All home safely?

In the lead-up to Christmas 2018, I noticed that the Victorian government had issued a bleak warning: the peak period of family violence would soon be underway.

Based on previous years, the authorities predicted that over the holiday period an additional 44 cases of family violence would be reported to Victoria Police every day. Boxing Day is usually the worst day of the year for family violence, closely followed by New Year’s Day. These are Christmas traditions we can definitely do without.

So instead of unwrapping presents and playing with new toys, some children would have been leaving home, sometimes in the dead of the night, with just the clothes on their backs.

There were 23,595 family violence incidents where children were present in 2017/18. That is a lot of children witnessing or experiencing trauma, in the place that should be a haven.

The impact on them is profound and long-lasting. We recently worked with a child who asked us whether he would ‘turn out to be bad’ like his father. Another young child confided that they wanted to kill them self.

This is something that as a community we should not accept as an inevitable fact of life. Perhaps we need to start with community conversations. Instead of talking about women ‘escaping’ and ‘fleeing’ violence, we should be focusing on a woman’s right to stay safely in her own home.

Instead of: ‘But why doesn’t she just leave?’ we should be asking: ‘why doesn’t he stop?’

We don’t, after all, expect victims of home invasions and robberies to leave home; we focus on holding to account those who commit these reprehensible acts.

Yet family violence typically involves women and children leaving the family home, while the perpetrator stays. Courts have the power to ban the perpetrator; this, in our experience, is not frequently exercised. Yet when women are the ones who leave, a disastrous cycle of housing instability, poverty, disruptions to jobs, friendships, schooling and family connections begins.

If they could remain at home - safely - these damaging consequences would be avoided. The key word, of course, is “safely”; a Melbourne University study showed that of 22 women who attempted to stay home, all but one reported that their former partner had breached an intervention order

Alarmingly, there were 41,085 breaches of intervention orders last year — almost double the number from five years ago. While some of this rise is explained by new policing practice and legal reforms, still each one represents unwillingness by a perpetrator to abide by a court-mandated order.

It is hardly surprising, then, that last year only four per cent of the women we support were able to return to their own homes.

Last year, there was also a 14% rise in phone calls last year to Victorian emergency family violence services, and 69 women were killed across Australia, many at the hands of violent partners. We need to address this appalling toll as a matter of urgency, and as a community, set targets so that, in Christmas 2019 we will not, again, hear the same gloomy warnings about an imminent spike in family violence.