, this group were likely to view pre-prison interventions as having been ineffective.

The study population was dominated by people serving sentences for intimate partner violence (43/48). Six people had committed offences against children (including three who had done so alongside intimate partner violence), although two fifths of participants reported that children witnessed their latest family violence offending. Just two people had used violence against other family members, and two participants (both female) had committed intimate partner violence within the context of same-sex partnerships. Further research using specially selected samples is needed on family violence involving other family members, violence against children, and intimate partner violence within same-sex relationships.

It is important to note that the focus of the research was perpetrator perspectives on their own behaviour and experiences; victim perspectives were not included within the research. The absence of victims’ voices is a limitation; it is very likely that victims, had they been included, would have offered different and at times conflicting perspectives about the dynamics and causes of violence, and their perpetrator’s treatment needs (see, for example, the Backbone Collective, 2020).

In addition to qualitative interviews, the research utilised information from administrative records, including provision of advice to court (PAC) reports, parole reports, summaries of fact, and, where summaries were not available, judicial sentencing notes.

Understanding participants’ needs

It is useful to understand participants’ treatment experiences in the context of their needs. For most participants, convictions for family violence offending followed convictions for other forms of offending. For example, 60% of participants had received convictions for other offences prior to age 20, with most not receiving their first family violence conviction until their 20s (48%) or 30s (21%). Several participants commented that factors associated with desistance from general offending (for example, entering more serious relationships and having children) coincided with the onset of their family violence offending. In addition to having long histories of general offending, over half (58%) of participants were gang associated.

Just under half of the participants had mental health issues noted in their files and/or disclosed a mental health issue during their interview. A similar proportion reported that they were abusing alcohol at the time of their latest offending, and half reported regular drug use, most typically methamphetamine. A quarter were classified as “high risk” according to the Department’s standard risk categorisation system (RoC*RoI), just over half were “medium risk”, and a fifth were categorised as “low risk.”[3] Three-quarters had three or more prior convictions for family violence, and the majority had been in prison previously for family violence offending (96%), with 40% having served between two and four prior terms of imprisonment for family violence.

During interviews, most (83%) participants disclosed that they had been exposed to family violence as children. Eight participants reported experiencing sexual violence as children committed by family members. The violence experienced was often frequent and extreme, with participants recalling regular “hidings” which involved being kicked, punched, put in headlocks, hit with electrical cords, and choked. Participants often reported that they felt they “deserved” this violence because they had misbehaved. A large proportion also remembered witnessing routine and serious violence between other family members, particularly their parents.

As discussed in Morrison and Bevan (2018) this exposure to violence had a range of impacts for participants, most notably in reinforcing the view that family violence was a normal and expected feature of intimate relationships. Many participants described that they felt that their own violence was automatically triggered in response to situations which replicated their childhood experiences of violence. Childhood exposure to violence contributed to difficulties with accepting responsibility for violence, as participants struggled to reconcile their own abusive behaviours with their negative views of their parent’s violence. Others had come to view violence as an inherited and/or ingrained character feature beyond the scope of rehabilitation programmes to alter. Participants also acknowledged that childhood experiences of violence had detrimentally impacted upon their relationship choices, as many gravitated toward partners with similar childhood experiences and, often, a tolerance for violence. Others reported that childhood exposure to violence discouraged help seeking, as violence had always been treated as a ubiquitous but also “private matter”.

In relation to their most recent offending, participants identified a range of factors which they felt contributed to their family violence. Drugs and alcohol were the most frequently mentioned precursors

to violence. Importantly, participants emphasised that it was less the case that their violence was committed under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol per se, but more that drug and alcohol use by either or both partners contributed to broader relationship conflict. This was because alcohol and drug use strained financial resources, fuelled suspicions of infidelity when couples socialised apart, and generated arguments about apportioning childcare and domestic responsibilities. AOD use also contributed to irritability owing to a lack of sleep and dealing with the effects of withdrawal. More generally, trust and jealousy issues were identified as key contributors by half the participants.

Many participants acknowledged having a general “anger problem”, something that was not specific to the context of intimate relationships. A handful of participants felt that grief had played a central role in their latest offending as they had struggled to manage emotions following close family bereavements and/or removal of children by state agencies. Tensions around parenting were also more broadly identified by participants as a common contributory factor to relationship conflict.

Collectively, these factors provide the necessary context for understanding how participants approached and responded to different types of intervention and services, and the degree to which they felt that these adequately met their needs.

The nature and extent of interventions experienced

Almost three-quarters of study participants had attended at least one family violence treatment programme in their lifetime, and over a quarter of this group had experienced two or more family violence programmes. Conversely, just over a quarter of participants (29%) had never attended a targeted family violence programme, although they had attended other rehabilitative programmes. Almost nine in ten participants had attended some form of alcohol or other drug (AOD) programme on their current or very recent sentence, and just under half had completed one of the Department’s criminogenic programmes.[4]

Almost two-thirds of participants experienced their first treatment for family violence in their 20s, which is consistent with participant accounts that family violence perpetration typically commenced in their late teens and early twenties. For just over half of participants, a family violence programme was the first type of treatment programme they had ever undertaken, with just seven people undertaking other programmes prior to their twenties, suggesting that family violence programmes represent an important gateway into treatment which can, in turn, influence how people approach subsequent treatment programmes and other interventions.

When asked about the effectiveness of their initial treatment experience, six people claimed that the programme (most typically a community-based family violence programme) had been effective and had helped them to stop using violence for some time. In some instances, people reported that this hiatus in offending lasted for multiple years, with one participant claiming a nine-year gap in family violence offending following his attendance at a family violence programme.

Participants were asked about which aspects of programmes they found useful, and which aspects they found less useful. They were also asked about what could make interventions for family violence more effective and what other forms of help they would find beneficial.

What worked?

Participants identified a common set of factors which increased programme success. These success factors are briefly outlined below.

Non-judgmental and authentic facilitation

Good programme facilitation was widely noted by participants as a critical success factor. There was a high level of consensus evident amongst participants about what constituted “good” facilitation, this included facilitators being “non-judgemental, informative, and non-pressuring”. Participants emphasised the importance of facilitators having “lived experience” of family violence as opposed to simply being “taught from a book”. As one male participant noted:

“Some facilitators are just more engaging. They can see where we’re coming from and they’ve experienced similar realities that we’ve experienced. Some tutors probably just went to university and … are just teaching us what they’ve learned out of a book.”

Several men noted the value of Māori facilitators, who were perceived to have a better understanding of the reality of Māori men’s lives and were considered more trustworthy and relatable. Men also commented on the benefits of having female facilitators involved in programme delivery. It was agreed that women brought an important perspective to family violence programmes that was critical to helping men develop victim empathy. Several men also noted the importance of feeling that the facilitators were “experienced” and could demonstrate how their facilitation had led to positive changes in the lives of past participants. In this sense, successful experience of programme facilitation was important and could, at times, compensate for a lack of lived experience of violence.

Understanding and addressing trauma

Participants claimed that arriving at an understanding of how their own exposure to violence growing up had affected their intimate relationships and parenting was the most useful part of treatment. This was a common benefit identified by those who had undertaken the Department’s Drug Treatment Programme and/or ACC-funded individual counselling. Far from avoiding culpability for their violence, participants felt that being able to acknowledge the role of their upbringing in their offending assisted them to take responsibility. As George, a Māori participant in his early 50s whose family violence convictions spanned three decades, noted about his Māori Drug Treatment Programme facilitator:

“She was facilitating things that would turn us inside out and trying to understand … coming from a family of violence …. It was all around me, alcohol was all around me, I didn’t realise that I had developed into that kind of person, like my father. What the programme has done for me, is made me aware of the person who I thought I wasn’t, but I actually am. That is the good thing about the programme, is learning where our problems come from and knowing that it actually came from my upbringing.”

Cognitive behavioural techniques

Participants widely endorsed the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques and skills taught on Departmental programmes. Participants valued the offence mapping exercises contained in Departmental programmes which enabled them to link their emotions to thoughts and behaviours. Learning mindfulness techniques was also rated positively, and participants frequently talked about occasions in prison where they had applied these techniques to better manage conflict situations, thereby avoiding recourse to violence. Participants who had completed the Department’s family violence programme reported that the CBT techniques included on this programme made this programme more useful than other family violence programmes they had undertaken in the community. Several male participants also claimed that their prison-based rehabilitation programmes were the first interventions they had experienced where they had been able to talk honestly about their emotions.

Small and stable groups

While there were mixed views about whether individual or group programmes worked best, there was agreement that group-based programmes worked best when the group sizes were not too large (12 participants or less) and remained relatively stable for a programme’s duration. Many described that receiving support from other participants provided additional motivation to attend programmes and complete them. For example, Tom, a Pākehā participant in his late 40s, made the following comment about his recent experience of the Department’s Family Violence Programme:

“I am quite a subdued person and in a big group you won’t get boo out of me, but four people, you get to know one another and earn a bit of trust. There was no holding back and I think  that is why it worked … there were some testing times and we kind of supported each other through it. That was good, you kind of felt you didn’t want to let the rest of them down by not attending, or not pulling your full weight.”

Drug and alcohol programmes

While there is some international evidence that addressing drug and alcohol dependencies reduces family violence, the research is far from unequivocal (see Foran and O’Leary, 2008). For this reason and given the high prevalence of AOD treatment programme experience among participants, some time was spent in interviews trying to understand if and how participants felt AOD programmes helped to address their family violence offending.

Generally, AOD programmes were considered useful to the extent that participants believed that similar underlying factors were driving both their drug and/or alcohol use and their violence, or alternatively saw their family violence as being directly related to their drug and alcohol use. Jason, a Pākeha participant in his early 40s, for example, felt that the Drug Treatment Programme (DTP) had successfully addressed his family violence. Jason was a methamphetamine dealer, who repeatedly entered relationships with drug-dependent women (or women whom he quickly encouraged to become reliant on him for drugs). His partners tended to leave or became unfaithful when Jason’s drug supply dried up. Through dealing with his own addiction issues, Jason was confident that his DTP experience would help him to abstain from drugs in future, and from the “toxic” relationships which accompanied this lifestyle.

Three women within the study found that therapy delivered through the DTP had enabled them to understand how they had used drugs and/or alcohol to block negative thoughts and feelings associated with childhood sexual abuse trauma. Because these women saw their family violence offending underpinned by the same trauma, they felt that disclosing and having support to deal with the underlying trauma on the DTP had, in turn, simultaneously addressed their use of drugs and violence.

What didn’t work?

The research also explored why initial interventions were not as effective as they might have been in addressing family violence.  Such insights point to ways in which effectiveness can be enhanced. Many participants had engaged in multiple family violence-focused interventions, some while in their early 20s, but as a large proportion had gone on to commit further family violence offences, it was clear that these early treatment experiences were not particularly effective.

Not being in “the right mindset”

The most common reason people provided for their initial treatment being ineffective was the fact that, at the time of participating, they were “not in the right mindset”. On further probing it became apparent that people had struggled, often over years, to acknowledge their violence and therefore their need of treatment. As noted above, exposure to violence growing up had the effect of making violence seem normal, and therefore not a problem in need of intervention. Some participants reported that they felt “shamed” by the prospect of attending a family violence programme. These were typically people who had grown up with violence and vowed never to repeat the behaviour of their violent parent.

Some participants acknowledged also that their ability to engage in programmes was marred by their ongoing alcohol and/or drug use, while two others also felt that mental health difficulties had impaired their engagement. Other participants acknowledged that they attended programmes to satisfy the needs of others, either partners, the courts or child and family services. These people reported that they had tended to approach programmes as a “tick box” exercise.

A lack of practical strategies that “worked”

Just over a fifth of participants felt that their earlier rehabilitative experience did not provide enough strategies to enable them to avoid further violence. Some complained that the only practical strategy taught was simply to “walk away” from “high risk situations”. However, several commented that this strategy was often ineffective in reality when partners would follow them as they attempted to leave, shouting and hitting them. Several male participants noted that “walking away” threatened their sense of masculinity because “a real man doesn’t walk away”.

Missed key need

Six people felt that their initial programme had “missed the mark” with respect to what they perceived to be their key need. This was common amongst participants whose first intervention was focused on addressing AOD issues. As noted above, while many felt that alcohol “shortened the fuse” they did not see alcohol or drugs as lighting the fuse in the first instance. Rather, many felt that they had underlying “anger issues” which needed to be addressed in addition to their AOD use.

More partner and whānau involvement needed

Six participants felt programmes were ineffective because their partner was either not allowed or unwilling to participate. As one male participant observed, “[it was] a waste of time me going without the other person”. In half these cases the intervention in question was couple counselling which often ended when partners refused to continue, typically after perpetrators became dissatisfied when partners refused to accept joint responsibility for the violence within the relationship. Others, however, felt the effectiveness of programmes was undermined when partners weren’t kept informed about the techniques people were learning (such as walking away) so that they could better support them to use these techniques outside the programme. Others commented that the absence of whānau involvement in interventions undermined effectiveness, especially when family violence was intergenerational in nature.

Group composition, facilitation and content

Around a quarter of participants raised issues with programme membership, facilitation, or content. For some it was the large size of the group, while others mentioned the diversity in mix of ages, young participants especially reported feeling “put off” when programme participants were mostly older and perceived to be more criminally entrenched. Some young participants, however, also reported finding it hard to talk about family violence alongside other young people who had not experienced intimate relationships and/or committed family violence offences.

Some of the women in the study commented that the content of their family violence programmes seemed concerned more with women as victims, rather than perpetrators, of family violence. Female perpetrators often found this approach unhelpful. As one female participant observed:

“I felt alienated because I felt like I was sitting with women who get beaten. I was sitting there with women who weren’t beating but were mentally and sexually abused and I’m thinking ‘Yes, I have been physically abused in my relationship, but then again, I am the perpetrator, so I need to get my shit together’.”

Lack of housing, mental health and addictions support

Five participants also felt the value of their programme was compromised by the lack of reintegration support provided during and after programmes. Unstable accommodation and/or homelessness was not infrequently identified as a barrier to treatment engagement.

Responding to research findings: New initiatives under Hōkai Rangi

Ara Poutama Aotearoa endeavours to maintain a learning culture in which observations, reviews, research and evaluations all feed into a process of continuous improvement. Findings from focused research are particularly valuable when it comes to reviewing the content, design and delivery models for specific forms of intervention, and making changes. Correctional rehabilitation faces unusual challenges in first ensuring that participants become engaged in programmes, and then – equally importantly – are retained once they have started. Findings such as those presented here have particular value in improving the content and delivery of programmes and other interventions to ensure that satisfactory participation occurs.

Three years on from the research, changes are underway across Ara Poutama Aotearoa which are starting to address issues identified. These are occurring under the banner of Hōkai Rangi: Ara Poutama Aotearoa Strategy 2019-2014. Hōkai Rangi places a strong organisational focus on practice that is humanising and healing, and has catalysed additional investment in the development of trauma-informed practice models. For example, the Tēnei Au, Tēnei Au approach, co-designed by Ara Poutama Aotearoa and Ngāti Kahungunu iwi, includes Ngākau Ora, a Māori trauma-informed practice model based on Whare Tipuna – He Ara Uru Ora (Smith, 2019).[5] The Department has also designed a Māori trauma-informed family violence training package for use by frontline probation staff, Hoaki Te Manaakitanga. These developments will help to answer people’s core need to address historical trauma and develop an understanding of how and why they came to use family violence.

Work is also underway to support connections between those within the care and management of Ara Poutama Aotearoa and their whānau, which was identified as a key need by research participants. The Whānau Manaaki Plan piloted as part of the Māori Pathways Programme at Hawke’s Bay Regional Prison is a good example of this approach, whereby whānau are invited to participate in sentence planning processes for tāne. Paiheretia Te Muka Tangata, which is also part of the Māori Pathways pilot, is a further example. Paiheretia Te Muka Tangata is operating in the Hawkes Bay and Te Tai Tokerau pilot sites and involves Whānau Ora navigators supporting whānau to realise their goals and aspirations, thereby strengthening their oranga (wellbeing) and positioning whānau to tautoko (support) tāne on their release from prison. Such interventions aim to strengthen connections between people in the care and management of Ara Poutama Aotearoa with their whānau and have the potential to empower whānau to begin acknowledging and addressing intergenerational family violence.


Backbone Collective (2020) Victim-Survivor Perspectives on long-term support after experiencing violence and abuse. A report prepared for the Ministry of Social Development. Wellington” Backbone Collective.

Bevan, M. (2017) New Zealand prisoners’ prior exposure to trauma, Practice: The New Zealand Corrections’ Journal, 5 (1): 8-17.

Foran, H. N. and O’Leary, K. D. (2008) Alcohol and intimate partner violence: A meta-analytic review, Clinical Psychology Review, 28 (7): 1222-1234.

Morrison, B. and Bevan, M. (2018) “For me it was normal”: some initial findings from the family violence perpetrator study, Practice: The New Zealand Corrections Journal, 6 (2): 50-59.

Morrison, B. Bevan, M., Tamaki, M., Patel, V., Goodall, W, Thomson, P. & Jurke, A. (2015) Bringing perpetrators into focus: a brief assessment of international and New Zealand evidence on effective responses to family violence perpetrators. Wellington: Department of Corrections.

Smith, T. (2019) He Ara Uru Ora: Traditional Māori understandings of trauma and healing. Whanganui: Te Atawai o Te Ao.

[1] “Lead offence” is the offence which attracted the most significant sentence. Note that this does not mean it is the only offence associated with someone’s sentence.

[2] This difference is statistically significant at the 95% confidence level.

[3] It is important to note that these Departmental actuarial risk ratings predict general re-offending and not family violence re-offending specifically.

[4] Including the Medium Intensity Rehabilitation Programme (MIRP), Mauri Tu Pae (medium intensity criminogenic programmes for men), Kōwhiritanga (medium intensity criminogenic programme for women), and the Special Treatment Unit Rehabilitation Programme (STURP), or the Short Rehabilitation Programme (SRP)).

[5] This model is based on the work of Māori academic, Tākirirangi Smith (2019), and involves working with Māori clients to move from the “patu ngākau” or initial trauma to oranga (present wellbeing).