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What really happens inside a rehab group for men who commit domestic violence

Can violent men ever change? And can their families ever forgive them?

By Clair Weaver

THEY are the ordinary Australian men who strike fear into the hearts of their partners and children. Men who use threats, abuse and violence to exert control over their families. Men who poison home life behind closed doors.

And chances are you know more than one of them, unknowingly or not. They could be anyone: teachers, truck drivers, accountants, doctors or lawyers. Or maybe you live with one. Maybe it’s you treading on eggshells to avoid outbursts of anger.

We know these men need to be stopped or the cycle of violence will keep continuing from one generation to the next (boys who witness family violence are more likely to grow up to be perpetrators; girls in the same situation are more likely to become victims).

Which is why there are programs out there to teach men how to change their behaviour. You probably haven’t heard much about them because they’re usually private and confidential – otherwise, of course, men wouldn’t want to go.

But a new documentary – seen by The Weekly Online – goes inside one of these programs in suburban Melbourne and follows a group of abusive men as they confront the fallout of their actions and attempt to repair family relationships.

Call Me Dad - which will be aired on ABC TV at 8.30pm on November 26 – puts a spotlight on three men, who take part in a challenging course run by Heavy METAL (Men’s Education Towards Anger and Life).

There’s Justin, 42, a gruff tree surgeon whose kids are scared of him and who has been kicked out of home; Nathan, 39, a truckie whose abusive behaviour led to the end of his marriage but wants to salvage his relationship with his teenage daughters, and Sasko, whose partner has insisted he attend the group if they are to stay together and raise their two small children.

At their after-hours meetings in a school building, the men first come across as mostly belligerent, angry and unwilling to accept responsibility for their behaviour. But their words are telling. “I don’t hit her with a fist like I did a man”, “I don’t think I’ll ever be respectful to her” and “a happy family, a real happy family, doesn’t exist – it’s a f–ing myth”.

Interviews from their partners and wives are similarly revealing: “He was like a bomb waiting to go off”, “His strength becomes tenfold”, “I was woken by him dragging me off the couch by my throat” and “I’m scared of you.”

Yet as the course progresses, barriers come down. The men start to realise and accept they are dragging their families around a cycle of violence. Tears roll as some come to terms with the harm they’ve caused and stop blaming others for their actions. But can they redeem themselves and change their behaviour?

Heavy METAL founder and facilitator David Nugent, who runs the course with family violence survivor Jackie Seamark, has learned to recognise the “lightbulb moments” that precede a breakthrough.

“Then we’ll have a shift where [the men] will start to own the things they do – like that they have measured the kilometres [on the speedometer] in their wife’s car to keep track of her or checked their wife’s phone. We don’t see these moments straight away; we have to keep nibbling away at them.”

For the three men featured, there are changes, including soul-searching, apologies and pledges. Justin opens up to his son and seeks help in trying to re-establish a relationship with his daughter. Nathan’s daughters report a big shift in their dad. Sasko breaks down and faces an ultimatum from his partner, who attends the women’s group.

Nevertheless, David emphasizes there’s no quick fix – and that he’s still continuing to work with the men. The full Heavy METAL program lasts 40 weeks.

These programs don’t always work, of course, because it’s hard to change a lifetime of habits and men have got to genuinely want to change. Indeed, if David and Jackie have concerns for the safety of the family of a man in their group, they will call police or child protection services.

Yet perpetrators can change, says David, who set up Heavy METAL in 2004 after successfully overcoming his own abusive behaviour against his family and now regularly gives talks about the issue to teenagers at schools.

“We get a lot of positive feedback from families,” he says. “We are constantly in touch with [the men’s] partners and we run a women’s group so we get feedback from that too. But complacency can be a problem so we keep our doors open.”

Success, of course, doesn’t always mean relationships survive. Especially when trust and respect have gone.

Women (because victims are overwhelmingly female) and children are often quite rightly the focus of domestic violence, as they deserve our help, sympathy and support. Protecting them from harm should be our number one priority.

Statistics show two women are murdered by their partners every week in Australia. At the same time, untold damage is silently wreaked on innumerable other families. The harm of emotional abuse, says David, is far too often unacknowledged.

We can’t excuse the actions of men who commit family violence. But if we are serious about creating real change, we need to be tackling it from every angle. And, as this new documentary shows, that includes attempting to change the behaviour of the perpetrators of this silent epidemic.

Call me Dad airs Thursday November 26, 8:30pm on ABC

If this story has raised issues for you, you can call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline on 131 114, Mensline Australia on 1300 78 9978.

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