Finance and Public Administration References Committee – 12/09/2014 – Domestic violence in Australia

Finance and Public Administration References Committee – 12/09/2014 – Domestic violence in Australia

McCORMACK, Ms Fiona, Chief Executive Officer, Domestic Violence Victoria

CHAIR: Welcome. Information has been provided to you on parliamentary privilege, the protection of witnesses and the giving of evidence to Senate committees. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement and then we will go to questions from senators. Thank you for being here today.

Ms McCormack : Madam Chair and members of the Finance and Public Administration References Committee, thank you for the opportunity to appear before you this morning and thank you for your focus on what is such a critical issue facing Australia today. As the peak body for family violence services in Victoria, DV Vic has state-wide membership and regional family violence services across Victoria which provide a variety of responses to women and children who have experienced family violence, including community and women’s health organisations and hospitals.

DV Vic holds a central position in the Victorian family violence system and its governance structures. Against the central tenant of the safety and best interests of women and children, our mission is to provide leadership to change and enhance systems that prevent and respond to family violence. We represent the Victorian family violence sector on the ministerial advisory council on violence against women, the ministerial advisory committee on homelessness, the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children implementation panel, the former reference group for the protection of Victoria’s vulnerable children inquiry, and numerous other advisory mechanisms of the Victorian government.

Family violence is a prevalent and entrenched issue in contemporary Australian society and it is incumbent upon the Commonwealth government to provide strong leadership and national coordination to eliminate such violence in our communities. Domestic or family violence, sexual assaults, sexual harassment, child abuse and other forms of violence are often seen as separate problems but they are intrinsically linked. They are all forms of control and abuse of power. Evidence shows that women and men use and experience violence differently. Men are statistically more likely to use violence against other men and against women; women and girls are disproportionately the victims of family and sexual violence.

You have my submission. I want to particular point out that there are groups in our community who experience higher rates of violence than others—particularly women with disabilities and Aboriginal women at far higher rates because of their vulnerabilities beyond gender. This is of particular concern to us. It is also really affecting our children. We know that children are present at a third of police attendances in Victoria, on average, and yet this only represents those present. It does not necessarily represent the full gamut of children affected. We are really concerned about the number of children on waiting lists. In Victoria, I believe we are really failing children as a society in terms of the response that we are providing to them.

As you would have seen from our submission, family violence reform began a decade ago, and that has really heated up the system. The demand for responses far outweighs our capacity to respond, and that is not just family violence services but courts, police, child protection, and homelessness services particularly. There is lots that the federal government can do. We can go to any questions that you might have, based on the submission or anything else.

Senator WATERS: Thanks so much for your submission and for coming along today. It has been a really powerful day already. It is really helpful for us to hear directly from the experts about the challenges and how we can do better at all levels of government, particularly us here at the federal level of government. I have quite a number of questions and hopefully we will get time to get through many of them. Can you talk about how domestic violence impacts on homelessness? Can you reflect on the adequacy of housing support for women who are seeking to escape violence?

Ms McCormack : The Victorian Homelessness Action Plan cites family violence as driving 44 per cent of Victorian’s homelessness. It is one of the key national drivers. We used to be able to exit women quite quickly from refuge. The only option, pretty much, was for women to go into refuge in the old days. We would exit them into rental properties that they might be able to afford or community or public housing. Those days are gone. Trying to get women into affordable housing is really problematic, which has caused a bottleneck in refuge—which means that, on any given night, there are hundreds of women and children in Victoria who are waiting to get in. And it often means that they are holed up in hotels; it means that there is no kitchen in which they can cook meals for their children; there is no playing area for their children. We often cite the statistic that it takes women seven times to leave a violent relationship. I wonder how much of this is about how much we fail women, in the justice system but also in terms of offering housing options. In Victoria, we had new legislation introduced that for the first time allowed for provisions to have the perpetrator removed from the home, and for women to remain—

Senator WATERS: Ouster orders: is that what they are called?

Ms McCormack : Not in Victoria, but that is basically what it is.

Senator WATERS: That is the concept.

Ms McCormack : Yes. And our hope for what that would mean in reducing rates of family-violence-precipitated homelessness has not been realised, for a couple of reasons that we would see. One is safety. Often it is not safe for women to remain in their own homes. I can talk at length about this further on, but what we have primarily is a system that is focused, in the main, on responding to women and children when they seek support. We have a kind of gaping hole in our system where it relates to responding to men who are a risk to others. And that means that we are not doing anywhere near enough what we could be doing in keeping women safe and protected. That is critical to addressing the issue of homelessness.

The other thing is affordability. It is very, very difficult for many women to be able to afford to live independently. As you know, family violence is experienced not just through physical assault but it is often and most commonly experienced as a range of different behaviours meant to control women. A common feature is financial abuse. So it can be really, really difficult for women: they might have a range of debts in their name but it is his debt; also just in terms of the cost of housing, it has become really difficult. Through NPAH, the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness, we were able to invest in initiatives that supported women to remain in the home through a range of different mechanisms—either by supporting change of locks and tightening security measures; or brokerage funds to either address debt or provide advocacy in relation to addressing some of the debt issues; or brokerage funds to just get them over the hump of what might be a backlog in payments in relation to mortgage or rent. So we are really very concerned about the future of the NPAH funding. This has been really critical. We are concerned about what that means in the future.

What else can I say about homelessness? The national partnership funding has been used in Victoria in a very unique way. It coincided with the time of the reform that we had, and it was utilised for particular aspects of our system, particularly in relation to safety: for after-hours support for women and children, but also support for men when they were removed from the home, which is really critical in keeping women and children safe. It is a big part of our response to Aboriginal women and Aboriginal men in Victoria.

So we would see homelessness as a key challenge in Victoria for women and children experiencing family violence. I think that for women to have to return to violent circumstances, because they have nowhere to live, is not acceptable. But it is my belief that that commonly happens.

Senator WATERS: You have talked about the particular challenges faced by women with a disability, and by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and about the unbelievably high rates of domestic and family violence in both of those categories. Can you elaborate on that for us? Can you perhaps give us your views on any of the policy responses that the federal government should be considering to properly address that?

Ms McCormack : The more marginal groups,—and I should include women from non-English-speaking backgrounds in this group as well—the women with additional vulnerabilities beyond gender, can be more vulnerable to violence. For example, women with a disability may be being abused by a carer. Moving into different accommodation and taking a carer with you is really very difficult. Resources for that are very scarce. The Victorian government has invested in resources—’care packages’ are what we are calling them—for women, which has had a certain level of extent. There are issues around the definition. What it means is that women with disability are often not believed when they make claims of violence. It is very difficult for them to report. There are difficulties, I think, in that we need to build the capacity of both disability services and family violence services to work better and more closely together in being able to respond to family violence, because while they are not working together these women often slip through the cracks.

It is the same with Aboriginal women, they can be much less likely to report because they are worried about having their children removed. They can worry about death in custody. There is a range of barriers that they face to reporting and that, of course, means that they are far more vulnerable. We have women from non-English-speaking backgrounds. I cannot even imagine what it would be like to not understand the system and not to know whether there are legal provisions in place that they can utilise. There is the cultural divide. For example, with many Indian women in different cultural groups, it is completely unacceptable for an Indian woman to approach the police. It brings shame on her family. So, of course, Indian women have much higher rates of violence against women because they have no provisions. Men who choose to use violence take advantage of these vulnerabilities because they are much less likely to be caught and there is much less likely to be any type of redress for these groups of women.

When we look at family violence we can have a lot of difficulty, as Rosie said, just getting over the issue about it being gendered. Then we have the way in which the women who are experiencing far higher rates of violence against women are often just kind of tacked onto policy. It is really important in the homelessness data and it is important in the homelessness policy in a range of different ways. It really needs to be given priority.

Senator WATERS: It seems that a lot of the policy responses are directed at the reactive and clearly we need to do better in terms of support and safe pathways for women to get out of violence and remain safe. How have we let it get this bad, and what can we now do better to try to prevent family and domestic violence? The second action plan has now been issued under the national plan. What more should and could we be doing federally to try to precipitate that cultural change?

Ms McCormack : There is so much more that could be done. It really needs to be give the priority. It is outrageous that we ask thousands and thousands of Australians to leave their homes because we cannot keep them safe. If it were happening to any other quarter of our community, I doubt we would expect them to leave home before we could keep them safe. We do need further investment in this issue, and we need to take real care in the environment of budget constraints. We keep getting told about reducing budgets. There is so much more that we could be doing to intervene earlier and prevent the long-term impacts that then go on to cost us as a community. This costs the Australian economy $13.6 billion every year, and a lot of that, I believe, is around the way in which we have a constant churn of service utilisation because we are not supporting women in the best way, up-front, as Rosie’s story is a testament to. A lot of that, as I said earlier, is because we are focusing on responding to women and children, which is really, really important, but there is so much more we could be doing in relation to responding to men.

In Victoria, the Victorian government have just committed to a new initiative that mirrors something that has been introduced in the UK. There are many agencies that come into contact with men who are a risk to others that do not necessarily understand the significance of the risk they are witnessing. They often do not even understand that there are risks because the causes and the dynamics of violence against women are so little understood in our community. So a range of different agencies—think hospitals, corrective services, courts, child protection—come into contact with men who are a risk to others. Even if they did identify that someone was a high risk to others, they might not necessarily know where they could share that information. There are no mechanisms by which they can share that information or work with other agencies to do something about that.

So what they did in the UK was introduced legislation that compelled those agencies to work together locally. It allowed them to bypass privacy legislation—of course, when somebody is identified as being a high risk, it means that we can. The legislation supported that. It is also very difficult to get those agencies to work consistently at the table, in an ongoing way, so that brought those people to the table. What happens, once those agencies are trained, is that, if they identify that a person is a high risk to somebody else, that person’s name goes on a list. These local groups have that list and, before they meet, they are required to go through all their records and bring everything they have on that perpetrator and any of the victims, present or past. That means that those agencies are much better able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the significance of the risk, who is involved, the points of intervention, and they can work together. It really supports better agency accountability.

Senator WATERS: Collaboration.

Ms McCormack : That is right. What we need from the Commonwealth are federal agencies that are relevant, like Centrelink, to participate in that. But we currently do not have mechanisms by which we can communicate with the federal government on issues like perpetrator accountability. The NPIP no longer meets. There are no mechanisms or opportunities through which NGOs and relevant government departments can communicate with each other about, say, what is happening through the national plan or identifying gaps in the system, and we really, really need that.

So there are things that we need from the federal government, and we need them across Australia. The reality is that those programs will only focus on 10 per cent of the perpetrators, leaving 90 per cent to continue victimising others. So it is only scratching the surface of what we can do. It is like a really heavy table with one leg missing: we are trying to address the issue of family violence but we have that fourth corner balanced on a wafer when the only interventions against men are intervention orders or men’s behaviour change programs, which come too late. We really need to be building capacity across our community, to understand the causes and dynamics but also to work more strategically. It is very interesting when men feel the consequences of their behaviour, when there is a tightening of the web of accountability, how much this reduces. That is what we saw in the UK. A lot of it is political will.

The other thing is, we need significantly more investment in the issue of violence against women, but we could do so much more with the resources we have if we had political will driving this. Women’s services on their own cannot provide women with everything they need. It actually requires a more whole-of-government, federal and state, NGO and government partnership to really be working in earnest on this issue, and giving it the priority it requires.

Senator BERNARDI: Ms McCormack, you heard the evidence before by Ms Batty. She covered the lack of communication through various agencies. You are the peak body for domestic violence in Victoria. I am interested in whether you have a response to that and how well you integrate your communications with another government departments and non-government organisations.

Ms McCormack : I guess it is exactly what I am talking about, Senator, when I say that we need the mechanisms by which we can communicate. In Victoria we have had, in the past, really strong mechanisms by which we can work together. That was only begun 10 years ago and it is really focused on the crisis end of responses. It did not focus on perpetrator accountability. But we need models at the response end.

So there are two things we need in working together. We need to be working together on—I believe we are currently working in a policy vacuum. We do not necessarily have enough of a blueprint about where it is we are heading as a system that says, ‘Here’s the issue; here’s how we are going to work to intervene.’ When you are talking about a wicked problem, a very complex problem, and you need a range of different sectors working together, you need a policy document or a vision that a number of different sectors—from different backgrounds; different foci—to understand the vision and what it is we are working towards.

Then you need government ministers saying, ‘This is your priority; make this happen.’ Then we need the mechanisms by which we can communicate—governance mechanisms, if you like—that have representation from government and non-government people, across a range of different sectors, to monitor how that is happening and to ensure accountability. Then we need models, as I was talking about before, with the high-risk strategy. We need more models of those that actually join the efforts of a range of different services for different responses. That is an example of something at a very high risk level.

I think we need to do much more with child protection. We had eight children murdered in Victoria last year. We have had all the children in Victoria this year. It was a factor in 80 per cent of child deaths owned to child protection in Victoria last year. Rather than expecting women’s services to be working on this alone, or police over here, we need to do much better in coordinating those efforts. That is really where we need politicians’ help.

Senator BERNARDI: Are you saying there are legislative impediments to the communication or is it just the silos, the way bureaucracy operates?

Ms McCormack : That is right. For a service on the ground we have different ministers and they have different policies. They are siloed. You might have a women’s strategy to address violence against women, but it belongs to one minister. It has as much relevance to the police minister or the homelessness minister as it has for the minister for women’s affairs. We really need those ministers working together to monitor the progress of that strategy to ensure that we have the mechanisms by which people are brought to the table.

Senator BERNARDI: I understand there is a broad policy area, but my question is more about the communications. If someone comes to you and you need to get in touch with the police force, is there a legislative impediment to you getting information from the police force or another organisation? Do they say, ‘We can’t; there are privacy reasons’?

Ms McCormack : It is mainly around privacy legislation. That is why the legislation that accompanied the high risk strategy in the UK was really beneficial for cutting through. I guess it is a way in which men who choose to use violence go under the radar, because we are not able to share that information.

Senator BERNARDI: In Ms Batty’s evidence, she mentioned a crisis line. Is that something that you run?

Ms McCormack : No, it is one of our member services. It is a state-wide service for crisis responses to women and children. It is a phone line.

Senator BERNARDI: So is it government operated and funded?

Ms McCormack : No. It is funded by government, but it is an NGO.

Senator BERNARDI: Like Lifeline, or something like that, around the country?

Ms McCormack : Yes.

Senator BERNARDI: Your submission makes specific reference to men’s violence, but do you have much call for men using your services?

Ms McCormack : Very rarely. It is a gendered issue. The statistics show over and over again that this is an issue that primarily is perpetrated by men and where women and children are primarily victims. I think that this is one of the reasons why the statistics are so high. It is difficult to prevent something when we have an uncomfortable truth, and I think the way that this issue is understood by men and women in the community is that there is a claim being made that there is something inherently evil in men, that it is biological. I know that that is what I thought I first started studying this. As mother of two sons, I thought, ‘Does this mean there is no hope?’ But it is not biological. In fact, the gender that is spoken about in the research actually refers to the way in which we socially construct what it is to be male and female. We have really deeply held understandings and beliefs around the role of men and the rights of men, and the role of women and the rights of women. Men who choose to use violence have very hypermasculine attitudes about their rights and they often see their partners and their children as their possessions. That is why we see so many women and children murdered when women try to leave, because perpetrators can see it as a slight to their masculinity, and murder is the ultimate form of control and punishment.

These understandings are so deeply held. I remember years ago that a woman contacted a service that I used to work for. Her daughter was experiencing family violence and she was really worried about her and she said, ‘What do you think I can do?’ From what she told me, her daughter was really at high risk, so I talked the mother through what she could do. Then just as she was about to hang up she said, ‘I just think that if she lost a few pounds, or if she tidied the house a little bit, things would settle down.’ Women are sent a very strong message that they are responsible for the violence. We send the message to them over and over again: ‘Why don’t you just leave?’ or ‘Why was she wearing that?’ or ‘Why was she in that place?’ It is almost like we have a pathological resistance to holding men who choose to use violence to account.

Obviously not all men choose to use violence. The challenge at hand, if we are going to prevent violence from happening in the first place, is two things. We, men and women, really need to challenge sexism. I do not think that people understand the links between sexism and violence against women in the same way that we have an understanding about the links between, say, racism and race related violence or homophobia and homophobic related violence. We can do so much in terms of challenging sexist, derogatory and disrespectful attitudes to women in the way in which we parent, in the way in which we communicate with one another and the way in which we work. I think a lot of people think that they have got to wait until they see a violent altercation before they can do something. It is very simple; people can do it straightaway.

The other issue is the way in which we respond to violence against women. When people say, ‘But he such a great bloke,’ or, ‘He is such a good sportsman,’ when we minimise it, and when we constantly talk about, ‘Men are victims too’—which does not marry up on the evidence base—men who choose to use violence, and other men, internalise these messages. They really believe that the broader community supports them. They think, ‘I have this right to behave this way and people think I am okay to do this.’

Particularly when we have got this number of women and children being murdered in murder suicides, it is almost like we have got this contagion effect of men who believe that this is an option. I think we as a community right now, really, if we are going to prevent the further deaths of children like Luke Batty and women like Fiona Warzywoda, we need to be saying it is never okay. No matter how disaffected somebody might feel, no matter how hard done by in the system, it is never ever an option.

Senator BERNARDI: I agree with you; it is never okay. Violence is not okay any level but it works both ways. I think society is horrified if they see a man strike a woman yet I am not sure that the same horror is if a woman strikes a man. There is sometimes defences such as he was rude or he was belligerent and that is an attitude we need to redress as well, I suspect. Do we see many instances in the harm of children where it is not the male who harms the children? We sense in the frustration of mothers that children become the victims because perhaps there is an external aggressor. It might be the husband or past partner who is creating a nuisance and driving a mother to her wits end and she just sort of snaps. Do we see many instances of that?

Ms McCormack : We see women murder children and themselves when they believe that there is no way out. Like Rosie was saying earlier, you try all these different things and you think it is absolutely hopeless. When we look at those the 29 women murdered Victoria last year, all of the perpetrators were male. Of the eight children, I believe that all of the perpetrators were male again. It is part of the social phenomena. It is like we are fish but we do not see the water about how this plays out.

There is research by McKinners that interviewed both men and women about their experience of abuse. The men that were interviewed talked about things like not having a hot meal. They described abuse as not having a hot meal when they came home or not having the children bathed. At the very extreme end, a tiny proportion of physical violence. Whereas women who were interviewed were talking about things like being raped at knifepoint, being run over and those sorts of things. Women experience far greater and more horrific types of violence and they do because we let them. We make excuses for that. It is kind of a tacit cultural thing that we have. We are very resistant to holding men who choose to use violence to account. What we tend to do is make excuses or we put the focus of change on women. And that sends a strong message to men that they have got a right to behave this way.

Senator BERNARDI: By violence, you are talking about physical violence? We heard earlier that there was financial violence, financial assault or whatever the term was, emotional abuse and those sorts of things. Are you specifically referring to physical violence?

Ms McCormack : Working with women who experience violence, it is almost like reading the same book over and over again. They come in and it is very rarely just a slap or a push; it is a range of different things. They will usually say they are not allowed to see their family or when their family come over he behaves in such a rude way nobody will be around. That is about keeping women isolated so they can no longer have a sounding board about what is normal or what is okay. It is about financial abuse and about intimidation. It is all these behaviours so that the woman is absolutely terrified.

It is difficult if you have lived in high levels of terrier for a long period of time—and I do not think there would be many men who would experience that unless they were in war, in fear of their life. Men will say, ‘If you leave me I’m going to kill you, I’m going to kill the children and am going to kill myself.’ They will do things like beat the dog in front of the family as a means of intimidation. We cannot just think of family violence as physical assault. It is a range of different ways that are meant to absolutely terrorise these women. They think if they leave, ‘Oh my God, he is going to kill me.’ Often we see that that is when the violence really escalates and when we are more likely to see women and children murdered.

Women cannot do that to men. It is not just about physical health; it is about the broader community attitudes because, if women behave that way, they are sanctioned and are lambasted in the media, by family and by friends. Look at the woman who said that if she lost a few pounds. Nobody could have cared more for that woman than that woman’s mother, but she had internalised that so much. These women are given these messages over and over again and we are getting these justifications to men. So it is kind of like this tacit thing that happens in our community. That is why it is so difficult.

Senator BERNARDI: Thank you very much.

Senator RICE: Thank you, Fiona, very much for your contribution today. I have a couple of questions. First, you say in your submission there is unprecedented demand for services without enough funding to meet the demand, that family violence services are struggling and are under pressure and that this increase in the demand for services is going to continue to grow. You said that yes, we can do things better and more strategically; it is not all about more resources. In order to be both preventing family violence and properly servicing the demand that is there, how much more resources do you think are needed?

Ms McCormack : That is a question I would love to be able to answer. I would say it is a heap more than what we have got right now. I think that the money invested in this issue is absolutely shameful—and I am not talking about the current governments; I am talking historically. This is an issue that has been neglected. Like Ken Lay says, if we were seeing 29 people murdered on public transport in one year, the government would be throwing money at this issue. It is a matter of political priorities.

We are starting to invest in primary prevention. That is absolutely critical but it is going to be the work of generations. It cannot be at the cost of service provision. So rather than saying, ‘Don’t put more money into this. We need more money here. We need a bigger slice of the pie,’ the reality is that we do not have a big enough pie. So we need more money for primary prevention.

We absolutely need money for demand. We had 60,000 police attendances to family violence incidences in Victoria last year, which was a 21 per cent increase on the year before that, which in turn was a 24 per cent increase on the year before that. We have protocols that mean most of those will result in referrals to family violence services. That has not been funded—there have been bits of money here and there but the demand has not been matched. Most of those end up in court. A lot of those end up in child protection. A lot of those mean that women are having to leave home.

A lot of it has to do with police doing a better job. It used to be that police would attend incidences and would say, ‘It is just a domestic.’ They would not record anything and they would just leave. They are doing increasingly a better job. There is still a fair way to go but we have the right leadership, at least in Victoria, to really drive that. We know that is going to increase in at least the relatively short term and we need to be investing there. We could also be doing so much more, as I said. So I do not know the answer, Senator Rice, but I would hazard it would be a heap more.

Senator RICE: A lot more, yes. Thank you. We will leave it at that, given the time constraints.

CHAIR: I am sorry about that. We were a little late back. Ms McCormack, thank you so much for appearing today.

Ms McCormack : Thank you for the opportunity.

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