By Ellen Ebsary.
Fabiana Palhares and her unborn child, bashed to death by a tomahawk; Tara Costigan, murdered with an axe; Adelle Collins, stabbed to death in her own home. These women have all been killed this year by former partners who breached domestic violence protection orders. As the incidence of domestic violence rises, the institutional and cultural response to domestic violence comes under increasing scrutiny.
This year an increasing media spotlight has tapped into the majorly silent world of domestic violence. Many sources have pointed to an increase in cases but an accurate frequency of domestic violence is impossible to determine with an estimated 80 per cent of women and 95 per cent of men never contacting the police about violence by their current partner. Yet Queensland Police Data has revealed a definite and concerning increase in the rise of domestic violence offenders per 100,000 people. The number of offenders has been steadily increasing since 2008 with 2014 rates being 74 per cent higher than a decade ago. From 2004 to 2014, 87 per cent of offenders were adult males.
These statistics give possibility to two very different indicators of the progress of domestic violence. Centacare Scope Coordinator Karen Marsh supports families on the Sunshine Coast and said the increase could point to rise in the reporting of violence. “With the changes in legislation that happened in 2012 there was a broadening of the definition of domestic violence that includes emotional and physiological abuse,” Mrs Marsh said. “With awareness now in the community I think more people have more come forward.” However Mrs Marsh was wary to dismiss other indicators of the size of the problem. “The amount of homicides that are related to domestic violence is a concern because those numbers have doubled,” Mrs Marsh said. The National Homicide Monitoring Program found that between 2010 and 2012, 76 per cent of all female homicide victims were killed by an offender with whom they shared an intimate partner relationship. The Australian government confirms that an Australian woman is more likely to be killed in her own home by her male partner than anywhere else or by anyone else.
Queensland Police Data also identified a 38 per cent increase in the number of breaches of domestic violence orders over 2004-2014. The numbers of both offenders and breaches peaked last year, with over 500 perpetrators breaching a domestic violence order more than once. A need to review the maximum penalty for this offence was prompted by a recent ground-breaking report by the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland. The report outlined that while the current maximum penalty stands at one year for the first breach and three years for the second, in 2013-2014 80.6 per cent of all custodial sentences for breaches of a domestic violence order were less than 12 months. Accounts from victims of police failing to act on breaches prompted the Taskforce to recommend better training for police in dealing with domestic violence. Karen Marsh said often police cadets attending domestic violence callouts at the start of their careers need an in-depth understanding of the issue. “I think if they don’t have training around the dynamics of domestic violence and a real awareness of how that works you could mistakenly not capture something,” Mrs Marsh said. “There needs to be good training and services with specialist knowledge.”
The findings of a paper published in the Sydney Law Review also revealed shortcomings of the legal system in treating domestic violence as a criminal issue. The study found over 55 per cent of breaches of domestic violence orders were described by police as assault but only 5 per cent were charged as criminal assault and only 4 per cent were found guilty in court. This comes after last year’s coronial inquest into the death of domestic violence victim Noelene Beutel found more could have been done by police, her doctor and support services to prevent her death.
A need to address domestic violence at the root of the problem – changing Australia’s attitudes towards violence against women – is clear. One in five Australians still believe there are circumstances in which violence against women can be excused, according to a recent VicHealth survey. An intergenerational cycle of violence is apparent, with Queensland Police Data showing 80 per cent of juvenile offenders over the past decade have been males.
Chris Turner is the founder of SunnyKids which supports children in domestic and family violence and runs education in schools. Mr Turner pinpointed hegemonic masculinity entrenched in Australian culture as the facilitation of violence towards women. “The reality is our culture says the misuse of power by men against people who are weaker than him is okay, in fact it’s more than okay it’s encouraged,” Mr Turner said. “What we say is real men are tough, real men are not emotional, real men don’t cry… and real men control women. Therefore it becomes acceptable for us to say, for one in five Australians to say, it’s okay to push a woman around if she gets out of control.” Mr Turner said SunnyKids aims to offer young boys an “alternative masculinity” to deter the negative wave of cultural messaging. “What we’ve got to do is give boys a new picture of what a real man is. A real man is strong, but he is kind. He is gentle, he is loving,” Mr Turner said.
While there is still huge progress to be made, Mr Turner said Australians have already made progress in improving attitudes towards domestic violence. “Today the big step forward is we’re able to talk about it, and the amount of tolerance in the community for it has been reduced,” Mr Turner said. “We’ve got to a point where we recognise it is the whole community’s problem. We’ve now got to get to a point where the whole community works together to solve the issue.”