Can private security companies improve responses to victims of family violence?

Private security companies can help in family violence situations, but questions remain. Shutterstock

In an Australian first, the Salvation Army has partnered with a private security company, Protective Group, in a large-scale project to provide safety solutions to family violence victims. The Safer In The Home project launched in September 2016 operates in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland. By 2017 and 2018 the project aims to provide services to over 600 clients across the country.

What is notable about this project is the involvement of a private security company. Private security companies are typically contracted by large businesses, governments and wealthy individuals. They rarely partner with charitable organisations to tackle domestic violence.

However, over the past few years private security companies have been gradually entering this space.

Since 2013, Protective Group has been working with a number of family violence services including the Safe Futures Foundation, Wishin Foundation and Salvation Army in Victoria. Between 2013 and 2015 they provided services to over 200 victims.

Protective Group draws on their former experience as Victoria Police officers and expertise in security to debug homes of malicious surveillance, provide advice on the justice process and suggest interim security solutions. These include 3G Safety Watches and SafeT Cards. A 12 month partnership pilot with Protective Group and Safe Futures Foundation found that using the SafeT Card system resulted in a “100% deterrence” in perpetrators breaching intervention orders.

The introduction of commercial security providers in family violence matters raises questions about the suitability of private security employees engaging with family violence victims. There are also concerns around the profit motive of the companies. Our recent research examines the potential benefits and risks of private security responses to victims of family violence.

The benefits of private security for family violence victims

Initial experiences indicate that private security companies can provide a beneficial service to victims that is distinct from those provided by the police and other family violence services.

Private security companies can provide a high level of attentiveness in responding to victim’s fears and needs. Victoria Police receive a domestic violence related call every two minutes and recorded over 68,000 incidents in 2014 alone. This results in overstretched police resources and contributes to a recognised inability to respond effectively to all cases.

Alternatively, private security companies can offer more practical support and implement a variety of security strategies. These are individually tailored and more focused on the question: “what can be done to make you feel safe?”

Likewise, police responses tend to involve the credibility of the victim being challenged. Research from Queensland has documented that police can often trivialise, minimise, disbelieve or consider the complaint “not that serious” or “annoying”.

Private security companies, on the other hand, do not investigate what happened, assign culpability or establish the merits of complaints. Instead, they are focused on providing advice and security based on the person’s expressed wishes and needs.

The risks of private security for family violence victims

There are reasons to be optimistic that private security companies can play a useful role in improving safety for particularly vulnerable people. However, there are two key immediate concerns.

First is the level of competence and appropriateness of private security employees gaining privileged access to victims. The re-traumatisation of victims is a major risk and only trusted, competent and specialised workers should have face-to-face access. In the case of Protective Group, the Salvation Army have expressed satisfaction with their abilities demonstrated over years of partnership.

However, with potentially large numbers of companies offering this service, the skills and competency of commercial providers cannot be guaranteed.

Second is the potential for financial exploitation. In the case of the Safer In The Home program there are no costs to the clients, as it is funded through a federal government grant. Protective Group has established a relationship of trust and confidence with the Salvation Army built on years of providing free services.

However, with financial gain available to multiple private security companies there is perhaps scope for the manipulation of government funds, family violence services or even clients.

The need for monitoring and accountability

There is nothing to prevent further expansion of private security working in this area - no specific accreditation or regulation system is yet in place. National and state governments and family violence services may contract providers and companies may willingly donate free labour and services.

There are benefits for victims of family violence engaging with security experts and this may empower them with safety options previously unavailable. However, the question remains of how to guarantee the integrity and competence of private service providers. If the suitable checks and balances are in place, it may be that private security can be an important part of a integrated family violence response system.