From jail to counselling, Matt is proof men can change their behaviour if they want to

When Matt realised the size and meaning of the loss in his life, it triggered an intense determination to stop using violence.

In jail, he says, most men there for family violence-related offences tend to blame their former partners.

Matt did 22 weeks on a behaviour change program and six weeks’ anger management counselling and has turned his life around.

Matt, whose surname cannot be published as it would identify his daughter, came to accept he was to blame and that with great effort, he could change his behaviour.

But that took a sincere commitment to 27 weeks in a men’s behaviour change program – requiring urine tests three times a week to show he was clear of substances – then six weeks of one-on-one anger management counselling.

After Matt completed this during his 12-month community corrections order (and stayed on with his counsellor for more support), a judge was satisfied he had turned himself around sufficiently for his eight-year-old daughter to eventually be back in his care.

Asked what motivated him to really engage with group behaviour change work, then to “go deep” with a men’s counsellor, Matt is in no doubt.

“Just realising how much I’ve lost in my life, and losing my daughter, she’s the biggest accomplishment in my life. Losing her and not seeing her for two years, I knew I had to change,” he says.

Matt was imprisoned in 2017 and 2021, once for three months and once for 44 days, for charges including criminal damage during arguments with his former partner: “I’d always punch holes in walls, and the police would get calls and I would get arrested.”

Once, when the couple and the woman’s other children were in the car, Matt punched through a window. “I broke the window, and there were two cuts to her face from the glass,” says Matt. His former partner was extremely distressed and bleeding as a result.

“In jail, everyone just blames everyone else. You’ve got to own up to your own things,” he says. Now, Matt, 35, works night shifts as a team leader at a manufacturing company to enable him to be there before and after his daughter is at school.

“I’m less angry because I did work on a lot of things … You’ve got to actually want that.”

Matt, a former user of violence, turned his life around through working with a men’s service

Now, “life is great”, he says. “I’m living with my daughter and I’m speaking to my ex-partner, and my daughter goes there every second weekend. It has fixed a lot of things in my life, and it has brought back my family – who disowned me when I was using [substances].

“I’m less angry because I did work on a lot of things … not just breeze through [men’s behaviour change programs] for the certificate. You’ve got to actually want that.”

Matt’s situation has been verified by Meli – the organisation whose not-for-profit services supported him – in Geelong.

Meli has partnered with long-time family-violence response agency McAuley Community Services for Women to design a program they believe could get more men to the level of change Matt showed a judge he had achieved, and keep more women and children safe in their own homes, rather than to risk homelessness.

Under the proposed Safe at Home program, a men’s worker would counsel the person using violence during a “cooling-off period” spent in a motel. Risk assessment and safety planning would be done for the woman and children and, these permitting, the woman would remain in the home with help from a worker. Support of both would be co-ordinated.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare data shows that in 2021, more than 32,000 women and almost 12,000 children who fled family violence and entered crisis shelters were then faced with insecure housing. McAuley wants to try to reduce the flow of families into that scenario.

Jocelyn Bignold, McAuley’s long-time chief executive, says perpetrators are not all the same. To keep families out of housing insecurity, she says it is worth better supporting suitable men with accommodation and psychological help as a form of early intervention.

“We need to support perpetrators, not just lock them up and throw away the key; to ask, ‘What will it take for you to stop using violence?’” Bignold says. “What we’re doing is almost forcing women into homelessness now.

“We need to support perpetrators, not just lock them up and throw away the key; to ask, ‘What will it take for you to stop using violence?’”

Jocelyn Bignold, chief executive, McAuley Community Services for Women

“Yes, we need generational change [in attitudes to women] but currently we’ve got primary prevention, and response, and not enough early intervention capacity … we need to look at what works, for whom, and under what circumstances.”

Under the proposed Safe at Home program, men such as Matt would be offered earlier support to help understand the gravity and potential ways out of their use of violence.

The program was developed with Meli, in consultation both with victim-survivors and men who have used violence. Victoria Police, which was also consulted, would hold the perpetrator to account “if he’s choosing not to be personally responsible”.

The program pilot requires $2 million annually for three years, and Victorian philanthropists are considering supporting it. McAuley has also asked the state government to contribute.

Victoria’s Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence, Vicki Ward, said she was interested in reading an evaluation of the McAuley proposal by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety. The evaluation is due in July.

Ward said the government had funded two other trial programs, offering men who have used family violence counselling and accommodation “therapeutic interventions to understand their behaviour and [strive to] be better”.

“One of the challenges, particularly working with male behaviour, is to try to get a research understanding of what success looks like, and start to focus on those programs we know work,” she said.

Ward said the government would have more to say soon on funding for women’s safety.

Family violence researcher Professor Cathy Humphreys, of the University of Melbourne, says while the proposal is not suitable for every woman experiencing violence, it could provide an important alternative for some women and help some men reform their behaviour.

Humphreys is researching how to keep women safe in the home, and says women’s safety is not necessarily ensured without support for the men.

“What this project is finding is if the person using violence has to leave the home, then providing them with some support and options means they are not coming back to harass as much,” she says.

Having received support to change his behaviour and turn around his life, Matt believes plenty of other men could be helped too: “Anyone can do it. You’ve just got to want it.”

This story was written by Wendy Tuohy from The Age.