Victoria’s response to family violence. A view from the Salvation Army.

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Kate Mecham.

photo love is not abuse
K, aiserslautern Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Herald Post, flickr cc.

The Royal Commission into Family Violence recently released its historic report, listing 227 recommendations on how to keep women and children safe from family violence, and marking a turning in Victoria’s history. The Victorian Government has promised to implement all the report’s recommendations, and has since announced $572 million over the next two years to start implementation.

As the dust begins to settle following these announcements, it is time to think critically about the recommendations and the potential implementation traps which accompany any major policy change. Amidst the multitude of recommendations, the Salvation Army’s analysis of the Royal Commission’s final report has identified six key areas to watch :

  1. Support and Safety Hubs
  2. Funding for specialist family violence services
  3. Housing options
  4. Focus on children
  5. Perpetrator accountability
  6. The justice system

Support & Safety Hubs

Support and Safety Hubs will provide clear and accessible pathways to services needed by victim-survivors of family violence. We were pleased to read the Royal Commission’s emphasis on maintaining stability for existing specialist family violence services, and on building the hubs around these services’ expertise and existing partnerships.

We see two main potential issues in implementation. The first is ensuring the Hubs are sufficiently funded. Other entry-point systems, such as Child FIRST and Opening Doors, have demonstrated the problems experienced when demand far exceeds resourcing capacity. These Hubs need to be resourced properly to be effective. The other potential issue is ensuring the Central Information Point is managed well, so that perpetrators of family violence are held accountable for their actions, while rights and protections of victims-survivors are not infringed.

Funding for specialist family violence services

photo family violence demo
Justice For All DC Rally And March 79, Stephen Melkisethian, flickr cc.

The Royal Commission recognised that family violence services have been chronically and deeply underfunded. To fix this, the Royal Commission recommended an immediate and ongoing injection of additional funding, and the Victorian Government has since committed over $100 million to help services meet demand. This funding is very welcome. However, demand is not static, and under-reporting remains common, particularly among certain groups, including Aboriginal women and those from culturally or linguistically different backgrounds, despite their experiencing higher-than-average rates of family violence.

We need future funding to be tied to demand, in order to ensure a funding shortfall like the current one never happens again. Demand needs to be regularly reviewed through a range of data sources, including those on health and homelessness, to correct as much as possible for under-reporting. And services need to be fully funded accordingly. We recommend a model similar to that in education and health services.

Housing options

Without stable and affordable housing options, many women face the impossible choice between living with violence or becoming homeless. We are very happy to see the number of recommendations related to housing set out by the Royal Commission, including increasing crisis accommodation, refuge, rapid rehousing and provision of social housing, expanding Safe at Home, and private rental brokerage programs. We have advocated many of these for a long time.

Risk of homelessness is directly linked, however, to housing affordability. And the introduction of a Family Violence Housing Assistance Implementation Taskforce will not succeed alone in fixing the housing affordability crisis. We need an overarching Affordable Housing Strategy. Such a strategy would provide a foundation upon which a range of affordable housing options could be considered. In the absence of such a strategy, recommendations to reduce homelessness among victims-survivors of family violence will be severely constrained.

Maintaining housing is also critical, and is closely tied to women’s and children’s long-term recovery from violence, as well as to perpetrators’ access to housing. Expanded Family Violence Flexible Support Packages will help offer longer-term support to women than at present. However, for women who have experienced sustained periods of abuse, the recovery process could be long, and their housing put at risk as a result. It is not clear these support packages are designed for this.

Housing for perpetrators was discussed in the Royal Commission’s report. However, we understand that Hubs will be responsible to make ‘warm referrals’ to already-overburdened and under-resourced homelessness services. Without stable housing, the potential for perpetrators to breach intervention orders to put roofs over their own heads compromises the safety of women and their children, and increases the risk that they will be unable to remain in their home.

Focus on Children

The Salvation Army is very pleased to see a strong focus on the needs of children as victims of family violence in their own right, as well as on their need for age-appropriate therapeutic interventions. We support all the recommendations, and applaud recently announced funding to increase Child Protection’s understanding of family violence and engagement with the perpetrator, and to improve information-sharing with police, courts, and other agencies, with comprehensive risk assessments.

We also welcome increased availability of therapeutic interventions for children and young people experiencing family violence, but feel that recommendations may not have gone far enough to remove inequities in the system. At the moment, many family violence refuges receive funding to support children receiving safe-at-home, private rental brokerage or other outreach-based response, but have no guarantee they will receive the same level of support.

We are hopeful that an expansion of the Homeless Children’s Specialist Support Service and the Take Two program will eliminate this inequity in service delivery but these and similar programs will need to be significantly increased and expanded to ensure all children experiencing family violence receive the same level of support regardless of the housing response they receive.

Perpetrator accountability

Perpetrators need to be held to account for their behaviour and helped to address it. Recognising that not much is understood about perpetrator behaviour and how to manage it, the Royal Commission recommends investment in evaluation and research on the effectiveness of perpetrator interventions and behaviour-change programs to inform future responses. Victims of family violence and family violence services should be involved in the research, evaluation, and development of perpetrator interventions, in order to ensure robust and effective solutions.

We are also pleased to see a series of enhancements to court and police practice, such as increased information-sharing regarding the perpetrators’ histories, whereabouts, and risk. We hope that, as this information is developed, future risk can be predicted, and perpetrators will be returned quickly to court for breaches of intervention orders, and held accountable for their actions, so that the idea is enforced swiftly and surely that family violence will not be tolerated.

The Justice System

The women who contributed to the Salvation Army’s submission process repeatedly identified gross shortcomings in the court system’s response to family violence, and had mixed reviews regarding police responses. Consequently, we are pleased to see the range of the recommendations relating to the courts, as well as clear steps for Victoria Police to continue to improve their responses.

Among the improvements to courts are the expansion of specialist family violence court divisions in all headquarters courts, improved information-sharing between Magistrates’, Children’s Courts, Family Courts, and police, safety upgrades to court facilities to ensure women’s safety, and an increased use of video links and remote witnessing.

We are also pleased to see comprehensive family violence training included in the professional development requirements for magistrates, court staff, and police. The success of this training will depend upon sufficient measures being in place to show how this knowledge is applied to improve outcomes.

Conclusion

The Royal Commission should be commended for the depth and breadth of its response on the issue of family violence in Victoria. Similarly, the Andrews Government deserves recognition for its steadfast commitment to the extensive list of recommendations in the final report. However, the potential for this Royal Commission to be the promised ground-breaking paradigm shift now lies with those tasked with implementing those recommendations. We look forward to working with the Government, the wider specialist family violence sectorm and all associated stakeholders to enure this happens.

Kate Mecham is Policy Officer for the Salvation Army.

 

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