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To Scott Morrison, and the honorable members of the Australian House of Representatives and Senate,
At Doctors Against Violence Towards Women (DAVTW) we applaud the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children. It is no exaggeration to call domestic violence a National Emergency that causes significant morbidity, mortality and trauma to women and children. However, we are appalled that the Morrison government would offer $10 million of this vital money to “Specialised Family Violence Services” which offer “broad-based counselling and dispute resolution to individuals or couples.” In true domestic violence (i.e. coercive controlling violence), professional bodies CONTRAINDICATE mediation, dispute resolution or broad based counselling. Frankly, this practice perpetuates women’s trauma, stops them from leaving a violent situation and puts them and their children at ongoing risk of injury, emotional and financial abuse and homicide. DAVTW is a 350 strong group of experts in this field and I am a psychiatrist, specialising in trauma. I see 10-20 cases of domestic violence per week. Any “counselling” service must be trauma informed, must emphasise the safety of women and children and the responsibility of the perpetrator for their violent actions, not aim to resolve “disputes” from a position of neutrality towards both sides.
Consider this: last week I saw a woman who once had her jaw broken by her husband. He has broken her bones on a number of occasions, He has raped her. He has pulled her hair so hard parts of her scalp came off. And, like the majority of domestic violence offenders, he walks freely amongst us. Less than 2% of abuse cases lead to jail time. My patient didn’t know that he was violent when she married him. In fact, he was lovely and charming and swept her off her feet. She also didn’t know he had been married before and had been to jail for 4 months for assaulting his former partner. She hadn’t known that he had children who became wards of the state because of his violence, and that their mother had suicided because of it. She found this out all after she married him, when she first began fearing for her life. To this day she has never reported him, but because she knows that jailing him for a few months puts her more at risk when he is freed.
I see patients like this every day. I can tell you what will help them. They need to feel safe and supported by the system. They do not need couples counseling. In one study on couples counseling in family violence, almost half of the patients were worse off, suffering increased distress, violence and risk of death. Thus, I reiterate, that the safety of women and their children must be the first priority. If you asked me what the government should be prioritizing to help victims of violence I would say:
Try Prevention first.
- One of the biggest factors leaving women vulnerable to abuse is financial dependence. Women who do not work and rely on their partner for money are more likely to be abused. Encouraging women into the workplace by offering free or heavily subsidized childcare is ESSENTIAL. So many women are dissuaded from working because childcare costs more than her wage. Financial dependence makes it very difficult for a woman to leave an abusive relationship and many are not confident that they can leave and support themselves and the children alone.
- Teach children in high school about sexual consent and family violence so that future generations do not experience the same ‘cloak of secrecy’ that we see today. This secrecy means women are afraid of talking, especially since they are likely to be disbelieved or dismissed.
- Make the judicial system accountable, the way you do to us Doctors. Reoffending is high amongst perpetrators. It’s clear abusers are insufficiently deterred by assault charges – and why would they be? Only about 17% of serious assaults go to jail, and even if they do the average jail times for common assault with or without grievous bodily harm are between 4 and 12 months. If a perpetrator is released and murders his partner, hold the decision-makers accountable.
- Hold judges, magistrates and lawyers accountable to the facts, rather than allowing them to make decisions based on implicit bias. The percentage of women who lie about their assaults is actually negligible. Women are statistically more likely to deny or minimise assault. It is only when a woman starts to believe she or her children may be killed that she might reluctantly risk going through the court process. Address the inherent bias in our legal system that puts women and children at risk.
- Let forensic psychiatrists and psychologists teach magistrates and lawyers that domestic violence offenders are different from other perpetrators of common assault. The court needs to understand that a man who bashes his wife and children is a very different, more insidious beast from a drunk who impulsively throws a punch at the bouncer after he is ejected from the pub. Commonly perpetrators have a calm, friendly exterior. They often appear sincere, caring and charming, manipulating the system against their victim. This key difference would suggest that anyone dealing with perpetrators on a professional basis needs strict training to avoid giving a slap on the wrist to a person who warrants a stricter custodial sentence.
- Provide safe places for women who are trying to leave violent relationships. Magistrates often complain of women continually returning to their violent partner. However they often have no choice. If the perpetrator is free then it is safer to be with the ‘devil you know’ instead of aggravating the abuser by denying him entry into her home. Women need extensive support to leave a violent home.
- Stop forcing children to see their violent fathers post separation. If a child explicitly states that they do not want to see the man who has abused their mother or themselves, respect their autonomy to make that decision. The legal system is breeding a generation of children that think they must tolerate threatening men in their lives because the ‘law’ makes them. Children who are forced to see their fathers are effectively being taught that their mothers are incapable of protecting them from violence. This is actually very psychologically damaging as their main attachment figure is put in a position of powerlessness (betrayal trauma). It also forces women to endure “handover violence”. The introduction of the Family Law Amendment (Shared Parental Responsibility) Act 2006 (Cth) had laudable aims, but has created an environment where children routinely remain in contact with abusive parents. Insufficient attention has been paid to ameliorating the negative effects of this legislative change.
- Help women and children to recover and become productive, well members of the community, stop them from falling into future violent relationships by funding long term specific care. The cycle of violence is well known – a woman who has been abused in the past is at high risk of further violent relationships. Without trauma specific treatment, she is likely to suffer ongoing psychological distress and is at risk of substance abuse and suicide. She is also likely to suffer ongoing physical ailments. If society cannot protect women against violence, then it behooves us to provide specialised trauma specific therapy to help ameliorate the risk. This allows women to develop and maintain the psychological strength and self esteem to remain away from their abusers now and in the future. This also makes sound economic sense, since well women and kids are more productive members of the community. Appropriate trauma care is shown to increase productivity and employment, and mitigate the $22billion we lose combating domestic violence every year.
In summary, I, as a representative of a 350 strong expert body, call out this callous allocation of grant money. It is unequivocal: couples counseling is contraindicated in families with domestic violence, because it puts women and children at risk of further emotional, sexual and physical abuse and homicide. Domestic violence is an epidemic and so many aspects of our system need attention to stem the blood. No cent should be spared from interventions that are actually productive and helpful. The Australian Parliament must hold the LNP accountable for spending taxpayer funds this way.
Dr. Karen Williams
BMedSci MBBS MPH FRANZCP
Doctors Against Violence Towards Women