Family violence: no easy solution for a common problem

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Family violence is increasing in Victoria.
Photo credit: The Age newspaper

‘No matter what I did, I always ended up in trouble. If I didn’t cook something right or it wasn’t hot enough, if I didn’t look alright. Or sometimes he had too much to drink.

‘There was always a reason things got started up. I copped verbal abuse all the time. But the violence was the worst, getting hit and belted all the time.’

Victorian woman, Gerdina Jansen, has been a victim of family violence for 30 years. Jansen’s story is being repeated every day for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of women in Victoria.

Sadly, their distressing plight is not new. What is new, though, is that the numbers are accelerating. Statistics show that in just the past 12 months, reports of family violence have increased 23 per cent.

This alarming number has triggered a rapid response from Baillieu Government. However, the commitment of an extra $16 million over four years to fighting domestic violence is being both welcomed and criticised.
Although the funding increase appears to be a step in the right direction, political opposition has emerged in light of the Government’s previous decisions on family violence funding.

It was only in June that the Government cut $25 million from community health services, which covers the integrated health promotion program, therefore impacting on services that help women through family violence.

Reports quoted Health Minister David Davis saying these cuts were ‘modest’, however, Labor MP and Shadow Minister for Women Danielle Green says that for affected organisations, it represents a 10-25 per cent cut from their overall budgets.

‘It just shows lack of commitment to community health and women’s health.’

Ms Green acknowledges that the funding increase is ‘laudable’ but she is sceptical about the Baillieu Government’s motivations.

‘The announcement just seemed to be a knee-jerk reaction to the overall crime rate rise.’

Ms Green believes the reason the Baillieu Government cut the $25 million is because it thought it would go unnoticed; especially after reducing health spending by more than $600 million since coming to office.

She is unimpressed that the Baillieu Government has still not delivered their framework on family violence after two years in office. There is a consultation framework at present to help develop the action plan according to Department of Human Services.

Like the Labor Government, Ms Green wants the Baillieu Government to tackle family violence using a ‘whole of government’ approach.

Spokesperson for the Minister of Women’s Affairs Michael Moore says the action plan will be released soon and will articulate the ‘whole-of-government approach to preventing violence happening in the first place.’

Member of the Greens Party, Colleen Hartland, also has doubts about the funding increase given the recent cuts.

‘When a Health Minister says ‘modest’ cuts, you know they’re going to be devastating … Just like the Baillieu Government claimed the TAFE cuts would be $100 million, when the actual figure was $300 million.’

Ms Hartland is still puzzled with the Baillieu Government’s refusal to invest in the BSafe pilot last November, an alarm system installed in the homes of family violence victims in the Hume region. The ‘highly successful’ program would cost only $125,000 per year to run.

BSafe has continued with the help of donations and Labor Government funding.

Ms Hartland thinks part of the problem is that the Government lacks a real concern for family violence because it happens ‘behind closed doors.’

‘This is a Government that talks a lot about law and order and getting tough on crime but … it’s more worried about the violence on King Street.’

The silence of the crime made it harder for Jansen to escape.

She never spoke to anyone about what was happening in case it got back to her husband and she would bear the consequences. This created isolation and Jansen become more accustomed to living as a victim of family violence.

‘When you’re in it (family violence) you don’t know you’re in it, otherwise you’d get help right away.

‘I didn’t know what ‘good’ was. I thought, well, I have my kids, a roof over my head and a business – what more could I want?’

But she admits that the constant fear for her children’s and her own safety, as well as threats, also stopped her from telling anyone.

Family violence counsellor of five years, Kate Shannos, says there are complicated reasons as to why women do not disclose their trauma.

‘The cycle of violence can be confusing.

‘There’s times when the man is trying … he will promise that things will change.’

For those who seek help, family violence agencies exist, but in order for them to properly address women’s needs, they need funding.

Regional Integration Coordinator at Women’s Health Goulburn North East (WHGNE), one of the organisations affected by the $25 million budget cut, Tammy Smith does not imagine the $16 million funding increase will benefit their work.

She says the funds are for family violence services, not prevention, and thinks the Government should address the grassroots issues of family violence just as much as support services.

‘The Government just don’t understand the prevention measures that can be taken.’

‘We have huge campaigns about not drink driving or taking drugs … for some reason family violence doesn’t get that recognition.’

Ms Smith concedes that although it is good that agencies are receiving money, $16 million over four years is not enough.

The funding will provide counselling for an extra 1200 women and children per year, but as Ms Smith points out, family violence incident reports to police escalated by 10,000 last year, therefore the funding will not meet the demand.

The $16 million increase will expand counselling and case management services, and men’s behaviour changes programs to nearly double the number of places in court-directed programs.

Counsellor Shannos views these strategies as more reactive than proactive and believes that mandatory respectful relationship programs in all schools could work to change attitudes and provide a proactive strategy to help prevent family violence. Ms Smith (WHGNE) agrees that education is an effective means of early intervention.

CEO of Women’s Health West (WHW) Dr Robyn Gregory says that several women’s health services, in WHW, have not received a funding increase in 15 years and although she commends the $16 million increase, she is not convinced that it will be very effective in stopping family violence.

Dr Gregory is keen for more investment in prevention to create a long-term benefit. However, Dr Gregory acknowledges that for the Government, this is not an easy commitment to make given the short-term nature of election cycles and electorate that want immediate solutions.

‘You have to have a lot of political will to say ‘we are going to invest in something that’ll pay off in 10 or 15 years’.’

Dr Gregory wants the media to ‘re-educate’ the electorate on what is important in the long-run, namely, prevention.

Ms Green agrees, stating ‘prevention is better than the cure’, and that investing in the long-term will pay ‘dividends’.

‘For every dollar spent on prevention, around $6 is saved in acute care.’

Dr Gregory highlights that the economic benefits, second to the social and moral responsibility, are a good reason to invest in prevention.

Family violence costs the Australian economy $13.6 billion each year, according to a study by the National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children. The costs are derived from a combination of factors, including the risk of homelessness, lower workplace productivity, social security and child support payments, and hospital admissions.

Jansen admits that although she was ‘adept’ at hiding her injuries, there were occasions when she had to seek medical attention.

‘I remember one day he said “I want a roast tonight”… but he was late home from the footy club … by that time the roast was cold and overdone.’

‘He got angry and I ended up in hospital with two fingers nearly cut off.’

The physical violence, emotional trauma, and confusion became so unbearable that at one point, Jansen considered taking her own life.

Family violence affects one in five Victorian women and according to VicHealth, it is more damaging to the health of Victorian women aged 15-44 than high blood pressure, obesity, heart disease and other risk factors.

Counsellor Shannos says she fears for her client’s safety sometimes, but she is also gravely concerned for the welfare of children. Ms Shannos admits that the most challenging part of her job is hearing about children being impacted, both physically and mentally.

‘Supporting children is something that’s not done very well.’

Jansen says her children suffered from being around the violence and although most of the physical violence happened after the three of them were in bed, the two older children were aware of the situation.

‘A few times he (husband) threatened to kill me, holding me at gun point. My son witnessed that once.’

The effects on her children have been devastating. One daughter took off overseas to ‘get away’, and her son is a drug addict, unable to hold down a job, despite having been sent to counselling.

On the night when Jansen told her husband she was leaving him, he beat her so much that the older children had to stop him.

Dr Gregory firmly believes that more funding for the support and counselling of children is necessary.

While the prevention of family violence is important, Ms Shannos says it is hard to achieve.

‘Violence is a choice – we can’t prevent a man from choosing violence.’

‘Unless you address it, the attitude isn’t going to change, so then all you’re doing is constantly reacting.’

Working through the aftermath of the ordeal has been important for Jansen. After the divorce, her husband continued to verbally abuse her over the phone but she says she felt like she needed to listen to him like she had been for 30 years.

‘The support groups made me understand what was happening to me and why I was so confused … they helped me learn to hang up the phone on him.’

A hard story to tell, but even nine years after the nightmare has ended, it is one Gerdina Jansen wants to tell.

‘I want to make people aware of how common family violence is.’

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