Today, the Finance and Public Administration References Committee will table in the Senate the final report of its investigation into domestic violence in Australia. Given the report was due in October, having been twice delayed after the committee requested extensions, many are waiting keenly to see what it contains and what recommendations it puts forward.
Among those interested are the victims of violence themselves. While most of those abused at the hands of a partner support measures to head off violence before it happens, through education and peer pressure for instance, there’s a palpable sense that the justice system fails to offer harsh enough deterrents and does not support victims.
Central to many concerns is the absence of a national approach to domestic violence, which, some argue, allows too much flexibility in situations where firm action may be needed. For instance, state family courts are often keen to allow male family members to remain in contact with their children — so-called “shared parenting” set-ups — even though he may have a record of domestic violence and other forms of criminality.
Such weaknesses in the legal infrastructure sometimes means victims fall through the cracks. Those who don’t are obliged to play the system (“It’s a game” is a common phrase) to get what they consider to be safe outcomes for them and their children.
Anna, a 38-year-old care worker based in Queensland, says her current husband “thinks it’s more important to fund his drug habit with criminal activity than caring for his kids”. Despite this, “I haven’t been able to divorce the bastard”.
Although her husband has been convicted of domestic violence offences against her (he kicked her on the ground while she was pregnant, she says), she is unable to find out where he is — even if he is in prison — or whether he is close enough to her to pose a threat to her or the two children he fathered.
She is obliged to accommodate him as the father.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of person he is,” she said. “My husband is a well-documented wife beater and drug user but he was given the right to participate [in the family].”
It was only when she pressed for him to be randomly drug tested, which he failed, that the enforced contact ended. Anna adds he doesn’t even have to pay to assist her with the children, even if he is incarcerated. She says she is given just $132 per fortnight through Centrelink for child support.
For Eleanor, contact with her abuser went another step. In her case against him in Victoria, she was forced to endure him cross-examining her in the Family Court. She says this was highly traumatic and cruelly reinforced the dynamic of abuse she was seeking to escape.
She praises the criminal system, but she says the Family Court system is “broken”. “Many women have given up on the system,” she said, basing her evidence on her own journey as well as her on-going engagement with abuse victims.
Eleanor echoes Anna’s experience with “shared parenting”. One state bureaucrat working on her case told her: “Just because he [her abusive former partner] is a horrible person, it doesn’t make him a bad father.”
The concept of shared parenting in abuse cases appears widespread. In some cases, it puts the pressure on female victims to effectively game the system so as to best protect themselves and their children.
Sharon tells a horrific story of her partner taking out her children’s teeth with pliers. But, she said: “The legal system took no notice of his violence. It failed me big time.”
Teulia, a Samoan woman, told me: “I have had to come up with my own plans to protect the children.” She says, for the legal and bureaucratic decision-makers, “access [for both parents] to children is a priority. I can’t come across as trying to ban him from seeing the children.”
But playing the game doesn’t always work. Monique sought legal aid to take action against her former partner and expressly told the legal office she did not want him to know her address. Sure enough, the legal office contacted his lawyers, who readily, and apparently legally, passed on her contact details.
The Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women, Senator Michaelia Cash, told Crikey via email that there was “a lot going on in this space”.
Cash says the Council of Australian Governments will “consider national standards to ensure perpetrators of violence against women are held to account at the same standard across Australia, for implementation in 2016, and [will] consider strategies to tackle the increased use of technology to facilitate abuse against women, and to ensure women have adequate legal protections against this form of abuse.”
She added: “This government is committed to ensuring that legal assistance services are able to continue delivering much-needed front-line support to vulnerable people, including women and children experiencing domestic and family violence.”
“In recognition of this commitment, the government will provide additional funding over the next two years to better support the delivery of legal assistance services.”
No further details were offered on these proposed outlays.
The government has also sought to standardise court rulings with the introduction of a Bench Book earlier this month. This is an online tool for judges involved in domestic violence-related hearings to help them better comprehend civil and criminal laws across various jurisdictions.
Proposals such as a national register of offenders, more cohesive and consistent cross-border legal and family court structures, sufficient public funds for refuges and for family assistance for abuse victims are common calls among victims’ groups. Cash’s response suggests such measures are not in the current policy mix.
Currently, the sense that domestic violence is a social problem before it happens, but the victim’s problem after it, is felt by many women who have had the misfortune to have first-hand experience of the system.
Women who have been through domestic violence situations feel that the system is failing. They are hoping today’s report will carry some solutions.
*Some names of victims in this article have been changed.