How Can Australia Further Reduce Family Violence?

By Andrew Heaton

Rarely if ever have the consequences of family violence been on more public display than on February 12 2014, when eleven-year-old Luke Batty was killed by his father after a cricket training session in the Victorian township of Tyabb south-east of Melbourne.

That event, along with the subsequent revelation that Luke’s father had a history of mental illness and had been the subject of an apprehended violence order, added determination to what had already been a growing resolve to tackle family violence in Australia.

According to ABS estimates in 2012, almost 2.2 million women and more than 500,000 men have experienced some form of current or former partner violence since their fifteenth birthday. Applying these estimates population figures which were current at the time, that would mean that more than one in five women and just over one in twenty men over the age of fifteen has experienced violence from current or former partners at some stage since reaching age fifteen. On average, Australian Institute of Criminology figures suggest, one women is killed by a current or former partner each week.

Governments are acting. Australia is currently on the third of a series of four three-year action plans under the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022.

That raises questions about what is and is not working and what, if anything, should change.

According to Dr Evelyne Tadros, State Leader for NSW Metro at Mission Australia, the renewed focus on the issue is welcome but more needs to be done.

First, Tadros said, more funding needs to be directed toward areas which are known to have significant impact. Early intervention in schools for children who may be experiencing violence or other problems at home is often afforded less attention that warranted, she says. Behavioural change programs which help perpetrators to identify abuse and belief systems which underlie that abuse and to explore concepts such as victim impact and sexual respect are critical, she said. More also needed to be invested in supported accommodation for those who leave and training within mainstream government and community services. Many supported accommodation services, Tadros said, were operating at over at or over capacity and were being challenged in their capacity to support women fleeing violence. Furthermore, training staff within in mainstream services to recognise potential signs of abuse (e.g. erratic behaviour such as unexpected outbursts) could assist people who access these services who may be experiencing violence.

Beyond that, Tadros said greater consistency was needed in service support across the country. Too often, she says, various forms of help are readily available in some districts but scarce in neighbouring ones.

Moreover, greater coordination and flexibility was needed between departments and services. Whilst positive outcomes have been achieved in many cases through efforts to coordinate services across areas such as healthcare, education, justice and family and community services under a co-case management type of model, Tadros says these efforts typically occur on a once-off basis through individual initiative rather than being driven across departments in a systematic fashion. In addition, she said, efforts to deliver wrap-around services based upon holistic client needs can be inhibited as individual services operate according to set criteria. What is needed, Tadros said, is greater coordination to be driven at a government level.

White Ribbon Australia Chief Executive Officer Libby Davies says developments over recent decades have been encouraging. Courtesy of sustained effort, the problem is now being afforded greater community recognition, she said. Equally welcome, Davies said, are efforts on the part of governments to develop frameworks and strategies to address fundamental issues – especially through the national plan referred to above. Community groups have also recognised the problem of violence of various forms including that which occurs behind closed doors, she says.

Davies says successful strategies must address the problem at its root causes. In the case of family violence, she says this is often an outgrowth of mistaken beliefs about men having rights to express themselves as being controlling and powerful over women. In this regard, she says efforts on the part of a number of organisations to promote gender equality and equal rights are critical.

“We are very much about primary prevention,” Davies says. “That is stopping violence by tackling the causes of that violence.”

Davies says work at a grass roots level in order to empower both men and women to play a positive role within communities is critical. In the case of White Ribbon, she says her organisation’s activities focus on equipping communities with tools to enact local change. Engaging the whole community is critical, she said, not only because potential perpetrators are influenced by local attitudes but also in order to empower community members to detect signals of potential abuse and to understand how to respond.

Furthermore, Davies says action is also needed on other fronts. Funding for crisis support services was often tenuous, she said. Further efforts from a legal perspective to hold perpetrators to account and protect women who do leave were also needed albeit with progress having been made in this area during recent years. More research with regard to developing a strong evidence base for behavioural change programs was also critical whilst the importance of efforts within schools to impart positive behaviour patterns and set healthy expectations for boy/girl relationships among children during formative years cannot be underestimated, Davies says.

Going forward, Tadros says Australia should refuse to accept family violence. Whilst cautioning people against becoming involved in dangerous situations, she said those who become aware of anyone being abused should report it and offer support and referrals to those being abused.

“Zero tolerance of family violence should now be entrenched as part of our national identity”, Tadros said.

“We can’t afford to be ignorant or reluctant bystanders. We all need to act when we see violence.”


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