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Family and domestic violence is the ‘wicked social problem’ that a university course aims to solve

Written by Javed Iqbal

Grace* did not know, or perhaps would not admit, that she was in an abusive relationship until her husband became physically abusive.

When he did, it was a catalyst for her to leave, but not immediately.

“I even talked the police out of pressing charges against him in the early stages of it,” said Grace, whose name has been changed to protect her identity.

“I would put it down to [his] mental health in all honesty, it’s only later after a lot of study that I have a much better understanding that it was just an excuse for a lot of it.”

It took another three years for Grace to access support services, which for her in Victoria was an organization called The Orange Door.

“I think twice that I went and sat in the car outside [The Orange Door] and I went, ‘Nah, I can’t do that, can’t go in,'” she said, a slight tremor cracking through her otherwise steady voice.

“Just because I couldn’t… I didn’t want to tell my story.

“I didn’t want to be honest about the things I had faced and what I had gone through because in my head I was going ‘well why didn’t I go earlier?’

“‘Who would go through that? Nobody in their right mind’ was what my narrative was.”

Shame, fear and addiction

The feeling of shame overwhelming Grace as she sat in her car that day is not uncommon among victims-survivors of domestic and family violence (DFV).

According to a number of professionals working in the field, it is one of the common misconceptions about FDV that can have far-reaching and devastating consequences for those who are already most vulnerable.

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Michael Flood is an Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) whose work in the law school includes dispelling some of the most common and persistent misconceptions about FDV.

“There are very understandable reasons why women might stay with a partner who is violent towards them,” he said.

“Their fear, their commitment to the relationship, their concerns about harm to the children, their lack of alternative housing and income sources, their addiction, their social isolation, many of which are deliberately engineered by perpetrators.”

An ‘evil’ social problem

As part of his work in the FDV area, Dr. Flood responsible for QUT’s graduate certificate in domestic violence.

When it began in 2016, the online course was the only one of its kind in Australia, but Dr. Flood said he knows of at least five other professional qualifications in domestic and family violence now offered at universities.

Michael Flood is wearing a purple shirt and a serious expression in an outdoor setting
Associate Professor Michael Flood believes that cultural change is necessary to prevent domestic violence.(Delivered)

“We are dealing with a wicked social problem, a complex and wide-ranging social problem,” he said.

“We need skills and training for the people who come into contact with that problem.

“Certainly, recent stories from Queensland Police and elsewhere tell us that the police may not be very good at responding to these problems either.

“I think an important learning from some of the recent inquiries is that a great deal more training and education, if not culture change, is needed in our police services and in some of the other services that respond or should respond to victims. survivors and perpetrators.”

Police response questioned

The police response to FDV has come under increased – and public – scrutiny of late, particularly in Queensland.

The investigation of the murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children in the hands of their father and her estranged husband was followed by another in the killing of Doreen Langham by her ex-partner .

There is also an ongoing investigation into how Queensland Police respond to FDV cases – all highlight significant areas of concern and lead to calls for more thorough face-to-face and ongoing training of police across the country.

Hannah Clarke and her three children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey.
The murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, have led to calls for better police training in dealing with family violence.(Supplied: AAP/Ministry of Justice)

A recent government report identified WA as having the highest overall rate of family and family violence-related assaults in the country.

“This [Hannah Clarke] investigation and other recent reports of family violence are being reviewed for their applicability to WA Police Force policy and practice,” a spokesman for the state’s police minister, Paul Papalia, wrote in a statement.

Police jurisdictions across the country report that FDV calls make up a significant part of their work, with many turning to improved officer training to try to better address the problem.

The QUT course, which attracts students from professions including social work, law, psychology and law enforcement, looks at how disadvantage and privilege contribute to domestic violence and how to respond effectively to it.

Dr. Flood said it was a complex issue, and one that wasn’t just about physical violence.

“Domestic violence is as much about a kind of daily dripping faucet of abuse, control and so on that may not be very physical, it may just involve threats of violence or a perpetrator, in very subtle or sneaky ways that reminds the victim about the possibility of them using violence,” he said.

The situation worsens when children are present.

“We now know that when there are children in a household where there is domestic violence, they are deeply affected by that violence, just as much affected by witnessing or being around the violence as if they themselves are assaulted ,” he said.

Dr. Flood said about 40 students completed the course each year, about 87 percent of whom were women.

He would like to see more men join FDV’s action and prevention workforce.

Police officer sees hope

Patrick Hayes has been with Victoria Police for 22 years, becoming a family violence liaison officer two years ago, and is also a facilitator for QUT’s Graduate Certificate in Domestic Violence Response.

When it comes to the police’s track record in dealing with FDV, Sergeant Hayes has few punches.

A police officer in uniform stands with one hand on the hood of his police car.
Sergeant Patrick Hayes says improvements are being made to the way agencies work together to tackle family violence.(Delivered)

“Have mistakes been made in the past? Absolutely. There’s no denying that at all,” he said.

“What’s encouraging is that we’re recognizing this and we’re starting to work more together. We’re making progress.”

Allow ‘just a piece of paper’

On her third try, Grace finally found the courage to get out of her car and walk into The Orange Door for support.

She now works in FDV case management while undertaking the QUT course, which she describes as “confrontational content”.

When it comes to her own experiences and her own trauma, Grace said her journey was ongoing.

A silhouette of an anonymous woman
Grace says she feels let down by the justice system, which fails to make her feel safe.(Unsplash: Erick Zajac)

After her ex-husband was found guilty of numerous breaches of a restraining order, she has now been given a rare long-term order against him, which runs for 40 years.

But she feels the justice system is failing victim-survivors.

The consequences her ex-husband faces for multiple breaches seem to her to be no more than verbal reprimands and fines he will never pay.

She said the court’s actions had made her feel more insecure.

“Just by not holding violations accountable, there’s no deterrent effect. At the end of the day … it’s just a piece of paper,” Grace said.

To live invisibly

And while Grace rates her own interactions with the police as positive overall, there’s one aspect she’s still struggling to come to terms with.

She was told by the police to change her phone number, move home and protect her address and workplace so she would be ‘safe’.

“I think the burden for that needs to be taken off a victim-survivor and laid at the feet of the perpetrator,” she said.

A blurred, dark image of a child holding up his hand behind a glass screen.
Garace says survivors should not be held responsible for the actions of perpetrators.(ABC News)

“It’s not my responsibility to make someone else stand on the line or behave responsibly, but that’s exactly what I was told.

“And I tried to live invisible for many years … it’s not an easy way to recover when you’re trying to be invisible.

“Practically, it’s sound advice – it’s just something I shouldn’t be doing.”

Dr. Flood agrees.

“Whether they take place in schools or in sports or in the community, we need to change the attitudes, behaviours, inequalities that give rise to domestic and family violence,” he said.

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Javed Iqbal

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