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For better laws on family violence, we need better data


One of the striking features of public conversation about bad behaviour is the speed at which it moves. A recurring situation is noticed, it is highlighted; it unites persons who are affected by it; social media gets to work; responsibility is identified; perpetrators are named and blamed; new laws to criminalise the bad behaviour are demanded; failures to prevent it are publicised. Governments are then blamed for not having dealt with the problem and pilloried for holding seemingly tangential enquiries instead of acting decisively and forcibly. They then perhaps pass hurried laws. Another problem comes into view and the caravan of public conversation moves on.

Even to describe the intensity and speed of such conversation called for a single paragraph held together by semi-colons. The passion for reform and for action is admirable but the pressure for instant solutions risks missing the complexity of a situation and the depth of its roots. It is unlikely that laws imposed without deep understanding will be effective in altering behaviour. They may even be counterproductive.

These general reflections were sparked by a Victorian Government Inquiry into data collection on family violence perpetration. At a time of great concern about family violence an enquiry into collecting data on perpetrators could appear very marginal. Far from going to the heart of the matter it might seem barely to reach beyond the toenails. It does not focus on the horror of domestic violence, nor on the women, children and others suffering violence, but on the almost exclusively male perpetrators. Nor does it ask how to deal with them but only how to collect data on them. Even before the enquiry has concluded the caravan will have moved on. It will be seen as yet another example of government response that is too timid, too little, too wrongly targeted, and too late.

Yet, as an example of what is needed in approaching a complex reality the Government Enquiry is exactly right. It is one of many necessary enquiries into different aspects of family violence. The issues with which it deals are certainly not the most central, but they are essential to address if we are to respond effectively to family violence. To go to the heart of the matter we sometimes need to check also the veins, arteries and other parts of the body. 

The central challenge posed by family violence is not that it is new. It has existed in our society and many others.  The challenge arises from the fact that family violence has been excused, ignored, covered up, not policed, been wrapped in silence, and has been committed by the powerful against the weak. Its roots in society lie deep. This demands that, having recognised its extent and its seriousness, we need to understand all its aspects. These include its extent, the dynamic between its victims and perpetrators, the factors that lead to it, and the effectiveness of our current responses to protect victims and to counter the cultural forces that contribute to men acting violently.

The immediate emphasis must be to protect women and children from violence. Law and its enforcement will be important in that. But if the only response is harsher penalties in addressing any social problem, it is bound to be ineffective. Regulation depends also on understanding why people are drawn to behave badly and how the culture that supports it can be changed.

For that we need to find data about perpetrators in a form that makes it accessible and can relate it to other information about family violence. That was the subject of the Enquiry. The current situation is that a host of agencies, government departments and other organisations, large and small, hold information on some aspects of family violence and sexual abuse. What is collected and how it is stored and safely accessible differs greatly.


'Research will provide the evidence needed to make wise and effective laws. In this, and in other complex social issues, research is the horseshoe nail on which a kingdom may depend.'


Those seeking data about perpetrators face many difficulties. Most available data comes from police reports on people arrested for family violence. These form a very small proportion of perpetrators, and so may not be representative. The accuracy of this and other data may be distorted by people’s reluctance to admit to behaviour that has criminal and reputational consequences. If in response to these difficulties data is collected anonymously, it becomes difficult to ask the follow-up questions necessary for a fuller understanding of behaviour and of its social context.

Data collected from other sources, such as the victims of abuse, health providers and non-government organisations provides valuable information, but is often incomplete and poorly organised. Many organisations lack the resources necessary to record, store and make information accessible. Many data collecting companies, too, are reluctant to become involved in collecting data from surveys. They may fear the stigma involved in such involvement, the risk of harm to the participants, and the ambiguity about the legal duty to report criminal behaviour in different jurisdictions.

These difficulties can be resolved by guidance about research and clarity about legal and ethical requirements. This will depend on Governments encouraging and helping fund relevant research. That research will provide the evidence needed to make wise and effective laws. In this, and in other complex social issues, research is the horseshoe nail on which a kingdom may depend.




Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Laws, Lawmaking, Legislation, Family Violence, Data



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Existing comments

Some women who have experienced domestic violence have been able to articulate their shame and sense of powerlessness. Many others have not been able to do so. I remember reading Tim Winton’s “The Turning” a number of years ago and I was struck by the clarity and depth of this fine writer’s understanding about the perpetrator and the victim in the story. “Data” sounds such a cold word for such a complex issue. Keeping families safe requires a big commitment. We will need to look deeply at the worst behaviour and kindle hope.

Pam | 27 June 2024  

I agree that understanding the underlying causes of perpertrators of violence does require more nuanced research. The one size fits all knee-jerk legal action has some disturbing side effects. I applaud the need for deeper curiosity that Andrew Hamilton invites here.

Julie Perrin | 27 June 2024  

The best start to solving any form of violence is teaching children from the beginning of life and continuing on throughout adulthood, the need for courtesy and kindness.
There are many for whom one has nothing in common, even so, without politeness we cannot live together. The need to be courteous and taken to the next level kindness means a civilised and good society.
Courtesy and kindness needs to be constantly taught and hopefully lived. Children learn the best lessons more through kindness than any other way.
There is so much behaviour and speech in our society which is far from courteous, why is there surprise that violence follows.
Courtesy and kindness should be at the core of Christian teaching and Jesus was the best example of this.

Jane | 27 June 2024  
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True Jane, but this is an intergenerational problem. The children who experience bad parenting are more likely not to experience courtesy and kindness at home, so they in turn are likely not to believe courtesy and kindness are required behaviours. Hence the problem with bullying in schools. Including in Catholic schools, in my experience.

Frank S | 28 June 2024  

I cannot agree more with Andrew's article. In Qld, the call for harsher penalties is coming from the opposition LNP. It will probably help them win the next election. People want quick fixes. So the Labor government has been snookered in this "debate", that includes not only domestic violence but other crime as well, with the focus on youth crime and "youth justice". More nuanced debate is ignored. The difficult problem of cultural change needs to have a lot more money thrown at it. Bullying in schools is where domestic attitudes subsequently infect the students. Somehow the schools need to be able to overcome the awful attitudes a lot of children encounter in their homes and who then grow up considering them to be "normal". Those awful attitudes are brought into schools, and other children who otherwise have reasonable parenting are then infected by their peer groups. I have seen such evil attitudes proliferate in a Catholic school. The schools state that parents are the prime educators. That is absolutely correct. Bad parenting is then a problem that teachers should not have to address, but are forced to deal with.

Frank S | 28 June 2024  

I think many intelligent thinking people in various professions: clergy; the Law; social work and teaching have a good on-the-ground understanding of what causes domestic violence. As you say, Andy, this is not a new issue: it has existed from time immemorial. I think one of the problems is that resources to deal with it are not well known nor coordinated. This is an administrative problem. Alcohol and violent, freely available pornography have a part to play. We need to encourage dysfunctional families to function. This requires real long-term support. There is no quick fix.

Edward Fido | 29 June 2024  

We now live in a society that has abandoned the concept of the special and elevated position that women once enjoyed when our civilisation was essentially based on Judeo-Christian attitudes and beliefs. Now we have gender equality - a true oxymoron if ever there was one. I wonder if our creator believes in such a thing! The generation of this inanity rests with the radical feminist movement of the 1960's that flooded society at the same time that the false interpretations of Vatican II became the norm for the vast majority of Catholics who saw what they believed was great liberation from the moral confinements of Catholicism. Many Catholic schools also abandoned the moral (Catholic) education of children in the wake of the misinterpretation of "parents are the prime educators of their children", a position totally contrary to what Vatican II stated in its document on education; namely,
that the Church relied completely on the teachers in its schools to educate children in the teachings of the Church. There is no wonder as to why the blokes (created as aggressors and hunters) now treat women as they do other men rather than as special beings with a completely different created purpose, demanding care, respect and nurturing.

John Frawley | 29 June 2024  

Thank you, Andrew, for raising this important aspect of Domestic Violence (DV) - an issue which has been with us for far too long.

I agree that it is crucial for more in-depth research to be carried out to determine the causes and to put solutions in place to address the causes. Relying on a knee-jerk response for heavier penalties to be imposed on perpetrators is far too simplistic and will not help to reduce the incidence of DV very much at all.

The article makes a very important point that needs to be acted upon now, however.
It is: “The immediate emphasis must be to protect women and children from violence.”

While the necessary research is being done, DV will continue at an alarming rate. The victims of this ongoing violence need protection and support now.

The Albanese Government has promised $925 million over the next 5 years to address this problem, but will this be enough to provide adequate safeguards for victims of DV? One of the reasons why victims remain with violent partners is their inadequate income and the high cost of living including the high price of renting.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 29 June 2024  

One aspect of domestic violence that demands closer scrutiny is the assumption almost invariably displayed in media coverage is that domestic violence is perpetrated solely by males.

John RD | 01 July 2024  

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