Pioneering domestic violence program targets mothers and sons

September 27, 2016

In an attempt to break the generational cycle of domestic violence, a new initiative involving boys and their mums is being trialled in Brisbane. The world-first program aims to stop domestic violence when it first appears: in boyhood.

Richelle Menzies, 55, from Ipswich, is the survivor of domestic violence, endured over 20 years. Her two sons grew up watching their father abuse their mother.

When her boys were younger, she was able to keep the violence away from them.

‘But as they got older, he got worse as time went on, and there were times when particularly our eldest would stand between us. I think he was the one it had the greatest impact on,’ she says.

‘My youngest son would just remove himself from the situation. It played out quite differently for him. For him it was very much: “I don’t want to be like that.”

‘But for my eldest son I can imagine there must have been so much anger at both of us for putting him, as a child, into that situation where he felt he had to stand between us to protect me. I can definitely understand the anger that he had, that he didn’t know what to do with it.’

Her eldest son started displaying anger from the age of 16. While he didn’t assault her, he would punch walls and other objects. At the age of 24 he decided to get therapy.

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In Queensland, more than 1,500 incidents of domestic violence were perpetrated by children aged between 10 and 18 years in the three years to December 2015, and the numbers are on the rise.

Leia Mackie, from the Ipswich-based Domestic Violence Action Centre, says it’s not a new type of violence, but it’s something that’s being talked about more often. With Dave Burc from Carinity, a organisation that specialises in dealing with child trauma, she set up ReNew—a world-first initiative to break the cycle of domestic violence by stopping it in boyhood.

They’re now four weeks into the first 20-week program, involving seven families. The boys ages range from 9 to 17. ReNew focusses on the beginning of abusive, controlling or coercive behaviours—whether it is threats, verbal abuse, intimidation, or punching holes in the wall.

Burc says violence used against a mother is a major risk factor for perpetrating domestic violence as an adult. He says boys and teens who are violent in the home often don’t get help until they enter the justice system, but ReNew aims to intervene before the behaviour escalates.

The families involved in the ReNew trial attend individual, family and group sessions. The aim is to change behaviour by shifting beliefs and attitudes, and reasserting parental authority

‘We do a lot of challenging of the boys. We challenge their beliefs … What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a woman? Where did you get those beliefs? Do you think that’s true?’ Burc says.

ReNew has been funded by the Queensland Government and has attracted national and international interest.

Griffith University and the Menzies Health Institute will conduct a two-year evaluation of the program, including monitoring any lasting behavioural and life changes for the boys and their mothers.

Leia Mackie says it will be reviewed in late 2018 with the potential to be rolled out across Queensland and Australia.

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