May 2021

Comment

Australia’s number-one law and order issue

By Jess Hill

Minister for Women’s Safety Anne Ruston. © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Addressing the national scourge of domestic violence

There has never been such heightened community awareness about domestic abuse: what it looks like, how it feels and where to get help. This awareness is crucial: it not only helps victim-survivors identify the abuse earlier but can also give them the confidence to seek outside help. That more victim-survivors are seeking help is clear: family violence–related callouts to Victoria Police, for example, have increased significantly, from 65,000 in 2013–14 to 88,214 in 2019–20. Calls to the statewide family violence helpline, Safe Steps, have also risen sharply, from around 55,000 in 2014–15, to 74,000 last year. Awareness-raising is working.

But when these victim-survivors take the calculated risk to seek help, they are entering a system that is still no match for the power of their perpetrators. In every state – even Victoria, where the state government has actually come close to properly funding the domestic violence sector – systems are manifestly unprepared to protect victims. Every institution – police, the justice system, Centrelink, child protection, rental tribunals – is being gamed too easily by perpetrators, such that the institutions often end up colluding with and even facilitating the abuse. In the worst cases, this collusion can end up being fatal.

When Olga Edwards went to Hornsby Police Station, in northern Sydney, to report that her ex-husband, John, had assaulted her children, she was too late: he had got to police nine months earlier, warning that his ex-wife was likely to make false allegations against him in order to win custody of his children. Police didn’t even bother to check his record; if they had, they would have discovered that three previous partners, and one of his children, had taken out Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders against him. Instead, they just took him at his word. Olga’s allegations were dismissed. The lawyer appointed to represent her children’s best interests in the custody proceedings colluded with John, too, refusing to take seriously the expressed fears of his children, pushing them to have contact with their father and failing to disclose the history of domestic violence to the court, reducing it instead to “heavy-handed parenting”. When the children refused to even attend family therapy with their father, the same independent children’s lawyer accused Olga of being “uncooperative”, and threatened to recommend to the court that the kids be removed from her care.

These weren’t just red flags that were misinterpreted, they were people in the system making clear disclosures and pleading for help. John, after being granted a gun licence, shot dead his two children, 15-year-old Jack and 13-year-old Jennifer. Olga suicided five months later. As the coroner said, this was not a tragedy, because that would imply it was unavoidable. It was avoidable.

The systems that colluded with John Edwards enable the abuse of perpetrators across the country. We talk a lot about false allegations in this country – usually with an eye to the way they can ruin an innocent man’s reputation. But we almost never hear about the false allegations perpetrators make against the people they have victimised: the false reports they make to child protection about their wives – commonly for neglect – that end up with the victim being investigated, and worse; the complex framing of victims for bad and even criminal behaviour through impersonation and identity theft; the false allegations of parental alienation that are levelled in the family law system against victim-parents who dare to present their children’s allegations of abuse in custody hearings; and the false accusations perpetrators make to police, which can lead to victims having intervention orders taken out against them, being evicted by police from their homes and even being arrested.

Every system, in every conceivable way, is being gamed by perpetrators, and very little is done to interrupt this. Almost every time I speak to a victim-survivor, the story of what happened to them in public, especially once the relationship was over, is just as intense – if not worse – than what happened behind closed doors. Domestic abuse is perpetrated in private and in public, enabled and perpetuated by others who wittingly and unwittingly collude with oppressive, violent people. Our problem isn’t just the population of bystanders unwilling to intervene, it’s also the people who are actively taking part in the abuse, and are unwilling to see that they are being used.

These are the complex cases family violence services have to deal with – cases that are only getting more complicated as technology, such as hidden surveillance apps and tracking devices, becomes more sophisticated and cheaper. When I first truly understood the complexity caseworkers have to respond to and unravel, years ago, I said to one refuge worker, “You should be getting training from ASIO.”

How does this look on the ground? Let’s take one service from New South Wales – the Campbelltown office of the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service (WDVCAS). Its head, Tanya Whitehouse, was “genuinely shocked” to see just how much their caseload had increased in recent years. “Our [client numbers] had increased by 84 per cent in five years,” she says, attributing it to greater community awareness, and other factors such as proactive policing. In the past two years, the number of matters referred to the service by police that ranked as a “serious threat” had risen by 127 per cent, which, Whitehouse says, “kind of blew my mind”.

“One part is women are feeling safer to disclose that stuff now, but there’s also a smaller element where the violence is more serious, and more horrendous.” Even more confronting was the increase in complexity. “Social media, monitoring through your phone – all of that stuff wasn’t around even five years ago as much as it is now. We’re seeing more women come forward saying, ‘I think he’s put something on my phone’, ‘He’s got a tracking device in my car’, or ‘He knows what I say when I’m at home and he doesn’t live there anymore’. I think there’s more skill around the stalking. How do we respond to this in an affordable way?”

Caseworkers at WDVCAS and elsewhere stand between victim-survivors and their perpetrators, and protect them from the various systems weaponised against them. They keep some victim-survivors on the books for years, because the threat level remains so high. And yet they are only barely funded to do this vital work.

“I look at all the great services we work with,” says Whitehouse, “and if they were just funded better and had more staff, we wouldn’t have women waiting three months to get into a service. I’ve got staff who are drowning in work, who are committed to helping women, and half of my job is making sure they don’t all burn out. If I had two more caseworkers, I would be cruising. It’s nothing – it’s a drop in the ocean.”

A fundamental paradigm shift is required. Domestic abuse is the number-one threat to public safety. It is our number-one law and order issue: in Victoria, it consumes 40 to 60 per cent of police time on average. It is core business for our family law courts: more than 85 per cent of cases feature abuse allegations. And yet throughout our systems, we continue to conceive of it as a niche issue. We acknowledge the statistics – that one in four women report physical or sexual violence from a partner since the age of 16 – but fail to comprehend what that actually means.

I never thought I knew anyone who had experienced domestic abuse. During my seven years of reporting on this issue, the stories of those close to me have surfaced gradually – one particularly close relative as recently as a month ago – and now I can state with confidence that the victim statistic numbered in my family and friends exceeds the national average. Australians are only just starting to understand how deeply embedded domestic abuse is in this country. People – and policymakers in particular – need to understand that domestic abuse doesn’t just happen to anybody; it affects everybody, in ways that are seen and unseen.

The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children expires next year. It’s been in place for more than a decade. This ambitious plan, set in train by Labor MP Tanya Plibersek (then the minister for the status of women), has failed. Not because it’s impossible to reduce domestic abuse, but because it has languished under successive governments that have no interest in it. In a speech to mark International Women’s Day this year, Anne Summers, who co-founded Australia’s first domestic violence refuge in 1974, listed the sorry succession of ministers responsible for administering the plan since 2014: Kevin Andrews, Scott Morrison, Christian Porter (who as attorney-general abolished the standalone Family Court), Dan Tehan and Paul Fletcher.

Now, for the first time since the Coalition came to power under Tony Abbott, we have a woman in charge of the plan again: Minister for Women’s Safety Anne Ruston. She will be stewarding the next national plan, and has called a national summit to discuss this in July. The public, too, have been invited to “have their say”, in a survey that asks participants to rate from “highly relevant” to “not relevant” statements such as, “Services meet the needs of people experiencing family, domestic and sexual violence” and “People who experience family, domestic and sexual violence are heard and have their experiences acknowledged.” That such an approach is offensive is an understatement. I felt nauseous reading it. These statements are not matters of opinion.

Millions of people in this country have had to work out how to escape their abuser. Tens of thousands more are, right now, strategising each day just to survive. The damage this wreaks in our systems, across the generations and on our national psyche, is incalculable.

As the federal government attempts to woo back female voters, it will likely announce more funding for the domestic violence sector. Of course, every dollar is welcome. But we will be tinkering at the edges of this crisis until we finally have a prime minister who declares ending domestic abuse to be a national priority. This is not a niche issue. It doesn’t just happen to other people. It affects every last one of us. If we were to devote the resources – in our budgets and in our communities – to truly fixing this, the results could be spectacular. But, more to the point, nothing less than this will work.

 

For support call 1800 RESPECT (National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service) or 13 11 44 (Lifeline).

Jess Hill

Jess Hill is an investigative reporter and the author of See What You Made Me Do.

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