Accountability based practice – What does it look like?

Last week I had the honour of being asked to present at the Violence Against Women Conference: An Inconvenient Reality, in Brisbane. I told the audience that we can be enormously proud of the success we have had in bringing men’s violence against women out from behind closed doors during the past 30 years. Significant changes across society including policy initiatives, developing effective interventions, and campaigns to shift the acceptance of behaviors that are unacceptable, are but a few. Translating the hopes generated by women during the second wave of feminism into committed action to create safety for women and children, brings us to a point where we can reflect back, as well as considering the next steps.

The Australian Government has just released a National Plan To Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2012 – 2022. Outcome 6 of the plan is: “ Perpetrators stop their violence and are held to account”. This is broken down into two parts: firstly, to hold perpetrators to account, and secondly, to reduce the risk of recidivism.

I highlighted that the one area where we have not been so successful is around being accountable to those impacted by interpersonal violence. Our accountability systems have tended to focus upon responses in three main areas: legislation, policing practice and inter-agency accountability meetings. The areas where we have not gone to and in my view need to, are providing greater voice for those impacted in terms of intervention outcomes, finding safe ways to privilege the story of those impacted by violence, and hearing what wider family members want to hear in terms of change. This challenges us into developing a more complex intervention framework which can more adequately meet the diverse needs of those seeking help. I have begun to label this ‘Accountability Based Practice’.

I often hear people talk in the family violence field about accountability and responsibility as if we are all on the same page about what the concept means and to whom. The rhetoric is that we need to get men who have been abusive to be accountable for their actions. What does this really mean? What is accountability and how does it differ from responsibility? Is accountability something that is retrospective or is it a forward thinking concept? Is accountability to the legal system or to the systems that of which we are ‘membered’. By membered I mean those family and kinship groups who are closest to the action; and most affected by our decision making. These are critical issues if we are serious about breaking the cycle of abusive practice within the families we work with.

Defining the terms
Let us step back from and tried to define what these terms mean. Responsibility has a plethora of meanings including: ‘the state or fact of being responsible’; particular burden of obligation upon one who is responsible’ and finally ‘reliability or dependability’.

I am going to add a definition that we have been using in intervention work for a long time which is, ‘The ability to respond to situations in way that enhance the well-being of others’. In New Zealand we call this manaakitanga – the process of upholding the dignity of others.
I have discovered over many years of practice that a lot of what we are working with is the lack of social competence of men to manage the complexity of relationship life. It is my view that a gendered socialisation process frames the responsibility for the social and emotional well-being for family life with women. Men can therefore avoid responsibility for learning and developing attitudes, values, and beliefs that are fundamental to respectful relationships. Being tuned into the social and emotional well-being of others allows for the development of empathy, a key ingredient for stability in relationships.

A typical dictionary definition of accountable is ‘the state of being accountable, liable, or answerable’. Today I want to suggest that accountability is a forward, rather than backward, looking concept. I want to say from the outset that I support a criminal justice response to situations of family violence. There are a number of downsides but I do believe that we need to apply the same degree of rigour to behaviour that takes place in public spaces to those in private spaces. However, family violence is very different to violence between strangers. I have discussed these in an earlier blog.

Whose voice should be privileged the loudest?

  • The first and foremost people that men need to be accountable to are their families (partner and children)
  • The next level in my view is the extended families – they have a vested interest in what behaviour that their daughter and grandchildren are exposed to.
  • The next level is the community that they live in and friendship groups.

The model – Conversations of safety
I am increasingly of the opinion that before we engage men in programmes we should be engaging with the wider audience for change. What I mean about this is that we are the extended family that sit around this couple who have a vested interest in what occurs. If we were from the outset to ask the woman’s brothers, sisters, parents and likewise for the man, I wonder what might be different in the choice of interventions and how this might allow us to have a more real conversation about safety for this woman and any children living within the household? I think we currently run the risk of allowing men to slip back into the relationship with little conversation about goals and expectation.

I want you to imagine a situation where there has been abuse from John towards Cathy over a period of time. They have three children aged 13, 10 and eight. Cathy has a protection order but is choosing to remain with John. She knows that as part of the order that the non-violent provision is always in place and that at any stage when she feels unsafe, she can invoke the non-contact provision meaning John must leave the house. In fact this is much more typical as we all know. Women leave and return to the relationship. Our own experience in Christchurch due to the major disruption to the city, loss of potential affordable housing, and revaluation of what is important, that many women are remaining in situations of potential risk.

Now let us imagine that we bring together all of the interested parties around John and Cathy including parents, brothers, sisters, aunties, and grandparents for a conversation around safety and accountability moving forward.
So what are the questions do we want answered as part of these conversations?

  • What does everyone want as a result of John attending an intervention? How do we incorporate these ideas into the intervention that we undertake with John?
  • What would we need to see and hear in John’s behaviour that would indicate safety? This is around accountability going forward.
  • How engaged has John been in exploring his use of abusive practices? Motivation and seeing the issue as important.
  • What understandings has John reached in understanding his choice to engage with abusive practices? Awareness of societal influences.
  • What is John’s understanding of the impact on Cathy and their children (in both the short and long-term)? This has the potential to develop empathy.
  • What is John’s understanding of how Cathy has resisted the use of control within the relationship? Contextualising Cathy’s resistance to John’s use of power within the relationship and providing an understanding of his behaviour.
  • What strategies will John use to stand up against and not join with patriarchal thinking and behaviour that underpins his use of abusive practices within his relationship?

The risk of such conversations
Some of you may be wondering about the question of allowing women who have been traumatised through living with violence, to be in a position of making decisions about their own well-being and that of their children. Giving power back to women and those around them is an impoertant part of building accountability and responsbility for men’s violence against women. We know from restorative processes the power of being held to account within the context in which the injustice took place. I am wanting to say from the outset that I am not suggesting that we bully women into sitting in the process which is not safe.

The irony is not lost on me that in our current legislation in New Zealand where a woman has a protection order and are still living with a partner, that when a man accesses a stopping violence programme, we cannot sit down with a wider group of people and engage in a conversation about safety; a conversation about how attending a programme may create anxiety discomfort and worry; a conversation about her ability to contact the programme to get updates about progress. All of us in this room know that when men seek help for the use of abusive practices, that women are much more likely to remain within the relationship. In my view it is encumbent upon us to privilege what the woman wants to occur, give her the space to tell us what’s important, and give her the power to be able to monitor change.

What do women want in terms of outcomes from the work that we do? I would suggest that they want clear information about what the man is working upon within interventions to increase safety within the relationship. When men get home from the programme session and their partner asks them, “How was the programme?”, there is a sub-text to the question which is, “What have you learnt and will I be safer this week as a result?”

Let us ensure that the Cathys we work with have an accurate answer to this question so that she can use her own agency in making the decision to stay or leave. This is my view is real accountability.

What do you think about accountability? Love to hear your thoughts.

Published on Thursday, August 16th, 2012, under Family violence, What Ken thinks

One Response to “Accountability based practice – What does it look like?”

  1. Tom Clarke says:

    This is a great article Ken. Community based ‘conversations’ may well be more productive for the abused person if they see and hear the abuser being accountable. If the words (promises/contracts?) translate into a period of calm for the woman then this is a good thing, especially if it is complimented with increased supports for the woman. Women in abusive relationships get so stuck and people say “why don’t they just leave?” I agree that a greater question is “what is important to this woman in this relationship?”
    I think I remember in training you speaking about men being imprisoned and how much family members might actually enjoy the break from their presence. Not much conversation in that scenario. I have found in group participants usually take responsibility and hope to not have to talk about what they have done – it is the next best step to be accountable and give this voice in a wider audience.
    Thank you,
    Tom

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