News + Views

We can’t afford shortcuts on family violence

Just on a month out from a state election, it’s timely to reflect on how far we have come in some areas of Victorian reform.

By Rob Hulls, Director, Centre for Innovative Justice

Just one a month out from a state election, it’s timely to reflect on how far we have come in some areas of Victorian reform. In particular, the past four years have seen the calling and completion of a royal commission into family violence, as well as the implementation of many of its highly ambitious recommendations.

In fact, unprecedented activity and investment has gone into improving Victoria’s response to family violence, as well as recognising the importance of preventing it in the first place.

Once the implementation is done, however, that’s when the hard yards really start. Once the dust settles and we can survey the terrain, that’s when we’ll know what else we need to do. For, as a former attorney-general responsible for implementing a previous tranche of family violence related reform, I know that this is terrain on which we cannot afford to stand still.

After all, during the 2000s when we commissioned Victorian Law Reform Commission reviews, when we reformed legislation, when we established Specialist Family Violence Courts, we thought we were ahead of the curve. At the time, this was pioneering — in particular, it was a bold step for legislation to enable mandatory referrals for perpetrators to behaviour change programs when it was not connected to a criminal matter.

That step, however, was taken 13 years ago and, as research by the CIJ highlights, the evidence base around perpetration of family violence has evolved substantially.

We now know, for example, that it is not enough to just “get him into a program” and expect that he will change. We better understand, too, that family violence is not just about “incidents” but about patterns of coercive control that are not always going to be shifted in just 12 or even 20 weeks.

We know that complementary work before, after and even during program participation may be required. We know that a diversity of perpetrators require a diversity of targeted interventions. What’s more, we now know that multiple agencies need to be collaborating to share information, reduce risk and keep perpetrators within view.

Two years on from the royal commission’s report, women and children are still dying at the hands of violent men at the same rate as before. What’s more, our courts are overrun with matters involving family violence, and the tide doesn’t look like receding any time soon.

What this means is that we cannot take our eye off the ball or afford to become complacent. Nor can we start to lament about “financial impost”. As welcome as the royal commission and resulting investment has been, there remains much more to be done, not less. That does not mean finding “efficiencies” in relation to the commission’s recommendations, as the state Opposition has proposed but, instead, recognising that further investment is needed for the reforms to be cemented.

Equally, it means staying the course of the recommendations and responding to the evidence, rather than trotting out yet another mandatory sentencing proposal which will not actually keep victims of family violence safe but may instead dissuade them from reporting in the first place.

The royal commission gave us a road map for reform and while its recommendations were intended for swift implementation, the change they pointed to was about the long game. The change was also about getting smarter about the way in which we respond to family violence so that victims feel confident to come forward and perpetrators are kept within view.

That means that systems themselves (and governments) must be accountable for how they respond to and address family violence. That means providing perpetrators with services which can address contributing factors as well as abusive behaviour. That means building a skilled and expert workforce. That means giving courts the resources to focus on each individual case so that they do not overlook those who present well, but pose a real danger to their families. It also means building in processes so that we can continue to adapt to an evidence base which continues to evolve.

The past 10 years have been catastrophic for those women and children our system failed to protect. The royal commission into family violence was never going to change things overnight,but its recommendations give us a road map about where to head next.

The journey is just beginning and whoever is elected on November 24 must recognise that commitments to addressing family violence are not about cutting costs nor about lazy law-and-order reactions. They’re about making sure that we can look back in the next 10, 20 and 30 years knowing that we continued to adapt, we continued to invest, we finally started to get it right and, as a result, fewer women and children died.


This article was published in The Herald Sun on 26/10/18