Keeping families safe from violence

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Family ViolenceVery few in Australia can have escaped harrowing exposure to two family tragedies during the past month. The abandonment of a little child in Melbourne took a tragic turn with the discovery of her young mother's body in the boot of her father's car in New Zealand. Now a father in rural Victoria has been convicted of drowning his three small boys by driving them into a dam on Father's Day. The boys were in their father's care during an access visit, following an acrimonious marital separation. Mothers and grandmothers in deep mourning have since been exposed to unrelenting public scrutiny. It often seems that a woman's private pain only becomes public when it is too late to keep her family safe.

Women grieve deeply the loss of female victims to family violence. Indeed, for many, each news report of yet another episode of family violence means a painful revisiting of trauma, sadness and loss. Female friends of victims of intimate partner homicide are especially affected. For these women, such reports mean an agonised re-working of enormous frustration and regret at having been unable to protect one of their own.

Five women friends of a deceased victim of intimate partner homicide recently joined with me to explore the profound personal experience of change since the loss of their friend. These women have courageously explored how they think and feel differently now about partnerships, parenting, gender, power and violence.

One woman described having become hyper-vigilant to inappropriate levels of control or domineering behaviours on the part of males. She remarked: 'I've changed … at social events, even if I haven't known the woman, I'm right on to it. If I have to say "do you want to talk?" I do. I say "that way he spoke to you … are you ok?". I say "there's number you can ring". I weigh every word now and look at the meaning.'

Four of the five women in this group are parents. They have re-examined their roles and thought deeply about how children come to understand issues of gender and power as a result of their socialisation within the home.

One mother of a teenager described her feelings as her daughter embarked on her first heterosexual relationship. At the time of the murder, her daughter, then aged 12, had said she would never have boyfriend. When the daughter's friends developed relationships she was clearly apprehensive; she seemed especially alert to issues of power and control. She would often remark 'he (the boyfriend) is making her go places she doesn't want to go'.

Things have moved on during the four years that have passed. Now it is the mother who worries about an imbalance of power in the relationship her daughter has recently formed. 'She's into going to balls and being beautiful and I didn't really expect that. She's trying to be the pretty little thing. He (the daughter's boyfriend) seems to sit back and look a bit smug … like "I've got the better of you!"'

These women feel that those aware of family violence have a role to play in prevention. Several of the women had observed bruising on their now deceased friend. They very much regret not having questioned her more closely. They feel that they missed important opportunities to offer support, advice and even refuge. This was especially true in the weeks prior to her death after she had left her violent partner. They have since learned that this is often when a woman leaving a violent relationship is at her most vulnerable.

For all of the women in this group of friends, the urgency of preventing family violence was paramount. They saw improved community education as vital. Some stressed that we should 'talk about how to treat each other kindly ... about living together. You don't always have to have your own way. We can agree to disagree. We need tools to live by.'

It has been a privilege for me to join with the women whose experiences I have, in part, shared here. It seems especially poignant now that I was drawn to share their experiences with more Australasians after talking about our study on Radio New Zealand as part of the September, 2007 launch of the New Zealand Families Commission's 'Family Violence – It's not OK' campaign. Such campaigns stress collective responsibility for keeping families safe. It seems clear that 'As long as good (wo)men stay silent' family violence will continue.

Trish McNamara Trish McNamara is Lecturer in the School of Social Work and Social Policy at La Trobe University.




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Existing comments

Of course most people will agree that, as a community, we should not stay silent about family violence. However, good intentions, so they say, are what litters the road to hell - so unless we think carefully about what we're doing, we could end up doing more harm then good.

In particular, I think it can be dangerous to look at everything through one narrow set of lens, as the women in the article appear to be doing. It's understandable, but that doesn't mean it's the best way to go! Take, for instance, the girl who is "into going to balls and being beautiful" - to me it seems that she is just going through a perfectly normal phase. Likewise, the boyfriend's seeming "smugness" may not be "controlling behaviour" but simply a perfectly natural reaction to the fact that a beautiful young woman is interested in him.

I think a far more healthy and productive approach is if we (as a community) do what we are now doing with regard to physical health, i.e., not focussing on curing or even preventing specific diseases, but rather emphasising what makes for a healthy lifestyle generally. In other words, we should use as our starting point and our model those families that do work well. (It may be politically incorrect to say so, but some do!). There is no better way for children to internalise positive attitudes towards gender relations than to grow up in a family with a mother and father who love and respect each other. Of course, not all families are able to achieve that in practice, and we would have to be sensitive to that. However, it DOES happen in the real world, and to just totally ignore those families who achieve it will not help anyone.

I always remember, some years back, hearing on the radio some "family expert" saying something like, "The traditional nuclear family - with dad at work and mum at home in the suburbs with two kids and a dog - this family no longer exists." I was thankful that we had a cat and not a dog, as otherwise we would have exactly fit the description of a family that doesn't exist!

I'm certainly not saying we should return to the patterns of the past. The point is, we need to aim for the positive (and recognise it when it occurs) and not just focus on fixing up the negative.
Cathy Taggart | 21 October 2007


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