Parliament

Family violence

November 26, 2015

Response to a motion

The speeches today and everything that has been spoken about today just leave me angry.

I guess we all bring our own experiences to Parliament, and my experience of many years as a family lawyer and as an independent children's lawyer, during which I heard the stories so many times, always made me angry, and I still feel angry.

This week, the week of the much-publicised White Ribbon Day, began for me with Monday morning's news bulletin reporting horrific injuries to a 10-month-old baby in western Sydney and a knife attack on a five-year old girl in Ballarat. While neither perpetrator was a relative, both were 23-year-old men, and one cannot help but feel a sense of despair at living in a society where young men, no matter what their personal or mental circumstances, would set out to harm children. Then today we heard from the commissioner of police that 400 reports of family violence were made in Victoria between Tuesday and today. Rosie Batty, however, by her inspiring words today and through her deeds since she was thrust into the limelight in such tragic circumstances, has shown us all that we have to translate the despair we feel at these circumstances into working for positive change.

The Goulburn Valley is recognised as having a tolerant, multicultural society, but unfortunately family violence also knows no ethnic boundaries. The coordinator of Marian Community family violence services in Shepparton wrote in VincentCare Victoria's last annual report:

Clients at our family violence services come from all socioeconomic backgrounds and represent 40 different language groups.

Statistics show that in the five years from 2010 to 2014 family incidents increased from 592 to 1386 in Greater Shepparton, a rise above that of the state average. The specialist family violence liaison officers at Shepparton police station describe their beat as a very busy one that ties up a great deal of police time.

I would like to commend our local newspaper for the campaign it ran last week heightening the awareness around family violence, and the interviews Emily Woods conducted during that campaign. She interviewed a young woman who said at the end of the interview:

You have a chance at freedom, you have a chance of waking up every morning and being happy, like I do —

a plea to women to leave.

I recall taking instructions from a woman in a family law matter who described her years of abuse and violence. I asked her when she had first been hit. She said it was six weeks before her wedding. The wedding arrangements were all in place. He promised that he would never do it again, and they married, but of course it continued, for many years, until she had the strength to leave him.

Over my years as a family law practitioner I always asked women whether they had experienced family violence, and so many of them had. Some would downplay the violence. They would say things like, 'It was only the occasional backhander'. Others spoke of threats being made to kill the family pet or to kill them. Overwhelmingly, however, the fear — their personal fear and their fear for their children — was great. They carried significant guilt, because their children had to witness the family violence. They felt that in some way that was their fault.

To most of us it is incomprehensible that a father could murder his own children just to punish the mother. Many women live in fear of this happening, and it does happen. There can be no greater punishment for a woman than to have her child killed.

There have been so many examples of this over the years, and we know of many of them. It highlights one of the extraordinary differences between men and women in our society — the fact that perpetrators can exercise this ultimate power. Domestic violence, as it used to be described, has always been prevalent. My father was a man who was very respectful of women and deplored their ill-treatment. I recall him telling me a story from many years ago of a woman in a little country town who was being abused by her husband. It was widely known. The local policeman confronted the perpetrator, gave him a good beating and let him know that if he did it again, he would get more of the same. This was simple justice dispensed in a way that we no longer consider appropriate.

Over the years I have seen many community responses, and things are changing. We have moved from a time of the police not attending call-outs because it was 'just a domestic', to a situation where we now have family violence units in our police stations. We have reporting of family violence. People are much more willing to report family violence. I have many times telephoned the police when I have heard women being abused in the street or in houses near where I have lived. The legal system will always have a role to play in this area. There are times when court orders are essential. More importantly, however, there must be consequences for breaches of these court orders, and I think women have been failed many times in this area.

There has also been a reluctance to charge perpetrators with assault in circumstances where, if the victim were not an intimate partner, they would certainly have been charged. Enforcement of our laws is an important part of changing behaviours. It is not good enough to pass laws, hoping that these will bring about social change and a change in attitudes. That has not worked. Enforcement and an understanding that there are consequences to breaking the law is what we need.

Human relationships are complex, but we now understand gender to be a really important issue in this area. If we as a community are to address the sickening behaviour that exists in familial relationships that form the basis of our society, significant action must be taken. There are so many paradoxical things in our society. Women are denigrated and exploited in a wide range of ways: in games, films, media and other sources. Violence is promoted as a sport. We have so many mixed messages out there when consistency is what we really require.

I telephoned my 92-year-old mother quite late last night. She was watching Q&A after having watched the second part of Hitting Home. She had been shocked by some of the stories. She said to me, 'I could never have imagined your dad doing something like that to me'. There are many men who would not dream of behaving in a such a way towards women. However, in my opinion, there are a group of men who are at war with women. They are dangerous and their relationships are based on ownership and anger. For most of them anger management courses and behavioural change courses are of questionable value. Anger, hatred and a desire to control is strong and in some cases knows no boundaries. That is why 78 women have died so far this year. We have to stop making excuses for them.

We do not have to criminalise family violence; it is already a crime. There are two fundamental things which need to change. The first is that women should not have to leave their homes; the perpetrator should leave the home. The second is that we need to enforce the law. Assault is a serious offence. There is no other area in the law we say 'Don't do that again or else' — not in situations like this. An intervention order is just that: it is a warning not to do it again. We have to charge people.

I am sorry I have gone for so long, but I feel very passionate about this. I am about to finish. I have to stress that at this time social change and all of these respect courses are really important, but in the meantime — today, tomorrow or next week — women will be killed if we do not take steps to enforce the laws that we already have.

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  • Suzanna Sheed
    published this page in Parliament 2018-08-30 11:14:39 +1000