This research was funded by the Legal Services Board Victoria Grants Program. It is a collaboration
between Peninsula Health (PH), Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) and City of Greater Dandenong, Youth
Services. A special thank you to Leanne Sinclair, Manager, Family Violence, VLA, and Sylvia Marov,
Team Leader, Youth Services, City of Greater Dandenong, for their advice, support and
Thank you to City of Greater Dandenong Youth Services, Anglicare Box Hill, Inner South Community
Health Service and Southern Youth Justice for assistance in recruiting participants and to Legal
Services Board who provided the funding for this project.
This research acknowledges and appreciates the openness and generosity of parents and
ADHD Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
ASBO Anti-social Behaviour Order
AVITH Adolescent Violence In The Home
AVO Apprehended Violence Order
CP Child Protection
DHS Department of Human Services
DOJ Department of Justice
FV Family Violence
FVIR Family Violence Incident Report
IO Family Violence Intervention Order
NSW New South Wales
ORS Organisational Research Services
TVAP Teen Violence Against Parents
UK United Kingdom
US United States
PART 1. Introduction and recommendations .........................................................................................7
1.1 Introduction ..............................................................................................................................7
PART 2. Literature Review.....................................................................................................................10
2.1 Contextualising AVITH in the justice system...........................................................................10
2.2 Family violence and young offenders—the UK policy framework .........................................11
2.3 Policing adolescent violence in the home in Victoria .............................................................12
2.4 The Victorian court response..................................................................................................13
2.5 The need for a diversionary response.....................................................................................14
2.6 Overseas responses to adolescent violence in the home.......................................................15
2.7 Current Australian policy and interventions...........................................................................16
PART 3. The Research ...........................................................................................................................18
3.1 Research aim...........................................................................................................................18
3.2 Research methodology ...........................................................................................................18
3.3 Limitations of the research .....................................................................................................19
PART 4. Review of the Data ..................................................................................................................20
PART 5. Interviews with Parents and Adolescents ...............................................................................22
5.1 Victim profiles .........................................................................................................................22
5.2 Adolescent offender profiles ..................................................................................................24
5.3 Family profiles.........................................................................................................................25
5.4 The violence............................................................................................................................25
5.5 The police response ................................................................................................................41
5.6 The court system.....................................................................................................................52
5.7 Making a difference ................................................................................................................55
5.8 Overall experience of the justice system................................................................................56
5.9 Suggestions for the system.....................................................................................................57
5.10 Reasons for participating in the study ..................................................................................57
PART 6. Conclusion ...............................................................................................................................59
Adolescent violence in the home (AVITH) has gained increased attention in the past decade. Service
system responses are beginning to proliferate, with four specific AVITH programs delivered across
Victoria funded by Department of Human Services (DHS) and a philanthropic fund. There is increased
acknowledgement across the criminal justice, community legal and community sectors of the need
for an improved response when police and the criminal justice system are involved because of
adolescents’ violence against family members. Although research about adolescent violence in the
home is increasing, there has been little global research that articulates the experiences of those
who experience the violence (parents, carers and other family members) and even less that
highlights the views of the adolescents who use it.
This research examined the experience and perspectives of adolescents, aged 12–18 years who used
violence against family members that resulted in criminal justice intervention. It also examined the
experience of family members, mostly parents, who were victims of this form of family violence. It is
hoped that the recommendations will progress changes to the Victorian justice system and criminal
justice/community collaboration in relation to adolescent violence in the home.
Eleven adolescents who had had police and/or court contact because of their violence in the home
and 15 parents who had experienced violence from their adolescent were interviewed.1
adolescents were aged between 14 and 15 years and seven between 16 and 18 years. Six interviews
included the adolescent and parent from the same family (i.e. 12 participants); the others were
individual, non-related parents and adolescents (i.e. 14 participants).
Adolescents used a range of abusive and violent behaviours against parents and other family
members. These included physical and psychological violence, verbal and financial abuse and
property damage. The abuse had significant impacts on the victims’ emotional wellbeing, on the
parent–adolescent relationship and on parenting. Sixteen participants reported that there were
younger children in the home who were exposed to the adolescent’s violence.
Nine parents reported that their adolescents had previously experienced family violence and five
adolescents recalled a history of family violence. Eight parents reported that the offending
adolescent faced behavioural challenges from a young age. These included developmental, mental
health, social and educational issues. Most adolescents were disengaged from school or work.
Many parents had actively tried to gain support from a broad range of agencies but felt their issues
were not understood and needs were unmet. Few parents reported being able to access the support
and assistance they wanted once their child reached adolescence—several highlighted the absence
of family-focused responses (where agencies can support both the parent and adolescent). The
voluntary nature of adolescent-focused programs meant their adolescent did not engage and
therefore did not receive a service response. Parents were left feeling vulnerable, isolated and alone.
They experienced intense feelings of guilt and shame, they felt services blamed them for not being
able to control their child and did not know where else to turn. Parents who attempted to rectify
their adolescent’s behavioural issues through involvement with services reported that these services
did not address the abusive behaviour, which continued to escalate. Some adolescents spoke
1 The term ‘parents’ also includes the one non-parent, a grandmother, who is caring for her two adolescent grandchildren.
positively of services; this was particularly reported where referral and linkage occurred concurrently
with a police response, perhaps providing the motivation for them to address their use of violence.
Parents reported a range of experiences with regard to the immediate police response, court
processes and outcomes. They felt police responses were more positive when police attendance had
resulted in a ‘firm’ response such as an application for an intervention order (IO) and removal of the
adolescent from the family home, even for a short period of time. The most positive and sustained
outcomes were where police applied for an IO and the adolescent was linked to and engaged with a
support service to address their violence.
The most significant barrier identified by parents in seeking police assistance was concern over the
possible long-term consequences if their child received a criminal conviction. Some were fearful that
police involvement would deprive them of parental autonomy and decision making. This concern,
together with lack of awareness and understanding about the legal options available, meant parents
accessed the criminal justice system as a last resort.
A majority of parents reported that police and court involvement had a negative impact on their
relationship with their adolescent, a view mirrored by the adolescent participants. However, a
reduction in abusive behaviours was seen in nearly all families where the police had applied for an
interim IO and the parents had followed through with finalisation. Of the 15 IOs taken out, only two
excluded the adolescent from residing at home (in one of these the young person was over 18 when
this occurred). Two adolescents breached the IO—resulting in one adolescent being removed from
the home while the other outcome was unclear.
Parents and adolescents had difficulty in recalling the exact details of charges and court outcomes.
Most reported not understanding court processes, the possible outcomes for the adolescent and
terms of IOs. Three parents recalled their adolescent being charged as a result of their violence in
the home and three adolescents recalled receiving charges. In all but one of these cases, police had
attended the home for the adolescent’s violent behaviour on at least one prior occasion.
A key challenge in the development of an improved response to AVITH is how to maintain family
connection, support vulnerable adolescents and ensure victim safety. All adolescents who
participated were engaged in one or more high-risk behaviours;2
their safety, vulnerability and
wellbeing needed to be prioritised while at the same time addressing their abuse and violence to
The findings highlight that there is significant room for improvement in the service system response
to AVITH. These improvements are articulated in the research recommendations. There is a need for
greater awareness and understanding about AVITH by professionals in the community and the
justice system, and the development of policy and protocol to guide a consistent response from
police and courts. Improved linkage across the community and criminal justice sectors would
enhance family safety and support adolescent change.
High-risk behaviours included drug and/or alcohol use, absconding from home and offending outside of the home.
PART 1. Introduction and recommendations
AVITH has emerged over the past decade as a significant issue. It is acknowledged across the
Western world with the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia developing and
implementing programs and theorising about its determinants and prevalence. A clearly articulated
response to AVITH is important to support mostly vulnerable adolescents, family safety including
parents, siblings and other family members, and to prevent recidivism and further criminal
Male adolescents who have experienced family violence and reside with separated mothers are the
mostly commonly represented profile in AVITH offender data. There is a risk that without
appropriate intervention, they may ‘graduate’ to use violence against intimate partners in adulthood
(Howard & Rottem, 2008; Mitchell & Finkelhor, 2001). This makes a response to AVITH imperative—
to support current family safety, support optimal and non-violent development of adolescents and
prevent future family violence offending.
Despite growing awareness of the increase in police callouts relating to AVITH, there is a paucity of
research about the adolescents who use violence in the home, and the family members who
experience it. In Victoria, Australia, there has been a significant increase in police call-outs in relation
to family violence incidents where the offender is under 18 years. In 2012–13 Victorian police were
called to 4,483 family violence incidents where an adolescent was the offender (Victoria Police,
Victoria Police’s existing family violence policy, protocol and standing orders pertain largely to
dealing with adult family violence. The age and vulnerability of adolescent offenders call for a
specific developmental and trauma-informed response which privileges adolescent developmental
needs, their safety and future outcomes as well as their use of violence.
Several Australian agencies have been funded to specifically respond to AVITH. Their focus is on
engaging with adolescents who have not yet entered the youth justice system but have had police
contact because of their use of violence in the home. The model is family inclusive and engages
parents and other family members as a vital component in any change process.
This research will provide a valuable resource to inform development of these and other responses
to AVITH. It will also be helpful in policy and protocol development relating to police and court
responses and enhanced integration of the criminal justice system and community sectors.
The research considered the following questions:
• How are breaches of IOs responded to? How are ‘repeat offenders’ responded to? How
many IO applications by police are finalised? What outcomes are achieved in terms of the use of IOs
to protect the safety of victims? How can IOs be used as a mechanism to encourage and/or mandate
adolescent offenders to address their use of violence?
• What action is taken to protect family members and stop the use of adolescent violence
where an IO application is not taken out? What outcomes are achieved for victims and offending
adolescents in relation to other criminal justice options, for example, charges, deferred sentencing?
Is there a consistent criminal justice approach to AVITH, particularly in enhancing victim safety and
engaging adolescents in behavioural change? Why/why not? How can this be improved?
• How do the police, legal system and community agencies work together to improve
outcomes for victims and offenders? How can this be enhanced?
AVITH is a unique form of family violence. Research has consistently recognised the difficulty of
specifically defining what behaviours constitute this type of family violence (Nock & Kazdin, 2002).
Differences in definitions of AVITH used across research has made comparison of data and
experience difficult, particularly in relation to what age constitutes ‘adolescence’ and which
adolescent behaviours should be considered violent (Routt & Anderson, 2011).
AVITH is known by many terms. These include ‘adolescent violence to parents’, ‘adolescent family
violence’, ‘youth violence to parents’, ‘teen violence to mothers’, ‘child-to-parent violence’,
‘adolescent family violence’, ‘parental abuse’, ‘teen abuse’ and ‘AVITH’.
This paper uses the term ‘AVITH’ to:
distinguish this form of violence from generalised ‘youth violence’
acknowledge parents, siblings, other family members and pets that can be impacted
include carers, particularly foster parents and out-of-home carers, as victims
conceptualise it as a form of family violence, similar to adult family violence.
AVITH is defined in this research as:
“… an abuse of power perpetrated by adolescents against their parents, carers and/or other
relatives including siblings. It occurs when an adolescent attempts physically or psychologically to
dominate, coerce and control others in their family”3
(Howard & Rottem, 2008, p. 10).
Behaviours used by adolescents include:
Physical violence – hitting, punching, damaging property, spitting, kicking
Psychological abuse and violence – intimidation, constant criticism, sarcasm and threats to
hurt themselves or others
Financial abuse – stealing belongings and money, incurring debts that the parents must
Social abuse – abusing family friends, socially isolating parents, controlling parental
interactions with family and friends.
This report defines adolescence as between the ages of 10 and 18 years. The research focused on
this age range in recognition that once adolescents turn 18 years old they fall under the jurisdiction
of the adult justice system.
This research refers to adolescents who use violence in the home as ‘offenders’, in
acknowledgement that their use of violence can lead to a criminal justice conviction and therefore
Based on the definition of Partners Against Domestic Violence (1997)
Parents and family members are described as ‘victims’—their experience of the violence and lack of
positive experience in relation to help seeking, means they feel like victims, rather than survivors.
An effective criminal justice response to AVITH includes systems, policy and protocol development.
Recommendations to support the development and implementation of this include:
1. AVITH must be better recognised as a form of family violence by the justice sector (police
2. A set of specific principles underpinning justice responses to AVITH should be developed and
inform future policy and protocol.
3. Responses to AVITH by the justice sector need to be clearly articulated in legislation and
policy. They must aim at reducing further offending, enhancing the safety of family members
and improving outcomes for the adolescents and broader community.
4. Once developed and implemented, a consistent response to AVITH must be adopted by
police and courts.
5. Data on numbers of Intervention Orders pertaining to AVITH and the outcomes (including
breaches and responses to breaches) should be routinely collected and analysed.
6. Diversion from the criminal justice system into community sector programs is both cost
effective and successful. Diversion and other non-statutory options for offender
rehabilitation should be available when adolescents attend court because of their violence in
7. Wherever possible actions should be taken to reduce the likelihood an adolescent will have
a criminal record as a result of their violence.
8. Consideration should be given to mandating adolescents to participate in community-based
behavioural change programs, rather than offering voluntary participation. Outcomes for
voluntary and mandated responses should be measured and compared.
9. The safety needs of adolescents and their vulnerability must be taken into account in any
interventions, as well as their use of violence.
10. A Common Risk Assessment Framework, similar to that used in adult family violence, must
be developed for use with AVITH.
11. Greater collaboration between the justice, statutory and community sectors must be
supported through improved service coordination and enhanced partnering arrangements.
12. The effectiveness of criminal justice and community interventions (and combinations of
both) should be assessed in order to inform the development of evidenced-based pathways
13. Development of pathways and approaches needs to ensure accessibility of specific needs in
communities including CALD and Indigenous populations.
14. Programs that support adolescent behavioural change and parenting must be geographically
accessible, and age, culture and gender appropriate.
15. Programs for offending adolescents must work with co-occurring issues including mental
health and substance use issues.
16. Resources for those experiencing and perpetrating AVITH should be developed for
dissemination across the community and criminal justice sectors.
17. Training on working with families where AVITH occurs should be developed and
implemented across the criminal justice sector.
PART 2. Literature Review
2.1 Contextualising AVITH in the justice system
AVITH is a distinct form of family violence (Routt & Anderson, 2004; Daly & Nancarrow, 2009;
Howard, 2011). It is experienced across all cultures and socio-economic groups and has a profound
impact on the parents and frequently siblings who experience it (Bonnick, 2006). Research has been
increasing over the past decade, although there are significant gaps in understanding key
determinants, prevalence etc. (Bobic, 2004; Condry & Miles, 2012; Holt, 2012; Routt & Anderson,
2011; Wilcox, 2012). Paterson, Luntz, Perlesz and Cotton (2002, p. 90) note “a veil of secrecy
surrounds the topic in much the same way that other forms of family violence have been hidden in
the past”. Due to its hidden nature and varying definitions, it is difficult to ascertain how many
families are impacted by this behaviour. Research across the US and Canada indicates that between
7 and 13% of parents have been the victim of physical violence from their adolescent child at some
stage (Agnew & Hugley, 1989; Cornell & Gelles, 1982; Pagelow, 1989; Paulson, Coombs, &
Landsverk, 1990; Peek, Fischer, & Kidwell, 1985), while some research out of Canada and the UK
estimates that one in 10 parents are assaulted by their children (DeKeserdy, 1993; Tew & Nixon,
Research has identified common themes in families experiencing AVITH. Male adolescents are more
likely than female adolescents to perpetrate physical violence within the home; conversely, women,
particularly separated and sole mothers, are more likely than men to become the victims (Bobic,
2004; Daly & Nancarrow, 2009; Gallagher, 2004; Hunter, Nixon & Parr, 2010). Other vulnerable
family members at high risk of victimisation by an adolescent include younger siblings, parents with
disabilities, grandparents and family pets (Cottrell, 2001). Fathers are not victimised at the same rate
as their female counterparts. Cottrell (2001, p. 8) suggests that violence perpetrated by an
adolescent upon their father is often construed by the victim as “a fight rather than abuse”. This may
be one reason why fathers are underrepresented as victims. Cottrell and Monk (2004) argue that
fathers are viewed as more powerful and intimidating within the family home and as such, are not
conceived of as ideal targets by an adolescent offender. Fathers who are controlling, abusive and
violent may instil fear into their adolescent who may target their mother as a ‘soft option’.
Research explains the use of violence by adolescents towards their parents as a series of
“interconnected dynamics” (Cottrell, 2001, p. 11). Prior experience of family violence is a key
determinant (Howard, 2011; Ulman & Straus, 2003), although not the only one. Flood (2007) posits
that witnessing or being exposed to violence as a child plays a pivotal role in the development of
violent behaviours later in life. Contributing factors include the child learning and accepting the use
of violence and aggression, the negative impact on family life and parenting capacity, and the impact
of trauma on the child’s developing personality.
Adolescents using violence in the home may also have alcohol and drug issues. While substance
abuse itself may not directly cause an adolescent to be violent, victimised parents consistently
reported it as a coexisting issue (Cottrell, 2001). Limited research has been conducted into this
correlation; however, research supports where an adolescent perpetrator was under substance
affected at the time of offending, their use of violence against a parent was more severe and they
were less likely to exhibit feelings of remorse (Mak & Kinsella, 1996; Anglicare Victoria, 2001;
Other risk factors that support adolescent violence in the home include parental separation, sole-
parenting, child abuse victimisation and mental health problems (Bobic, 2004; Gallagher, 2004;
Mockbee, 2005; Routt & Anderson, 2011). Clinical mental health diagnoses that also co-occur
include Conduct Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiance
Disorder (Stewart, Jackson, Mannix, Wilkes & Lines, 2004). These diagnoses may also contribute to
professionals minimising, denying or excusing the violent behaviours (Cottrell, 2001).
Parents who are victims of AVITH frequently report feelings of shame, denial and self-blame, which
prevent them seeking service or justice system intervention (Bobic, 2004; Cottrell, 2001; Cottrell &
Monk, 2004; Holt, 2009; Nixon, 2002; Routt & Anderson, 2011). These feelings are further
compounded by a lack of acknowledgement from community agencies of the types, severity and
frequency of violence and impact on family, leaving many parents feeling misunderstood and
blamed (Bonnick, 2006; Howard & Rottem, 2008). Cottrell and Monk (2004) highlight parents’
concerns about the potential consequences for their child if they report the behaviour.
Because adolescents are still effectively children, the criminal justice system may struggle to
conceptualise adolescents as aggressors and offenders. Policy relating to children, youth, families
and family violence, for example child protection policy, has an emphasis on children’s risk and
vulnerability, rather than on offenders or both victims/offenders. Bonnick (2006) indicates that this
emphasis on protecting children (while an important one) means parents’ experience of the violence
may be overlooked.
The competing needs of family safety, protecting children and adults and rehabilitating young
offenders mean that the criminal justice system struggles with how best to juggle these. This issue
has been largely unarticulated in the child welfare, youth justice and family violence domains,
resulting in a lack of appropriate legal recourse, policy and support for families (Condry & Miles,
2.2 Family violence and young offenders—the UK policy framework
The UK policy framework highlights diminished parental responsibility as a key determinant for
youth offending (Holt, 2009; Hunter et al., 2010). Hunter and colleagues (2010) claim that the British
Government’s legislative tools designed to tackle youth offending have been developed based on
the belief that:
A key source of youth crime and disorder is a minority of failing parents who do not know, or
who are unwilling to exercise, their parental responsibilities, and who are therefore raising a
generation of ill-behaved and anti-social children. (p. 275)
This understanding of youth offending, and hence AVITH, disregards the multiple and inter-related
variables that contribute to its occurrence. It legitimises narratives that serve to blame the parent—
particularly the mother—for the perpetration of violence against them (Hunter and colleagues
2010). Hunter and colleagues (2010, p. 276) argue the youth justice framework promotes a
discourse which creates “… no space for the mother to be constructed as a ‘victim’ of the child’s
violence; instead, she is seen as failing to exercise proper parental control and therefore portrayed
as irresponsible and blameworthy”.
Hunter and Piper (2012) argue that the current criminal justice system is not suited to tackling the
issue and struggles to find an effective response that incorporates the complex nature of AVITH:
“The current legal framework does not provide encouragement or compulsion for the release of
resources to enable the complex intervention that is required to provide protection and support for
the parent and rehabilitation for the child” (p. 217).
The legislative response in the UK includes the court being able to issue Parenting Orders,4
expecting the parent to address the use of violence. Holt (2009) examined data in the UK relating to
the effectiveness of Parenting Orders and concluded that the current justice framework to respond
to AVITH is limited, not designed to address the adolescent’s offending behaviour and further
contributes to the belief that the behaviour is a result of ‘parenting deficits’. Holt (2009) found that
there was little relationship between the conditions imposed on the parent and the severity of the
violence perpetrated by the adolescent and highlighted the need for a multiagency response to such
a complex issue.
AVITH remains largely unaddressed and under-resourced in the justice arena and service sector.
Traditional justice system approaches to family violence overlook that a victim may be a parent and
the offender may be a child using violence against this parent (Condry & Miles, 2012; Howard, 2011;
Hunter & Piper, 2012; Hunter et al., 2010; Nixon, 2012).
2.3 Policing adolescent violence in the home in Victoria
Police responses to family violence in Victoria have significantly developed over the past decade.
Police intervention can positively impact on family violence prevention and recidivism (Rollings &
Taylor, 2008). The Victorian Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence (2010) aims to
ensure that in responding to a family violence incident, police officers increase victims’ safety,
provide early intervention, support an integrated response to family violence, minimise victim
trauma and encourage the reporting of family violence.
The Code articulates how police are required to:
assess the immediate risks and threats to victims and manage each incident
assess the level of future protection required for victims
be sensitive to diverse needs and consider factors that may compound the effects of family
record all incidents of family violence to allow identification of recidivist offenders, monitoring of
trends and identification of persons at risk
make referrals to family violence services and in certain circumstances notify child protection
agencies (if children are involved).
Dominant family violence frameworks fail to articulate special considerations for parent victims of
family violence, including the need for the parent to remain caring for the adolescent offender and
the inability of the parent to remove themselves from the violence (Kennair & Mellor, 2007). Section
Parenting orders can be imposed for up to 12 months and are aimed at increasing the skills of the parents and, eliminating the “parenting
deficit” (Holt, 2009, p. 2; Condry & Miles, 2012).
2.4.2 of the Code of Practice (2010) considers that a child or adolescent may be a perpetrator of
violence and focuses on possible contributing factors for this, such as prior exposure to violence,
mental health issues, bullying or alcohol and drug abuse. This section further states that “police
need to consider these issues when responding to children or young people who are aggressors of
family violence” (Victoria Police, 2010).
Police responses to adolescent offenders can have a significant impact on the continuation of
offending behaviours (Lawrence & Hesse, 2010). Cottrell (2001) highlights how police intervention in
adolescent violence can encourage the adolescent to understand the seriousness of the violence
that they are perpetrating. It can also contribute to escalating violence if the police response is not
effective in either removing the adolescent from the home or stopping their perpetration of
violence. If no action is taken, the adolescent may interpret police inaction as having legitimised
their use of violence (Robinson, 2010).
The police response frequently relies on the attending officer’s discretion that is based on contextual
and mitigating factors relating to the offence (Wortley, 2003). The police responses include
cautioning the adolescent, enacting a criminal option (charging the adolescent with assault or
related offence), a civil option, such as an Interim IO, or referral to an appropriate service to provide
support and assistance.
If warranted, police may pursue an exclusionary Interim IO, which excludes the adolescent from
residing at home. Robinson (2010) cautions that removal of the adolescent from the home often
proves futile as they frequently return and the violence resumes. Safe and appropriate alternative
accommodation for an adolescent is difficult to locate, with limited housing options available for
young people. Their emotional wellbeing and development may be compromised if they are placed
in out-of-home care (Clarke & Gwynne, 2011).
When police attend the family home, their first priority is deciding which family members require
protection. While the safety of the victim and other family members is prioritised in the Victoria
Police Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence (2010), the wellbeing of children
must always be a key principle which underpins criminal justice involvement. The response to
offending children must include how the criminal justice system can support rehabilitation and
violence cessation and police are required to consider the possible contributing factors to an
adolescent’s perpetration of violence in the home (Victoria Police, 2010).
2.4 The Victorian court response
In Victoria, young people aged 10–17 years with criminal and civil matters appear in the Children’s
Court. Magistrates presiding in the Children’s Court are required to sentence young offenders
according to the principles of the Children, Youth and Families Act 2005. This legislation is
underpinned by the core principal of rehabilitation and requires magistrates to consider the
adolescent’s connection to their family and community when sentencing. In contrast, the Family
Violence Protection Act 2008, which has provisions for Family Violence Intervention Orders, aims to
maximise safety for children and adults who are victims of family violence and focuses on a punitive
response for offenders of family violence.
The principles underpinning family violence and youth justice legislation are further conflicted when
courts are required to respond to adolescent offenders of family violence. Downey (1997) states:
“Adolescents do not fit the typical conception of a perpetrator (who is physically and socially more
resourced) and parents do not fit the idea of the physically and socially vulnerable victim” (p. 77).
Family violence legislation holds the safety of the victim as paramount in sentencing offenders
whereas legislation pertaining to the criminal cases for children holds that a child’s wellbeing and
rehabilitative prospects and the need to preserve a children’s familial relationships are priority
considerations in sentencing young offenders (S. 362 Children, Youth and Families Act 2005).
The difficulty of balancing priorities in cases of AVITH, in addition to an absence of programs and
responses specific to AVITH, reduces the potential opportunity for the justice system to intervene
effectively in cases particularly in relation to enhancing victim safety and engaging adolescents in
behaviour change to reduce or cease their violent behaviours.
Victoria Legal Aid5
highlights that, without therapeutic intervention, adolescents are more likely to
reoffend and are potentially vulnerable to breach proceedings in the criminal jurisdiction of the
Children’s Court. If a breach results in a criminal charge or conviction, adolescents may then be
exposed to the negative impacts of a criminal record, including jeopardising vocational
opportunities. There are few discourses available in the Victorian justice system for cases of AVITH
that provide the whole-of-family approach required to effect sustainable change and ultimately
divert young people from further involvement in the criminal justice system.
2.5 The need for a diversionary response
Children’s Court diversionary programs offer an avenue for therapeutic intervention. They are not
punitive and seek to rehabilitate offenders by focusing on the causes of their offending. Diversion is
particularly appropriate for adolescents due to their greater potential for rehabilitation and the low-
level offences they tend to commit. Diverting young offenders from the justice system is a key
priority area for Victoria Police as articulated in the Child and Youth Strategy 2009–2012 and is
gaining increased attention in the Children’s Court jurisdiction with support from the legal sector to
improve diversionary programs for young people in Victoria (Law Institute of Victoria, 2012).
Although evidence highlights the significant benefit of interventions that assist young people to
avoid incarceration and to cease offending, pre-court diversion strategies for young offenders are
limited in Victoria (Law Institute of Victoria, 2012). Ropes6
and Group Conferencing7
the only legislated diversion options in Victoria. However, their capacity to provide responses to
address the adolescent violence and the safety of families is unspecified.
Group Conferencing, a restorative justice practice, aims “… to hold offenders accountable for their
behaviour, to right the wrong and to ‘repair the harm’ caused by crime” (Daly & Nancarrow, 2009, p.
7) through meetings between the offender, the victim and their support persons. Feminist
researchers have raised concern regarding the use of restorative justice practices in response to
family violence offences, particularly as a response to intimate partner violence due to the potential
Lucia Danek, Child Protection Program Manager at Victoria Legal Aid, in response to questions asked about legal representatives’
experiences of adolescent violence in the home.
Ropes program is a one-day program available in some Victoria Children’s Courts. It involves the young person being paired with an adult
(usually their police informant or other available police person) to complete some low ropes and high ropes challenges, instructed and
supervised by a trained outdoor expert. The main aim of the Ropes program is to show that you don’t have to continue criminal behaviour
and show you a different side to the police.
Group Conferencing is based on restorative justice principles and uses a problem-solving approach that aims to balance the needs of
young people who have offended, victims and the community by encouraging dialogue in a controlled and structured way.
for intimidation and to re-victimise the victim (Coker, 2002; Stubbs, 2002, 2007). Daly and
Nancarrow (2009) provide an overview of the perceived benefits of the restorative justice process in
cases of AVITH:
These [benefits] include the opportunity for victims to voice their story and be heard, to
validate their account of what happened, to receive acknowledgement that they are not to
blame for the violence, and to participate in decision-making about the case … Victims’
accounts may be validated and there can be a group-based censure of the violence. The
process is more flexible and informal; thus, it may be less threatening and more responsive
to victims’ needs. (pp. 8–9)
Recognition of these potential benefits for both the victim and the offender have led to the
experimental use of restorative justice measures as an alternative sanction for adolescent offenders
of violence in the home. Daly and Nancarrow (2009) conducted a six-month review of the
effectiveness of family violence conferences in dealing with AVITH. Six family violence conferences
were reviewed and in reflecting on the success of the use of family conferences in these cases, Daly
and Nancarrow (2009) observed that in the cases that involved the son as perpetrator and the
mother as victim the success of the conference relied largely on the mother’s interest in repairing
the relationship with her son and the son’s willingness to make behavioural change. Daly and
Nancarrow (2009) argue that the standard model of family conferencing is “poorly equipped and
resourced” to address this form of violence, further highlighting that the cases required a response
further to that of a legal one due to the complex gender, family, and intimate relations that often
present in cases of AVITH.
In consideration of these complexities, Daly and Nancarrow (2009) highlight the need for an
integrated approach to AVITH and recommend a response beyond the justice system, which includes
access to victim professional counselling and support, and offender therapeutic intervention. The
Department of Justice (2012) discussion paper, Practical Lessons Fair Consequences, highlights that
the development of strong partnerships between courts, police, government and the community
sector is essential to developing opportunities for diverting adolescents from further involvement in
the justice system and provides greater opportunity to utilise restorative approaches and address
underlying causes of offending behaviour.
2.6 Overseas responses to adolescent violence in the home
Two international programs use a youth justice diversionary option; both have positive evaluations
for increasing victim safety and engaging young offenders in behavioural change while providing a
mechanism for diverting young people from further involvement with the criminal justice system.
United States Response: Step Up Intervention
The American-based Step Up program commenced in 2001 and is utilised in several US jurisdictions
as a youth justice diversionary response to AVITH (Howard, 2011). Step Up is a 21-week program
which works concurrently with parents and adolescents, utilising cognitive behavioural therapy and
restorative responses to offending (Routt & Anderson, 2004; Robinson, 2010). Diversion into Step Up
mostly occurs from the domestic violence courts where adolescents who are brought to court for
first-time offences are referred into the program (Routt & Anderson, 2011). Adolescents are given
the choice of whether they would like to enter the program or have their matter heard before the
court, with research suggesting that the vast majority of offenders opt to attend the program
(Howard, 2011). Adolescents can, however, only enter the program if at least one of their parents
also agrees to be involved (Howard, 2011). Other referrals to Step Up for adolescents are obtained
from therapists within the community and at-risk youth programs (Routt & Anderson, 2011).
A central goal of Step Up is to “… address domestic violence committed by youth offenders and to
provide support and education for victimized parents” (Routt & Anderson, 2011, p. 4).
Step Up has been positively evaluated (Howard, 2011; Robinson, 2010). In 2005 Organizational
Research Services, an external and independent agency, conducted a review of the Step Up
Intervention model, and found that the program had produced “promising” results and that short-
term outcomes “demonstrated significant improvement in the attitudes, skills and behaviours” of
the adolescents involved (Organizational Research Services in Routt & Anderson, p. 4). These results
mirror those of Robinson (2010) who observed that Step Up produced “high engagement rates,
satisfaction and positive outcomes” (p. 10). Robinson (2010) found that adolescents whose parents
have engaged with the program were less likely to return to the domestic violence court (where they
presented because of their use of violence) or to later become homeless due to an ongoing inability
to live in the family home. The program has received praise internationally, with Howard (2011)
noting that “Step Up demonstrates the benefits of a coordinated partnership between police, courts
and community agencies that engages adolescents in a process of behavioural change” (p. 11).
United States Response: Youth Offender Diversion Alternative (YODA)
YODA is a community-based diversion program for adolescents charged with a domestic violence
offence committed against a non-intimate family member (Whitehall, Chigbu, Jordann & Lehmann,
2012). Based in Texas, US, this program is a collaborative effort between the Tarrant County Criminal
Court and the Arlington School of Social Work (University of Texas). It targets court-mandated
adolescents aged 17–25 years arrested for assault against a non-intimate family member.
Participants are involved in the program between four to six months with the aim of increasing their
non-offending behaviours through three-phases: referral, assessment and treatment using individual
and family therapy.
A 2012 evaluation of this program demonstrated that participants had increased positive mental
health, resilience and ability towards solution building and also showed less aggression, stress and
substance misuse. Of 36 participants who completed the program, none had re-offended at least six
months post completion of the program (Whitehall et al., 2012).
2.7 Current Australian policy and interventions
The Victorian Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children 2010–2020 and associated
Action Plan to Address Violence Against Women and Children 2012–2015,8
highlight the need for
early intervention programs targeting those who display early signs of violent behaviour. The
Victorian Government has recently funded several pilot programs for adolescents who use violence
in the home to prevent further escalation of violence, ensure the safety of all family members and
The Action Plan to Address Violence Against Women and Children 2012–2015 articulates a further initiative to pilot behaviour change
program for adolescents – a new scheme for adolescents who use violence in the home to increase safety and reduce the likelihood that
they will offend in adulthood
change the young person’s behaviour. The program model is informed by Step Up and interventions
are available for parents as well as the offending adolescent.
The recognition of this form of violence against women is a step forward in Australian policy.
However, there remains an absence of policy to guide the justice response (including its
coordination and integration with the community sector), limited specific services to promote family
safety and adolescent behaviour change and a tension between justice system diversion (particularly
for children and adolescents) and a more punitive criminal justice approach as encouraged in cases
of adult-perpetrated family violence. There is a significant gap in current policy and practice across
Australian jurisdictions about how the justice system can best respond to AVITH.
Compounding this issue is the lack of data available to support the need for specific policy or
interventions regarding AVITH. Victoria Police data gives some indication of prevalence rates relating
to police call-outs where offenders are aged under 18 years. There is no research that articulates the
outcomes of police intervention, both in terms of the contribution to increased family safety and
adolescent behavioural change.
Intervention by the justice system raises unique issues given the familial relationship between the
victim and the offender, the age and vulnerability of the adolescent (often effectively still a child),
the need to prioritise family safety and the potential implications for the child and familial
relationships with involvement in the justice system.
PART 3. The Research
3.1 Research aim
This research is a component of a project, Adolescent Violence in the Home: The Missing Link in
Family Violence Prevention and Response, which aimed to improve community awareness about
AVITH and integration and coordination across the community and justice sectors. The project was
funded by the Legal Services Board, Victoria. The research sought to investigate how the justice
system responds to AVITH, and whether justice system intervention impacts on safety of families
experiencing AVITH and on the behaviour of the young offender. It explored the types and outcomes
of police intervention when parents called the police, whether the police response was perceived as
helpful and whether police and court intervention increased adolescent motivation to change.
3.2 Research methodology
This research was undertaken by Peninsula Health Community Health in partnership with Victoria
Legal Aid and City of Greater Dandenong’s Youth Service program. Ethics approval was gained
through Peninsula Health’s Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC). The research team consisted
of Jo Howard, Principal Researcher, and Lisa Abbott, Associate Researcher.
The application paid particular attention to the confidentiality of the adolescents interviewed and
their support needs, in recognition that adolescents who are violent in the home may also face a
range of risk and vulnerability issues. The application also acknowledged family safety as a priority
and was careful to ascertain any family safety risks, for example if adult family violence was present,
before proceeding with the interviews. A range of documents including recruitment flyers,
information flyers and confidentiality and consent forms underpinned the research. Adult family
members who had experienced the violence were provided with information about AVITH and
A qualitative method was utilised through a case study method. In-depth interviews were conducted
with 26 participants (15 victims and 11 adolescent perpetrators of AVITH) from metropolitan
Melbourne and rural Victoria. Participants were invited to participate in the research through an
advertisement that was disseminated across support services and legal bodies across Victoria.
The selection criteria for participants included being a carer/parent victim or adolescent offender
(under 18 years at the time of police intervention) who had experienced a justice response in
relation to AVITH.
Informed consent: Prior to conducting the interviews, the researcher went through the informed
consent form in person with the participants to ensure they had a clear understanding of the
research, data storage, confidentiality and the researcher’s duty of care obligations. Written consent
was obtained from all participants. A copy of this form was provided to each participant.
Confidentiality: Participants were assigned a code and their interview transcripts were de-identified.
They were also assigned a pseudonym, used in this research report. Interview questions were
formulated in order to allow participants to tell their story. Participants could provide meaningful
information particular to their experience while being guided to ensure specific information around
their experience of the justice system was obtained. All potentially identifying information was kept
in a locked filing cabinet or on a secure computer that only the principal and associate researcher
had access to.
Duty of care: The researcher advised participants prior to the commencement of each interview that
any disclosures regarding a risk to a child or young person, or an immediate risk of safety, would lead
to her discussing these concerns with the principal researcher. The sensitive nature of the subject
matter, for example the possibility of the interview questions causing distress and the potential for
disclosure of upsetting experiences, was accounted for. Interviews with participants were arranged
in a private location to ensure their privacy and comfort. Participants who required additional
supports were provided with the appropriate service contact numbers for their needs. The safety of
the parents/carers was carefully considered by ensuring their confidentiality and arranging
appropriate times to contact them and conduct the interview. All participants were provided with
the assistant researcher’s contact details in the event they required support post interview.
All research was conducted in line with the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human
Research (2007). The assistant researcher who conducted the interviews was a qualified human
services practitioner highly experienced in working with vulnerable young people and their families.
The principle researcher had significant experience in working with AVITH, vulnerable families and
undertaking qualitative research.
3.3 Limitations of the research
AVITH affects families of all cultural and socio-economic groups; however, shame, stigma and guilt
are often barriers to access service and justice system support. The participants in this study were
recruited through their involvement with services; their experience may differ from those who had
not engaged with a service.
Adolescents who participated had also engaged at some stage with a service. Adolescents who had
not engaged with a service around their use of violence may have had a different experience with
police and services.
PART 4. Review of the Data
This Victoria Police family violence incident call-out data analysis focused on offenders under the age
of 18 years and provides a means to ascertain trends in police call-outs across Victoria. It is likely
that this data mirrors trends in other Australian states and territories.9
Table 4.1. Statewide Data for Family Violence Incident Reports Where the Offender is Aged Under 18
2006–07 09–10 10–11 11–12 12–13
Female 707 932 1072 1400 1484
Male 1446 1895 2171 2612 2989
Unspecified 1 4 9 5 10
Total 2154 2831 3252 4017 4483
Total FVIRs 29648 35720 40892 50382 60829
The number of family violence incident reports (FVIRs) where the offender is aged under 18 has
remained between 7 and 8% of the total number of these reports over a seven-year period. The
actual number of call-outs has increased by 108% over this period.
Victorian data mirrors international data, which consistently reveals that approximately two thirds of
offenders are male and one third female.
Figure 4.1. Total FVIRs by Gender 2006–2013
In 2012–13, the highest number of call-outs were for adolescent offenders aged 15–17 (67% of all
FVIRs where the offender was aged under 18 years). This age group has remained the highest over
9 Note – This data does not differentiate adolescent violence against parents; consequently it also refers to violence against siblings or
intimate partner violence and also includes recidivist offenders
Total FVIRs by gender 2006–2013
the seven-year period. However, FVIRs for children aged under 10 have seen a significant increase
from 13 call-outs in 2006–07 to 50 in 2012–13.
Figure 4.2. Age FVIRs 2006–2007 & 2012–2013 Where Offender is Aged Under 18
<10 10 to
<10 10 to
<10 10 to
<10 10 to
<10 10 to
2006-2007 2009-2010 2010-2011 2011-2012 2012-2013
PART 5. Interviews with Parents and Adolescents
5.1 Victim profiles
Fifteen parents were interviewed; 13 were mothers, one was a father and one a grandmother who is
the full-time carer of two female adolescents who use violence in the home.
Figure 5.1. Age of Victim Participants
Figure 5.2. Age of Adolescent Using Violence in the Home
*One Indigenous mother reported that her adolescent son commenced the use of violence at age 15; however, he was over
18 when she first sought assistance from the police for his violence in the home.
Age of victim participants
Age of adolescent using violence in the
Figure 5.3. Gender of Victim’s Adolescent Children Using Violence in the Home
Figure 5.4. Employment Status of Victim Participants
Gender of victim's adolescent children
Employment status of victim participants
5.2 Adolescent offender profiles
Figure 5.5. Age of Adolescent Offender Participants
Figure 5.6. Gender of Adolescent Offender Participants
Age of adolescent offender participants
Gender of adolescent participants
5.3 Family profiles
Marital status of adults in
the home Siblings living in the family home
Maxine (P) Married – biological parents Younger sibling
Ruby & Lara (P & A) Sole mother Older and younger siblings
Leanne (P) Married – re-partnered Younger siblings
Carol (P) Sole mother Older and younger siblings
Barb & Briony (P & A) Married – biological Older and younger siblings
Mandy (P) Married – re-partnered Younger siblings
Josie* (P) Sole mother Younger siblings
Tammy & Jacob (P &
A) Married – re-partnered Younger siblings
Sharon (P) Single Younger siblings
Catherine (P) Sole mother None
Sally & Justin (P & A) Married – re-partnered Younger siblings
Jenny & Tim (P & A) Sole mother None
Jim (P) Married – re-partnered Older siblings
Mary & Steven (P & A) Sole mother Younger sibling
Danielle (P) Married re-partnered Younger sibling
Tara (A) Sole mother Younger sibling
Josh (A) Sole mother Younger siblings
Nick (A) Married – re-partnered Younger siblings
Luke (A) Married – re-partnered Older sibling
Ronnie (A) Sole mother Younger sibling
Key: P = Parent, A = Adolescent, P & A = Parent and Adolescent
5.4 The violence
Parents reported experiencing a range of violent and abusive behaviours from their child including
verbal abuse, threats, property damage, financial abuse and physical violence. Most victims reported
a gradual escalation of behaviours from verbal abuse and threats from an early age, with 33% (n=5)
of parents reporting an onset of abusive and challenging behaviour prior to the age of 10; 47% (n=7)
commencing between ages 10 and 13 and the remaining 20% (n=3) ages 14–15. Two of the three
parents in the latter group identified that their adolescent experienced an event that appeared to
trigger their violence, including separating from a violent ex-husband and onset of adolescent drug
Four parents identified that separation from their abusive partner escalated their child’s abusive
behaviours; three of these parents experienced abusive behaviours from their children prior to the
5.4.1 Type of abuse
All 15 victims experienced verbal abuse from their adolescents and 87% (n=13) reported that their
adolescent had caused damage to the home. Physical abuse was disclosed in 73% (n=11) of cases.
Other behaviours included absconding for long periods of time, refusing to attend school, ignoring
others in the home for long periods of time and stealing from family or the home.
a) Physical abuse
Eleven parents experienced physical abuse from their adolescent; 37% were female offenders and
63% were male. Physical abuse varied from pushing and shoving through to extreme physical
violence including parents being kicked, punched, threatened with weapons and dragged along the
floor by their hair.
I did not defend myself at all, apart from like trying to cushion blows … she scratched and she
bit, she punched me and … I fell down on the floor. I had my hair tied up and she grabbed it …
and dragged me along the floor. (Carol)
Physical violence against the parents appeared to peak when the adolescent was between 14 and 16
years. This was when the most serious violence occurred.
Mothers were the victims in nine instances of physical violence; in two the victim was a stepfather,
and in one it was the grandmother. Of those mothers who were victims of physical violence, five
were sole mothers and the remaining four had partners residing in the home.
Two different cohorts of adolescents who perpetrated physical violence were evident in the
research – the first had been displaying abusive behaviours in the home from childhood and the
second commenced use of violence in adolescence. Of the 11 parents who reported experiencing
physical abuse from their adolescents, five indicated that the abusive behaviour commenced earlier
than age 10 and highlighted a gradual escalation in their child’s behaviour to physical violence.
Sharon recalled the progression of physical violence as her daughter matured:
Throughout primary school she was only five foot two … I’m small, very small build … I was
able to … stop her doing damage to me or to the other kids or to the house. As she got older I
couldn’t do that anymore. She was beating the crap out of me.
Mandy spoke of experiencing years of verbal abuse and property damage from her son. His abusive
behaviour continued to escalate into his adolescence and at 14 years of age he became violent: “He
actually pushed me and he had me on the ground with his knee in my throat”. In another incident
… was in my face, he had kicked kitchen chairs in, he had thrown stools around, he had
threatened to kill me … he was yelling abuse at me, he was just angry so I was on the phone
to the police saying can you please come straightaway … I thought I was going to die there
In other families the escalation to physical violence was more rapid.
Catherine, who described her son in childhood as “obedient”, reflected on him turning 13 and
starting to challenge her authority. “I took them away [computer games] … he didn’t accept this and
physically tried to get the things back … he was getting stronger so he physically tried to get the
Tammy spoke about an incident where her 14-year-old son pulled a knife on her partner following a
verbal altercation. Her son had previously damaged property and verbally abused her and she recalls
one prior incident where her son had become violent towards her partner.
Fourteen-year-old Briony attacked her mother, Barb, with a weapon and threatened to kill her. This
followed years of verbal abuse and intimidation from Briony towards Barb.
Five adolescent offenders disclosed use of physical violence against either a parent or step-parent.
Of these offenders, two were female and three were male. Two victims were stepfathers and the
other three were the adolescents’ mothers.
Jacob held a knife to his stepfather:
He told me to do something I didn’t want to do … I got pissed off … he started arguing and I
know this is stupid but I got a knife and started going towards him with it … I was like no, no
and I chucked the knife away.
Briony had never been physically abusive towards her mother until an incident where she “got a
shovel and I was threatening to hit her [mum] with it”.
Justin acknowledged that his abusive behaviour began with abusive language but he ended up
physically assaulting his stepfather: “I would end up getting into physical violence. I broke his knee
and fractured all his leg and his hip”.
b) Verbal abuse
All victims reported experiencing verbal abuse from their adolescent, with many disclosing ongoing
verbal abuse prior to their adolescent’s behaviours escalating into property damage and physical
violence. Verbal abuse often escalates to more serious abuse if ignored (Gallagher, 2004).
Barb recalled of her 15-year-old daughter: “She’d sort of get up in your face and … literally an inch
away from your face and shout ...”. Most parents did not report feeling threatened by the verbal
abuse but felt significantly emotionally impacted:
The abuse that came out of her mouth towards me, how much she hates me and how much
her dad was so much better … you’re a terrible mum … I was in tears. (Leanne)
She started getting very abusive by text … very threatening, very hateful, just ugly, very, very
No victims contacted the police solely for verbal abuse.
Five adolescents mentioned ‘swearing’ or ‘arguing’ with their parents.
c) Property damage
Property damage was common across all families. Eighty-seven per cent (n=13) of victims reported
that their adolescent had damaged property in the home. Four parents recalled that their children
started damaging property prior to the age of 10, the remaining nine reported onset of these
behaviours in early to mid adolescence.
The property damage was frequently understood by parents as a deliberate response to the parent’s
attempts to enforce rules and boundaries. Damage to walls and doors was the most common type of
damage reported by parents:
Leanne stated that “Basically from about Grade 4 … I’d say no to something and she would smash up
Carol reported that her four-year-old daughter smashed her fist through a window. Mandy recalled
an incident when her eight-year-old son spent hours in his room “kicking and kicking and kicking and
Sally reported that her 14-year-old son would “throw something like a bowl across the room … or
something into the wall or he’d punch a hole in the wall”.
Tammy said “Every wall had a hole, the window was smashed, his TV was smashed, the desk was
smashed … it was just a write-off”.
Carol spoke of her 14-year-old daughter damaging doors: “I heard amazing slamming and smashing
throughout the house … I went upstairs … she’d smashed holes into doors with her high-heeled
Ruby recalled an incident where her 14-year-old granddaughter, Lara, smashed her sister’s door with
a hammer. Mary identified one of the earliest occasions her son, Steven, was abusive at home. He
smashed every front window of their house.
Property damage was commonly disclosed by adolescent offenders, with eight recalling incidents
where they damaged property. Those adolescents recalled their use of violence:
I got mad and started punching holes in the wall. (Jacob)
They [the police] came back several times over me mostly trashing the house. (Josh)
I punched windows and stuff like that. (Nick)
I think I was swearing and I punched holes in the walls. (Justin)
I put a couple of holes in the walls. (Luke)
Just punching walls. (Ronnie)
d) Challenging behaviours
Many parents spoke of behaviours their adolescents used to control the family and as a response to
boundaries attempting to be enforced. Maxine reported: “Lily just ignored us, no interaction, no
communication, it was as if she was invisible and we were invisible”. On one occasion Lily stole her
mother’s bank card and withdrew a substantial amount of money from the account.
Leanne also reported the threat of her 15-year-old daughter, Bianca, stealing their belongings:
[She was] constantly abusive and used verbal violence and threatening to steal all of the time
… we ended up getting a safe and locking all the jewellery away and putting a lock on my
door ... so she couldn’t go in there and take stuff.
Bianca also regularly absconded from home from a young age and engaged in smoking or using
aerosol deodorant in the home knowing her stepfather was severely asthmatic.
Five out of the six parents of female offenders disclosed that their adolescent absconded from
home, particularly in response to their attempts to put boundaries and consequences in place.
5.4.2. Precipitators to violence
Bancroft and Silverman (2002) highlight that a common feature in both children and adolescents
who use violence in the home is their belief that they have special privileges and rights that their
mother should respect. Being told ‘no’ can trigger the use of violence in these adolescents in an
attempt to get their demands met and in response to a mother challenging their sense of
entitlement (Gallagher, 2004; Routt & Anderson, 2011).
Seven parents specifically noted their adolescent’s abusive behaviour escalating in an attempt to get
their own way.
Barb recalled what triggered her daughter threatening her with a shovel:
She wanted to stay the night at someone’s house and I had said no because she had not
come home the previous night … she started to argue the point … and became quite
unreasonable in a small space of time.
Barb’s daughter Briony also participated in the research and highlighted that she would get abusive
towards her mother “when I wouldn’t get my own way”.
Sally spoke about her son:
If he wants something, when he wants it, he wants to have it and if he doesn’t get it, he’ll get
shitty … he wanted an iPhone and obviously not being 18 I was happy to help him out with a
phone but we weren’t going on an iPhone plan. He wanted it and wanted it and wanted it …
he pretty much snapped and sort of went off, it’s all your fault … he became out of control …
there was swearing, there was anger, there was slamming doors, there was hitting walls.
Catherine’s son, Louis, did not show any aggression or abusive behaviours until age 13. She
identified that her son’s desire to get what he wanted frequently escalated to physical violence.
Catherine recalled Louis’ computer games were a main source of conflict:
The worst part came after he was absent from school for nearly 30 days ... that was because
he wanted to play computer games … I took them away and he didn’t accept that and
physically tried to get things back … he was getting stronger so he physically tried to get the
Jim recalled his son, Scott’s, behaviours becoming oppositional around 11 years of age: “He just
wouldn’t listen to you, just go out all the time and wouldn’t tell you where he was going”. Scott’s
behaviours escalated into property damage at age 13 in a response to his father’s attempts to tell
him he could not do something.
Danielle recalled years of challenging behaviour from her son, Bryce, over attempts to put
boundaries in place. Bryce became more defiant as he got older, escalating from verbal abuse
through to an incident where he physically assaulted his stepfather after his stepfather supported
Danielle in saying no to driving Scott to a friend’s house.
Carol’s daughter, Brooke, caused damage to the walls and doors of their home. When Carol called
the police Brooke stated: “I’m sorry, but this was all your fault”.
Sixty per cent (n=9) of parents spoke of their child’s difficulty in school and the conflict that this
caused. Five of these parents indicated that commencement at secondary school was a pivotal
turning point for the escalation or onset of abusive behaviours. “I would say … there may have been
some anxiety issues … probably associated with some bad experiences with the transition to
secondary school.” (Jenny)
Jenny identified that her 16-year-old son, Tim, started becoming abusive at the same time he
disengaged from mainstream school. Her attempts to get her son to school escalated the violence.
Other parents reported conflict round their attempts to get their child to attend school—this often
escalated into abusive behaviour.
Drug and alcohol use
In a report into illicit drug use and interpersonal violence, the World Health Organization (WHO)
highlighted strong links between the two, with the effects of some substances increasing aggression
and violence (Atkinson et al., 2009). Research also demonstrates a strong association between
substance use and family violence (Mouzos & Makkai, 2004). While substance use is not necessarily
a ‘cause’ of family violence, it is frequently associated with incidents of violence (Howard & Taylor,
2012), with alcohol use increasing the frequency and severity of the violence (Testa, Quigley &
Forty per cent (n=6) of parents spoke about their adolescent’s use of drugs or alcohol though none
believed it was the sole cause of their young person’s violence. Ruby reported feeling less safe when
her 15-year-old granddaughter had been consuming alcohol and another felt her son’s drug use
significantly escalated his already abusive behaviour. Abusive and challenging behaviours were
present prior to the commencement of alcohol and drug use in all adolescents.
In addition to Jenny identifying school refusal as a trigger for Tim’s abusive behaviour she recognised
that his abuse escalated over a six to eight-month period when she suspected he was using
Forty-five per cent (n=5) of adolescent offenders disclosed the use of substances and believed it was
a trigger for their abusive behaviour in the home.
I used to drink a lot, would come home and abuse Mum but nothing really ever scared her
and then I was coming down off ice, after I’d been using for a while and then drank [alcohol]
and ended up hitting mum and threatening to kill her.
Seventeen-year-old Josh stated: “My main aggression was when I was smoking weed”. Josh’s
aggressive behaviour was present prior to his commencement of cannabis use and continued post
withdrawal from cannabis.
Nick attributed his abuse and violence to when he starting using drugs, citing ice and ecstasy as the
main substances. “I was real bad on the drugs, like really, really bad.”
5.4.3 Early childhood development
Eight parents (53%) reported difficulties with their child’s behaviour from a young age, both in the
family home and at school.
Six parents reported their child had issues within the mainstream schooling system from primary
school age, with incidents at school involving aggression or difficulties with their peers. Mary
reported: “more and more it escalated as his school weren’t coping with him and they actually
ostracised him from the community … they sent him to another school … for kids with behavioural
problems”. Mary’s son, Steven, was diagnosed with Asperger’s in his adolescence. Another mother,
Danielle, reported her son was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome and ADHD in Grade 6 following
years of challenging behaviours.
Leanne spoke about the issues that her daughter had making friends and her defiance from
kindergarten age: “You know all the kids would be playing and she’d be off on her own in a corner …
she’d be off separate … otherwise she’d be … trying to force the other kids to do what she wanted”.
Leanne also noted the severity of her daughter’s tantrums as a toddler: “As soon as Bianca was old
enough to express herself she would throw tantrums”.
Other mothers spoke of incidents of aggression from their children in primary school.
I’ve been having problems with violence with her since about grade three … well even as far
back as prep. She smashed her teacher’s glasses, punching other students, constantly being
suspended from school. It wasn’t until she was 13 that she was diagnosed with borderline
Mandy spoke of an occasion when her son was in Grade 4: “He was eight at the time … his first day
of school … he trashed the principal’s office … I got a phone call to say ‘This child is out of control’”.
Carol recalled her daughter’s tantrums as a child to be so severe that she had to isolate herself and
her other child for protection. Carol believed something was wrong with her daughter; however, her
husband refused to allow service intervention.
5.4.4. Attempts at early intervention
Six parents sought intervention from services during their adolescent’s early childhood. However, all
reported that their child’s challenging behaviour continued and many articulated a picture of
multiple service involvement with no long-term engagement between their child and one specific
Sally spoke of her numerous unsuccessful attempts to get her son, Justin, assistance with his anger.
She reported experiencing significant conflict with counsellors and psychologists in relation to
We ended up at X and they said there was nothing wrong … we ended up at Y and they said
well there seems to be lots of things wrong … there was a lot of messing around and a lot of
he’s OK, he’s not OK, he’s OK, he’s not OK. I don’t know, that makes me sad just because we
never got an answer in the end.
Sally reflected that it was at the commencement of secondary school that Justin started “letting his
anger out at home” and graduated to property damage and physical violence.
Sally reported seeing a psychologist who told her there was nothing wrong with her son:
We ended up in counselling and they said well there seems to be lots of things wrong … he
had some tests done which said he’s not ADHD but he’s borderline so they tried him on
medication … the medication made him depressed so he cried a lot … we took him off that.
Leanne recalled numerous challenges with her daughter, Bianca, as a child including constant battles
getting her to attend school from early primary school, bullying her peers and other siblings and
extremely defiant behaviours towards her parents such as jumping out of the car and refusing to get
back in. After years of dealing with these behaviours Leanne sought help from mental health
services. They attributed Bianca’s behaviours to the stress of her parent’s separation and Leanne
was advised to spend more time with Bianca. Bianca escalated to physical violence in adolescence.
5.4.5 Exposure to violence/trauma
Adolescents who have previously been exposed to family violence are at increased risk of abusing
and using violence towards their parents (Agney & Huguley, 1989; Ulman & Strauss, 2003; Bobic,
2004; Howard, 2012). Reasons for this include the child learning that violent and abusive behaviours
are acceptable (Howard, 1995); the trauma of witnessing or experiencing violence as a child may be
a risk factor for that child to perpetrate violence later in life (Van de Kolk, 2005); and the potential
long-term impacts on the child’s brain from their exposure to trauma subsequently impacting their
cognitive and emotional regulation (Perry, 2000). The experience of family violence also undermines
a woman’s ability to effectively parent and the mother–child attachment and relationship (Howard,
Five adolescent participants disclosed ‘witnessing’ family violence; nine parents reported that their
adolescent had been exposed to family violence (five of the parents had adolescents who also
participated in the research); three parents and five adolescents did not disclose and three parents
and one adolescent reported that there had been no exposure to family violence.
He [her 15-year-old son] has seen a lot of aggression … my ex-husband was very abusive. I
was with him for 19 years but due to the stress of dealing with that and having to raise the
kids, I didn’t want to bring them up in a household full of violence so that’s why we separated
... he [her son] would have been about seven or eight.
Tammy stated: “15 years I was with him [her violent ex-partner] ... the one that I’m having trouble
with is the one who would have witnessed the most”.
Jacob, Tammy’s son, reported that he experienced violence “all the time … when I was living with my
dad. He used to hit my mum and stuff ... and then hit me”. When Jacob was asked if he was violent in
the home when his dad still lived there he replied, “No, because my dad would beat me up”. It was
following his mother re-partnering a non-violent man that he started using violence in the home.
Seventeen-year-old Josh spoke of witnessing a lot of violence between his stepfather and mother
and recalled that his violence in the home commenced after his stepfather moved out.
These responses support the contention that adolescents role model their violent and abusive
behaviours on those of the violent adult male and that once the violent adult male leaves the family
home, the adolescent is no longer constrained in his use of violence and begins to perpetuate these
controlling and abusive behaviours (Flood, 2007).
5.4.6 Parents’ theories about their adolescent’s violent behaviour
While adolescent violence towards parents can occur for a multitude of reasons, research has
posited multiple explanations for this behaviour including over-entitlement (Anglicare, 2001); a
means for adolescents to exert control over their parents (Downey, 1997); family dynamics and
parenting styles (Cottrell, 2001) and exposure to trauma (Bobic, 2004). Cottrell (2003) highlighted
some disorders linked with adolescent violence towards parents including ADHD, bipolar disorder
and schizophrenia. Drug and alcohol abuse has been identified as contributing to violent behaviour
(Cottrell & Monk, 2004). Cottrell and Monk (2004) also identify other possible contributing factors
for an adolescent’s use of violence in the home including media/social modelling that promotes the
use of violence, and a poor emotional attachment between child and parent.
Parents expressed a range of views about why their adolescent was violent in the home. One
mother, Carol, believed her daughter had a genetic predisposition towards violence. “We try and
find explanations … I’m speculating that Brooke has a genetic predisposition towards violence, same
as my husband.”
Several parents understood the use of violence as a progression from childhood anger. Eight parents
identified that their children had difficulties in ‘managing their anger’ in childhood. Six parents
highlighted that the anger became progressively worse over time and into adolescence. Tammy and
Sally identified events that appeared to trigger their violence. For Tammy it was her partner moving
into the family home and for Sally it was the commencement of secondary school and her son’s
involvement with a ‘dodgy crowd’.
Six parents highlighted concerns about their child’s mental health. Although they did not attribute
their adolescent’s abusive behaviour solely to their mental health issues, they often excused abusive
behaviours as being a ‘symptom’ of the mental health issue.
Sharon’s daughter was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder at the age of 13 years. Sharon
questioned whether this was correct: “I do agree with it but, on the other hand, she exhibits a lot of
symptoms of Asperger’s as well and there’s heaps of autism in the family”. Both Mary’s and
Danielle’s sons were also diagnosed with Asperger’s towards the end of primary school.
Mary reported: “His issues were because of Asperger’s”. She felt that the school’s inability to cope
with her son’s behaviours and his subsequent refusal to attend school caused significant conflict at
home. Mary experienced abusive behaviours from her son for several years prior to contacting the
police. She felt that the police did not understand how to respond to a child with Asperger’s and this
impacted on the effectiveness of police involvement for her son’s violence in the home.
Danielle’s son, Louis, was diagnosed with Asperger’s and ADHD. She found that his behaviours
resulted in many conflictual situations, which would escalate rapidly and for no apparent reason. As
with Mary, Danielle did not seek police involvement for Louis’ abusive behaviours until he posed a
significant threat to the safety of her and her family.
5.4.7 Adolescents’ explanations of their violent behaviour
Fourteen-year-old Jacob indicated that his violence in the home began when his stepfather started
living with him and his mother. Jacob explained his violence towards his stepfather: “He was the
man ... he tries and thinks he’s my dad and tells me everything”.
This was also reflected by Justin, whose violence was mainly perpetrated against his stepfather, with
whom he “clashed a lot”. Justin would become involved in verbal arguments with his stepfather over
cleaning his room. These arguments escalated into physical violence.
Five adolescents identified their substance use as a precipitating factor in their violence in the home.
Two female participants, Tara and Briony, identified a poor relationship with their mother as an
underlying reason for their violence. Briony explained: “We would have verbal arguments a lot and
then we would just fight all the time”. She would become aggressive towards her mother when she
wouldn’t get her own way or was in an “angry mood”.
Sixteen-year-old Luke experienced difficulties managing his anger from early adolescence and this
graduated into violence when there was conflict with his mother or older sister.
Steven believed his mother’s inability to give him space to calm down contributed to the escalation
of his abusive behaviour at home. Explaining his smashing of the house windows as a response to
being angry at his mother, Steven also believes his mother not getting angry over little things would
assist him to manage his anger at home. Steven stated: “I don’t get angry unless other people get
5.4.8. Impact on siblings
There is a paucity of research into the impact of AVITH on siblings, who may experience or witness
the abuse. Adolescents who abuse their parents often abuse their siblings as well (Heide as cited in
Eckstein, 2004; Howard & Rottem, 2008). The consequences for siblings can be significant and
include physical, psychological and emotional impacts (Howard & Rottem, 2008).
This research did not focus on sibling abuse but some parents recalled occasions where younger
siblings were the direct victims of the abuse. Sharon’s daughter, Kylie, attempted to poison her
younger brother when she was in Year 7. Her younger brother was in Grade 5. Sharon reported that
she sent Kylie to live with her father following the incident.
Carol felt she could not leave her daughter, Brooke, alone with Brooke’s younger sister from an early
age: “I could never leave her alone with Lucy because she was scratching, biting, hitting, she pulled …
bunches of hair”. The impact of Brooke’s behaviour on Lucy was profound. From the time Brooke
was four years old, Carol recalled having to lock herself in the room with her while she was having a
tantrum in order to keep Lucy safe. Carol noted: “Lucy stood outside of the door and was in tears and
distraught”. Lucy moved out of home in adolescence and Carol attributes this to Brooke’s behaviour.
When Mandy’s son, Tyson, was about eight years of age and her daughter, Jade, was five: “He nearly
broke her arm … he grabbed her and he threw her and he pushed her arm back and nearly broke it”.
Mandy recalled a recent incident when Tyson was 15 years of age and briefly returned to live in the
family home: “He started throwing my furniture around. I had my seven-year-old there, I had my
daughter there. He threw a glass bowl at my seven-year-old … my main concern was my kids”.
Mandy noted that Tyson was always “very aggressive to his siblings”.
Mandy acknowledged the devastating impact that Tyson’s behaviour has had on Jade, who was self-
harming in early adolescence. She acknowledged that there were multiple stressors for Jade but
believed that Jade began self-harming in order to get her mother’s attention, given so much was
focused on Tyson.
Maxine recalled being on a family holiday with her husband, Bob, and younger child, Ivy. Her
adolescent daughter, Lily, refused to go away with them. Bob had to return from the holiday after
the first night away after receiving telephone calls from the neighbours advising them that Lily was
having a party. Maxine reported: “I didn’t come back, I stayed down there with my youngest child
because she was just devastated. I thought I can’t come home and bring her back into this
environment”. Maxine also spoke about the impact of Lily’s behaviour on her younger sister: “She’s
been bullied horribly by her older sister over the years … I was very concerned for Ivy’s safety and for
her emotional wellbeing”.
Leanne recalled the impact of Bianca’s behaviour on the other children. When Bianca was in Grade 5
“She wouldn’t come anywhere with us … we’d go out on a bike ride or a picnic … nah boring not
going, can’t force me”. On occasions when Bianca did join them she would bully her siblings and
make the experience extremely negative for them.
Eighteen-year-old Justin acknowledged the potential impact of his abusive behaviour on his younger
siblings. “I tried to keep it away as much as I could from them, but I was pretty angry … I never yelled
at them but they were sometimes there.”
One 17-year-old male, Josh, acknowledged that he had hit his younger siblings.
5.4.9. Issues with education
Parents felt schools did not provide adequate support for their adolescent but recognised their
child’s disengagement from school made it extremely difficult to utilise any support being offered.
Jenny stated: “The school did offer a little bit of support through a school psychologist, but he was
based at several schools and … he was not really tied into the school enough”.
Nine parents reported that their adolescents had disengaged from school prior to the age of 16, with
many having issues with the transition from primary to secondary school. The remaining parents
reported that two adolescents were attending an alternative education program, two were at
mainstream school and two parents did not provide information on their adolescent’s educational
Mary identified that her conflict with her son began in childhood over him refusing to attend school.
This continued throughout his primary schooling until he disengaged completely. He is now
attending an alternative education program two days a week.
Figure 5.7 Parents’ Reports of the Adolescents’ Educational Status
Adolescent offenders were also asked about their current educational status. Six reported attending
an alternative education setting, two were at TAFE and one in mainstream education. Two were over
16 years and unemployed.
Parents reports of the adolescent's educational
Disengaged prior to 16
Figure 5.8 The Adolescents’ Current Educational Status
5.4.10 Seeking support
“When you are out there trying to get help for a kid that’s going off the rails there’s apparently a lot
of services out there, but trying to access them is a completely different thing.” (Barb)
Parents are often reluctant to seek support through the service system for their adolescent’s
violence in the home due to feelings of shame, stigma and guilt and because they did not know
where to seek the support in the first instance (Bobic, 2004; Howard & Rottem, 2008). Stewart et al.
(2005) highlight that when parents do seek assistance from services, these attempts are most likely
met with service providers with limited knowledge of AVITH and subsequently parents are not
provided with appropriate interventions.
All parents recalled seeking service support for their child’s behaviours. Some parents sought
assistance due to their concerns about their child’s mental health or challenging behaviours while
for others it was specifically for their adolescent’s abusive behaviours.
All parents reported involvement of two or more services. Leanne recalled at least seven services
from which she sought assistance during her daughter’s childhood and into early adolescence. Many
parents linked in with a range of supports including counselling; however, their child’s abusive
Josie became the victim of her son’s abusive behaviour when he was aged 15. She reported that she
tried everything to get help for her and her son but was unable to locate a suitable service. She
ended up evicting him from home only for him to return several years later and continue his abusive
Parents received conflicting advice from service providers. Maxine saw a psychologist for three to
four years for emotional support to deal with their daughter’s abusive and challenging behaviours.
The psychologist recommended a ‘tough love’ approach, which included withdrawing all ‘services’
such as transport or money. Maxine recalled this approach did work following a six-week period
where they were consistent with this response:
Adolescent's current educational status
We did it consistently for six weeks and slowly she started coming home more … we gave her
absolutely no money for that entire period … and I think that ultimately produced turnaround
… it took a long time getting there.
Maxine and her husband were advised by police that not picking their daughter up after work put
her ‘at risk’. The psychologist then withdrew her services as she was concerned she may be legally
implicated if the daughter was hurt or harmed in any way.
Leanne and Bianca, her daughter, saw a number of counsellors about Bianca’s abusive behaviours.
Each counsellor reached different conclusions about the cause of the behaviour. This included being
a reaction to her parent’s separation and being depressed. Her daughter’s behaviour continued to
escalate and Leanne did not find that psychologists or counsellors offered any useful strategies.
Sharon also found “there was very little in the way of support offered or even advice on how to cope
with it [her daughter’s abusive behaviour]”.
Tammy had accessed several family services. “He has had so many different ones [counsellors] … he’s
going to get confused talking to different people. We stuck with one [who] I don’t think did anything
for him.” Jacob’s abusive behaviour continued to escalate until police and justice system
Parents also accessed drug and alcohol and youth services and reported a positive experience
although their adolescent’s abusive behaviour continued. One parent spoke of the difficulty getting
her son to attend: “if he had something better to do it was like ‘No stuff that’”. (Sally)
Three other parents also noted the challenge of getting their adolescent to engage with voluntary
services. Ruby stated, “I tried to get them [her granddaughters] counselling for four years; neither of
them wanted it or think they need it … I’ve had Human Services involved, voluntary as well”. This
kinship carer spoke of the continuation of serious abusive behaviours at home by her
Barb was “referred to another help agency but it all relies on the kid being willing to work with them
and that’s probably one of the biggest challenges to start with”. Her daughter’s escalating abusive
behaviours culminated in police and justice system intervention. When asked about her experience
with services her daughter reported, “I think it was just because at that time I didn’t want help from
Jenny, whose son Tim was involved with youth justice for offending outside of the home, reported a
positive experience with youth justice “[they were] supportive and [gave] more acknowledgement of
the family unit and that it needs to be kept together”. Sixteen-year-old Nick, who was also involved
with youth justice for offending outside of the family home in addition to criminal damage to his
home, reported that attending youth justice helped him maintain a positive change in his behaviour.
Jacob was referred to a behaviour change program for violent adolescent males after the police
attended the home for his violence. He reported that he found this “pretty cool” and his behaviour
settled down when he was working with his male counsellor; however, he ceased involvement
“because time was up”.