If the Flinders University expert in social work is going to produce the type of pragmatic solutions that introduce real change to both victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, she knows that she must endure uncomfortable situations. She’s not daunted by the prospect.
“Actions speak louder than words, and I’m an action orientated person,” says Professor Sarah Wendt, a Matthew Flinders Fellow and leader of SWIRLS (the Social Work Innovation Research Living Space) at Flinders. “I want to confront the hard topics.”
Professor Wendt has focused her attention on many difficult issues that crisis agencies must find answers to and solving problems that don’t resolve themselves. Smart interventions to issues such as domestic violence need to be designed on evidence-based research. “Social work must continue to grow its evidence base to bring theory, practice and teaching together,” says Professor Wendt. “Evidence leads to improving social work practice, and that improves people’s lives.”
Professor Wendt has led the team of SWIRLS researchers to embark on a different type of engagement with both clients and support agencies. A crucial signpost was the pivotal report identifying why men use violence in their relationships, constructed with the support of ANROWS (Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety) and Uniting Communities.
This report – Engaging with men who use violence, released publicly at the end of 2019 – showed that domestic violence against women in Australia is a crisis that is not in decline. One in four women will experience domestic violence in this country during their lifetime, and an average of one woman a week is murdered by their intimate partner.
Professor Wendt’s team investigated the effectiveness of the invitational narrative approach to therapy for men who use violence against women and children. The researchers found that using narratives and storytelling to engage with men on a rehabilitation journey was a useful and effective tool, even though it was a challenging and risky process for the researchers to ask pointed questions about the origins of violent behaviour by its perpetrators.
“All the interviewees volunteered to be a part of this research, so they had time to digest the purpose of the study and how to answer the questions, but it was still a difficult task for them to address the shame of what they had done, and for them to articulate the hurt and damage they had inflicted,” says Professor Wendt. “It gave us piercing insights into violent behaviour.”