Family violence more complex than sexual abuse
Andrew Hamilton | Eureka Street | 12 August 2015
The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, like its Federal counterpart into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, has revealed the personal stories behind the statistics.
The Chief Commissioner has also emphasised how appalling and complex the reality of family violence is.
Some of its dimensions are clear. It is gendered: most violence is directed by men against women. But children of both sexes and men, directly and indirectly, can also be the victims of violence. It is also cultural: some men have grown up in communities in which it is common to beat wives and children. Alcohol is constant: men often act beat partners and children when they are drunk.
The challenge of responding to family violence is even more complex than that of protecting children from sexual abuse. In both cases it is to ensure that the environment is safe, that abuse is reported, that abusers are held accountable and, if possible, rehabilitated.
To create a safe environment for children, people working in institutions like schools, churches and community groups can be educated, licensed and monitored, and obliged to report any incidents of abuse they see. Police can follow up reports and prosecute offenders.
To create an environment safe from the risk of family violence is more difficult because it happens in the home, a place for intimate relationships. It would be unacceptably intrusive to vet and monitor partners before allowing them to live together, or legally to require victims of family violence to report it, especially given that they may depend on the partner for shelter and sustenance.
Apprehended Violence and Intervention Orders are helpful in protecting women from violence. But of themselves they do not guarantee protection nor freedom from fear. The rage and desire for revenge of some perpetrators exceed their fear of being jailed. For the victim, too, the cost of freedom from violence can also fall heavily: a person imprisoned for breaching an Order can no longer contribute financially or in other ways to their partner.
The relationship between alcohol and violence is evident. It could be addressed by treating alcohol as a dangerous drug and regulating its advertising, pricing and sale in order to discourage its use. But the romancing of alcohol as an emblem of sociability and manhood is so embedded at all levels of society that this will not happen. Society regards the violence it engenders as an acceptable price to pay.
The difficulties inherent in making the home a place safe from violence naturally focuses attention on dealing with the men responsible for violence. A punitive approach of shaming and incarcerating offenders is made central.
To curb family violence it is important to ask why men act violently and to help them to change. Many of them have suffered directly and indirectly from violence in their own families. Their experience has led them to express their own rage in violent action. This pattern is likely to be strengthened by punishment and incarceration unless it offers the possibility of change.
It is also important not to see family violence in isolation but in its full human context. Childhood experience of violence is associated with many other aspects of disadvantage which, as a recent study shows, interact with and intensify one another.
Violence at the home is likely to be linked to irregular eating habits, poor educational achievement, mental illness, contact with the justice system, and substance abuse. Those affected are likely to live in areas where disadvantage is marked and services are poor. In such a culture family violence is likely to be accepted as normal.
To make the home safe from violence, we must first care for children who are exposed to violence in the family, ensuring that they are safely housed, educated and helped to learn ways developing respectful relationships.
This demands that the victims of violence have support in living and raising their children. The many services they will require must be available in a coordinated and human way.
It also demands that men who act violently in the home have access to counselling through which they can learn better ways of living. If incarceration is the only way of protecting women and children from violence, it must be supported by programs directed at change of life.
Royal Commissions cannot stop abuse or violence. They can only show their extent and offer a path to follow.