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Lessons from the Victorian Royal Commission Report into Domestic Violence

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By Di Simpson

We will punish the perpetrators, listen to the survivors and change the culture that allows family violence to happen in the first place. There can be no excuses. Our work begins today to overhaul our broken family violence system from the bottom up.”  – Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, after the release of the report of the Royal Commission into Domestic Violence.

The report of the Victorian Royal Commission into Domestic Violence (“the Report”) was released on 30 March 2016.  The findings and recommendations made within the Report are instructive and should inform and influence policy debate about responses to domestic violence throughout Australia.  Below is a summary of what the Report tells us.

The terms of reference for the Commission directed it to consider the most effective ways to:

  • prevent family violence
  • improve early intervention so as to identify and protect those at risk
  • support victims—particularly women and children—and address the impacts of violence on them
  • make perpetrators accountable
  • develop and refine systemic responses to family violence—including in the legal system and by police, corrections, child protection, legal and family violence support services
  • better coordinate community and government responses to family violence
  • evaluate and measure the success of strategies, frameworks, policies, programs and services introduced to put a stop family violence.[i]

The Commission was asked to make practical recommendations to achieve these outcomes.

The Report summarises what family violence data tell us:

  • Family violence disproportionately affects women and children, and the majority of perpetrators are men.
  • Female victims are more likely to be a current or former partner of the perpetrator, while men are more likely to experience violence in different familial relationships—for example, as a son or a sibling.
  • Some groups are at greater risk of family violence or experience it at increased rates. This includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and women with disabilities.
  • These and other groups face particular barriers in seeking and obtaining help; they include people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds and people living in rural, regional or remote areas.
  • Although it is not clear whether the prevalence of family violence (that is, the proportion of the population who have experienced such violence at least once) is increasing, we do know that there has been greater reporting of family violence, leading to an increase in incidents being recognised.[ii]

The Commission also identified some of the fundamental challenges in this field, including, that:

  • The causes of family violence are complex and include gender inequality and community attitudes towards women. Contributing factors may include financial pressures, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illness and social and economic exclusion.
  • There are gaps and obstacles in the response to family violence in Victoria that are limiting the effective implementation of laws, policies, and programs;
  • The number of family violence incidents now reported means that supports and agencies (including police and the courts) are overwhelmed. The safety of those experiencing family violence is being imperiled as a consequence.
  • Family violence takes many different forms and manifestations, many of which are not always recognised and responses may not be tailored to the particular circumstances and needs of diverse victims.
  • There is a lack of targeted resources to meet the specific needs of children and young people who have experienced family violence;
  • The current response to family violence largely assumes or encourages women to leave their home when family violence occurs. For many in those circumstances, there is no guarantee of a safe place to stay or a permanent home that is affordable. Homelessness may occur. And for those who remain at home, adequate monitoring of the perpetrator may not occur.
  • People working in systems with which women regularly engage, including health services and schools, may not recognise that family violence is occurring and then, may not know what to do when it is identified.
  • Available services, including crisis responses, are not well coordinated, especially across systems including the health and justice systems. Victims experience difficulties gaining access to supports and service responses may be inconsistent and challenging to access;
  • Perpetrators are not being held accountable. Victims are too often left to manage risk and their future safety with insufficient attention given to addressing the individual risk factors of perpetrators.
  • While inadequate information sharing between agencies continues, the safety of victims is undermined. Outdated information technology systems are a contributing complication.
  • Inadequate focus on preventing the occurrence of family violence, and failures to intervene early to reduce the risk of violence is increasing risk for women and children
  • There needs to be greater focus on helping victims recover from violence and to rebuild their lives.
  • The absence of a dedicated governance mechanism to coordinate the system’s efforts to prevent and respond to family violence and assess the efficacy of current efforts compounds current challenges.
  • Greater investment in prevention measures and timely responses to family violence is essential;
  • Insufficient attention is paid to the effects of violence on children. Supporting children and young people must be central to family violence policies.

The Commission challenges the government to treat family violence as a core area of responsibility, rather than being delegated to the margins of portfolios or small specialist units. A genuine commitment to a whole-of-government approach to stop family violence, support victims and hold perpetrators accountable is demanded in the Report.

It would appear that Premier Andrews has heeded that call, given he has announced his Government will adopt all 227 of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission.

In the reporting process, the Commission was told of the difficulties faced by many family violence victims who sometimes had to go to a magistrates’ court to obtain a family violence intervention order and then go to a federal family court to resolve disputes about their children.

This “fragmentation” between state courts and the federal family law courts was identified as a source of concern.  Many people reported that their experience of family violence was given “insufficient weight and consideration” in the family law courts. Some people also identified the conflict between their desire to protect children from the harmful behaviour of the other parent, while not wanting to appear “obstructive” to the Judge in the family law courts. Others victims spoke of their experience of perpetrators of violence using the family court proceedings to continue coercive and controlling behaviours.

The Commission’s recommendations for new approaches cover the following:

  • Support and Safety Hubs in local communities to make it easier for victims to find help and gain access to a greater range of services
  • new laws to ensure that privacy considerations do not trump victims’ safety—with a Central Information Point to funnel information about perpetrators to the Hubs
  • an immediate funding boost to services that support victims and families, additional resources for Aboriginal community initiatives and a dedicated funding stream for preventing family violence
  • a ‘blitz’ to rehouse women and children forced to leave their homes, supported by expanded individual funding packages
  • an expanded investigative capacity for police and mobile technology for front-line police, including a trial of body-worn cameras
  • more specialist family violence courts that can deal with criminal, civil and family law matters at the same time
  • stronger perpetrator programs and increased monitoring and oversight by agencies
  • family violence training for all key workforces—including in hospitals and schools
  • investment in future generations through expanded respectful relationships education in schools
  • an independent Family Violence Agency to hold government to account.[iii]

As governments, interested agencies and citizens digest this Report there are calls for all State and Territory governments to reconsider their own domestic violence strategies and responses in light of this call to action.  A systematic overhaul of how each state and territory responds is essential – domestic violence is no respecter of territorial boundaries.

[i] Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence – Summary and Recommendations, page 1.

[ii] Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence – Summary and Recommendations, page 18.

[iii] Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence – Summary and Recommendations, page 15.