Our summary

We asked Carswell Consultancy to carry out a literature review of research and evaluation reports from the previous decade on family violence and sexual violence in New Zealand.

In 2020, we commissioned an independent literature review of research and evaluation reports from the previous decade on family violence and sexual violence in New Zealand. We were interested to know which services and interventions work well and what challenges face particular communities and service providers. We are using the literature review to inform our work programme on family violence and sexual violence. 

The literature review gives an overview of what is currently known about the experiences of people who use services (service users) and the organisations who provide services (service providers) in the family violence system (the system). The system is the mix of funding and working relationships between many different government agencies and service providers.

The literature review included 136 research and evaluation reports about family violence and sexual violence produced between 2010 and early 2020. It highlighted the significant amount of research published by communities, government agencies, and non-governmental organisations. We have shared this literature review with the Family Violence Joint Venture Business Unit.

We acknowledge the authors and participants who shared their experience and insights in these studies. Their voices inform our understanding of why violence happens and how it might be prevented.

Violence within families and whānau is a significant and complex problem

The research shows the significant impact of family violence and sexual violence in New Zealand. The connections between family violence, sexual violence, and child abuse and neglect mean they are widely recognised as problems that are complex, multifaceted, and enduring. Family violence and sexual violence have multiple causes and require a range of responses.

Much has been learned, but there are some knowledge gaps

The considerable number of research and evaluation reports produced during the last 10 years are a critical part of the knowledge base informing the actions of those working in the system. Overall, the research highlights that much has been learned about what is needed for family violence and sexual violence services to work well for those using them. Over time, there have been improvements and we have seen some good indications of which practices and interventions work well. We note the number of good practice guidelines developed by government agencies and specialist family violence and sexual violence provider networks.

However, the literature review has shown that it is difficult to get a clear picture of people’s broader experiences of the system. Reports are usually focused on a service user’s short-term experience of a particular service or programme to evaluate implementation and effectiveness. Many reports are focused on the aspects of the system for which the agencies that commission them are responsible. There has been little meta-analysis done and few attempts to synthesise research findings across projects.

Much of the research has focused on crisis responses to family violence and sexual violence. There is much less research on prevention, early intervention, and longer-term recovery. This reflects the emphasis on, and resourcing of, crisis responses. Very few studies have looked at the journey of people’s experience of the system from early intervention through to recovery.

According to the research, preventing family violence and sexual violence requires a societal change in attitudes and behaviour. The research also suggests that addressing long-term recovery from trauma needs more attention.

Other than intimate partner violence, there is less known about types of violence such as parental abuse and sibling abuse.

Other gaps include understanding service levels by location and research on particular population groups, such as male victims of family violence, migrants and refugees, elderly people, and rural populations.

The LGBTQIA+/Rainbow community and people with disabilities were also under-represented in the research.

The research suggests that users experience difficulties finding and using services

Most people experiencing or using violence do not access the services that are available. For those who do, the research describes their difficulties with the services offered.

People might not know about services, find them hard to access, too far away, and/or not available when needed.

When services are accessible, they can be unsuitable. Service providers can lack knowledge of the dynamics of family violence and sexual violence and/or be culturally inappropriate. Research also shows some service providers can behave in ways that leave those seeking help confused, belittled, or blamed. This reduces the likelihood that they will seek help in the future. People might not access services for fear of their children being taken away or losing their immigration status.

The research shows that strengths-based services enable easier access

Both for those experiencing violence and those using it, strengths-based approaches have been identified as particularly helpful. These approaches focus on the capabilities and potential of those seeking assistance.

The research indicates that, for those experiencing violence, honouring and creating space for their choices, even where they might conflict with the wishes of others, and doing comprehensive risks and needs assessments is important. For those using violence, the authenticity of programme staff and their approach is key to encouraging participation in programmes.

The research indicates that the system does not work well for Māori

Wāhine and tamariki Māori are disproportionately represented in family violence and sexual violence statistics. However, their reporting of violence is low and research shows they can find the system to be culturally inaccessible and re-traumatising.

Wāhine who are able to access kaupapa Māori services have more positive experiences. Whānau-centred services were identified as crucial for successfully supporting wāhine Māori. Māori have sought genuine partnership with the Government and the devolution of decision-making and investment to iwi, hapū, whānau, and communities.

Providers experience similar issues across all social services 

The research indicates that many of the challenges facing family violence service providers are common to other service providers in the social services sector. Those challenges include siloed and unsophisticated commissioning, inadequate funding, and a need to effectively tailor services to meet the needs of people who experience violence and people who use it.

Effective strategies for workforce development and capability-building are needed in agencies and front-line services. The research suggests taking a system-wide approach to the development and co-ordination of these strategies.

Better sharing of knowledge would help improve policies and practice

The lessons learned by agencies working in the areas of family violence and sexual violence could be better shared, and the research could be better co-ordinated.

In our view, making all the research and evaluation work public would support better prioritisation, help to identify gaps in understanding the system, and provide insights that can be applied to current models of collaborative working. It could help agencies better co-ordinate their services too.

Differences in the definitions of “family violence” and a lack of common understanding of what makes up the “family violence system” also make it harder to address family violence. This lack of common understanding reflects the historical development of – and different movements and responses to – family violence and sexual violence. It is vital that all parts of the system have a shared understanding of what they are working together to address because this affects what is funded and delivered.

It is important to focus on the family violence system as a whole

Some reports included in the literature review argued for a systems-thinking approach to family violence and sexual violence. That is difficult when the system has arisen by default and not by design. The various parts have developed in isolation from one another and the connections between them are, at times, unclear. This makes it hard to improve and strengthen the system, and the lack of co-ordination between services creates barriers for people who need help to access them.

The gaps in the knowledge base – and the lack of a co-ordinated systemic focus – present further challenges for government agencies and service providers seeking to improve approaches to addressing family violence and sexual violence.

Systems thinking can introduce methods to help identify the causes of violence and their connection with wider issues. It enables connecting the parts of a system together into a whole and encourages agencies to share responsibility. Systems thinking could help agencies, providers, and users work together in the design and implementation of more effective interventions. Lessons learned through this process could be built into the system.

The Government has recognised the need for system stewardship by establishing the Joint Venture on Family Violence and Sexual Violence.

Implications for our work

The literature review has highlighted issues related to current efforts to address family violence and sexual violence. There are some significant gaps in knowledge about people’s experiences of family violence and sexual violence services. The review has also emphasised the need to take a systems perspective when considering the effectiveness of efforts to address violence.

We intend to ask people working in the system to tell us about the policies and interventions being designed and implemented, how improvements in the delivery of services are evaluated, and how the outcomes for people encountering the system are measured.

These are issues we will pursue through our multi-year programme of work, which started with our performance audit of the joint venture on family violence and sexual violence. This first audit considered how effectively agencies are sharing and using their collective knowledge and practice, and how they are monitoring and measuring performance. This is part of our wider focus on how well the joint venture agencies are working together to achieve their shared outcomes.