Even where clear signs exist, there are barriers to family violence being identified and raised by universal services, such as a lack of time or confidence. But for some groups, there are additional barriers to having their experience identified.
“Workers need to be open-minded, non-judgemental and provide a welcoming space for discussion to occur; they need to be educated in trauma-informed practice. Not everyone is ready to disclose family violence; some don’t realise it’s happening, others fear systematic interventions and have concerns of their children being taken away. No one wants to be judged for putting up with poor behaviours or their choice to stay in an unhealthy relationship.”
- Ilona, victim survivor
Barriers for diverse communities come up in every area of our monitoring, and although there is often good guidance and training in place around the needs of different groups, putting this guidance into practice is often the challenge. The following cohorts emerged as groups where universal services may be less likely to ask about family violence and/or individuals were less likely to disclose family violence.
This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, nor a comprehensive analysis of the challenges for each group, but rather a snapshot of some of the challenges, and an opportunity to highlight the complexity of supporting universal services to identify family violence for a range of groups within the community:
- Rural/regional – identification of family violence by universal services in smaller communities has been raised as a challenge. We were told about one location where 20 per cent of the community works at the local hospital, leaving victim survivors very reluctant to disclose family violence because they often know the person who is looking after them. Similarly, school staff may have long-standing or family-like relationships with perpetrators, which may impact on victim survivor confidence in disclosing and may result in risk escalation.
- Older people – a very high proportion of elder abuse is perpetrated by family members (and it is often psychological and financial in nature). However, Seniors Rights Victoria explained that health professionals often unknowingly collude with the perpetrator by discussing decisions relating to the older person with them. Groups advocating for seniors explained that older people are often reluctant to disclose family violence directed at them because they don’t want to get their child or grandchild, who are often the ones perpetrating the abuse, in trouble; they want to get them help.
- LGBTIQ+ communities – services working with LGBTIQ+ communities explained that family violence may not even be considered a possibility for a same-sex couple, with signs of abuse sometimes brushed off as family conflict, despite rates of family violence being similar to those for the broader community. The Rainbow Door described an example where a young person called the service after being locked in their room to keep them away from their same-sex partner, only to have it brushed off by some services as a ‘parenting matter’. Thorne Harbour Health also explained that there is often a reluctance to disclose unless there are very clear cues that it is a safe place to do so (such as rainbow flags and signs about family violence in a GP’s office).
- Migrant and refugee – communication barriers and insufficient access to interpreters can mean victim survivors with limited English language skills are less likely to be able to communicate about their family violence situation when engaging with universal services.
- Aboriginal women – due to experiences of intergenerational, systemic racism and a fear of losing children through the involvement of the child protection system, Aboriginal women, children and communities may be particularly reluctant to disclose abuse.
- People with a disability – as noted by the Royal Commission, despite facing a higher risk of experiencing family violence than people without disabilities, victim survivors with disabilities may fear reporting family violence because they don’t think they will be believed, they may lose support (which is compounded in situations where the victim survivor is dependent on the perpetrator for care or other forms of support) or they may have children removed from their care. Similarly, people with disabilities that affect their communication may have trouble conveying their experiences of abuse, and furthermore they may be aware that they are less likely to be regarded as competent or believable witnesses.
- More generally, where the victim survivor doesn’t fit the stereotype, signs of family violence may be missed. Our 2021 report, Accurate Identification of the Predominant Aggressor highlighted the fact that many victim survivors are misidentified as perpetrators due to misconceptions by some professionals about how a victim survivor should look and behave. Similarly, stakeholders shared the following examples:
- A mother of school-aged children who presents with ‘difficult’ behaviour may be seen as a problem and never be considered a possible victim survivor.
- A student displaying challenging behaviours and getting into fights may be punished with detention rather than receiving support.
- Well-educated parents with a higher socioeconomic status may be assumed to be unlikely to be experiencing family violence, and signs of abuse may be disregarded.
- Victim survivors experiencing non-physical forms of family violence may go unnoticed if staff do not have a comprehensive understanding of the signs of these types of family violence.
“Frontline workers need to be aware of behaviours that may make the person or persons experiencing family violence come off as the ‘hard to deal with’.”
- Kelly, victim survivor
“The things I find that are missed is the belief in the story, and the experiences and the walls that are put up by workers when victim survivors present in a way that doesn’t suit the worker’s ideal of how family violence victim survivors should act, feel or respond.”
- Kelly, victim survivor
Further, people with a range of these characteristics can experience overlapping forms of discrimination and marginalisation, and experience further disadvantage in having their family violence identified.
As a representative from the Royal Women’s Hospital told us, intersectionality adds a level of complexity that needs sustained effort and focus. Such matters are included in the MARAM Framework, but as has previously been discussed, many workforces are not engaging with the full suite of MARAM guidance. There needs to be a continued focus through training, guidance and ongoing support for workforces on challenging biases and stereotypes and improving their ability to identify family violence in all its forms and for all cohorts.
“I got expelled in Year 8 with no support. No one helped me find other education options that were suited to my style of learning or to find what I needed. I was seen and treated as a disruption and troublemaker instead of a child trying to ask for help. I was experiencing family violence, in and out of homelessness and a recent sexual assault experience. I wasn’t in a headspace to go to school. It didn’t seem important compared to everything else going on in my life, I didn’t care. I felt like I didn’t matter to the teachers at school. I came to school with self-harm scars that were still bleeding, and they just sent me home with no follow-up. I just felt I was a problem and got punished for things out of my control. I got detentions for not wearing the right uniform and coming to school late. I got suspended for having mental ill-health and told off for showing up late. Not once did someone sit down to just talk and find out what was going on for me.”
- Eliza, victim survivor