There must come a point when we as a nation say “enough is enough” when it comes to stories of intimate partner violence being perpetrated against women and children by their partners, ex-partners and fathers. In the past two weeks alone, the horrific story of Gold Coast woman Kelly Wilkinson, who was set alight in her own home, allegedly by her estranged husband, and that of Henry Shepherdson, who strapped his infant daughter to himself and jumped over a reservoir at a tourist attraction in South Australia, are but a couple of the incredibly distressing stories that continue to make news and bring to our collective consciousness just how lethal domestic violence can become.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in its report on family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia, defines family violence as the following:
“Family violence refers to violence between family members, typically where the perpetrator exercises power and control over another person. The most common and pervasive instances occur in intimate (current or former) partner relationships and are usually referred to as domestic violence.”
The statistics are sobering:
“1 in 6 Australian women and 1 in 16 men have been subjected, since the age of 15, to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous cohabiting partner. Family, domestic and sexual violence happens repeatedly – more than half (54%) of the women who had experienced current partner violence, experienced more than one violent incident.”
Despite action taken last year following the death of Hannah Clarke and her children, who were also killed at the hands of her ex-partner, these devastating stories continue.
The prevalence and gendered nature of domestic violence in Australia is particularly concerning. Whist men are also affected by domestic violence, its victims are overwhelmingly women and children, and its perpetrators are overwhelmingly men.
However, in order to bring about genuine change, questions must be asked about whether the approaches to date have been effective at curtailing domestic violence, or whether new and innovative approaches are needed as we move forward. Finding ways for women and men to work together to combat domestic violence is a critical first step. This is an issue that concerns us all. Without a shared ownership of the complex issues involved and a commitment to work to address all the causes, there will be little hope of effecting long-term improvement.
Working with domestic violence perpetrators to recognise, own up to, and change violent patterns of behaviour is another critical step.
The Federal Government has announced that it will convene a national summit to set goals relating to the prevention of violence against women. It is set to occur in the next few months under the leadership of Social Services Minister Anne Ruston.
It is worth noting two new initiatives that show what’s possible when innovation is applied to this very contentious and complex issue.
The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) is conducting a research project on domestic violence perpetrators to “encourage them to take part in a study to change behaviours.” Its architect is Dave Misso, a counselling psychologist who has worked with domestic violence perpetrators for 30 years.
“I think what’s happened in the past is that a lot of programs have focused purely on getting men to change their attitudes and thinking about violence…and I think something in that has been encouraging more shame and blame.”
“Instead the QUT study will explore how psychologically and physically abusive men perceive the world , how they think and how they understand themselves in relation to others, and then determine what causes violent reactions.”
“When men get blinded by their own internal distress at times, which they don’t often understand themselves, they lose perspective on who they are in that moment and then, of course, their partner does disappear in a sense from their consciousness and becomes an object.”
The program also consults with the perpetrator’s partners separately as the program progresses.
In terms of policing repeat domestic violence, the Australian Institute of Criminology has released an information paper which outlines an innovative model of “focussed deterrence” as a possible approach to repeat offenders and violent offenders.
The paper asserts:
“There is widespread agreement that achieving a long-term, sustainable population-level reduction in domestic violence requires investment in primary prevention and there is early evidence of success in changing attitudes. However, with one woman killed every nine days and one man killed every 29 days by an intimate partner, more than 320,000 victims of domestic violence a year and police attending a domestic violence incident every two minutes, effective short term responses are critical to ensure the safety of current and future generations of victims.”
The “focussed deterrence” model has had success in the United States where it was originally developed to tackle gang violence and youth gun homicides, and was then adapted to address the problem of domestic violence. The model was developed in recognition of the fact that “traditional approaches to domestic violence placed too great a burden on the victim while demonstrating little evidence of effectiveness” and “that, as with other forms of violence, a small group of domestic violence offenders were responsible for a disproportionate number of incidents and the most serious offending.”
Perpetrators are categorised into an offender hierarchy, depending on their level of offending. “More prolific or more serious offenders are prioritised for action and receive more intensive responses.” The goal is to increase offender accountability and ensure appropriately targeted responses to victims.
Some actions available to police include requiring the offender to “call in” to meetings to ensure accountability. In these meetings, offenders are provided with deterrence messages about domestic violence, as well as with offers of help, reminded they are being monitored, and told what “levers” will be used by authorities in the case of further offending, including increased bail conditions, revoking bail, enhanced prosecution and tightened probation conditions.
Given the early signs of success overseas, this may be a model that can be adapted to the Australian situation as well.
In the meantime, it is hoped that the upcoming federal summit will unveil new and creative ways to combat domestic violence in this country. The violence needs to stop.