The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence has sparked an important national debate, but that needs to be backed up by work that responds to violence in the community, and a strategy to stop it before it starts, Brigitte Lewis, Lisa Harris, and Georgina Heydon write.
After the Royal Commission into Family Violence released their findings in March this year, the Victorian Government committed $572 million towards implementing 65 of the 227 recommendations they came back with.
Innovative ideas and approaches to address family violence are urgently needed, and there are several new initiatives already doing important work.
In 2014, Victoria Police set up a specialised family violence unit called Taskforce Alexis which was trialled initially in southeast Melbourne. Taskforce Alexis provides an holistic approach to responding to family violence with both family violence specialists and police working in a single team. It has proved a resounding success with a drop in repeat offenders reported and is exactly the kind of partnership and cross-agency co-operation that the Royal Commission recommendations advocate. Following this, in 2015, Australia saw its first Family Violence Command rolled out and headed by Assistant Commissioner Dean McWhirter which provides high-level oversight of police responses to family violence.
The use of technology has also created space for innovative responses to family violence, with the SmartSafe+ mobile app winning the Victorian Premier’s iAward for Public Sector Innovation in June this year. Developed by the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria, the app enables women to keep an online diary using written, pictorial, video, and audio entries that are then stored on a cloud account to enable security. Similarly, The Neighbourhood Justice Centre is trialling an online intervention order app which includes plain language explanations to help improve access to justice. Such technical innovations further demonstrate collaboration in action, with tech experts working together with the domestic violence sector to develop safe options for victims.
Existing specialist family violence court divisions have also been a success. Yet with more than 46,000 intervention orders finalised in 2015, more specialist court services are needed across the state, with only two operating at present.
However, there remain many other challenges to address. One of the Royal Commission’s recommendations is that all family violence practitioners hold a social work degree. Not only is this a significant undertaking to resource and support workers to upskill, but many university degrees do not currently teach family violence as a core subject. There is a clear need for the tertiary sector to further collaborate with domestic and family violence specialists and government, to improve education and training options.
Responding to violence in communities that are cultural and linguistically diverse (CALD) is also a challenge. There is a significant resource gap, particularly for language translation services and bi-lingual domestic violence support workers. This is in addition to developing greater diversity in support and perpetrator programs to take language and terminology differences, cultural sensitivity, and particular barriers to communicating about gender and violence issues into account.
A further key challenge is providing adequate services to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who are 31 times more likely to be hospitalised and 10 times more likely to die from violent assault than other women. The Victorian Government has committed $25.7 million to working with Indigenous communities and expanding special programs for Indigenous women. But there remains a substantial funding gap for vital legal services like Family Violence Prevention Legal Services (FVPLS), which provides legal and non-legal support to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experiencing family violence. Bi-partisan support for adequately funding legal services at both Federal and State government levels is increasingly urgent.
Bi-partisan political and funding support had also been instrumental to the work being undertaken in primary prevention of violence against women and their children. The independent organisation Our Watch is tasked with policy development and capacity building for prevention work at a national level. This work led to a joint launch last year between Our Watch, Australia’s National Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS), and VicHealth of Australia’s first comprehensive national framework for the prevention of violence against women, Change the Story. Given the extent and harms of family and domestic violence to the Australian community, it is crucial that governments support efforts to prevent the violence before it starts.
The current Federal Government’s ‘Respect’ campaign, Let’s Stop it At The Start, is a step in the right direction. The campaign aims to raise awareness and spark a national conversation about violence against women as well as the inequality and disrespect that drives it. Yet it will take more than community awareness campaigns to address the key drivers of violence in our society. A coordinated approach to implementing Change the Story, as well as delivering evidence-based programs and strategies nationally, is going to take a substantial collaborative effort. Governments, business, health, community services, and education all have key roles to play.
Victoria’s challenges are, of course, not unique. But six months after the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, perhaps one of the observable outcomes is to contribute to an ongoing national conversation about violence against women. It a conversation we need to keep having, but it will prove meaningless without a collaborative and substantial strategy of actions both to respond to current violence in our community, and to stop it before it starts.
RMIT is hosting a panel discussion, Domestic Violence: applying research to policy, prevention and practice on Tuesday 6 September, to discuss many of these issues with thought leaders in the field. The panel discussion includes: Assistant Police Commissioner Family Violence Command Dean McWhirter, Magistrate Anne Goldsbrough, CEO of the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Service Victoria Antoinette Braybrook, CEO Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria Emily Maguire, Manager Policy at OurWatch Dr Emma Partridge, and RMIT researchers Drs Lisa Harris, Georgina Heydon and Christine Craik.