Perpetrators are waiting as long as nine months to be admitted into family violence prevention programs as wait lists threaten to blow out due to COVID-19 lockdowns.
Australia's peak body for men's services, No to Violence, said the average wait time for behaviour change programs was almost three months, but some services in Victoria and NSW now have waiting lists that extend for 40 weeks.
No To Violence chief executive Jacqui Watt.Credit:Justin McManus
"It presents such a big risk when men think 'OK, I've got to do something, I want to get help' and then it's not there. What does that do for the safety of their partners?" No to Violence chief executive Jacqui Watt said.
Both No to Violence, which runs a national helpline called the Men's Referral Service, and Bethany, one of Victoria's leading men's service providers, have reported a rise in perpetrators seeking help during COVID-19.
But the lockdown meant behaviour change programs, consisting of 20 weeks of face-to-face group meetings, were suspended, adding to wait times.
"To have to wait up to 40 weeks, after making that huge step forward, really presents a risk to these men, and importantly their partners, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends and families," Ms Watt said.
Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre director Kate Fitz-Gibbon said the need was urgent.
"We desperately need to reconsider how we engage with perpetrators of family violence during this period and how to ensure they're held in view and held to account when they're not able to attend a program," Dr Fitz-Gibbon said.
"We have to make sure when men identify as perpetrators or reach out to a service line, there is a response available. That's an opportunity to assess their risk and manage that. It cannot be a closed door."
Bethany runs a behaviour change program that caters to about 200 men at a time in Geelong. It has 140 men on a 30-week waiting list, and the number of men asking for help has increased by about 25 per cent since the pandemic prompted the lockdown in late March.
Counsellors work the phones for the Men's Referral Service.Credit:No To Violence
Group sessions have started again in Geelong, but chief executive Bernadette McCarthy said they were suspended during the first lockdown and they were reluctant to take on new referrals when they couldn't see them face-to-face. Instead, they kept in regular contact with their current crop of clients over the phone, keeping almost all of them engaged.
Those on waiting lists were called back occasionally or referred to other providers or private counselling, depending on their risk.
"We're talking three months where men haven't presented, they haven't been in group. We've tried to do as much as we can with them, but it's pretty difficult to try and do this work on the phone," she said.
Tom* completed the program with Bethany in December. He said it has taught him ways to manage his behaviour without resorting to violence.
"It was good to talk to other blokes about their experiences and how they handed it, like taking time to think before you act, say if you're in a heated argument with your partner, just take a quick break, clear your head then come back and talk about it," he told The Age.
Relationships Australia, one of the state's largest program providers, has waiting lists of between one to two weeks in Melbourne and up to three months in regional areas such as Shepparton and Ballarat.
Program manager Andreana Harrison said group work was resuming despite the lockdown, hiring larger venues to allow for social distancing and they've taken on 120 new clients over the telephone throughout the pandemic.
But they were "absolutely at capacity" and the wait lists could grow over the next few months, she said.
"We're concerned we're going to get to a point in time where we won't have the same capacity to take on those new referrals because we need to focus on managing the risk of clients," Ms Harrison said.
No to Violence received Commonwealth COVID-19 funding to establish a brief intervention service, allowing more staff to run multiple telephone counselling sessions for men while they wait for a spot in a behaviour change program.
Victoria Police also established Operation Ribbon for the pandemic period, with officers tasked with monitoring and, when offences had occurred, locking up high-risk perpetrators.
A Victorian government spokesperson said more than $20 million has been provided to services to adapt during the pandemic, with programs being run online and over the phone as lockdowns continued in Melbourne.
"We're regularly monitoring demand for programs and pressure on agencies, to allocate resources accordingly, and this includes waiting lists and service demand for perpetrator programs," the spokesperson said.
Research into the effectiveness of behaviour change programs in Australia was still in its infancy, though the Royal Commission into Family Violence recommended significant boosts in funding for programs in its 2016 report.
Domestic Violence Victoria acting chief executive Alison Macdonald said the programs are valuable, but cannot be the only approach to hold perpetrators to account.
"We need a range of interventions and means for a system to work together to keep men's behaviour in view and hold them accountable," she said.
*Not his real name.
For help contact 1800RESPECT 1800 737 732 or the Men's Referral Service is on 1300 766 491.