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Printed: 19/05/2024
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Last updated: 06/07/2023

Working effectively with whānau or families impacted by violence

Family violence is abusive behaviour that can occur across whakapapa and generations and has complex causes. To support change, we consider restorative approaches that engage the whole whānau or family, rather than focusing on individuals or incidences.

What is family violence

Family violence, domestic violence, family harm and intimate partner violence are all terms used to describe when one person in a relationship or a whānau or family hurts a whānau or family member or partner on purpose. It describes any behaviour that in any way controls or dominates a whānau or family member and causes them to fear for their own, or another whānau or family member’s, safety or wellbeing. It can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or economic abuse and any behaviour that causes tamariki or rangatahi to hear, witness or otherwise be exposed to the effects of that behaviour.

It occurs within a wide variety of close interpersonal relationships, such as between partners, parents and tamariki, siblings and in other relationships where significant others are not part of the physical household but are part of the wider whānau or family or are fulfilling the function of a whānau or family member. Any violence towards a member of a whānau or hapū can be considered violence against the collective whole.

Dynamics of family violence

There are many words to describe the different dynamics in family violence. We are not required to label or diagnose but we should have regard for the types of family violence. This helps us understand the situation and adjust our engagement and intervention.

Coercive control is a form of abuse where a person uses a range of behaviours or actions to dominate, exploit, control and trap another person.  

Coercively controlling violence

Resistive violence involves a victim-survivor of power and control violence retaliating or using violence in self-defence. People who use violence typically increase their violence and control when victim-survivors resist – potentially our intervention can increase risk for victim-survivors. When receiving family harm reports from the Police, consider the language used to describe the incident. Take note of language that diminishes the responsibility of the person who uses violence and blames the victim-survivor – for example: "They have a volatile relationship. They both get physical. She fails to protect tamariki from witnessing violence. She chooses to stay with him."

Our assessment needs to consider acts of resistance (fighting back or even staying in the relationship) as potential protective measures – for example, if you live with him, you can monitor his moods and try to protect the tamariki, but if you leave, you don’t know when he is going to turn up to hurt you. Building trust to impact change in these situations takes considerable time and a multi-agency team approach.

Situational or common-couple violence is when adults use violence (high emotions, shouting, pushing) to resolve conflicts. Violence does not result in serious physical harm and the adults involved may not be fearful or controlled. Men and women use this kind of violence equally. When considering dynamic risk factors there is no evidence of fear or coercive control and no evidence of violence escalating. Our intervention can support them to work together towards changing their behaviour and using safer strategies to resolve conflict. The adults often need information and support to understand how their violence impacts on the oranga (wellbeing) of their tamariki and rangatahi. The conflict can be frightening and upsetting for tamariki and rangatahi and can model unhealthy ways to manage their own anger, frustrations or sadness. Safety plans will require support from the community and safe whānau or family.

Different types of violence | teara.govt.nz

Aviva (a 24-hour support line) has a quiz to help people think about the quality of their relationships with others.

Are you in a healthy relationship? | avivafamilies.org.nz

Aggressive anti-social behaviour. People who are violent to everyone or violence that is a direct result of mental illness, injury or disability. We would work with the Police, mental health, disability, and violence specialists.

Child to parent violence or adolescent family violence describes violence perpetrated by tamariki or rangatahi against whānau or family members. Tamariki or rangatahi may behave in ways to dominate, threaten or coerce parents, siblings or other whānau or family members, including pets. The behaviour creates fear in the whānau or family and is not a one-off incident but a pattern of behaviour.

The cause of the violence needs to be understood:

  • Tamariki or rangatahi may have witnessed or been a victim-survivor of violence from an abusive parent or whānau or family member, and violence may be a normalised way of managing difficult situations and emotions.
  • Tamariki and rangatahi violence may be a response to their past experiences of trauma, a learnt behaviour or an indicator of unmet physical, mental and behavioural health needs.
  • The aggressive or violent behaviour can also be an indicator of the anxiety and distress te tamaiti or rangatahi is experiencing.
  • Overwhelming feelings and behavioural outbursts may be linked to mental health and neurodevelopmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The behaviour is a form of communication that needs to be understood within the context of te tamaiti or rangatahi and their whānau or family. Where disability and violent behaviour occur together, then specialist assessments and supports may be required. Regional disability advisors can provide advice and support to practitioners.

Whether there is a diagnosed disability or not, when tamariki or rangatahi are violent towards their whānau or family or within their community or school we need to separate the behaviour from the person. Identify key professionals and whānau or family who agree on the best way to respond to aggressive or violent behaviour. Identify a safety network of adults who agree to respond consistently to help te tamaiti or rangatahi. Tamariki or rangatahi over the age of 10 may be held accountable for very serious violent behaviour by using our youth justice process – however, tamariki under the age of 14 are more likely to be managed by a care and protection family group conference.

‘Honour’ based violence is a “collection of practices that are used to control the behaviour within families in order to protect perceived cultural and religious beliefs and/or honour.”

'Honour' based abuse, forced marriage and FGM | Reducing the Risk

‘Honour’ is when something or someone is held in high esteem and regarded with great respect. Families and communities from certain cultures and religions maintain these responsibilities and obligations as a source of pride and respect. Families and communities may see any breaches as disrespectful and insulting, and therefore requiring punishment. ‘Honour’ based violence can be distinguished from other forms of violence, as it is often committed with some degree of approval or collusion from family or community members.

Women and girls are predominantly (but not exclusively) the victims of ‘honour’ based violence. Men can be punished if it is perceived that they are supporting the victim or in breach of obligations – for example, if they are in a relationship that is deemed inappropriate. Relatives, including females, may collude, aid and participate in the violence.

  • To hold a hui ā-whānau safely, we first need to understand the cultural and religious responsibilities and obligations within the context of the violence and the impact on any children. This does not excuse the violence but helps us understand the complexity of the situation. A victim-survivor of honour-based violence may be reluctant to admit what is happening to them because that would mean they are speaking up against family and community-held beliefs.
  • Consult with an ethnic family violence specialist like SHAKTI for advice and guidance.

Shakti New Zealand

Female genital mutilation

Importance of assessment


Violence in whānau or families occurs across gender, age, social status and ethnicity. While both men and women can use violence, men are more likely than women to use violence and power and control towards others.

Research indicates that a high percentage of family violence episodes are not reported to the Police. When assessing reports of concern, shift the focus off the incident and onto exploring patterns of harm and the cumulative impacts of violence on the wellbeing, risk and danger experienced by whānau or family, tamariki and rangatahi living with violence. Explore times when conflict was managed safely by everyone so we can support them to repeat their own successes.

Studies have identified that groups at higher risk of victimisation from intimate partner violence include:

  • Females, especially if they have a childhood history of abuse. 1 in 3 women experience physical or sexual violence from a partner in their lifetime.
  • Māori. Research contextualises the breakdown of traditional Māori society via colonisation as inherently violent. Colonisation has resulted in the fragmentation of many protective factors within Māoridom. Te Puni Kōkiri gives a working definition of whānau violence as “the compromise of te ao Māori values [that] can be understood as an absence or disturbance of tikanga and transgressions against whakapapa.”
    Family violence | Te Puni Kōkiri
  • Disabled women are nearly twice as likely to be victim-survivors of violence or abuse compared with other women. Women who are the victim-survivors of assault or strangulation can suffer brain injuries which result in permanent disabilities that require ongoing support, especially when caring for tamariki and rangatahi.
  • Disabled tamariki and rangatahi. International research suggests that disabled tamariki and rangatahi are almost 4 times more likely to experience violence than non-disabled tamariki and rangatahi.
  • Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are twice as likely to experience family violence as the national average. The Ministry of Justice Crime and Victims Survey found people in the rainbow community are less likely to report violence despite suffering increased harm.

Te Aorerekura: The National Strategy to Eliminate Family Violence and Sexual Violence has developed specialist family violence organisation standards that include a shared language:

  • 'Victim-survivor' is used to acknowledge the strength of people who have survived family violence.
  • 'People who use violence' replaces 'perpetrator' unless it's being used in a legal context.

Specialist Family Violence Organisational Standards | Te Puna Aonui

Knowing that violence is underreported, we can use information from research to assist our assessments. Reports of violence do not tell the whole story, so we need to consider what is not being said. Our assessments need to keep an eye out for indicators of family violence and find ways to break the cycle of violence. Because the above groups are more likely to experience secondary victimisation from organisations when they seek help, our approach focuses on relational, inclusive and restorative practice.

Definition: Family violence

NZ Crime and Victims Survey resources and results | Ministry of Justice

Victim-survivors and sometimes the people who are causing the harm have suffered multiple experiences of trauma in their life. Victim-survivors may have health needs, especially if the violence involves strangulation or head trauma. A history of child abuse can lead to psychological paralysis where they function in survival mode. Planning for safety and managing risk requires work to be undertaken in a restorative way to create a space to promote and restore oranga. Promoting and restoring oranga can only proceed at the victim-survivor's pace, which includes how tamariki and rangatahi are feeling.  

Victim-survivors may lack confidence and trust and not know what they are entitled to. They often fear that their tamariki and rangatahi will be removed from their care if they ask for help. When victim-survivors do ask for help, we recognise that this may be a crisis point and they have potentially reached their limit in being able to protect themselves and their tamariki and rangatahi. We need to respond in a measured, planned and evidenced way.

We do not use ultimatums or imply that they may lose the care of their tamariki and rangatahi if they 'do not choose them' over the person causing the harm. Listening and responding to the issues that the victim-survivor feels are the highest priority at that time is the best way to build trust and a pathway to providing additional support in the future.

Static, dynamic, acute and protective risk assessment

It is healthy to disagree by engaging with each other, addressing the problems and then getting back to normal. When adults demonstrate these skills, tamariki and rangatahi learn effective conflict management skills. Our assessments need to make judgements about conflict when it involves anger and hostility and identify when it becomes family violence. Gathering information requires considering the risk factors and how they interact. Risk factors and interaction of multiple risk factors inform the chances of someone experiencing or perpetrating violence.

Static risk

Static risk factors are unchangeable. These relate to historic aspects in someone’s life such as early childhood trauma, witnessing family violence as a tamaiti, early onset of abusive behaviour within relationships, nature and severity of abusive behaviour, violence across multiple relationships, etc. 

The Police advise us of all family harm investigations that include tamariki and rangatahi. These contact records on their own do not always result in assessment – however, over time, a pattern of family violence emerges and the impact of cumulative harm on tamariki and rangatahi requires an assessment. How we use the information in the contact record with whānau or family requires careful consideration because whānau or family are not always aware that the Police have notified us. Our assessment needs to focus on what is happening for tamariki or rangatahi in this home.

Dynamic risk

Dynamic risk factors can be changed. These include attitudes and beliefs about violence as a problem-solving method, attitudes towards women and tamariki, peer relationships, emotional regulation skills, and relationships to addictive substances. Effective interventions seek to reduce the influence of these factors and replace them with more healthy and safe ways to function. 

Acute risk

Acute risk factors move quickly. These are a subgroup of dynamic risk factors and include issues such as jealousy, substance misuse and escalation in disagreements. While static and dynamic risk factors help us predict issues of severity and frequency of behaviour, anticipating acute issues is the key to reducing immediate risk of harm.

The following signs indicate an increase of danger of acute risk factors:

  • Separation – tamariki and rangatahi are particularly vulnerable when the adult victim-survivor and the person who uses violence separate. There is evidence that the risk of lethal violence increases in the post-separation period and contact with their tamariki and rangatahi can be used to continue to abuse ex-partners.
  • Escalating violence – violence can become normalised within the whānau or family, and patterns of increasing violence not recognised as serious, including cruelty to animals.
  • Pregnancy – victim-survivors of family violence are at heightened risk during pregnancy and the violence may escalate at this time. A pregnancy may be the result of sexual violence within intimate partner relationships, which can be difficult and distressing to disclose.
  • Weapons – having access to a firearm or threats to use knives and other weapons indicate a heightened risk.
  • Strangulation – threatened or attempted strangulation is a sign that a life is seriously at risk and constitutes serious criminal behaviour. Women who have been strangled are 7 times more likely to be killed in a future attack. The impact of non-fatal strangulation can be overlooked if it is recorded as being choked or 'being grabbed around the throat', smothered or having a weight placed on their chest that restricts breathing. The signs and symptoms of strangulation can be subtle, internal and/or delayed and may not leave any visible signs. It can negatively impact memory, attention, reasoning and the ability to make informed decisions. If there was a loss of consciousness, they may not recall the assault, and potential brain injury can cause problems with sleep, headaches, depression and anxiety, which means victim-survivors will require support to care for their tamariki and rangatahi even if initially they present as fine. Assessments need to fully explore the supports they may need.
  • Stalking – intimidating behaviour like stalking signals attempts to exert more control.
  • Threats to injure or kill – threats to harm or self-harm by either the person who uses violence or the victim-survivor, injuries, and assaults to either tamariki and rangatahi or the adult or pets.

Protective factors

Assessment includes identifying protective factors which can act as a buffer to the static, dynamic and acute risk issues. These include attitudes of respect, problem-solving skills, emotional regulation, cognitive coping, distress management and lifestyle management:

  • Look for the presence of a loving, safe and supportive adult or caregiver, including other whānau or family with significant responsibilities for tamariki and rangatahi. Even if tamariki and rangatahi are exposed to violence and conflict, can we identify protective people in their whānau or family who can help them heal and who are responsive to their needs?
  • Look for the presence of a supportive community. Are there resources within the community that foster and support safety? Engaging the violent adult with the right supports is an important aspect of holding them accountable for the wellbeing and safety of their tamariki and rangatahi and changing their behaviour.

Te ao huri huri — Tuituia domain

Dynamic risk factors 

Engagement considerations

Our visits with whānau or family usually happen after the violence has occurred. Disclosing or discussing family violence can arouse strong emotions such as shame, guilt and humiliation, especially if they feel they have moved on. Separate the behaviour from the person and focus on their hopes and dreams for their tamariki and rangatahi, and how they would like to model managing conflict. Explore times in the whānau or family when conflict was managed without violence escalating.

Talk to tamariki and rangatahi directly. Tamariki and rangatahi living with family violence won’t always freely talk about what is happening. They might feel protective of their whānau or family so our approach is to honour their relationships with their parents and strengthen the safety within these relationships. After building rapport, be curious about their life and how they experience their world. Consider how you might find out:

  • the kinds of values that are instilled in them, especially attitudes towards gender and role divisions within their home
  • how connected they are to their community, school, neighbourhood or extended family and friends – the more isolated they are, there is reduced likelihood of family violence being detected.

Consider asking tamariki and rangatahi direct questions – for example, if the police report states they were present, ask them how they felt, and explore times when people got upset but it didn’t result in violence or the Police being called.

Our professional ethics require us to advocate for and create solutions that recognise the strength and skills victim-survivors use every day to manage risk when they are living with an unsafe and unpredictable person who may also be a parent or caregiver of their tamariki and rangatahi. We hold the people who are causing harm responsible for their actions and find ways to help them address the underlying reasons why they hurt and control the people they say they care about. We help them to understand the impact of their damaging behaviour on their tamariki and rangatahi. We help them to become violence-free parents and positive role models for tamariki and rangatahi.

We need to approach the person who uses violence with the same expectations of the importance of their role in the life of their tamariki and rangatahi, which includes provision of safe and loving parenting. This includes a definition of being a good parent that explicitly includes respectful treatment of the other parent. Being inclusive shapes our assessments, family engagement strategies, case planning and documentation.

The nature of family violence can have the effect of 'frightening' people from getting involved. This can result in holding the victim-survivor responsible and accountable for the partner’s violent actions. Some whānau or family may need support to engage in a restorative process before change can occur.  

Kaimahi need to actively maintain supervision and seek support and advice from specialists in the family violence field to ensure we:

  • support the person who uses violence to explore how they think their violent behaviour impacts on their tamariki and rangatahi – assist them to get help because this change process will take time and practice
  • don't blame the mother or primary caregiver for 'failing to protect' their tamariki and rangatahi when they are the victim-survivors of violence
  • carefully manage and consider safety issues when calling whānau hui or family group conferences – if there are protection orders or bail conditions in place, we adhere to them by consulting with the Police or Corrections (Probation Service) along with whānau or family
  • support both the person who uses violence and their victim-survivors, including tamariki and rangatahi, to rebuild safe relationships (if this is what is wanted) and recover from the impacts of family harm.

Family violence practice triggers provide questions to consider during assessment, planning, implementation and review and can be helpful prompts during supervision or case discussions.

Family violence practice triggers

Whole of government approach

Responding effectively to address family violence and sexual violence requires a whole of government approach. Sites need to work closely with other government departments as well as the community to ensure a joined-up approach. 

Research has shown western approaches to responding to violence have not been effective for Māori or Pacific communities. Understanding the difference between whānau and family is critical when working with whānau Māori and Pacific families, as protective factors will often exist within the wider whānau, hapū and iwi. Work with our partner agencies needs to be more responsive to the needs of whānau and tamariki and rangatahi. Specialist violence services are predominantly set up to respond to men’s violence towards women, which is an added barrier for people who do not fit within this definition. Consider referrals to services that can respond to the diverse needs identified. 

The New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse provides information and links to organisations focused on family violence.

Links | New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse

Te Puna Aonui


There is key legislation that supports our practice when responding to family violence that includes Police Safety Orders and Protection Orders.  

Family Violence Act 2018 and Family Violence (Amendments) Act 2018

Integrated Safety Response (ISR)

Canterbury and Waikato use the ISR model to address and respond to family violence and sexual violence. It brings together Police, Department of Corrections, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Social Development, Ministry of Education, District Health Boards, Accident Compensation Corporation, local iwi, specialist family violence non-government organisations and kaupapa Māori services to support victim-survivors and their whānau or families. 

Integrated Safety Response (ISR) | New Zealand Police

Family Violence Interagency Response System (FVIARS)

Sites appoint a supervisor to manage FVIARS and have an agreed interagency process with the Police to respond to family violence and sexual violence. 

Evaluation of the Family Violence Interagency Response System (FVIARS) Summary Report | Ministry of Social Development