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.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Children in detention report is compulsory reading

One of the few Canberra residents allowed to visit asylum seekers on Nauru was approached by an eight-year-old girl last year. In a small voice the child asked: "Why am I in prison?"

She and her parents had been locked up on Christmas Island for nine months before being moved to Nauru where they had been for more than a year. They had been locked up for a total of two years. "Who can explain this to me?" she asked. 

Our government used to claim that its asylum seeker procedures harmed children unintentionally. Not any more.
After the release of the Human Rights Commission's Forgotten Children report last month the Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton, told the ABC that while he could release all the children who were locked up, if he did "let me tell you, the boats start up again, the detention centres will be reoccupied and that is not something that we are going to tolerate".

It was a telling statement. 

Just as telling was the admission by the Senate committee interrogating the head of the commission that he hadn't "bothered to read the report" because it was partisan. How could he know without reading it?

It should be compulsory reading. If you're short of time, look at the pictures. Preschoolers draw themselves crying. Others speak: "I am tired of life, says a 13-year-old. "Boat number has become like our first name," says another. 

Offshore detention is expensive (it costs $1.2 billion per year) but it's also costly later as children whose development has been stunted struggle to fit in to the community they'll eventually be part of.

But let's get some perspective. The Prime Minister says it's the Human Rights Commission that should be ashamed. Its crime was not to produce its report when Labor was in power, although the commission's website will tell you that it produced several on the treatment of asylum seekers under Labor and one on the treatment of suspected child people smugglers under Labor. Sadly, the outrageous attack on commission president Gillian Triggs has taken the focus off the report and its recommendations.

The report criticises both sides of politics. How did we move away from the explicit guarantee in section 4AA of the Migration Act that a "minor shall only be detained as a measure of last resort?" it asks. How did we reach the situation where then-prime minister Kevin Rudd declared that anyone who arrived by boat would never be settled in Australia?

Australia is the only country in the world that subjects asylum seekers to mandatory and indefinite detention.

What's getting in the way of a more generous political debate? It might be that – beyond frontier conflict with Indigenous peoples – we've had little experience of war. Many Australians don't get why people would want flee their homes.

Labor has been on the back foot ever since John Howard, Pauline Hanson and Tampa. It's allowed the Coalition to fan the flames of fear for political gain. It was, however, Paul Keating with bipartisan support who introduced mandatory detention in 1992.

Howard privatised the system, making it much harsher. It was Labor that adopted the rhetoric of saving lives at sea after the Christmas Island boat crash in December 2010. It struck a deal with PNG. 

I had foolishly hoped that on his election Tony Abbott would reach back into his early religious training and understand that if creatures are made in the image of God, God demands that we respect and protect them.

Bill Shorten wasn't Labor's leader when the decisions were made. He has a chance to remake Labor's policy as pro-immigration and pro-refugee. Although he will want to put the people smugglers out of business, he can say, at least, that Australia can afford to take many more refugees and ensure they have work rights.

Opinion within Labor is wide-ranging but change is under way. It will be driven by branch members empowered by new party rules and by backbenchers like Terri Butler and Melissa Parkes who are listening to their constituents who want Labor to be brave. The mood will be tested mid-year at the ALP national conference.

In the meantime, crossbenchers should be careful. They'll be thrown a bone here, a bone there, to appease them just enough to enable the government to keep doing what it is doing. (As was the case with Motoring Enthusiast senator Ricky Muir, whose vote passed a wide-ranging and controversial Migration Act after Scott Morrison promised to move children off Christmas Island by Christmas Day. The minister did not meet his own deadline.) 

Conscientised crossbenchers run after a bone and then realise it's just a stick. They must not be fooled by all the messaging around one bone or another. There will be other bones, thrown in isolation, which in time will be seen as sharp sticks. The policy of detaining people who have done nothing wrong under international law remains.