lessons from victoria’s royal commission into family violence
The Victorian Labor Government has commenced Australia’s first Royal Commission into Family Violence: the most dangerous and prevalent form of violence perpetrated against women. The newly released Terms of Reference task proposed commissioners – Patricia Faulkner, Chair of Jesuit Social Services and the National Health Performance Authority, and Tony Nicholson, Executive Director of the Brotherhood of St Laurence – with finding the most effective ways to prevent family violence. In addition to this, they must find ways to improve early intervention to identify and protect those at risk, support victims, make perpetrators accountable and improve the way that government and society work together on these issues. It is a long and seemingly lofty laundry list of undertakings, though it is no doubt soon to become necessary ammunition against the insidious and profound threat family violence poses for the men, women and children who suffer its effects.
Family violence has been reported to be the leading cause of death and disability for women residing in Victoria under the age of 45. Every week in Australia, a woman is killed by her current or former partner. These are the faceless numbers borne by real people living amongst us every day; family, friends, partners and co-workers, and potentially those reading this article.
A minute’s silence to acknowledge those who had been killed or harmed as a result of family violence was held before the hearings of the Royal Commission began on July 13 in Melbourne’s old Coroner’s Court. Justice Martia Neave in her opening address celebrated the fact that ‘society committed itself to overcoming this vile social ill’, however in hearing the findings of the Commission, Australia still has a long way to go before celebrating too long into the night of social justice.
It appears that victims of family violence cannot always trust the services that should protect them. Chief Executive of Good Shepard Youth and Family Service, Rhonda Cumberland, was the first to give evidence at the hearings, drawing upon her experience as a former director of the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service and her work from the Victorian government’s Family Violence Reform Unit. ‘I don’t think we can expect the family violence service system to be perfect, but we do expect it to be a system we can trust,’ Cumberland stated. ‘Right now, the trust is just not there for it to do its job… trust is essential.’
And finding trust in a system that cannot accommodate you is no easy task. A report in The Guardian finds that just over the border, the New South Wales government has spent almost $14 million in the last year housing people in motels and caravan parks, including victims of family violence, amid calls by advocates to fund a 24-hour on-call worker in every women’s refuge in the state. ‘The loss of 24 hour refuges is one of the major service gaps to emerge after the government’s Going Home Staying Home reforms,’ sector workers said. The increase in spending on temporary accommodation for the homeless – up from $11.2 million to an expected $13.8 million for the 2015 financial year – comes after The Sydney Morning Herald revealed last week that 90% of the women’s refuges in NSW are at capacity. While almost half of the survivors of family violence are reported to flee their homes between 6pm and 6am, refuges across the nation are becoming increasingly unable to respond to their calls of help. The changes, which were rolled out last year, consolidated independent women’s refuges with generalist homelessness services. With funding being poured into temporary homelessness shelters and caravan parks, little is being done to reassure victims of family violence that they have any semblance of a safe haven outside their own homes, which have already have been tainted with fear and danger. A hope for these men, women and children may come in the form of 24-hour access to refuge; if only it was being funded.
This is not just an issue that is isolated in Australia alone. Domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women between the ages of 15 and 44 in the United States – more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined*. To add insult to injury, there are 1,500 shelters for women suffering from family violence, while there are 3,800 animal shelters. Women experiencing family violence in the United States who live in poverty are often forced to choose between abusive relationships and homelessness. In addition, 50% of the cities surveyed by the US Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness**.
Family violence has been an issue on the lips of most socially conscious individuals for decades. It appears that perhaps the Victorian government is attempting to ameliorate conditions in Victoria with the Royal Commission. However without direct action, and an increase in the availability of 24 hour refuge services for women fleeing dangerous circumstances at home, there will be very little done to fight for the rights and wellbeing of victims. With global inaccessibility to homelessness shelters for women, we cannot begin to counsel or care for those who are suffering under the hand of their partners and family members, let alone building a system that prevents further instances of this destructive epidemic of violence.
*Source: Violence Against Women, A Majority Staff Report, Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, 102nd Congress, October 1992, p.3