Thursday, March 19, 2015

Tackling domestic violence, support services are critical

Annie's husband beat her up often. He raped her as well. She was an unfit mother. Useless. He told her so.

They had once been in love. Sometimes he was gentle and sweet but at other times he was a maniac, cursing and whipping wildly. "There was lots of alcohol, lots of drug abuse," she told me, almost whispering. 

Time sped. Together they had six daughters, all beautiful and healthy. One day Annie* decided that she couldn't pretend any more. She would take herself and the kids away from that life. But how?

She was at risk of serious injury to both herself and the children if she left. The fear of violence was itself a powerful weapon. "He'd always take one of the girls with him all the time. 

"He knew by doing that he had a pawn to play. It was about control." 

There was another problem. Her husband was the bread winner. She worried about homelessness, hunger, the humiliation. 

One day a female police officer told her about an emergency accommodation service for women and their dependents. It gave Annie an idea.

One morning, all but one of the girls, Peta* had gone to school. Peta needed school shoes. "And I said [to him], 'I'll take Peta down to get her school shoes." He allowed me to do that thinking everything was nice and rosy. I grabbed Peta and went to school, grabbed the other kids and came here [to St Saviour's Neighbourhood Centre run by the Anglican Church in the Diocese of Canberra Goulburn]."

She knew her husband would not give up easily. "He came up here and smashed my car to pieces, broke the door... but that's when my life changed. That is when things started to turn around." 

Fifteen years on Annie is able to share her story of survival, unlike  killed Canberra mother Tara Costigan. One woman in Australia is killed every week by a partner or former partner. Another is hospitalised every few hours.

It is heartening that in recent days the ACT government has boosted funding to tackle domestic violence by $300,000. But there's been too little invested for some time especially in prevention programs, and not just from government, but business and workplaces too.

The ACT is always in a budgetary crisis. At the moment it's Mr Fluffy and the impact of federal budget cuts. And it's grappling with the Abbott government's schizophrenic approach.

On one hand Abbott has approved a second Commonwealth action plan on domestic violence (after Labor created historic momentum on the issue with the first plan). 

But on the other hand Abbott has underspent money previously allocated and has withdrawn money from legal services. 

It makes no sense to acknowledge domestic violence as a problem and then to slash funds for legal protections for women and children**.

The legal system is complex and it's incredibly overwhelming for vulnerable women. It's even more opaque for women in regional and remote areas.

Knowing that domestic violence is even worse in Aboriginal communities and wanting to "close the gap", it's baffling that Abbott has cut legal aid specifically to Indigenous communities. 

Experts worry that the Prime Minister's misplaced talk of "lifestyle choices" threatens other support for people living on country, forcing women into more dangerous, bigger centres. 

When women do leave their partners they need somewhere to go. Many will end up homeless.  Once again the Abbott Government's actions are confused and damaging; weakening the National Affordable Housing Agreement and walking away from the only program Australia has had for increasing private investment in affordable rental housing, the National Rental Affordability Scheme. Does it want to help? It seeks to raise awareness of domestic violence but will defund peak advocacy groups in the space from midyear. 

The ACT can't escape impacts. There's still a commitment here to gender specialist refuges and services - unlike in NSW where they are being mainstreamed - but for how long? 

Who wouldn't want a world that is different, especially for Tara Costigan's children? Family violence hurts children. Adverse effects include depression and anxiety, developmental delays and poor academic performance. There are mixed views on whether violence witnessed becomes learned and repeated, or whether it turns them against it. But we do know that teaching children about respectful relationships helps. 

The YWCA in Canberra is pushing for this and wants new funds for a prevention program in all ACT primary and secondary schools (as well as a fresh action plan to eliminate violence against women and children that involves all ACT government directorates).

Concern that smartphones are creating a culture that is increasingly accepting of soft porn and objectifying young women, makes an understanding of respectful relationships and intimacy all the more critical. Gains made by decades of feminism are being undone. 

Family violence must be understood as part of a wider culture that even senior police now acknowledge is full of vulgar attitudes towards women.

Meanwhile women are being murdered, a devastating but preventable and predictable crime.

Deaths rarely occur without warning signs. Often, victims were in contact with police and, in vain, secured domestic violence orders to keep harm at bay.  

*Not her real name.
**A week after publishing this article the Federal Government reversed cuts to legal aid.