Tonight, the ABC will broadcast the first part of Hitting Home, a documentary illustrating the complex nature of domestic violence and the devastating effects it has on victims.
Journalist Sarah Ferguson has spent six months on the front line of domestic and family violence. She moved into a women’s refuge, accompanied specialised police units and attended court-based safe rooms. Part one of Hitting Home provides confronting and eye-opening accounts of women who endured years of abuse, tried to protect their children to the best of their abilities and managed to leave their abusive partners against all odds.
The program also provides an insight into the work of those responding to this issue on the front line – including police, courts, refuges and a specialist forensic unit.
The experiences detailed in this documentary may seem extreme to some. However, the scenarios are a very accurate depiction of the experiences of many victims in Australia and elsewhere.
While not all victims live in constant fear for their life, many live in fear for their own and often their children’s safety and well-being. National and international research has frequently highlighted the severity of abuse many victims endure – including emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Despite high levels of severity, victims often endure the abuse for years before reaching out for support. As Hitting Home illustrates, victims often remain silent – at least initially. This is out of fear, out of hope for change because the abusive partner has not always been this way, and partly out of a lack of awareness of what type of support is available.
The most recent Australian Personal Safety Survey revealed that more than half of those affected by domestic violence never call the police. The number of victims who seek refuge in a women’s shelter is even smaller. This suggests that the portrayed experiences of help-seeking victims is only the tip of Australia’s domestic violence iceberg.
The need for specialised support
When Ferguson joins victims in the safe room of a courthouse or on the way to the domestic violence forensic unit it becomes clear that domestic violence victims require fairly specialised support in their journey towards safety and recovery.
Part one of Hitting Home is primarily based in Blacktown, a suburb in Sydney’s west. There, police are highly proactive and well equipped. Blacktown Police Station is in the fortunate position of having a specialised domestic violence unit with five specially trained domestic violence officers in addition to the standard domestic violence liaison officer.
Blacktown Hospital hosts Australia’s only domestic violence forensic unit. Operating as part of an integrated approach, the services offered by the specialised police unit – including court support services and support in securing physical evidence for future court hearings through the domestic violence forensic unit – are of a fairly high standard.
Blacktown is also one of several NSW locations that have implemented the Staying Home, Leaving Violence scheme. This allows victims to remain in the family home; the perpetrator is forced to leave permanently. The scheme incorporates the provision of safety upgrades around the home, including the installation of new locks, security bars and/or security cameras – and, in some cases, panic buttons for victims.
It therefore needs to be acknowledged that Hitting Home doesn’t necessarily portray the status quo of frontline responses to domestic violence in Australia. Many police stations do not have a specialised domestic violence unit. Not all police stations are in a position to offer specialised court support services for victims.
And not all courts have safe rooms. In some cases, victims still have to face their alleged abuser in the waiting area and, in most cases, again in court. These experiences can be both overwhelming and re-traumatising.
While all states and territories have safety schemes similar to Staying Home, Leaving Violence, these schemes are not available to all victims in all locations. A lack of available shelter space for women in desperate need of a safe place to stay is another issue help-seeking victims face.
As the shelter manager interviewed in the program says, most shelters are at capacity on any given night of the year. For many help-seeking victims, their experiences are therefore still far from those depicted on screen.
So, what is being done?
As highlighted in the program, Australian governments have started to pay increased attention to domestic and family violence and victims’ needs. Queensland has made a strong commitment to an extensive reform agenda.
One of the most recent legislative changes in Queensland is the “special witness status” now given to domestic violence victims. This allows victims to provide evidence in court hearings via video link to, for example, avoid exposure to an abuser’s intimidating tactics in the courtroom. This will avoid harrowing court hearing experiences like the ones illustrated in the program.
Queensland has also promised a roll-out of its version of the Staying Home, Leaving Violence scheme. As the program illustrates, this scheme can offer a significant increase in perceived and actual safety for victims and their children. A Queensland-wide roll-out will be welcome news for many victims living in locations where this scheme is not available.
Overall, Hitting Home provides a revealing insight into women’s experiences of domestic violence. While some may criticise the exclusive focus on female victims, statistics show that women make up a disproportionately large number of victims. Men experience violence – but when they do, their perpetrators are primarily male.
More concerning may be that the program completely neglects domestic violence within the LGTBIQ community. This is especially problematic given recent reports reveal a prevalence rate similar to that in the general population.
For many victims and their families, this program will hit very close to home. And for the rest, it will hopefully be an eye-opening experience that provides confronting insights into the reality of domestic violence.
Hitting Home airs on ABC1 on November 24 and 25 at 8.30pm. You can read Silke Meyer’s review of part two of the program here.
The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.