It’s 8am on a Wednesday and the floors of the Melbourne Federal Circuit Court are already filled with hurried footsteps and quiet pockets of conversation. With courts circling the corridors like gates at an airport, there’s a heightened sense of anxiety in the air. For the families that come here, the court process can indeed feel like an unending circuit of suits, performance and rituals. Add a man with a history of violence and you have an idea of the precariousness that Family Advocacy and Support Service (FASS) workers must negotiate each day.
FASS was established by Victoria Legal Aid with funding from the Australian Government. It was created to support anyone who has experienced, used or is alleged to have used family violence. Both No to Violence and safe steps have staff working in the FASS pilot program in Melbourne, which began in May 2017. John* is one of three No to Violence staff who rotate weekdays out of the Federal Circuit Court and Family Court of Australia in Melbourne, Victoria. He’s there to engage men affected by family violence (including men who are victims of family violence, as well as men who have allegations of family violence made against them in their family law matter. FASS workers from safe steps are there to engage women affected by family violence.
After a brief chat with the FASS Information Referral Officer on duty, John prints off a list of the cases presenting at court that day. With little more than a list of names, John earmarks any men on the list that appear to be self-representing or “self-repping” as he says. If John doesn’t receive any referrals to assist men, he proactively seeks clients out, knowing those on his list without legal representation will most likely need a duty lawyer if there’s one available.
As an experienced Men’s Behaviour Change Program facilitator and telephone counselor with the Men’s Referral Service, John understands the nuances of working with men who’ve used family violence; men that think the system is against them and are fearful about the consequences for their behaviour.
John skillfully builds rapport with these men by providing practical information about the court process, where to go, what forms to fill out and who to see. These men may have trouble filling out a form or getting access to a lawyer. John helps men navigate through these challenges and the barriers these men first hold up gradually begin to lower – a process that may take minutes or hours depending on the client. As John states, “They see me going back and forwards. They see I’m not a threat and know that I’m here. Once they know this, I can start to have conversations about what got him here, about the intervention orders, about the incidents. I can ask ‘did you say something?’, ‘did you get physical?’” he says.
Much like MBCPs, John will shift the man’s focus from his partner and what ‘she’s done to him’, towards what ‘he can do for himself.’ “I ask them questions like ‘is that helpful?’, ‘how can you have a respectful relationship with the mother of your child?’. The child is half you, half your partner and you’re disrespecting your child if you’re denigrating or alienating your partner. Even if she’s not being respectful towards you, what can you do?” John knows that if you don’t use this invitational approach, men will tell him to get stuffed and walk away. “I learnt that pretty early on.”
It’s important for John that these men walk away with a good experience. John states, “next time, when they’re feeling desperate, they might think about something that came up here. They might think, ‘oh I’ll call the Men’s Referral Service for a chat…’
While a noble goal, a good experience is difficult to deliver when men won’t stop blaming others for their behaviour. Often, they completely deny any responsibility or in some cases, repeatedly don’t follow simple instructions. John says some men will say very little about why there’s an intervention order against them and continually deflect blame onto their (ex) partner. Later in court, the full extent of his past violence may be revealed, in stark opposition to his version of events. On occasion, men will refuse to respect the court process at all, behaving disrespectfully to judges.
While John knows he’s having a positive impact, he’s conscious of his boundaries as a FASS worker. Sometimes men are unable to access legal assistance from the duty lawyer services for a variety of reasons including, for example, where the man’s ex-partner had received advice from both services previously.
John has had to have some difficult conversations with men in these situations. “Sometimes, I’ve had to sit with men for hours after these decisions to de-escalate their anger.” Understanding he can’t fix the broader issues of the legal system, John works in a collaborative spirit with not only his clients but also his intricate network of colleagues, such as safe steps, duty lawyers, the court registry, the Court Network and Family Law Pathways Network.
Despite FASS’ short nine months in the courts, John says these men “really appreciate the service, especially having someone in the court room with them. It’s about being flexible. It’s about showing these men that everyone in the court room is working towards a good outcome for everyone. This requires “give and take” says John.
As we say our goodbyes and make the long walk to the exit, several people nod and smile. Not at me, but at John – the FASS worker that’s telling it straight in a complex, sometimes circular system.
*John is not the FASS worker’s real name. For privacy reasons we have concealed John’s real name.
FASS was established by Victoria Legal Aid with funding from the Australian Government.
For more information about FASS, visit the Victoria Legal Aid website.
If you or someone you know is causing problems for their relationships and family, please call the Men’s Referral Service – 1300 766 491 or chat online now.