New hope to reform family violence response

June 19th, 2017

Right now in the state of Western Australia there is a window of opportunity for a new approach to family and domestic violence. A change of government and the announcement of a new Minister with responsibility for Family and Domestic Violence means that a coordinated and integrated response across government agencies and community organisations is possible.

Up until now the response from various government departments and services has been fragmented and has resulted, too often, in doing more harm than good. The police, the courts, corrective services, child protection, health and mental health and a host of community based organisations each play important parts.

However, for victims this has meant having to navigate their way around a fragmented service and justice system and having to retell their story to each service provider whose responses have often been inconsistent and even contradictory. The result has been that the safety of women and children has been put at risk and the men who have perpetrated violence against them have often not been held accountable.

Take Mary*, for example, one of those ‘one in four Australian women’ who has experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner and who knows all too well a fragmented domestic violence system that has re-victimized her and her children.

Police are called to a DV ‘incident’ at Mary’s house. Mary has been beaten by her partner again after a long history of abuse and this time he’s charged. The Magistrate puts him on a ‘Community Based Order’. One of the conditions is that he attends a Men’s DV group. Mary takes out a ‘Violence Restraining Order’. He breaches the VRO several times but the police don’t charge him as there’s ‘not enough evidence’. Meanwhile child protection workers are supporting Mary as her kids have experienced the violence too. The housing provider evicts her because of three strikes of disturbing the peace (neighbours). Mary and her kids are now homeless, and her kids are taken into care. The child protection worker tells Mary she needs to find accommodation so she can get her kids back. Mary also must do parenting courses. Meanwhile the perpetrator goes to court seeking custody of the kids and he is living with his parents. Mary goes to the court seeking a no contact order as she is concerned for her kids’ welfare. Mary must prove she is not alienating the children from their father and at the same time answer questions about why she was not a more protective mother.

Mary’s story is not unusual. Though it is a compilation of several cases, it is an accurate portrayal of the many ways victims of domestic violence currently experience the system set up to help them. The above example illustrates the need for effective case management and communication of essential information across the domestic violence system.

So what would an integrated system look like? The new Minister’s role would provide leadership, oversight and accountability as well as ensuring the implementation of best practice across the family violence system that is sustainable in the long-term and immune to changing political agendas. However no one Minister can do it alone. There needs to be a multi-agency and integrated approach across government agencies dealing with the consequences of family and domestic violence and community based services responding to victims and perpetrators. A shared vision would lead to a more seamless and effective response for victims such as Mary.

There is strong support for an integrated approach to domestic violence in the WA community. Several positive steps in this direction are already underway. Currently there are National Outcome Standards for Perpetrator Interventions being developed for how governments and community organisations respond to male perpetrators of domestic violence. A new peak body which consists of representatives from Men’s Behaviour Change Program (MBCP) providers in WA, has been established to guide their implementation in WA. There are other projects happening in other parts of the system. Community based organisations are consistently calling for more integrated and collaborative approaches in this field and there would be strong support for the Minister or Ministers who is prepared to show leadership in this direction.

The community services sector looks forward to engaging with the new Minister in this important opportunity to oversee the development of a truly integrated and consistent domestic violence service system, to monitor and evaluate its operation and effectiveness, and to advise Government and other stakeholders accordingly. This would be a seamless system that Mary needed but didn’t experience. It would also mean hope for numerous other women and children – that their safety will not be jeopardised and their abusers will be held to account.

Terri Reilly
Chief Executive Officer
Relationships Australia WA

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