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Love Bites may be life's most important lesson

A revolutionary program is coming to Victoria to educate children about domestic violence and sexual assault. It could be the most important thing they learn.

A girl goes to a party at a friend's house, gets drunk, goes to the bathroom and lies down in a stupor in the empty bathtub. A boy follows her into the room and has sex with her where she lies.

She blacks out and wakes to find him gone. Did he have consent for the sex?

Immediately, the hushed room explodes into a buzz of animated conversation. ''She shouldn't have behaved like that!'' says 15-year-old Ellen* indignantly. ''She should have taken responsibility.''

Michael*, 14, is - perhaps surprisingly - in complete disagreement. ''But he should never have taken advantage of that situation,'' he argues. ''That was wrong, wrong, wrong.''

The spirited debate in the clusters of small groups of 14, 15 and 16-year-old school kids who have just been shown the scenario in a DVD surges on, with some voices raised. Was the girl at fault, or the boy? Who was really to blame?

After 20 minutes, the 30 youngsters sitting in a common room at a school in Sydney's south come up with their verdict: No, she was drunk and wasn't capable of giving consent. The boy had no right to force himself on her; it was sexual assault.


The adult in charge of this session, Maureen Moran, smiles. This is the answer she was hoping for. ''A lot of young people believe that assault and violence is a normal part of a relationship,'' she says later. ''They may have learnt that from their own family dynamics or from their friends or from TV and films and Facebook.

''We know they've maybe not had conversations like this before about violence, and are often confused. So it's great to get them thinking about these issues, and talking. It's a very powerful way of starting to effect generational change in people's attitudes.''

These young people are taking part in a revolutionary day-long program that has been rolled out into schools, youth centres and juvenile justice facilities in 120 communities across NSW, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and is about to be exported to Victoria and South Australia.

Called Love Bites, it's a program to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault. It was designed and run by the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) and has been applauded by teachers, police and community workers. There are also associated programs for smaller children, All Children Being Safe for four to eight-year-olds, and Growing Respect, teaching seven to 12-year-olds about respectful relationships, both of which will soon be introduced in Victoria, as well.

The programs have been phenomenally popular among those who've experienced them, and been recognised as so innovative that they've attracted funding from as far away as Switzerland. Canadian experts are now studying them, New Zealand has asked for a training program, and Thailand is now running one in a number of its primary schools, and planning a major rollout into many more.

In Australia, child abuse, assault and neglect have been constantly in the headlines over the past two years, from harrowing inquiries into child sexual abuse in various states and rows about a lack of child protection workers in NSW and Victoria, to the latest Australian Institute of Health and Welfare figures showing a 6.6 per cent rise in the national number of notifications of suspected child abuse and neglect on the previous year.

Just this month, a major study conducted by the Australian National University, called Children, Communities and Social Capital, revealed that many children did not feel safe in their community, are fearful and distrustful of strangers, are frightened of car-related aggression and violence, and feel vulnerable and scared when people are drinking alcohol.

And a Fairfax Media investigation found that domestic violence was responsible for three-quarters of the deaths of women in NSW and two in five of all homicides and assaults in NSW.

The latest statistics from Victoria's Domestic Violence Resource Centre reveal that more than one in three Australian women who have had an intimate partner have experienced violence from a partner or ex-partner, and a woman is killed almost every week by a partner or ex-partner.

The number of family incident reports submitted by police in Victoria rose 23.4 per cent between 2010-11 and 2011-12 from 40,839 to 50,382. Between 2004 and 2012, there was an increase of 72.8 per cent in reports of family violence to Victoria Police.

But amid all the misery, these new programs to make children aware of how to protect themselves, prevent abuse and to change their own attitudes to violence in the hope they won't ever become assailants themselves, are providing hope for the future.

At Sydney's Engadine High School, for instance, where Fairfax Media watched a Love Bites session in action, there was an assembly for years 10, 11 and 12 students that same week. The newly elected male school captain took the stage and, totally unexpectedly, invited all the boys and male staff in the audience to stand up and, with him, take the White Ribbon oath to end male violence against women.

Sitting in the front row of the audience, deputy principal Paul Owens felt a moment of panic. ''None of us knew he was going to do that, and my immediate reaction was, 'Oh my god! What if no one stands?''' he says. ''There was a moment of absolute silence. And then I could hear movement behind me and all the males in the audience rose as one. It brought tears to so many people's eyes to see that happen.''

The next week, a group of 13, 14 and 15-year-old girls came to his office and shyly asked to come in. Then they told him about a friend they were worried about who was experiencing domestic violence. ''That was so heart-warming to see,'' Owens says.

''One of the key parts of the program is about not staying silent on violence and pretend it's not happening, so it was wonderful to have these students taking that message on board and whereas once they might have let it slide, they were now taking action because, as the program teaches us, that's what mates do.''

It's those kind of results that have heartened those who have designed Love Bites. Maureen Moran was a former school director and social worker who faced the anguish of never having enough resources to manage the growing number of cases of at-risk kids. She then collaborated with Women's Health on the mid-north coast of NSW, which created the program in a bid to try to stem the tide of domestic violence and abuse in the area, to develop and extend it. The pair were joined at NAPCAN by Leesa Waters to help implement and train more people to run the courses.

Waters had despaired, after 20 years in child protection, of the lack of inroads the system was making. It came to a head when she saw a father in a courtroom whose children were being taken away from him. Twenty years before, she'd been the one to recommend he himself be taken into care. She could see for herself the relentless cycle of family violence continuing unabated.

''It was so depressing to think I'd invested my life in trying to help children, yet it didn't seem to be making a difference,'' she says. ''The violence and child abuse was intergenerational. By the time we became involved, the damage had already been done. I felt there had to be an alternative.

''So these programs have the capacity to get in early and help empower young people, support them and educate them about what's OK and what's not. You watch young people going through these programs and the light bulbs go on, they might understand that what's happening in their own families isn't right, and are able to seek assistance. They have hope.''

Love Bites involves kids watching films about both domestic and family violence and sexual assault, talking about the issues, and taking part in a number of exercises to define what's acceptable and what's not.

They also hear some of the shocking statistics of violence in Australia: nearly two-thirds of women reporting experiencing at least one incident of physical or sexual violence (Australian Institute of Criminology national survey); violence against women as the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15-44 (Vic Health); alcohol and drugs being a factor in 48.5 per cent of assaults (Australian Bureau of Statistics); one in three young people experiencing physical violence in personal relationships (ABS).

Another session has them voting Fact or Crap on a number of statements, including the idea that violence is merely part of being a man, alcohol is the only cause of violence, and whether some women provoke men into hitting them. The message being hammered home is straightforward: violence is always a choice - and it's a bad one.

In the Northern Territory, where some communities have a very high level of intergenerational violence, senior project officer Ellen Poyner has seen firsthand the changes that can come about. One young man saw a film shown about a party in which a number of girls end up being assaulted, and approached her later. ''If I hadn't seen that and talked about it, I wouldn't have thought twice about doing some of that same disrespectful stuff,'' he told her. ''But there's no way I'd do that now! Now I know.''

She was heartened. ''It's very easy in a community that has a lot of violence to become focused just on supporting victims,'' she says. ''But prevention is such a new field in Australia, and it's amazing to be having these kinds of conversations with people and getting such great feedback about how confident young people can now feel about what's a healthy relationship and what's not.''

The young people on the program end the day by developing a piece of artwork or performance about what they've learnt. The results have ranged from rap songs to poetry, from pictures to posters. The images and messages can be both shocking, and liberating. ''Dumbestic Violence - It's not smart'' reads one, ''We don't dress for sex, we dress to impress'' says another, and ''Hands Up, speak out against domestic violence'' is another message.

''Working in violence prevention is about working in hope rather than despair,'' says Bonnie Souter, who, in her work at a women's refuge in country NSW, has taken the program to the refuge, schools and young offender centres. ''The day is all about the young people's views and ideas being challenged, and they go straight in with honesty and sincerity. The program's always been a success.

''They want to be good boyfriends and girlfriends, they want respectful relationships, and the program empowers them and enables them to go out into their communities and become the next generation of leaders.''

Currently all the kids' feedback from the programs is being collated - more than 92 per cent of 2500 comments so far say they definitely have learnt something new from the program - and more formal research is now under way.

But for both Michael and Ellen, Love Bites feels like a game-changer. ''It was good to get important things clear and help you decide where you stand,'' says Michael. For Ellen, it was growing-up time. ''I learnt a lot about sexual assault and the impact it can have,'' she says. ''I think I didn't really understand it all before.''

• Ellen and Michael's names have been changed to protect their identities.

• More information for young people can be found on the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria websites and