Domestic and Family Violence: Is it a Reality in Your Home?
Domestic and family violence statistics in Australia
In a typical day in Australia, ten people will be treated in a hospital for injuries inflicted by an intimate partner.
In a typical week, one woman will be killed by her current or former partner.
In a typical month, one man will be killed by his current or former partner.
These statistics are difficult to comprehend for anyone who does not live with the reality of domestic and family violence in their home. Like hearing about a natural disaster on the other side of the world, it is easy to think that domestic and family violence is a terrible, but distant, problem.
The truth is more unsettling. The Australian Bureau of Statistics shows that 1 in 4 women in Australia will suffer abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. 1 in 4 children will be exposed to domestic violence in childhood. That is not something that happens to other people. Domestic and family violence is something that is happening, right now, to someone that you know, and possibly to someone that you love.
Domestic and family violence is predominantly hidden from view, occurring behind closed doors. Victims will often go to great lengths to conceal their abuse because they are ashamed and may even believe that the abuse is their fault.
This concealment further isolates the victim, making it more difficult for them to seek help, and increases their vulnerability to their abuser.
Because domestic and family violence thrives in the dark, one step we can take to help reduce this form of abuse is to shine a spotlight on it. More people need to understand what domestic and family violence is, the signs to look out for, and what can be done to intervene if it is occurring.
What is domestic and family violence?
Firstly, and most importantly, domestic and family violence is a crime. This might seem obvious, but it is only in recent decades that society has moved past seeing domestic and family violence as a private “family matter”.
Secondly, family and domestic violence is not restricted to physical acts. A wide variety of abusive behaviours are used to ensure that the victim complies with the abuser.
Physical abuse – assaults on the body of the victim, threats of physical violence, reckless driving, destroying property or abusing pets, or sleep deprivation.
Emotional and Verbal abuse – insulting, humiliating, or criticising to such an extent that it damages the victim’s sense of self-worth.
Sexual abuse – sexual activity without consent, or coercion to have sex without protection.
Social abuse – isolation from friends and family (often accompanied by jealousy and possessiveness), denying contact with people outside the home, restricting access to social media and communication devices.
Economic abuse – controlling all money and access to bank accounts, refusing to provide information about family finances, or providing the victim with a limited “allowance”.
What relationships can be impacted by domestic and family violence?
Domestic violence is abuse committed by a current or former partner, spouse, de facto, or someone else in an intimate relationship with the victim. Family violence is a broader definition that covers violence committed by parents, children and other relatives, or carers of the victim.
Domestic and family violence can happen in any home and family, but some people are more vulnerable to domestic and family violence than others.
You are most likely to be a victim of domestic violence if you are a woman or a child. However, women and children also commit domestic violence, and men can be victims of abuse by women, children, and other men.
You are more likely to be a victim of domestic violence if you live in a regional area, have a low income, identify as LGBTIQ, have a disability, are elderly, or if you are an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person.
Simply put, the more vulnerable you are as a member of society, the more likely you are to be victimised within your own home.
What are the signs of domestic and family violence?
The obvious signs of domestic and family violence are physical injuries. But there are more subtle signs that can be associated with domestic and family violence. If someone’s mood changes – for instance, if they become depressed, anxious or nervous – this might be a sign that something is going on at home.
Someone who receives an unusual number of calls or messages from their partner could be in a controlling relationship. If you start to see a friend or family member less often than previously, they may be being isolated.
Some abusive behaviours – such as jealousy and possessiveness – are even glamorised in books and movies. In Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, for instance, the much older boyfriend stalks the teenage object of his affection, and breaks into her bedroom to watch her sleep. Young people need help to understand that what might seem romantic can be a sign of an abusive relationship, and that this coercive behaviour can quickly escalate to physical violence.
Even for the victim it can be difficult to determine whether an act is domestic and family violence. For instance, what is the difference between “economic abuse” and simply having a partner who is careful with money? If both partners agree that they have financial goals that involve being careful with money, this is not economic abuse. But if one partner prevents the other partner from accessing money for everyday needs, then this is not about shared financial goals: it is about one person controlling the other.
How does domestic and family violence impact victims?
Domestic and family violence leads to physical injury for far too many victims every year, yet victims sometimes report that the physical assaults are not the most damaging parts of the abuse. Rather, the months or years of constant insults, humiliation and intimidation, the stress of walking on eggshells around an explosive family member, and the social isolation, are sometimes the factors that lead to the most damage to the victim.
Children exposed to family and domestic violence are more likely to become depressed, anxious or anti-social, and have more difficulty making friends. They are more likely to perform poorly in school and are more likely to get into trouble with the police as teenagers. They are also more likely to be in abusive relationships themselves as adults, either as a victim or a perpetrator of abuse.
Is there any protection from domestic violence?
Every state and territory in Australia has laws that protect victims of domestic and family violence. The protection orders have different names (including Intervention Orders (VIC & SA), Family Violence Orders (TAS), Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders (NSW), Domestic Violence Order (ACT, QLD & NT)) but in every location you can apply for an order that requires the abuser to stop committing the acts of violence, and to stay a certain distance away from you, your home and place of work. The order can also protect other members of your family or household.
A protection order is a civil order, but it is a crime to breach the rules of the order and the abuser may face criminal prosecution. The police may also apply for a protection order for a victim of family and domestic violence.
You can get information about how to request a protection order where you live on the Federal Government’s Family Violence Law website.
Family and domestic violence in family law proceedings
The risk of family and domestic violence increases significantly during a relationship breakdown.
As a result, family law proceedings are often complicated by the existence of family and domestic violence. When we look at family and domestic violence in family law proceedings, we predominantly look at the impact of this violence on children.
Family violence in parenting matters
Under Australian family law, children have a right to enjoy a meaningful relationship with both of their parents, and to be protected from harm. Research shows that children have the best outcomes when their parents cooperate together in a low-conflict shared parenting arrangement. Therefore, whenever possible, the Court will order that children spend significant time with both parents and that the parents work together to make decisions in the best interests of the children.
However, the same research shows that exposure to high-conflict situations is damaging to children: in fact, exposing children to family and domestic violence is regarded as child abuse. Being “exposed” to family and domestic violence includes overhearing violence, trying to protect a victim of abuse, or witnessing the aftermath of violence (such as seeing an injured or distressed parent, seeing property damage, being present when police or emergency services attend, or being asked to keep any of these things a secret).
It may be necessary for the Court to place restrictions on the time that a child spends with a parent who poses a risk of family or domestic violence. The Court has the authority to order supervised or limited visitation because legally, the right of the child to be safe from harm is more important than the parent’s right to unrestricted access to their child.
Family violence in property settlement matters
During a property settlement, one partner may use a pattern of domestic and family violence to coerce their former partner into accepting an unfair property settlement. The less dominant partner may have very little understanding of family finances, and may have had little opportunity to earn income and acquire assets during the relationship. In addition, when one partner has been the dominant and controlling partner for years, the other partner may not have the confidence to negotiate a fair property settlement with them.
In any situation where there has been family or domestic violence, it is vital that the partner who has been at a disadvantage that they seek legal representation. The patterns of years of abuse are very difficult to recognise and to overcome unless you have an advocate on your side to act in your best interest.
How can you help someone experiencing domestic and family violence?
We should all be prepared to offer support to someone experiencing domestic or family violence.
Listen without Interrupting
Don’t immediately try to “fix” the victim’s situation. The first thing that you can do is just to listen. You can prompt the person to keep talking by saying something like, “I’m glad that you feel able to talk to me”.
Show the victim that you believe them
Abuse can impact on the ability of victims to trust themselves and their own judgement. If someone confides in you that they are experiencing domestic or family violence, it is important to let them know that you believe them, that they are not alone, and that there are people in the community who can help them.
It is also not uncommon for victims of domestic and family violence to defend the abuser, or say that it’s not domestic violence because it’s not physical abuse. It is important that you state clearly that the behaviour that the victim has described is family or domestic violence. You can also say firmly “that is unacceptable”, “that is a crime”, and “you do not deserve to be treated like that”.
Guide the victim towards resources
Victims of domestic and family violence may not know where to turn for help. First, tell them to call 000 at any time if there is immediate danger. You can encourage them to report the violence to the police, and to seek a protection order. If they are leaving a domestic relationship, they should speak to a lawyer about arrangements for property and children.
If they are not yet ready to seek that sort of help, you could encourage them to see a counsellor, or a specialist who can help people who are struggling with difficult situations.
It is important to remember that a victim of family and domestic violence may need to hear the same message several times, over a period of time, before they are ready to act. That does not mean that you should give up. You can continue to offer support, to remind the victim that they are not alone, and encourage them to access support services such as those listed below.