Making Home a Safer Place: Community Interventions for Abusive Fathers

For one participant, the breakthrough came when his kids stepped back in fear after admitting they lost a pair of shoes. For another, it took a call to his own father to share his anger over a troubled childhood.

Across North America, communities are implementing interventions for fathers who have abused their children or exposed them to domestic violence. Such programs can help men explore the experiences and emotions that trigger their violence and reflect on how their behavior affects their partners and children.

For programs serving victims of domestic violence, it may seem counterintuitive to seek out programs that work with abusers. But interventions designed for violent or controlling fathers acknowledge the reality that many families stay connected—and even live together—after abuse, says Jacquelyn Boggess, co-director of the Center for Family Policy and Practice in Madison, WI.

“If you really want to help families, you need to know all the kinds of help the family may need,” she says. “Many times, this list includes help for the abusive men in their past, particularly among low-income families of color.”

Breaking the Cycle of Violence

At Advocates for Family Peace in Grand Rapids, MI, John Downing coordinates a 28-week Intervention for Men and Fathers to get them talking about their use of violence. One of the curriculum-based program’s main goals is to help participants expand their definition of masculinity—a shift that often involves examining their relationships with their own dads or father figures.

Abusive caregivers may also set inappropriate expectations for their children because they lack a basic understanding of child development, says Tim Kelly, lead clinical site director of Caring Dads, which has partner organizations throughout North America. One participant explained how his young son ruined his evening by refusing to go to sleep. Kelly helped the dad take a more child-centered view of the situation, explaining the benefits of a consistent bedtime routine and more importantly—a safe, secure environment.

“We try to deconstruct the idea that being a good father means being a controlling father,” he says. “Building an underlying relationship with your child is a necessary piece of the [fatherhood] puzzle.”

Serving Families Safely

Here are some tips for family- and youth-serving agencies considering programs for abusive dads.

Poll the community: Boggess advises anti-domestic violence advocates to contact homeless shelters, neighborhood centers and other service providers to see how fatherhood interventions can help meet local needs. Community outreach allows family violence programs to raise concerns about victim safety, she says, and builds bridges that help agencies tackle violence as a united front.

Talk to victims about what they want: Service providers should also talk to women and children to get a sense of whether they want a continued relationship with an abusive male, Boggess says, and then provide safety plans and recommendations based on their needs.

Use activities to get fathers talking about difficult subjects: Caring Dads dedicates the first few weeks of its program to hearing participants’ stories and helping them complete family diagrams to learn how their families interact. Before facilitating a conversation about masculinity, Downing jots down two lists of characteristics on a chalkboard and asks participants to make snap judgments about each.

Expand participants’ idea of how people respond to violence:  Some men do not consider themselves abusive, Downing says, because their family members do not respond with fear. Fatherhood interventions can help participants understand different reactions to abuse, such as compliance and apathy, and how those reactions may change with time.

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