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Domestic violence still at ‘unprecedented’ levels despite hundreds of millions being spent

By politcal reporter Eliza Laschon

Campaigns have been waged for a decade, almost a billion dollars spent and yet women and children continue to face deadly threats in their homes.

A 12-year national plan to reduce domestic violence is nearing its end but it’s unclear if the strategy is working.

The Federal Government concedes it’s difficult to know the extent of the problem, with inconsistencies in reporting across states and territories.

Added to that are decades of women having suffered in silence, leading to an underreporting of their abuse.

There’s no lack of good will to address what’s so often been dubbed a national scourge.

But until the numbers start to fall, statistics will grow and lives continue to be destroyed.  

Feeling like a captive in a relationship

“It was constantly waking up and not knowing how that day was going to play out but knowing that it wasn’t going to be in your favour,” 26-year-old Teyarna says.

When you meet the dedicated mother of four children, she is bright-eyed, laughs easily and speaks with passion.

But for years, she was reduced to a just a shell of that. Severely underweight, malnourished, suffering from back issues, immunosuppression, depression and anxiety.

She felt like a captive in her relationship for seven years, physically battered and bruised.

“I lived through various types of domestic violence. There was a physical-abuse aspect to it, psychological, social, financial and sexual abuse,” she says.

One in six women has experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner since the age of 15.

That is 1.6 million Australian mothers like Teyarna, their daughters, sisters, neighbours and friends who have been harmed by someone they love.

“When I finally decided that I no longer wanted to be in the relationship I wasn’t quite sure what the outcome of that decision was going to be but I didn’t want to die at the hands of my abuser by staying,” Teyarna says.

Men too are victims of domestic violence but the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) says the issue “predominantly affects women and children”.

A national ‘scourge’

In the past decade, national attention has intensified, with federal social services ministers referring to domestic violence as a “national scourge”, “a hideous condition” and vowed Australia has “zero tolerance” towards violence against women and children.

In 2010, the Federal Government in partnership with state and territory governments developed the 12-year National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022.

Its aim:

“The National Plan’s vision is an Australia free from all forms of violence and abuse against women and their children.”

Almost a decade later, $723 million in federal funds has been committed to the plan, that’s on top of the money state and territories are spending on their own programs.

It has predominately focused on improving policy and service delivery, engaging the community, prevention measures including national awareness campaigns and improving its evidence base and data collection.

The Department of Social Services oversees the plan that has now entered its fourth and final stage.

Despite the good intention and money spent, a recent auditor-general’s report raised concerns about whether the plan was on track to achieve what it set out to do.

While it praised the strategy for having clear accountability, oversight, decision making and information sharing to support the plan’s implementation, that funding and actions were in line with its priorities and its evidence base was improving, it also found:

Performance monitoring, evaluation and reporting is not sufficient to provide assurance that governments are on track to achieve the National Plan’s overarching target and outcomes.

– Grant Hehir, Auditor-General

It suggested the department needed new measures of “success and data sources” to better assess the plan’s achievements.

It has been something the plan has long aimed to achieve.

In the first stage, two of its central goals were to improve the evidence base and track performance.

After May’s federal election, Liberal senator Anne Ruston became the Social Services Minister, making her the seventh person to oversee the national plan.

She now sits at a Cabinet table alongside four former social services ministers, including the Prime Minister.

Senator Ruston concedes it’s been difficult to measure the strategy’s success.

“The fact that we have spent so much time getting a handle around what the real issue is, I think it is a fair comment in that, it’s very hard to measure something until you actually know what it is that you’re trying to measure,” Senator Ruston says.

“We didn’t really have much idea about the quantum and the scope of the actual problem that existed.”

No national standard for defining domestic violence

Measuring the rate of domestic violence in Australia is incredibly difficult.

Many victims never come forward so much of it goes unreported.

Increased rates of reported domestic violence may not necessarily mean it is happening more frequently, but rather more people are coming forward.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare says inconsistent identification and a lack of comparability between data sets also adds to the complexity.

But according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the number of Australian women killed by their current or former partner has remained consistent in recent years.

On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner, according to data the AIHW relies on.

There’s no national standard for recording domestic and family violence incidents, nor is there nationwide consistency for recording police call-outs to deal with these situations.

That means Australia lacks comparable data across states and territories.

Police call-out figures for domestic violence incidents show there’s been an increase in all states and territories, except Tasmania and the ACT.

South Australian Police said they were unable to provide a reliable estimate.

They said “responses are not accurately recorded” because police have to manually update the incident code to reflect it was domestic violence related and that does not always happen.

AIHW says national population surveys show the rates of partner violence has remained stable since 2005.

But it also says the rate of women being hospitalised because of family violence and the number of people accessing services, including police, hospital, child protection and homeless services, are both on the rise.

A sector under pressure

For the many thousands of domestic violence service providers across the country there is no question more people are coming forward for help.

But as awareness continues to grow, so does pressure on the sector to cope with the increased demand.

Teyarna was forced to return to the home where she had suffered years of abuse — after a stint in short-term emergency accommodation — because of the public housing waiting list.

“I was told I would have to wait multiple years before being able to move … there was nowhere for me to go,” Teyarna says.

The Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) in Canberra, which supports around 4,800 families each year, knows that reality well.

“The demand is unprecedented at the moment,” DVCS chief executive Mirjana Wilson says.

“The biggest issue we do have is with that emergency accommodation … historically people would be in hotel rooms for a few nights, now it’s weeks.

“It could be eight weeks before we are able to find them a spot in a refuge somewhere.”

Ms Wilson says waiting lists for referrals, including financial advice, counselling services and other family support are also growing.

“We have brought this issue, and rightly so, out into the mainstream conversation … but that does mean the service system has to be adequately resourced to respond to that and that is the challenges that we often do face,” she says.

Government acknowledging problems

A department spokesperson says the final stage, the Fourth Action Plan, will address the issues raised by the Auditor-General.

It says the plan has benefited from a growing database and two national surveys that measure the prevalence of violence against women in Australia, community attitudes and behaviours.

An evaluation of the entire plan will also be undertaken in the final stage.

Our Watch is an organisation that is driving change in the culture and behaviours that underpin violence against women and children.

It says that evaluation and accurate ways to assess whether rates of domestic violence are increasing or decreasing play a crucial role in the strategy’s success.

“Our Watch agrees that an ongoing, coordinated approach to monitoring is vital to demonstrate the value of the investments made under the plan,” the organisation says.

“Monitoring the gradual cultural change in the drivers of violence against women is the necessary short-term step before we see a reduction in prevalence of violence against women in the long term.”

Senator Ruston says she’s now working with state and territory ministers on an implementation plan that will run alongside the final stage of the strategy to also assist.

While she thinks finding one way to measure the scale of the problem in Australia is unrealistic, she’s determined to find ways of measuring and assessing the issue over the long term.

“To make sure that each of us [state and territory ministers] understand clearly what we are setting out to achieve by this plan and have a clear way of measuring it,” Senator Ruston says.

“At the end of this three years, I’d like to think we’d be in a position to actually give some quantifiable metrics about what we’ve achieved.

“What’s working, what’s not working and what we need to put further investment into in the future.”

For Teyarna, whatever the way forward, it must include the voices of people who have lived through abuse in their homes.

“You need to speak to people who have actually experienced it because without that you’re not going to create any change,” she says.

“We need equality within our gender roles and we need men and women to know that, to work together is what has to happen. You have to respect each other, and value each other.”

Family and domestic violence support hotline

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