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Waiting decades to reduce domestic abuse isn’t an option; this is what needs to change

15 September 2020

News and media


Jess Hill


Despite many reforms and much investment (in some jurisdictions) in domestic and family violence programs in recent years, rates of violence are not declining and are in fact increasing during the coronavirus pandemic.

ANZSOG’s “Waiting decades to reduce domestic abuse isn’t an optionwebinar brought together four leading researchers and advocates to explore options to reduce abuse rates, shift the focus beyond the justice system, and maintain hope and momentum for positive change.

The panel featured: Jess Hill, author of the award-winning See What You Made Me Do; Ann Dysart, Manager Community Partnerships and Programs, Ministry of Social Development in Wellington; Dr Kristen Smith, a medical anthropologist in the Centre for Health Equity at the University of Melbourne; and Associate Professor Kate Fitz-Gibbon, Director of the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre and Associate Professor of Criminology in the School of Social Sciences at Monash University.

Approximately one-quarter of women in Australia and one-third in Aotearoa/New Zealand have experienced at least one incident of violence by an intimate partner. The panel discussed programs which focused on primary prevention and changing perpetrator behaviour, as well as more direct interventions and those involving whole-of-community efforts to reduce rates of violence.

Jess Hill said waiting decades for gender equality to come about before reducing domestic and family violence was “not good enough and not necessary” when practical solutions are working in other countries.

“When the system says wait for greater gender equality we are saying a generation of women and children are expendable. We can’t farm solutions out to the future,” she said.

“We haven’t looked around the world for what works. Ideas like focused deterrence in the USA, or judicial reinvestment in Bourke in NSW, and women’s police stations in Latin America.”

Women’s police stations are separate buildings staffed by women and which offer all legal and other services to victims of domestic violence. In parts of Latin America where they have been established rates of offending have dropped by up to 50 per cent.

“The genius of these strategies is that they focus on making perpetrators visible as early as possible and sending a strong message that they won’t get away with what they are doing, but if they are willing to change their behaviour the community will help them do that.”

Criminalising coercive control

Hill said that most domestic violence cases fell into a consistent pattern of coercive control which featured many non-violent elements such as: isolating partners, gaslighting, micromanaging, inconsistent rules and demands, and threats. This behaviour occurred to such an extent that survival (both psychological and physical) became the only thing the victim could focus on.

“Coercive control does not show up in crime data on its own, and the most dangerous abusers use violence sparingly or not at all, but always use the threat of it,” she said.

Hill said the criminal justice system is not a panacea, but it is essential to a solution, and coercive control must be recognised as a crime.

She spoke of the experience in Scotland, which had recorded 13 successful prosecutions since making coercive control a crime in April 2019, and had gained support from police, victims and advocates. Coercive control includes making threats or forcing victims to commit crimes.

“It’s complex and nuanced legislation, but it is not prescriptive, because it recognises the variety of behaviours that make up coercive control. The genius of it is that all assaults are covered under the same crime, so there’s no need for physical or sexual violence for a charge to be laid.

“Early investigation shows that 95% of people convicted are men, and in Scotland it has found to be easier to prove than domestic violence because of the range of evidence that can be produced in court.”

Involving Indigenous communities in solutions

Ann Dysart discussed E Tū Whānau – a kaupapa Māori initiative and five-year framework for the prevention of family violence – that uses cultural values to engage whānau (extended family networks) and communities and to trigger behavioural change.

“It is ‘Kaupapa’ our framework – it is designed and led at a local level, which is different to other interventions, and it is not focused on the crisis but on intervention and support before and after the crisis,” she said.

“There has been a huge amount of investment in the crisis, but so little in prevention and community efforts – and these are really important because you can change the trajectory of a family.”

She said the key to the long-term effectiveness of E Tū Whānau was that it was based on talking to communities who were clear that they wanted a program that focused on their strengths not negatives. This involved more than 30 forums with iwi across Aotearoa-New Zealand.

“The community owns it, not the government, we are there supporting change and building partnerships, not because we think we have all the answers ourselves.”

Dr Kristen Smith spoke about research projects on the experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims and perpetrators of family violence and the justice system. In Australia, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are 32 times more likely to be hospitalised as a result of family violence than non-Indigenous people.

She said that 90 per cent of assaults went unreported – due to mistrust of authorities, lack of police presence or focus on family violence and victims’ fears that their children will be removed.

Aboriginal-led healing processes, self-determination, creating safe spaces and the application of Indigenous knowledge are all critical according to Dr Smith.

“There is a need for services that are community-led, context-driven and acknowledge intergenerational trauma,” she said.

“We need greater and more secure resources for the sector, including employing and retaining more Indigenous workers, better security of privacy and confidentiality, the creation of culturally safe spaces in mainstream organisations, and signposting to ensure Indigenous people feel welcome.”

She spoke about the Koori Court trial in Victoria which has input from Aboriginal elders and community representatives who sit alongside magistrates to hear cases and counsel victims.

“This is a collaborative style of problem solving, and community-supported mechanisms can reduce the shame of being a victim and make people more likely to engage with the services being offered,” she said.

The Koori Court trial is still being tested but the underlying innovation is likely to produce results that can reduce family violence and could be applied in other jurisdictions.

“Innovation is emerging in services, policies and programs across the nation, yet much greater support is needed to structurally change the way we address the prevention of family violence for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities.”

Impact of COVID-19

Associate Professor Kate Fitz-Gibbon has been leading research on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on rates of gender-based violence over the past six months. She said that for many women and children, lockdowns were not a safe environment – and the worldwide rise in gender-based violence had been dubbed “the shadow pandemic.”

“COVID-19 doesn’t cause violence, but it exacerbates many of the underlying gender inequalities that underpin family violence – and creates the conditions within which violence can flourish and help-seeking is limited,” she said.

“Practitioners say the situation has worsened but can be hard to measure because victims’ ability and willingness to contact police has been reduced. We are hearing about ‘midnight calls’ when children and perpetrators are asleep,” she said.

She said that agencies focused on preventing family violence were struggling to adapt, and had seen an increased difficulty in making and maintaining contact with families, as well as difficulty assessing risk and protective factors when not able to do home visits.

She said the pandemic had exacerbated a pre-existing shortage of social housing.

What needs to change

All speakers agreed that the focus on domestic and family violence needed to shift to address the broader situation victims, perpetrators and communities found themselves in, and to use avenues other than the justice system.

Assoc Prof Fitz-Gibbon said that police and justice responses had not been effective, and could be a “second round of victimisation, which makes people doubt what happened.”

Ann Dysart said that building partnerships with communities took time but was worth the effort. “It is not enough to come in for two years set up a program and then move on. We need to invest long-term to build partnerships of trust.”

Jess Hill said that she was optimistic that change was possible and that fixing domestic and family violence meant would also mean beginning to fix other issues such as school attendance and drug use.

“Fixing this would be one of the greatest nation-building exercises we could embark on.”

You will find the presentations from this event are here.

The recording of the event is here: