Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence identified the invisibility of perpetrators as a key system fault. Its final report recommended an improved web of accountability that would link the family violence, justice, health and human services sectors to ensure perpetrators are visible and accountable.
The report’s comments on the response to primarily male perpetrators’ violence toward female partners and children highlighted two points.
We know very little about the Victorian family violence system’s effectiveness in responding to abusive men and how men engage with this system.
We do not collect centralised data on men or monitor those attending behaviour-change programs. We can’t follow their progress or monitor their interactions with partners, ex-partners, children and other family members.
The commission offered nine recommended ways forward. The first step is to review the current system and practices. This includes forming an expert panel to advise on the range and types of programs suitable for Victoria.
Around 21 further recommendations scattered throughout the report have potential direct impact on perpetrators. These focus on legislative system change and improved information exchanges between police, courts, child protection agencies and the family violence system.
If implemented, these changes would have the greatest impact on making perpetrators more visible and accountable for their abuse and violence.
The current system unintentionally protects men by making them invisible and providing opportunities for them to avoid responsibility. The commission is calling for a system behaviour change to stop unintended colluding with perpetrators in a way that allows men to slip through loopholes.
What do we know about perpetrators?
Because the response system is heavily justice-focused, what is known about perpetrators is mostly limited to those cases at the extreme end, where police are called to attend an incident and evidence is collected easily.
Victoria Police data reveals that 16,914 (or 9%) of abusers were responsible for recidivist offending of five or more incidents. These repeat offences made up 34% of all family violence incidents reported to police.
Another third (or 31%) of incidents were perpetrated by 125,044 abusers responsible for a single, or first police-reported, incident. A woman is likely to report to police only after the abuse has been ongoing and has escalated.
Police data also records risk factors that may trigger or escalate an abusive incident. These include a pregnancy, separation, alcohol and drug use and mental health issues.
However, police record such information for only a small number of incidents unless they are highly trained in family violence responses. Most will record only what is obvious by sight: the more extreme examples of mental health issues, alcohol and drug use.
What is missing?
What is missing from the data is abuse not reported to police. More than 90% of family violence incidents are said not to be significant enough to report to police.
The report makes significant recommendations that more emphasis needs to be placed on improving systems to “see” non-physical, less obvious forms of violence and extended patterns of intimidation, isolation and control.
The perpetrators in the police data make up only the tip of the recidivist iceberg. By focusing on these men we can reduce some of the most significant harm to a group of women and children. But keeping the focus narrow risks stereotyping the more extreme perpetrators.
Stereotyping loses sight of those who are perpetrating daily repeat offences of financial, psychological and emotional abuse, which may cause the most long-term harm.
A limited focus on physical violence too often allows the discussion to be framed around easily identifiable “good” and “bad” men. This allows men who are not physically violent to avoid being the target of prevention efforts. When this happens, we lose opportunities to intervene against men who are abusive in ways that are minimised and trivialised.
The perpetration of family violence is much more complicated than physical assaults combined with mental heath issues, alcohol and drug use. Emotional and psychological control erodes many women’s self-confidence, leaves long-lasting scars and prevents women from asking for help. Many will live with the abuse for between seven and ten years before asking for any help.
When drawing recommendations from the report we must not lose sight of these families at the expense of working with men at the extreme end.
What can we expect to change?
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has accepted all 227 of the report’s recommendations. But it’s unlikely that all will be implemented. Many are linked to national systems and legislation, and will be guided by the COAG final report on Reducing Violence against Women and their Children.
Australia’s track record of implementing the full range of royal commission recommendations is modest at best. A 2015 review of the implementation of recommendations from royal commissions related to child sexual abuse identified that less than half (48%) were implemented in full.
The review linked successful implementation with already established processes and structures, strong leadership and stakeholder engagement. Barriers were linked to resource and structural constraints, and organisational culture.
Victoria has strong advocacy for improving perpetrator accountability. Some good prevention work has taken place in its schools.
The report calls for an expert panel to review programs for men. If this panel includes already engaged and strong sector leaders, it is likely to result in better overall implementation.
So, if Victoria has had strong advocacy, leadership and engagement within the family violence sector, why is the perpetrator system not stronger? Historically, this comes down not to a lack of asking, but to a lack of resources, unbending structural constraints and system resistance to change – not unlike individual violent men’s resistance to change.
The barriers other royal commissions have faced are also likely to impede these recommendations from being implemented. Therefore, while the government can accept the recommendations, ultimately it will be up to the leaders within the system to take up the challenge and together make the system accountable.
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.