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Fellowship recipient leads way in domestic violence prevention

13 July 2016

Joplin Higgins Head And Torso

Joplin Higgins (above) is a lawyer based in Singleton in NSW’s Upper Hunter region. The majority of her work is assisting victims of domestic violence – or the “River of Cruelty”, as Joplin terms domestic violence. Recently, Joplin was awarded a Westpac Social Change Fellowship as part of the Westpac Bicentennial Foundation. She has used the Fellowship to set up a pilot program dealing with perpetrator behaviour.

“I used the funds for a trip to the US to meet with experts working in batterer intervention programs and to analyse and assess the programs and their relevance in an Australian context,” says Joplin.

The programs, she goes on to explain, aren’t about excusing a perpetrator’s behaviour. Batterer intervention programs work with perpetrators to help them understand their behaviours, why they do the things they do and to take accountability for their actions.

“I’ve dealt with many women and children who are victims and survivors of domestic violence and I know there is a real importance for victim services but there is a gap in our practice around perpetrators understanding their behaviour and taking accountability,” points out Joplin.

“I’d done some of my own research and was particularly keen to see the work of a Kansas based program called the Family Peace Initiative with a view to licencing the idea to bring it to Australia.”

The Family Peace Initiative identifies childhood trauma and the effect this has on behaviour. The program attempts to understand how trauma moulds a person and how to resolve the issues that surround it. Men (and it is predominantly men who engage in domestic violence be it physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, economic) confront the incidents of their childhood and rebuild from there.

A number of other important tools, including teaching parenting skills and establishing male/father role models for perpetrators, are used to support the attendees to make the behavioural changes that will help the victims of violence, who are mostly women and children.

Programs can run for 27, 32 and 52 weeks and, as Joplin points out, just turning up doesn’t mean success: “Perpetrators who show no self-realisation and understanding fail. About 80 percent of those who have attended the program have not reoffended in a period of five years. When the perpetrator still has contact with the family or lives in the family home - the program also ensures the safety of the women and children.”

Westpac Bicentennial Foundation is a scholarship fund with an exclusive focus on the education and advancement of Australians. The initial contribution of $100 million will fund 100 scholarships and awards every year, forever.

The Foundation has centred its scholarships around three focus areas at the heart of Australia’s future growth and prosperity: technology and innovation; strengthening Australia-Asia ties; driving positive social change.

The Social Change Fellowships are designed to give recipients time and space to develop the skills, knowledge and networks to bring their idea to life. This may involve travel study tours, work experience, research or building stronger connections that directly enhance the winner’s ability to lead their project.

Joplin, whose mother was a huge Janis Joplin fan, choosing the name for her daughter when the American singer’s album fell out of the stereo about a week before her daughter was born, says she was on her way to work about 6.30 one morning when she heard the Westpac Social Change Fellowship being discussed on the radio: “I thought I’ll just have a quick look at that [Westpac Bicentennial Foundation site] before I start work. Two hours later and I was still downloading brochures and links and writing up my application for the fellowship.”

The Inward Out Program is the final outcome of the process. The program will initially be delivered by the Upper Hunter homeless service until Joplin’s Tin Box Foundation is up and running. The program will run in three sites and will also produce evidence based research to support its continuation. Joplin is aiming to roll it out through rural communities nationally.

Having attended facilitator training in the US she has some idea about what perpetrators will experience: “It was the most intense situation I have ever been in. You get to see how the program breaks people down to look at what the core issues are behind your behaviour. It’s done in such a respectful but intense way. There were 50 people from within and without the sector at the facilitator training I attended. Each of us had to identify any childhood trauma we may have experienced and discuss how we’d dealt – or not dealt - with it.

“It was so intense I actually had a physical reaction. I got hives the second day.

“Many of the people I met had had troubled childhoods and issues with parents. I felt guilty about how wonderful my childhood had been. My father is even my business manager in my law practice,” says Joplin.

Applications for the Westpac Social Change Fellowship close 19 August 2016. For more information, visit westpac.com.au/200years

WBC Bicentennial Foundation Socialchange 710X265

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