Royal Commission findings
The Royal Commission into Family Violence identified that adolescents who use violence in the home require a specialised and systemic response and recommended that programs with successful trials should be expanded. It defined young people’s use of violence against family members as ‘a distinct form of family violence’, with three forms: child-on-parent violence, sibling violence and problem sexual behaviours. It reported that family violence, youth services, family services and justice sectors generally have limited understanding of adolescent family violence and are ‘ill-equipped to address it’, concluding that there was ‘no systemic response to the needs of these young people and their families, though a number of positive initiatives operate in local areas’.
Characteristics of adolescents using violence
In the year ending June 2020, Victoria Police recorded 18,410 family incidents where the ‘other party’ (most commonly the aggressor) was aged 24 years or under, as shown in Figure 7.1.
The Crime Statistics Agency’s analysis of Victoria Police, family violence intervention order and Victoria Youth Justice data in February 2020 showed (see also Figure 7.2):
- the number of adolescent family violence incidents recorded by police has increased over the past five years
- intimate partner violence is the fastest growing type of adolescent family violence
- the rate of adolescent family violence was twice as high in regional or rural areas than in major cities
- over half of adolescent aggressors of family violence had prior contact with police as a witness or victim survivor of family violence, or with courts as a protected person on a family violence intervention order
- 80% of young people go on to have future contact with the justice system after a first adolescent family violence aggressor incident, and over half have subsequent involvement as a victim of crime, a victim survivor of family violence or a complainant on an intervention order148
The Royal Commission also noted that children, young people and adolescents who use violence in the home often have complex needs, including mental illness, acquired brain injuries, alcohol and other drug use, and past exposure to family violence.149 Subsequent research has shown that in 47.4% (66) of Victorian case files reviewed between mid-2017 and the end of 2018, the adolescent who had used family violence had a diagnosis of psychosocial or cognitive disability, and in 23% of cases, this was likely significant enough to affect the adolescent’s capacity to comprehend and comply with legal orders.150
The evaluation of the Victorian Government–funded Adolescent Family Violence Program reported on the characteristics of its participants, confirming this complexity:
- 61% had a diagnosed mental health issue
- 30% had a substance use (alcohol or drug) issue
- physical (6%) and intellectual disabilities (12%) were also present
- 80% had witnessed violence between other family members
- 54% were from households with a single carer, most commonly female151
Systemic recognition and awareness raising
Adolescents using violence in the home is now recognised as a distinct form of family violence in major policies and practice guidance. For example, Principle 10 in the Family Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management (MARAM) Framework requires a specialised response:
…family violence used by adolescents is a distinct form of family violence and requires a different response to family violence used by adults, because of their age and the possibility that they are also victim survivors of family violence.152
The Expert Advisory Committee on Perpetrator Interventions specifically stated in its 2019 report that this group was outside its scope because it considered ‘that these young people require a specialised, therapeutic response and note that work is underway by government on this area of service’.153 Adolescent violence in the home was also out of scope whole of Victorian Government work program to strengthen perpetrator accountability articulated in the Rolling Action Plan 2020–23.
Victoria Police’s Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence includes adolescents’ use of violence specifically within its definition of family violence and recognises the group as a diverse community, going on to provide specific practice guidance for appropriate police responses.
In 2018, Family Safety Victoria established an Adolescent Family Violence Cross-Government Working Group ‘to develop a coordinated service response for adolescents who use family violence’, which includes representation from the education, youth justice, police, children, youth and families, disability and court sectors.
Building the evidence base
RMIT University’s Centre for Innovative Justice led a research project, Positive Interventions for Perpetrators of Adolescent Violence in the Home, which had a specific focus on the initial legal response that adolescents and their families receive. Reporting in April 2020, the project had strong engagement in Victoria and made 21 recommendations, a substantial number of which endorse recommendations from previous reviews.154
Family Safety Victoria launched a project in partnership with the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare in 2019, The Building the Evidence project, aiming ‘to better understand the nature of youth violence in the home and the approaches that work’.155 The project undertook a statewide consultation with child and family services and specialist family violence workforces in December 2019 and delivered a report and symposium in March 2020. It has made tangible contributions through developing a menu of evidence-informed programs. Family Safety Victoria has committed to ‘explore how the interventions from the menu could be tested within other sectors’.156 While building the evidence base is essential, it will be important to find a balance between further research and moving forward to service delivery.
Adolescent Family Violence Program
The Royal Commission recommended statewide expansion and strengthening of targeted therapeutic responses, both sexually abusive behaviours treatment and adolescent family violence programs. The Adolescent Family Violence Program is an intensive case management program that works with the whole family and is funded in three areas in Victoria to each support 80–100 families annually. It has received additional investment of $1.426 million, a 229% increase, over the five years to 2019–20. This new funding has been predominantly shared between the three existing providers (Child and Family Services Ballarat, Peninsula Health and Barwon Child Youth and Family Services), with new funds to Mildura District Aboriginal Services to develop and deliver a new program (which Family Safety Victoria advised the Monitor is in the early stages of development). Although the number of cases opened has increased (Figure 7.3), the program has not seen the statewide expansion that the Royal Commission recommended — the 2020/21 Victorian Budget provided funding to continue but not expand the existing programs.
The Australian Institute of Criminology conducted an independent evaluation of the program in 2014–15 and reported in 2017. Agencies delivering the program advised the Monitor that there has not yet been any government response to the evaluation nor any communication about its findings since it was finalised three years ago. The report had not been publicly available, although eagerly awaited by other stakeholders, but the Australian Institute of Criminology published it during the conduct of this review in September 2020.
The evaluation showed the program has had some significant positive impacts. While there was no change in police reports for violent reoffending, young people and families’ self-reports of reoffending did decrease, and the evaluation showed significant findings regarding improved relationships within families in many situations, which had flow-on benefits for the stability of young people’s accommodation, and their engagement in school.157
The three providers of the Adolescent Family Violence Program advised that demand for the program far exceeds capacity, and demand has surged during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. There is also growing demand outside of the program’s target age of 12–17 years, increasingly down to eight-year-olds and up to 24-year-olds.
Family Safety Victoria has advised that a current priority is working to strengthen the capacity of existing workforces to work with families that do not have access to specialist adolescent family violence programs. This includes developing a guide to evidence-informed programs that focus on adolescent family violence. These are important strategies towards a system-wide response, but they should not distract from the Royal Commission’s recommendation for statewide expansion of the Adolescent Family Violence Program. The Commission for Children and Young People has previously reiterated the need to consider a statewide trauma-informed model of treatment for young people with violent behaviours to ensure early intervention.158
The Royal Commission made several recommendations about the frontline, immediate response when adolescents are using violence in the home, including that Victoria Police considers using dedicated youth resource officers and that there be additional crisis and longer term supported accommodation options for adolescents, combined with therapeutic support. Stakeholders have advised that while there has been progress in these areas, there remain significant issues.
In response to the Positive Interventions for Perpetrators of Adolescent Violence in the Home project’s findings about the gap in an immediate response to adolescent family violence, Jesuit Social Services has developed an evidence-informed model of ‘co-response’, where police would be accompanied by a social worker responsible for de-escalating a situation in the home, and then provide follow-up to the family within 72 hours. Jesuit Social Services advised the Monitor that a proposal to trial the model was provided to Family Safety Victoria in April 2020 and that it is awaiting a response.
The 2020 announcement of Commonwealth-funded perpetrator accommodation included public commitments to implement adolescent-specific initiatives that may also address these issues, though details are not yet available. We also understand that the youth refuge service model is currently under review to better meet the needs of young people experiencing homelessness, including adolescents who use violence in the home.
Justice system responses
The Royal Commission recommended using diversion more frequently for adolescents. In response, the Victorian Government established the Children’s Court Youth Diversion service through the Children and Justice Legislation Amendment (Youth Justice Reform) Act 2017. This statewide service:
...provides an opportunity for eligible children and young people to address the harm caused by their offending by taking responsibility and completing a diversion activity or activities. On successful completion of the diversion activity or activities, charges are discharged, with a non-disclosable criminal record for the offences subject to the diversion order.159
The Children, Youth and Families Act 2005 was amended in 2019 to extend the therapeutic treatment order regime for children and young people displaying sexually abusive or problematic behaviours (which often occurs in a family violence context) to include young people aged 15–17 years. The Commission for Children and Young People went further and recommended, in acknowledgement of the ‘transgenerational pathway’ to family violence, that the use of therapeutic treatment orders be analysed to determine whether ‘any results from those orders have relevance to young people with violent behaviours’.160
Other justice responses to address adolescents who use violence in the home include the following:
- The ‘Restore’ pilot program delivered by Jesuit Social Services operates out of the Melbourne Children’s Court to support families where young people are using violence in the home. A Family Group Conference is offered to help the young person and their family develop practical solutions that will keep people safe and prevent further violence occurring at home.
- Youth Justice is undertaking a comprehensive program of work to align its services, including funded community service organisations and Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, with the Family Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management (MARAM) Framework. This includes a Practice Guideline: Understanding and Responding to Family Violence, which outlines requirements for family violence identification, risk assessment and risk management, to be used throughout a young person’s involvement with Youth Justice.
- Youth Justice funds and can refer young people under its supervision to Functional Family Therapy in the North West Metropolitan area and Multi-systemic Therapy in the South East Metropolitan area. These intensive, evidence-based programs work with young people and their caregivers in the family home to improve family cohesion and empower caregivers to foster healthy home environments that can support young people to reduce offending behaviours.
Restorative justice options
The Royal Commission noted the benefits of restorative justice options for families where adolescents have used violence.
Group conferencing, which is underpinned by restorative justice principles, is available in the Children’s Court prior to sentencing, bringing the young person found guilty of offences together with community representatives and persons of significance, which may include the victim or victim representative. Group conferencing can be used in family violence cases where deemed appropriate by the convener and with appropriate supports in place.
The Department of Justice and Community Safety and Family Safety Victoria trialled ‘restorative family meetings’ as part of the Adolescent Family Violence Program from December 2018 to December 2019. An unpublished evaluation by the Department of Justice and Community Safety found a range of challenges with the approach, as well as low uptake, and it has not been continued beyond the trial. Stakeholders involved in the project have advised the Monitor of hurried and poor implementation of the trial, which went beyond what is reported in the evaluation and most likely contributed to the low uptake and inability to show clear outcomes.
Several stakeholders have advised the Monitor that restorative justice options are frequently misunderstood and poorly implemented, but when done so with the necessary expertise and approaches, show very strong results and should continue to be offered and considered. The Department of Justice and Community Safety’s acknowledgement of the limitations of the trial and of the need for a restorative justice response for adolescents who have used violence in the home suggest that a further carefully implemented trial should be considered.
Service and system integration
Adolescent violence in the home is a critical area where service coordination is essential. The complexity of issues that adolescents and families are experiencing mean that appropriate responses commonly require coordination between many sectors and services such as housing, child protection, child and family services, police and The Orange Door (previously Support and Safety Hubs), where it exists, as well as mental health services in many cases.
Achieving this integration is further complicated where a specialist service, such as the Adolescent Family Violence Program, is not available in most parts of the state. But even where there is a specialist program, challenges around referral pathways exist.
Family Violence Regional Integration Committees, which bring together specialist family violence and other providers in local areas, have done substantial work in adolescent family violence such as convening forums and roundtables to specifically address the issue. Three have completed service mapping in recent years.
The MARAM Framework and its supporting resources now include specific advice and guidance for practitioners working with adolescents who use family violence, with a focus on the restrictions that the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic presents, through a practice note published in May 2020. This is an important system-wide response that will most likely make great contributions to strengthening practice in responding to adolescent family violence. Stakeholders have, however, expressed concern to the Monitor about increasing identification of adolescent family violence without any specialist or system response available in most areas of the state.
In its submission to the Monitor, the Commission for Children and Young People advised that it is ‘deeply concerned by the lack of progress on recommendations to improve responses to adolescents who use violence in the home’. Service and system responses for adolescents who use family violence should be a priority for the next stage of the reform, in particular:
- Acknowledge and build understanding of the complex issues surrounding adolescents using violence in the home, such as substance misuse, disability, previous experiences of family violence and mental health issues.
- Expand the Adolescent Family Violence Program or other specialist therapeutic programs to ensure statewide access, and consider service responses for both younger (8–12 years) and older (18–24 years) age groups.
- Ensure the sustainability of funding for the Adolescent Family Violence Program.
- Consider a further, carefully designed and implemented trial of restorative justice options for adolescents and their families.
- Improve the immediate crisis response when adolescents use violence in the home, including trialling options such as Jesuit Social Services’ proposal to have social workers accompany police officers.
- Develop a coordinated system approach and service response for adolescents who use violence in the home, including workforce capacity building and referral pathways into therapeutic services.
148 Crime Statistics Agency (2020): Adolescent Family Violence in Victoria, February 2020.
149 State of Victoria (2014–2016): Royal Commission into Family Violence: Report and Recommendations, Parl Paper No 132, Vol 4, Chapter 34.
150 Campbell, Richter, Howard & Cockburn (2020): The PIPA project: Positive Interventions for Perpetrators of Adolescent Violence in the Home. Sydney, NSW: ANROWS.
151 Boxall, Morgan, Voce & Coughlan (2020): Responding to adolescent family violence: findings from an impact evaluation. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 601. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
152 Family Safety Victoria (June 2018): Family Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management Framework: A Shared Responsibility for Assessing and Managing Family Violence Risk; Family Safety Victoria (February 2020): Report on Implementation of the Family Violence Risk Assessment and Management Framework 2018–19.
153 Expert Advisory Committee on Perpetrator Interventions (2019): Expert Advisory Committee on Perpetrator Interventions: Final Report, November 2019, p. 16.
154 Campbell, Richter, Howard & Cockburn (2020): The PIPA project: Positive Interventions for Perpetrators of Adolescent Violence in the Home. Sydney, NSW: ANROWS.
155 Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare (2020): Young People Who Use Violence in the Home. Prepared for Family Safety Victoria, March 2020.
156 Victorian Government (2020): Strengthening Perpetrator Accountability for Family Violence, p. 8 (unpublished).
157 Boxall, Morgan, Voce & Coughlan (2020): Responding to adolescent family violence: findings from an impact evaluation. Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, 601. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
158 Commission for Children and Young People (2016): Neither Seen Nor Heard: Inquiry into Issues of Family Violence in Child Deaths.
159 For more information visit: vic.gov.au/family-violence-recommendations/subject-pilot-programestablish-statutory-youth-diversion-scheme.
160 Commission for Children and Young People (2016): Neither Seen Nor Heard: Inquiry into Issues of Family Violence in Child Deaths, p. 12.