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How Victoria is taking some responsibility for family violence

Victoria’s new government is taking a proactive approach to family violence. But the successes of the past decade have shown just how difficult it is to implement a well-functioning policy.

Forty-four people died in incidents of family violence in Victoria in 2013 — in a state widely regarded to be at the frontline of Australian policy responses over the last 15 years. There’s a long way to go.

With the spotlight shining on domestic violence brighter than ever, what Victoria does next is being keenly watched by campaigners and policymakers around the country. The new Labor government made the issue an election pledge, enshrining ministerial responsibility, expanding bureaucratic resources and launching a royal commission into a tragic history.

The government created the position of Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence, held by Fiona Richardson, and moved the Office of Women’s Affairs into the Department of Premier and Cabinet, fulfilling two recommendations made by the No More Deaths campaign, a coalition of anti-domestic violence non-government organisations, prior to the election. Last week, it released the terms of reference for its royal commission.

Labor has, however, postponed the $150 million announced by the previous government as part of the ending violence against women and children strategy, pending the outcomes of the royal commission. Though they have replaced some of the money, there is concern this will leave important services underfunded in the interim.

Alison Macdonald
Alison Macdonald

Improved system design, better policing and a broadened definition of the problem has led to a jump in requests for help — Victoria Police recorded 28,000 Family Violence Incident Reports in 2003-4; this figure was 60,000 in 2013. The change has left the system under-resourced and “bursting at the seams”, says Alison Macdonald, policy and program manager at peak body Domestic Violence Victoria.

“The demand has meant the system hasn’t worked as effectively as it could,” Macdonald said. “The demand/capacity equation has never been adequately resourced.”

Beginning in the early 2000s with the election of Steve Bracks, Victoria’s family violence regime has reformed in an effort to put the state at the forefront of best-practice thinking. A more integrated system sees departments of state, police, courts and non-government organisations work together more effectively than in the past.

The creation in 2002 of the Statewide Steering Committee to Reduce Family Violence was an innovative and effective move to help push collaboration across government portfolios and key NGOs. Its early work started with the basic notion of establishing a shared understanding of what family violence means and its impact on the community. While this seems simple, Macdonald says it was vital — a co-ordinated response cannot exist in the absence of a shared definition of the problem.

Macdonald told The Mandarin the committee was innovative “because it was quite genuine collaboration between the non-government sector and different areas of government, in a way those of us in the NGO sector had not been used to working before”.

She’s watching what impact the new minister has on outcomes. “One of the things about the integrated reforms that was seen as quite innovative was that we had multi-ministerial leadership under [John] Brumby and Bracks — the women’s portfolio, community services, child protection, attorney-general’s and the police minister were all involved,” Macdonald said.

“They came together quarterly for joint oversight and ownership, and it was quite effective. That unravelled under the last government. Now there’s one minister. It’s very early days, but it will be interesting to see how this works.”

A more integrated approach

Following the initial groundwork of framing the problem through consultation, the Brumby government enacted the Family Violence Protection Act in 2008, broadening the definition of behaviours that constitute family violence and recognising the diversity of family situations in which it occurs.

Libby Eltringham of the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria argues the legislation was “groundbreaking” at the time for its acknowledgement of the gendered nature of family violence and its statements about the use of control in such relationships. She says the consultation that led to legislative reform gave women’s advocates “a shared sense of ownership over that process”. “It was a good foundation relationship with key players in government and police that allowed that to happen, it meant everyone stayed really engaged,” she told The Mandarin.

This wave of reform also led to the implementation of the Common Risk Assessment Framework, a standardised system now used across a whole range of practitioners — including those in health, Centrelink employees, court registrars, and others — to identify risk factors in clients and respond appropriately.

Macdonald thinks the CRAF is one of the most powerful tools for expanding the state’s capacity to carry out early intervention — an area in which Victoria remains weak. Many non-specialists, such as GPs, ambulance personnel and teachers, don’t know how to respond in cases of family violence, so extending training to those who regularly come into contact with at-risk groups “would be one of the best mechanisms we have to help with early intervention”, argues Macdonald.

Despite efforts to build joined-up thinking into responses, on the ground the effectiveness of the system often relies on individual leadership. Each of the 12 geographical regions has an integration committee that brings together key statutory and non-statutory players — child protection, drug and alcohol services, community health services, police, courts, and so on — from across the area.

“But it’s quite ad hoc,” Macdonald explained. “They’ve been running for eight years now, and in some areas they’re working together brilliantly, and it translates into better service delivery for clients.

“In other regions processes have never really functioned all that well. Personality and politics really get in the way of that integration happening effectively when there’s not strong direction.”

Inevitably, there are areas of lag and resistance within some agencies, including the police. Victoria Police’s leadership, under Christine Nixon and more recently Ken Lay, has been proactive on the issue, publishing its Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence in 2004, providing a framework for police in responding to family violence incidents. The police have been rolling out specialised family violence units across the state for several years.

“Police say they do CRAF training, but at Luke Batty’s inquest it turned out some of them don’t know the risk factors.”

Nonetheless, says Macdonald, in some regions “you can get police members who don’t necessarily understand the police role beyond just traditional police business …  It’s something that does and can work well when you have good people working on it, but it’s left to the vagaries of chance in a way.”

Eltringham says while more than 6000 employees across a range of sectors have been trained to recognise risk factors and undertake common risk assessment, there are still some clear weaknesses.

“Police say they do CRAF training, but at Luke Batty’s inquest it turned out some of them don’t know the risk factors. That really stood out, that we have different understandings of what’s required,” she said.

Eltringham says it often takes a crisis to help people realise the holes in the system. As Jill Meagher’s murder prompted an examination of parole practices in Victoria, Luke Batty’s death is raising questions and prompting a re-think about the adequacy of family violence risk assessment training for key professional groups, including child protection and police.

It has also prompted thinking and action in regard to data sharing, service of warrants, and bail practices. Today, Prime Minister Tony Abbott tasked the Council of Australian Governments with finding agreement on a national domestic violence order scheme that will protect victims across borders (Luke’s mother Rosie, the new Australian of the Year, will advise). Other systemic gaps will no doubt be identified by the coroner when he brings down his findings later this year.

The cultural change needed in raising awareness of family violence risk factors is similar to what happened a few years ago in the area of suicide prevention, Eltringham argues — one of the most effective means of dealing with family violence is for trained personnel to ask direct, detailed questions about violence. Studies have shown that a common reason women give for not having told anyone about domestic violence was that nobody ever asked.

To help improve management of high-risk clients, a series of Risk Assessment and Management Panels are scheduled to be rolled out statewide soon. Announced by the previous government last year, the panels are based on a United Kingdom model.

“The framework built a sense of literacy around risk,” Eltringham said, “but perhaps didn’t provide enough advice around strengthening risk management. This is the next step from that.”

While much of the focus is on family violence responses, VicHealth has also done important work on primary prevention — intervening before violence has occurred. There is a growing body of evidence to suggest broad social change can have significant impacts on family violence levels. VicHealth’s work has focused on promoting equal relationships between men and women and non-violent cultural norms in schools, workplaces and sport. While such changes are by nature difficult to measure, prevention is seen by many practitioners as a vital plank in the state’s family violence system.

The courts, and a commission

Victoria’s court system has also played an important, though at times patchy, role in tackling the problem.

Family violence courts were rolled out in Ballarat and Heidelberg in 2005. These special divisions of local magistrates’ courts include specially assigned magistrates, dedicated prosecutors, trained applicant and respondent support workers, family violence outreach workers, additional legal services from Victoria Legal Aid and Community Legal Centres and additional security officers. A dedicated Family Violence Court Registrar co-ordinates these services at the court.

But progress has slowed in recent years. Only five out of Victoria’s 53 magistrates’ courts currently have victim support workers, and only two of those employ Koori support workers (Aboriginal women are 31 times more at risk of being hospitalised due to family violence).

While the courts appear to make applications for intervention orders easier and improve victims’ safety and support, the pilot model in Ballarat and Heidelberg hasn’t been extended to other parts of the state, with only individual elements being implemented in other areas. It’s led to claims of “postcode justice”, in which experiences of the court system vary depending on where you live.

“It’s about a commitment to evaluate government-funded programs. It’s not always there.”

And of course there’s the issue of funding. “They’re really expensive,” said Macdonald. “That’s why they haven’t been rolled out.” Governments are reluctant to invest in hiring extra security guards, training registrars, building remote witness facilities, etc — especially when poor evaluation methodologies means there’s little conclusive evidence to make the case to Treasury and Finance.

“It’s about a commitment to evaluate government-funded programs. It’s not always there,” Macdonald said. “Despite the quite ambitious reform program we’ve never had that review process, and I guess the royal commission will be that. We need to be building evaluation into all areas. It seems to be reasonably ad hoc what gets evaluated and what doesn’t.”

(A similar system of family violence courts in Western Australia will cease operation from July 1 after the Department of the Attorney-General decided its specialist courts are ineffective.)

An improved family violence review process within the coroner’s court has also helped to reveal some of the systemic shortfalls in different areas.

Macdonald says that for now things are looking promising in Victoria. Her organisation, Domestic Violence Victoria, is “pretty pleased” with the terms of reference for the royal commission. “They’re very broad, it’ll allow for a huge range of issues to be investigated,” she said.

One issue the government will have to resolve is what role survivors of abuse will be able to play.

“They’ve stressed that it’s a royal commission at a policy level, but I think the royal commission into institutional sex abuse and the parliamentary inquiry into abuses in the clergy has meant there’s quite a strong community expectation victims have a voice in these processes, and I don’t know if that’s how they’re seeing this process,” Macdonald said.

“We’ve had a lot of contact from women wanting to tell their stories. It’s not clear yet how the royal commission will handle that. I don’t know whether there will be the same opportunity for that. All details are yet to be determined as far as I understand.

“Perhaps they may have underestimated that there will be hundreds if not thousands of women wanting to tell their stories.”

For 24/7 help anywhere in Australia on a family violence issue, call the 1800Respect counselling, information and support helpline on 1800 737 732, or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800. In an emergency call 000.

Author Bio

David Donaldson

David Donaldson is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Melbourne.