Family violence more complex than sexual abuse


Dropping off the Edge report

The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, like its Federal counterpart into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, has revealed the personal stories behind the statistics.

The Chief Commissioner has also emphasised how appalling and complex the reality of family violence is.

Some of its dimensions are clear. It is gendered: most violence is directed by men against women. But children of both sexes and men, directly and indirectly, can also be the victims of violence. It is also cultural: some men have grown up in communities in which it is common to beat wives and children. Alcohol is constant: men often act beat partners and children when they are drunk.

The challenge of responding to family violence is even more complex than that of protecting children from sexual abuse. In both cases it is to ensure that the environment is safe, that abuse is reported, that abusers are held accountable and, if possible, rehabilitated.

To create a safe environment for children, people working in institutions like schools, churches and community groups can be educated, licensed and monitored, and obliged to report any incidents of abuse they see. Police can follow up reports and prosecute offenders.

To create an environment safe from the risk of family violence is more difficult because it happens in the home, a place for intimate relationships. It would be unacceptably intrusive to vet and monitor partners before allowing them to live together, or legally to require victims of family violence to report it, especially given that they may depend on the partner for shelter and sustenance.

Apprehended Violence and Intervention Orders are helpful in protecting women from violence. But of themselves they do not guarantee protection nor freedom from fear. The rage and desire for revenge of some perpetrators exceed their fear of being jailed. For the victim, too, the cost of freedom from violence can also fall heavily: a person imprisoned for breaching an Order can no longer contribute financially or in other ways to their partner.

The relationship between alcohol and violence is evident. It could be addressed by treating alcohol as a dangerous drug and regulating its advertising, pricing and sale in order to discourage its use. But the romancing of alcohol as an emblem of sociability and manhood is so embedded at all levels of society that this will not happen. Society regards the violence it engenders as an acceptable price to pay.

The difficulties inherent in making the home a place safe from violence naturally focuses attention on dealing with the men responsible for violence. A punitive approach of shaming and incarcerating offenders is made central.

To curb family violence it is important to ask why men act violently and to help them to change. Many of them have suffered directly and indirectly from violence in their own families. Their experience has led them to express their own rage in violent action. This pattern is likely to be strengthened by punishment and incarceration unless it offers the possibility of change.

It is also important not to see family violence in isolation but in its full human context. Childhood experience of violence is associated with many other aspects of disadvantage which, as a recent study shows, interact with and intensify one another.

Violence at the home is likely to be linked to irregular eating habits, poor educational achievement, mental illness, contact with the justice system, and substance abuse. Those affected are likely to live in areas where disadvantage is marked and services are poor. In such a culture family violence is likely to be accepted as normal.

To make the home safe from violence, we must first care for children who are exposed to violence in the family, ensuring that they are safely housed, educated and helped to learn ways developing respectful relationships.

This demands that the victims of violence have support in living and raising their children. The many services they will require must be available in a coordinated and human way.

It also demands that men who act violently in the home have access to counselling through which they can learn better ways of living. If incarceration is the only way of protecting women and children from violence, it must be supported by programs directed at change of life.

Royal Commissions cannot stop abuse or violence. They can only show their extent and offer a path to follow.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Royal Commission, family violence



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Existing comments

Thank you for this insightful article, Andy. I'd like to add something about the stress that comes home from the workplace, these days often ridden with anxiety fuelled by short term work contracts and labour hire agreements. This economy-driven disease impacts family life in hidden ways - children are educated, good food's on the table - yet parental relationships are fractured by economic uncertainty. But who's talking about this dreadful problem, once so beautifully articulated by Hugh Mackay: we don't live in a community, we no longer live in a society, we live in an economy. (Sorry Hugh if I've misquoted you).
Ruth | 13 August 2015

John Stoltenberg, author of “The end of manhood: a book for men of conscience” and “Refusing to be a man: essays on sex and justice” says that there will be no change until men learn to value justice more than they value manhood. In the USA John runs workshops for men based on his understandings. John also points out that in being raised as a boy and man, male people learn subtle and not so subtle ways of being cruel to women, lessons they have to undo if they wish to live as men of conscience.
Janet | 13 August 2015

It is important to note that violence in the family can be expressed in verbal abuse, psychological manipulation, put downs, insults etc. To ignore this sort of abuse is to be naive. A person can be so damaged by this type of violence and will often blame themselves for the behaviour of the abusive partner. And the same can be said for the children who are verbally and psychologically abused. Families who experience this type of violence can carry the scars with them for many years. The current emphasis on physical violence is so narrow and therefore largely ineffective. It is interesting to note there does not seem to be a law against psychological abuse. How convenient, then, to ignore this behaviour in the home environment.
Judy Lawson | 13 August 2015

Andrew points to the complicated nature of domestic violence. It is further complicated by the fact that domestic violence is not restricted only to the type of families Andrew discusses. It can occur across the social strata. There is no doubt, however, that the comments Andrew makes are valid and require attention - soon.
Anna | 13 August 2015

I wonder what would happen, Fr Andrew, if we could all genuinely see the Imago Dei in all of our fellow human beings? I reckon we would see a dramatic fall in all the problems of this society. Time for the Catholic Church to trumpet its signature sacramentality to the world at large - if it can dredge up the courage that is!!
john frawley | 13 August 2015

Education of the simple kind could help. When men can look at themselves say, via a cartoon strip, and then also see a version where they, as men, act differently (as entirely different from re-acting). they might want to start choosing to change. The women in the meantime, might become more open to a deeper realisation of their worth as human beings and assert that. Thanks, Andrew, for your unjudgmental involvement in this difficult area.
Carla van Raay | 13 August 2015

Great article but I would appreciate reading what you think about emotional violence as that is an underlying activity which impacts on the everyday lives of some family members.
paula kelly | 14 August 2015

I wish to add to the discussion by adding another very common form of violence, that of the violence of men through words and control methods of refusing their children and their women partners to lead healthy and joyful lives. Many cite this an male control but it can be more than just that, it can be debilitating and frightening for the women and children who have to live with it. I have noted that the children pick up the same methods of control with each other and become very aggressive. Family life is actually unbearable as a result. Fleeing from the home is not an option because of lack of money. Going to court is too costly and mothers suffer as the children suffer.
paula Kelly | 15 August 2015

Yes, it will take resources to end the scourge of violence in the home. So, let's campaign for a massive injection of resources into services which help women and children, and into 'rehabilitation' services for perpetrators of violence. Ten billion or so should help.
Karen | 20 August 2015


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