We all experience times in our lives when a range of issues and events coalesce to prompt us to act, or react.  The last couple of weeks have been like that for me, and probably for many other women as well.  A heart-warming story of what feminists achieved in the 1970’s for family violence, was soon displaced by the heartbreaking stories of the murder of a 33 year old mother who was failed by a legal system that provides inadequate protection for victims of abuse, and the shocking murder of two little girls at the hands of their father on Easter Sunday.  Then I read Noely's blogpost on Domestic Violence, and the guilt and shame she felt for not speaking out.  I was compelled to write to her, thanking her for telling her story.  I also felt inspired to do the same as I've felt that guilt and shame too.  But then a story about the threat to the future of the Women’s Refuge system in NSW, in the form of cancelling funding and putting services out to tender, pushed so many buttons.  That's one of the things you find if you've lived with an abusive partner; things can trigger uncomfortable feelings.  Sometimes you just get angry.  So I may have got a bit carried away when I decided not to remain silent about an issue that for too long has been in the too hard basket.  We need to treat ‘family violence’ as Violence!  Just as we do ‘coward punches’ or any kind of assault.  We need to put children first in our Family Court system, and in the provision of support services and safe havens for victims of violence.  Violence in the home is one of the greatest betrayals of trust that can be inflicted on a child, and damages lives.  It also kills. It kills mothers.  It kills children.  It’s time we got serious about addressing this.

On April 12 ‘The Age’ published ‘40 years of Elsie’ by Mandy Sayer in the Good Weekend supplement.  For those that missed it, this article gave a detailed account of how Australia’s first Women’s Refuge was set up in Glebe in Sydney.  Following a 2 day Women’s Commission Conference in 1974, a group of women determined to provide a service similar to that available at the Chiswick Women’s Aid shelter in England.  Sayer was also writing of her own experience of family abuse, and the care she and her mother received at Elsie; that first refuge that is celebrating its 40th anniversary.

To say that Elsie has saved thousands of lives sounds overdramatic, and until the tragic events in Melbourne in the last week and a bit, many would have doubted the veracity of such a statement.  Because Women’s Refuges have been set up by women, for women, they have always put the safety of the women and their children first.  That is why men are banned from Elsie, to provide what is literally a refuge. When Bill Hayden, then the Minister for Social Security in the Whitlam government, tried to visit the centre, he was initially turned away by one of the resident mothers (despite his explaining who he was) because “no men are allowed”.  Following his visit, Federal funding was provided for an initial 12-month period. Since then, women’s refuges provide essential services and support via more than 300 centres around Australia.  I really should see if I can find figures for how many families go through centres each year, but I don’t want to get bogged down in statistics.  For the curious, Elsie sheltered 13,500 women and children in the first 18 months.  There are many reasons to think current services shelter upwards of 250,000 women and children each year.

I remember 1974 very clearly, but then I have very good recall of events back to when I was 2 years old.  I was very keen to see the Whitlam government elected in 1972, because he promised to stop the lottery which threatened to send my eldest brother to Vietnam; and he promised to provide a widow’s pension for separated mothers.  Family separation and divorce were pretty uncommon when my mother packed us up and left her abusive husband.  She had never reported the abuse to police; nor had our neighbours, but the whole town knew what was happening.  When my mother packed up and left in 1970, there was no financial support, counselling or safe haven.  We were helped by the local Catholic priest, who rented us the Parish house, and my mother scrubbed floors and helped serve lunches at a local hotel.  She worked from 6am to 2pm, for a wage that barely fed us.  So when Whitlam was elected, we agreed with “It’s Time!”  Despite the whole town knowing our circumstances, nobody spoke about family violence, and while I suspected our family wasn’t unique, it never occurred I knew others in the same situation.  I found out later a couple of school friends’ fathers were also abusive to their mothers, and even to them.  They were important people in the town; professionals.  Eventually the marriages ended, but the violence was always hidden.  

There is no reason to think this has changed; in my experience this is still a taboo subject.  I divorced an abusive husband 10 years ago, yet my own siblings and children have little if any knowledge of the extent of the abuse I endured over many years.  The emotional and psychological abuse escalated in the end to physical violence, and like my mother I left for personal safety reasons.  But there were no police reports.  Sayer interviews some current residents of Elsie for her article, and their stories indicate that despite improved policing practices, and greater community awareness, family violence is still not treated as seriously as it should be, and secrecy still prevails in many instances.  One mother explains that when she showed the police the photos of the bruises on her daughter’s limbs “They told me I had a victim mentality and was just being melodramatic”.

This dismissal of a complaint of child abuse beggars belief in the 21st Century, and causes me to wonder whether we’ve got anywhere since 1974.  The apparent failure of the system of Intervention Orders (a factor in the horrific murder of Fiona Warzywoda in Sunshine on April 16th) doesn’t inspire confidence either in women seeking to escape from abusive or violent partners. 

Wednesday’s ‘Age’ (April 23) responded to the murder of Fiona Warzywoda, and Savannah and Indianna, the two girls murdered last Sunday.  The articles are all worth reading, and I won’t go into details here, but a number of things stand out. 

Ron Iddles: “Police Association secretary and former Homicide Squad detective …conceded there is still a lack of communication and co-ordination between police, government agencies and social services.  He said there was often a community reluctance to intervene in domestic disputes that were spiralling out of control.”

Iddles would like to see community members and friends act on warning signs, which is hard to disagree with.  But a commitment by government to ensure proper communication protocols between services is vital if there is to be positive change.  There is also a need to ensure that all agencies involved are adequately resourced and staff have appropriate training to deal with reports and complaints of violence.  Domestic Violence services struggle to meet demands placed on them and funding issues shouldn’t be added to the burden.

While I’m loathe to include statistics, I have to include the following from ‘The Age’ (Wednesday April 23) to highlight the horror families are experiencing:

Past studies have shown that sexual assault is one of the most under-reported crimes, so it wouldn’t be surprising if the number of rape victims was 10 times that reported.  Given that all types of family violence are under-reported, we really don’t know how bad things have become.  The extraordinary increase in homicides gives us a clue though.  This is not a crime that’s as easily hidden or covered up, and a five-fold increase in two years is a shocking indictment on our society.  Is it because it’s mostly women victims being killed by their partners?  If this level of increasing numbers of fatalities occurred in any other setting than the home, there would be a massive response from the media, government and the community.

A question was posed on twitter a couple of days ago: “What do you think can be done to address the Family Violence epidemic?”  Or something like that.  I thought about this and it seems there are two main strategies that need to be pursued.  We need to deal with the current abusers, and provide for their victims.  We also need to look at prevention; innoculating young teenagers and children of both sexes about relationships, behaviours, risk and where to get information and support both now and in the future.

Current abusers are offered counselling (which a Magistrate cannot order to happen) and can be the subject of an Intervention Order or an Aggravated Violence Order.  Clearly, for the worst offenders this doesn’t work.  Victoria Police figures show that “820 offenders, mostly men, breached orders at least three times in the past financial year. Of these, 200 individuals violated orders more than five times, and 15 committed more than 10 separate breaches in one year”.  Clearly, neither the offenders, nor the Justice system takes these breaches seriously, unless of course, these individuals have all been locked up.  That’s what I think needs to happen.  Statutory punishment of seven days imprisonment for a breach.  Statutory makes it like a parking ticket; automatic penalty.  This is a much more serious offence than parking; the example is by way of explaining there is no other option for the Court.  I believe that given our society sees deprivation of liberty as a deterrent, this is a reasonable Statute to put on the books.  Currently, IOs are clearly not a deterrent.  Also, in any case where an Intervention Order is granted, a psychological assessment needs to be carried out immediately the Order is made.  The purpose should be to assess the risk of re-offending as well as offering a chance for the abuser to debrief.  The offer of professional counselling sessions can also be made at this time.  The offender does not get to walk out of the building until this is done.  If someone is violent to be their partner or child, this should be seen as more than a random assault and treated more seriously.  This will cost money, probably big money.  At a time when the Federal government is spending $25m on a Royal Commission to investigate four deaths that have been the subject of several inquiries already, including Coronial inquests, I think the money should and must be found.

For victims of Family Violence there is also an investment needed.  Currently, women with boys over 10 years of age (or 14), it seems to vary, cannot stay in a Women’s Refuge.  A greater range of accommodation options are needed, with the sector straining under the demand.  The money needs to be made available, and these services need to be set up under the feminist model of current refuges.  The only difference should be to allow teenage boys to be with their mother, and to also receive counselling and support.  By far the greatest issue for victims once they leave a violent partner in Victora is the crisis is housing affordability.  John Elder's article in 'The Age' last Sunday highlights the lack of both short term and long term accommodation even for those identified at high or extreme risk.  Victorian governments have underinvested in public housing for four decades with the result that waiting times are so long many people give up any hope of ever obtaining affordable long term housing.  "Even for a woman at risk of death, and granted priority access, it can take up to two years to get a place on [sic] public housing."  This is an appalling situation!  How can we be surprised by the horrible statistics above when women and children are left with nowhere safe to go.  There's "been a 40 percent in family violence reports over the past two years" according to Victoria Police, who dealt with 60,000 family violence incidents in 2012-13.  It's impossible not to think the extraordinary increase in family violence homicides over the same period is in part due to the critical lack of public housing and refuge beds.  Almost one person per week (nearly always women or children) have been murdered.  Each was someone's mother, sister, daughter, son, aunt, grandmother; and the horror and grief of losing them in such a way haunts their family and friends.  The preventable death of so many affects us all though as it's our collective failure to ensure the resources are there to keep them safe.  For each life lost, a whole community may be affected.

Prevention needs to be the third pillar of any effort to address the crisis we face.  Education should start by Yr 7 at the latest, providing information and promoting discussion about appropriate behaviour, respect, and what resources exist for children experiencing family violence.  Maybe this already happens, but I know none of my children were provided with much in this area.  Boys should learn that ‘respect for girls’ is cool, and actually gains them friendships.  The over emphasis on sport as the almost exclusive way to achieve status should also be addressed, as it encourages a culture that says strength is power.  Professional athletes and sportspeople could be used to promote positive messages as they currently do, but this should be extended to include psychologists and medical professionals to talk about stress, anxiety, depression and recognising triggers and danger signs in other people’s behaviour.  Tradespeople, writers, artists, office workers, managers and all sorts of people should be invited to help spread the message of respect for others, and positive self-awareness.   

This may sound like pie in the sky, but one thing that has really struck me over the last 15 years is how little hope some young people have.  The greater inequality we see in our society, it seems the more violent and aggressive people become.  Real social change is needed to address this, and real political change.  We’ve seen polarisation become the norm and political discourse drop to the level where our Prime Minister has been called abusive names in the media.  This was previously unthinkable, and we’ve sent a very damaging message to people who have grown up in this era.  We need to demand better; from our media; from our politicians; from our communities.  We need to use the word ‘criminal’ to describe the abusers, and talk openly about where the system works, and where it’s failing.  Only by facing up to our responsibilities as a community can we start the healing for many of the victims; for abusers; and for our society.

Part 1 of 2 part series

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part 2  Unhand that Women's Service Sir!

Valerie Kennedy
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Valerie Kennedy
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