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Family violence needs whole community response

RCFV imageOver the last few years Australians have become much more aware of the extent of family violence and of its effects on victims and perpetrators. The tragic death of Luke Batty and the advocacy of Rosie Batty, his mother, were catalysts for this change.

But the statistics continue to horrify. Seventy-nine women were killed by family violence in Australia last year. This year, barely three months old, the toll already sits at 14.

At the time of Luke Batty’s death, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews declared the whole system broken: ‘It doesn’t protect the vulnerable, it doesn’t punish the guilty and more of the same policies will only mean more of the same tragedies’.

In December 2014 his government announced Australia’s first royal commission into family violence. Many community organisations, including Jesuit Social Services, welcomed this.

Today the Royal Commission has released its report. It contains 227 recommendations about how the government can work with the community to make real and lasting changes, all of which the government has already committed to implement.

The work of Jesuit Social Services both with people who have experienced family violence and those who perpetrate it has convinced us that a more integrated and coherent way to prevent violence against women and children and to keep them safe is needed.

This includes sustained investment in safe, secure and affordable housing for women and children escaping violence. To this end, the commission recommends a ‘blitz’ on rehousing family violence victims stuck in crisis and transitional housing, as well as individualised funding packages to open up access to private rentals for people fleeing violent relationships.

But, important though it is, it is not enough simply to support the victims of family violence. We also need to prevent family violence from occurring. This requires a strategy for preventing family violence that involves the whole community.

It is heartening to see this supported in the report, which acknowledges that the government does not currently have ‘a system which coordinates and oversees implementation of responses to family violence’.

This whole-of-community approach would include a school curriculum to teach children about respectful relationships. It also must include culturally specific responses for Aboriginal Victorians and other newly arrived communities.

At the heart of preventing violence is changing men’s behaviour. The recommendation of the royal commission that ‘more work is needed to develop a suite of interventions and programs’ for men is welcome.

The implementation of this is vital. Through our work with men of all ages who act violently in intimate relationships and in their families we are very aware of the consequences of the shortage of relevant and effective programs to change men’s behaviour.

When participants are ready to work towards change, they often face long waiting lists. In addition, many of the programs that exist are not tailored for specific groups such as young men or men with intellectual disabilities. Critical windows of opportunity are being missed.

The most effective way to keep women and children safe is to change the attitudes and structures in our society that excuse or minimise violence against women, and simultaneously to work directly with individual men at risk of perpetrating further abuse or violence against their partners.

The criminal justice system has a particularly significant role to play in working with men at risk of acting violently in the family. It must adopt proactive and systemic approaches to people who have acted violently towards family members, by both holding offenders to account and working to prevent repeated violence by helping them to address the causes of their violent behaviour.

Only when we get this right can we begin to create safer communities for women and children.

The memory of Luke Batty and the appalling statistics cited at the beginning of this article point to the extent of family violence and the human cost associated with this. They also compel us, the entire community, to address it. The royal commission has proposed some valuable recommendations, and the challenge now is to implement them.

This article was first published on Eureka Street.

Image credit: Domi