The ongoing crisis of family violence

Fiona McCormack is the CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria

Victoria is a national leader in combatting family violence, but we still have vast challenges to overcome, writes Fiona McCormack.

The first time Alice’s* partner was violent to her was when she was six months pregnant. He pushed her into a wall so hard it broke the plaster. Afterwards he cried because he felt so bad about losing his temper. She didn’t leave him – he was so sorry about it; and besides, where would she go?

The violence continued after Alice had her son, and when she got pregnant a second time. Afterwards he would always be sorry and beg her not to break up the family or take his children away from him.

But when the kids got older he started hurting them too, and Alice knew they had to get away. One of her friends found a refuge in another town.

Alice says, ‘Leaving him was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. I threw up when we got out of the car. The women at the refuge were great and got us meetings with legal services and someone for the kids to talk to, as well as helping me. He didn’t find us when we were in the refuge but eventually we had to move out and then he did find us. He broke my jaw that night.

‘He’s in prison now but I don’t know what’s going to happen when he gets out. There’s so many people to deal with. The police, lawyers, Centrelink, family services, doctors, counsellors, courts, sometimes it feels like a full-time job just making sure we can recover from what he did and trying to make sure he doesn’t do it again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m so grateful to all those people, they saved our lives, but it’s amazing how much time and effort it takes just to stay alive when your ex hates you as much as he hates me.’

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Alice and her kids are the human faces of our need, as a society, to continue responding to the complex and deeply entrenched issue of family violence. The Royal Commission into Family Violence represented a watershed moment for Victoria, and the State Government’s commitment to implementing all the Commission’s recommendations has given us real hope for the future. The responsibility we all have now is to ensure the unprecedented effort and resources devoted to this crucial issue are not wasted.

The recent Victorian election is a reminder of why this ongoing commitment is so important. The Royal Commission looked at international evidence, forensically reviewed Victoria’s response to family violence, and provided a roadmap to establishing a comprehensive family violence system. No other jurisdiction in the world has had the benefit of such an endeavour. Bipartisan commitment from each political party to the funding and implementation of every recommendation is critical. Given that implementation of the Commission’s vision will realistically take a decade, it’s so important we say goodbye to the days of a ‘new government, new approach’. Policy turbulence wastes effort and resources, and puts the lives of women and children at risk.

There are enormous challenges involved in implementing systemic change to tackle family violence, and we should recognise and laud the commitment from government and the public service. However, with 227 recommendations to be implemented and a limited timeframe set by the Commission, we’re concerned that there could be a rushed approach.

Specialist family violence services have great capacity to innovate, especially when they can work collaboratively with other sectors. Top down approaches and siloed initiatives run the risk of undermining this capacity, and marginalising the very people who have the experience and connections for an integrated and effective family violence system.

Government can play a productive role here: by assisting, monitoring and funding people with expertise and decades of experience. We’ve seen very positive examples of government-funded projects, where specific areas of expertise in the family violence sector are harnessed to provide a multifaceted approach to individual needs. Projects like Berry Street’s programs to assist children affected by family violence and Drummond Street’s iHeal program for survivors of family violence who are no longer in crisis. Or there’s WRISC’s Van Go, another innovative project funded and supported by DHHS, which is a mobile therapeutic service for children who have experienced family violence.

We’ve also seen a range of specialist services being supported by government to take an intersectional approach to family violence, as recommended by the Royal Commission. w|respect is a new specialist LGBTIQ family violence service funded by government to support the LGBTIQ community and their families affected by family violence and build the capacity of the integrated family services and specialist family violence system. Boorndawan Willam’s demonstration project, working in partnership with the Australian Childhood Foundation (ACF), incorporates comprehensive needs assessment and planning for children and families impacted by family violence. It also includes intensive group programs Bringing Up Great Kids for Aboriginal Parents, Bringing Up Great Kids for Aboriginal Grandparents and Growing Up Strong with Stories, aimed at supporting and strengthening Aboriginal families.

These successes demonstrate what can be done when government and specialist family violence services work together to implement the recommendations of the Royal Commission. This productive, collaborative approach needs to inform all aspects of family violence work, including policing, courts, law reform, welfare assistance, education, specialist aid for vulnerable groups, crisis support and prevention projects.

Victoria is leading the way in combatting family violence in Australia. The level of funding and commitment from the State Government is ground-breaking and we all want to see this unprecedented effort result in long-term change. But we’re still in the early stages of this struggle.

The challenges we need to overcome are vast, which is why it’s so critical that government keeps the big picture in clear view and recognises the capability of family violence specialists who can lay the groundwork for robust systemic change.

There are thousands of Victorian women and children, like Alice and her family, who are depending on it.

* Names and identifying details changed to protect identities.