In its report, the Royal Commission into Family Violence, having heard myriad stories of institutional failure, calls for systemic change, from funding arrangements to intervention responses and rehabilitation. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Family violence royal commission finds patterns of failure

For years, Susan was raped and beaten by her husband. He had forced her to sleep on a concrete floor, had kicked her belly when she was pregnant. He locked up her phone when he left the house, and forced her – and their children – to follow him to work when he was on night shift. They slept in the car. Money was tightly controlled – Susan would receive just $20 a week from her husband to purchase items for the kids. Meanwhile, he spent lavishly on his own entertainment and gym equipment. 

Distraught, Susan sought guidance from a religious leader at her church. His advice was simple: the abuse might cease if she kept a cleaner house and improved her cooking. He then referred her to religious counselling, where she might learn to become a “more obliging and obedient wife”. It confirmed for Susan her belief that she was her husband’s property, and that the abuse was her fault. 

Years later came a revelatory counterpoint to the church leader’s advice. Susan went to hospital for injuries inflicted by sexual assault. The doctor asked Susan if she had been raped. By definition, Susan thought that impossible – her abuser was her husband. There was no rape in marriage. “I thought that the role of wife meant that when you sign the marriage contract, you sign over the rights to your body,” Susan told her doctor, a conversation relayed to the Royal Commission into Family Violence last year. “Any time your husband wants your body, it belongs to him.”

“When your husband signs the marriage contract,” the doctor replied, “he agrees to love and protect.” 

“This doctor’s statement had a huge impact on my understanding of what rape and consent meant,” Susan told the commission. “The doctor told me that my body belonged to me and explained that any form of non-consensual sex was rape, regardless of whether you were married to the perpetrator or not.”

Susan began receiving useful referrals to counselling, and doctors and family violence advocates sought to link her with police. Susan was reluctant because she didn’t view her situation as warranting police attention – she thought police were for other, more “serious” matters. But when police did arrive at her house, her husband transformed from a violent paranoid man to a warm and accommodating one. He explained to the officers that his wife hadn’t been taking her antidepressant medication, and made some calculatingly glib remark about the supposed irrationality of women. The officers laughed along. 

Susan’s attempt to free herself of her husband would be long, frustrating and treacherous. She left him, but he would track her down and rape her. For a while she was homeless. “When we slept in the car, it had to be near enough to the children’s school that they could walk, as I didn’t have enough money for petrol to drive them to school every day. The car couldn’t be too close to school as there was a chance that their schoolfriends might see our living conditions. We selected a park that had a toilet facility that we could wash up in before the kids went to school.”

It wasn’t until last year that the husband was convicted of multiple sexual assaults, and sentenced to 13 years’ prison, such was the severity of his crimes. The delay was the combined result of Susan’s effective imprisonment, her religious community’s dangerous counsel, and a sclerotic system. 

Among the commission’s final report – released this week – there are many more stories of sorrow and depravation. The anguish and horror of women and children might be singular, but patterns in the dynamics of abuse emerge. These raw testimonies are immensely powerful. “Slogans and hard justice won’t fix the complexity of family violence,” Joanna Fletcher, the chief executive of the Women’s Legal Service Victoria, submitted to the commission. “But listening to the women experiencing it is a good start.”

1 . Widespread recommendations

This week’s report is the work of more than 13 months of community consultations, public hearings, private interviews, literature reviews and the parsing of many written submissions. Released in seven volumes, the report is more than 2000 pages long and includes 227 recommendations. The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has promised to implement them all, a process that will take years – as it will take months for legislators, public servants and the family violence sector to properly digest the report. 

Importantly, the commission has recommended the creation of 17 “safety hubs” – visible, easily accessible sites around the state that would serve to offer advice to women. That advice might be referring them to police, specialist services or crisis accommodation. The sites, in theory, would mitigate against what can be a disjointed system, or one that appears out of reach.

Another major recommendation was for the creation, within five years, of a specialist family violence court. The commission did not call for fresh laws specifically targeting family violence, but for more effective policing and prosecution of existing laws. The report acknowledged how dramatically stretched services were, from police to crisis services to the courts, and that ironically the release of the report would temporarily increase that burden – advocacy and counselling groups were steeling themselves for a resulting hike in phone calls once the report went public. 

While a Victorian undertaking, the work will affect the federal government’s approach to the issue. Two Victorians who testified at the commission – former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty and former police chief commissioner Ken Lay – sit on the Council of Australian Governments Advisory Panel on Reducing Violence against Women and their Children. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said that he will discuss the report with them both. We will wait and see what prominence family violence might sustain during the federal election campaign. 

This week’s report is so comprehensive – and largely enjoys such bipartisan support – that it may well become a globally useful template. It seeks to improve a constipated and overwhelmed system, and offer sustained, long-term funding arrangements to a sector long frustrated by the unpredictable and politicised streams of yearly allocations. “It means that services will no longer have to fight for funding through every budget cycle, that they can plan their workforce and service delivery knowing that they can respond to demand,” Fiona McCormack, the chief executive of Domestic Violence Victoria, wrote for Guardian Australia this week. “It creates space and opportunities for innovative practice, workforce development and creative partnerships with other agencies outside the sector.”

Exactly how that money might be raised is a contentious point between the government and opposition, and this week Liberal leader Matthew Guy expressed scepticism about a family violence levy.

2 . The “insidious creep” of abuse

The report’s release coincided with the Geelong footballer and Brownlow medallist Jimmy Bartel’s intimate disclosure of the violence his family experienced at the hands of his father. Bartel’s high public profile makes the admission significant, but it was also instructively candid about the dynamics of family violence. Bartel described a hard-drinking gambler, a man’s man and a convivial rogue to his mates. But at home his father was sullen and vindictive, doling out beatings to his wife and children. The community all but ensured it continued. “He justified his behaviour to himself,” Bartel told the Sunday Herald Sun last week. “Mum said to me he would always make her admit it was her fault in order to make himself feel better.”

The dynamics of family violence was an area of vital interest to the royal commission. It found that: “Many women who participated in consultations or made submissions said they did not understand that what was happening to them was family violence, particularly when the violence had not yet escalated to the point of causing serious physical injury. Sometimes they did not realise it was family violence until service providers or others pointed out these patterns of control and coercion.”

One victim described the “insidious creep” of abuse, a subtle escalation of violence often described by survivors. “It was a whirlwind romance, where he won me over with his charm and intelligence, putting me on a pedestal. We… moved [in] together within a few weeks of dating. The abuse wasn’t immediate but started to show around six months into the relationship. It was an insidious creep of abuse. So slow that I just thought it was a normal part of a relationship.”

A sense of normalcy – and the victim’s gradual self-blame – appear frequently in the report’s victim statements. One benefit of this report will be to help disabuse victims of their sense of guilt, and to alert them to the broad qualities of violence. If violence seems obvious, sadly it is often not so to people subject to sustained campaigns of coercion, control and the gradual diminishment of their esteem. 

The report argues for greater “visibility” of the perpetrator – that is, holding abusers to account – but accepts that there’s disputation in the community about what that accountability might look like. Chapter 18 of the report surveys “the various notions associated with the ‘perpetrator accountability’. These range from the view that genuine accountability can be found only in collective condemnation in the courtroom or the prison cell; to the idea that guiding perpetrators to confront their own behaviour and attitudes, and take responsibility for them at a personal level, is more likely to stop offending behaviour in the future.” 

Historically, the report acknowledges, family violence responses have focused upon the victim, creating limited options for the intervention or rehabilitation of abusers. This is changing, however, and in his findings into the death of Luke Batty State Coroner Ian Gray had this to say on perpetrators: “The fact is that the perpetrator ultimately controls the risks of family violence. Therefore, it is critical that perpetrators become engaged, or are forced to engage, with the family violence system and the criminal justice system at every possible opportunity to ensure they are not only held to account for their behaviour but also to ensure they receive appropriate treatment, counselling and management to assist them to change that behaviour.” 

Just as ideas of accountability are contested, so too is the effectiveness of various men’s behaviour change programs. The dominant approach used in Victoria is the Duluth model, which views violence against women as the inevitable outcome of gender inequality. Men are asked – in groups – to interrogate their ideas of women, presumably reaching a conclusion that misogyny and cultural stereotypes were at the root of their violence. The report had this to say about the groups: “We do not know the extent to which existing programs are successful in changing an individual’s behaviour and attitudes or in keeping victims safe. What we do know is that there are insufficient programs to cater for all men who are referred to them; there is little or no follow-up to monitor completion of a program; and there is inadequate oversight of the quality of programs or for assessing the appropriateness of the methodologies used. Existing programs do not cater for different cohorts of perpetrators and are not designed to respond to the needs of perpetrators for whom group work is unsuitable.” 

It was a theme of the report – the admitted paucity of data for many areas of family violence, from actual incidence rates, the effectiveness of certain programs, the qualities of perpetrators, and sentencing data. “Gaps in family violence data and in systems for comprehensively capturing and assessing data,” the report says, “were consistently raised with the Commission by service providers and stakeholders.” It might also be said that where there are empirical deficiencies, there are ideological suppositions. 

3 . Commission's road map

In a submission to the royal commission, Dr Rhonda Cumberland, chief executive of Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand, a Catholic welfare organisation for women, referred to improvements in Australia since the “dark days”. Dismayingly, those days weren’t that long ago – she pins them to the early 2000s. It was only in 1974 that Victoria offered its first women’s refuge, the gift of women’s groups and not the state. This was par for the course – private individuals largely undertook the work of protecting abused women and children. It was only in 1981 that the first Australian state completely removed legal exemptions for marital rape – until then, even the highest courts in Australia deemed women to be men’s chattels. 

But there have been improvements, legislatively and culturally. “We have come a long way from women self-referring, women not reporting to police, from police not drawing the dots between family violence and crime and domestic murder,” Cumberland told the commission. “I acknowledge how far we have come since those dark days. The days of an isolated women’s service response are gone.”

But as the testimony of the abused women – and the awesomely long list of recommendations by the commission – attest, there remain flaws in our attitudes and systems. This report, comprehensive and deadly serious, offers a detailed road map to removing them.


National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service 1800 737 732

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2016 as "Familial patterns".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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