Family and domestic violence is the ‘wicked social problem’ a university course is aiming to address

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

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

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

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

It took a further three years before Grace accessed support services, which for her in Victoria was an organization called The Orange Door.

“I think twice I went and sat in the car outside [The Orange Door] and I went, ‘nah I can’t do it, can’t go in’,” she said, a slight tremble 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 that I had put up with and what I’d gone through because in my head I was going, ‘well why didn’t I leave earlier?’

“‘Who would go through that? No-one in their right mind’ was what my narrative was.”

Shame, fear and dependency

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

According to a number of professionals who work 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 at their most vulnerable.

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Michael Flood is an associate professor at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) whose work in the school of justice 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 being abusive towards them,” he said.

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

A ‘wicked’ social problem

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

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 being offered at universities.

Associate professor Michael Flood believes cultural change is necessary to prevent domestic violence.(Supplied)

“We’re dealing with a wicked social problem, a complex and pervasive social problem,” he said.

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

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

“I think a key learning from some of the most recent inquiries is that a whole lot more training and education, if not culture change, is necessary in our police services, and in some of the other services that respond or should respond to victim- survivors and perpetrators.”

Police responses questioned

Police responses to FDV have been under an increased — and public — level of scrutiny as of late, especially in Queensland.

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

There is also an ongoing inquiry into how Queensland Police respond to FDV matters – all of it highlighting significant areas of concern and leading to calls for more thorough face-to-face, and ongoing training for 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 handling family violence.(Supplied: AAP/ Department of Justice)

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

“This [Hannah Clarke] inquest and other recent reports on family violence are being reviewed for their applicability to WA Police Force policy and practices,” a spokesperson for the state’s Police Minister, Paul Papalia, wrote in a statement.

Police jurisdictions across the country are reporting that FDV call outs make up a significant proportion of their work, with many turning to improved officer training to try to better address the issue.

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 was not only about physical violence.

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

The situation is compounded when children are present.

“We know very well now that whenever there are children in a household where there’s domestic violence, they are deeply affected by that violence, affected just as much by witnessing or being around that violence as if they are being assaulted themselves,” 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 enter the FDV response 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 responses.

When it comes to the track record of police in dealing with FDV, Sergeant Hayes holds few punches.

A police officer in uniform standing with one hand on the bonnet of his police car.
Sergeant Patrick Hayes says improvements are being made in the way agencies work together to combat family violence.(Supplied)

“Has there been mistakes 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’ve started to work more collaboratively. We are making headway.”

Restraining order ‘just a piece of paper’

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

She is now working in the area of ​​FDV case management while undertaking the QUT course, which she describes as having “confronting 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 judicial system, which fails to make her feel safe.(Unsplash: Erick Zajac)

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

But she feels the judicial system is letting victim-survivors down.

The consequences faced by her ex-husband for multiple breaches appear to her to be no more than verbal reprimands and fines he will never pay off.

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

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

Living invisible

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

She was told by police she needed to change her phone number, move house and protect her address and her place of work so she would be ‘safe’.

“I think the onus of that needs to be taken away from a victim-survivor and placed at the perpetrator’s feet,” she said.

A blurred, dark photo of a child holding her hand up behind a glass screen.
Garace says survivors should not bear responsibility for the actions of perpetrators.(ABC News)

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

“And I did try and live invisibly for a lot of 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 have to do.”

Dr. Flood agrees.

“Whether they take place in schools or in sporting context or in the community, we need to shift the attitudes, the behaviors, inequalities that feed into domestic and family violence in the first place,” he said.

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