Family violence may have flow on effects into all aspects of a family’s life including employment, housing, transport, education, financial security and physical and mental health. Further, families affected by violence are not free from risk once family law matters are resolved. Families may still be vulnerable to violence, fear and intimidation from a violent family member; a lack of support services, including housing and employment, can also result in families returning to violent relationships.
Ongoing support services are therefore critical to ensuring their safety and wellbeing, and securing a future free from violence. Significantly, families who have experienced violence require a holistic system that adequately supports them before, during and after engagement with the family law system.
Key support services raised in evidence include housing support, economic support, and behaviour change programs for perpetrators. Each is addressed briefly below, with the Committee’s comment and recommendation appearing at the end of the chapter.
Box 9.1: Support services
The following is a selection of responses to the Committee’s questionnaire:
‘Provide [people who have experienced family violence] with support (legal support, counselling, financial support, emergency housing). It is important to centralise this process and establish organisations that can assist’.
—Respondent from Victoria
‘There is a … disconnect between the family law system and the support services established to support victims of family violence. These services will most often not intervene while a matter is before the Court. … [This] leaves the victim at risk and adds to the trauma’.
—Respondent from the Australian Capital Territory
‘Support people [are needed] to transition to safe, affordable housing in an area that they are comfortable in’.
—Respondent from New South Wales
‘No support services were offered [to me]’.
—Respondent from Queensland
‘When I sought refuge, no facilities were available. More support services are needed for temporary housing’.
—Respondent from the Australian Capital Territory
‘[We need a] proper referral system at intervention points’.
—Respondent from Queensland
‘[We need] more links [and] referrals to community support services’.
—Respondent from Queensland
Court-based support services
As noted in Chapter 4, some specialist family violence courts provide for the co‑location of support services, and make active use of the ability to refer parties to those co‑located services.
A number of participants in the inquiry discussed the importance of co‑located services in courts, with The Deli Women and Children’s Centre highlighting that appearing at court can be ‘the peak … of a victim’s vulnerability’.
For example, former Commissioner of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, the Hon. Professor Marcia Neave AO, commented that the co‑location of services within courts, particularly specialist family violence courts, could assist in the de‑escalation of matters and of risk:
[In] some of the specialist courts have got an applicant worker, a respondent support worker. So when these people come, and often it is the first time they have had any contact with support services, the applicant support worker gets support—not legal support; just help. It might be something like sitting in a court. It might be finding her a place she can go to be safe. It might be referring her to a family violence service. And the perpetrator also is referred—gets a hot referral. He's not just told, 'Ring up this number.' He is actually supported to go and get help. Also, there is linkage with the men's behaviour change programs … You have all of this … built in the Magistrates' Court.
The Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre recommended the establishment of an integrated service delivery model including wraparound legal and non‑legal support services embedded in local courts, children’s courts and courts exercising family law jurisdiction (both federal family courts and state and territory magistrates courts). The Centre commented that a holistic and seamless service would ensure that families affected by family violence have access to the following:
a specialist domestic violence support worker;
a child protection practitioner;
a culturally and linguistically diverse or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander specialist worker; and
perpetrators are referred to an accredited behaviour change program.
Housing and homelessness after family violence
As noted in Chapters 5 and 7, relationship breakdown is well recognised as a contributing cause of poverty and homelessness in Australia. The Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) noted that more than 30 per cent of people seeking assistance from homelessness services are doing so due to family violence, with only nine per cent able to find long‑term accommodation from their initial request for assistance. Consequently,
… there is insufficient emergency housing available, and women fleeing family violence end up not in secure shelters, but motels, cars and boarding houses offering little or no protection.
The Alice Springs Women’s Shelter operates a 30-bed crisis accommodation service for women and children in Alice Springs, describing the critical safety services it provides as a ‘homicide prevention service’. The Shelter described its services and limitations:
A woman and children could come into the shelter when they’re escaping violence, and that could be anywhere from being part of a woman’s safety plan to a woman being stabbed ... We exit women as soon as we can, as soon as that danger has gone. That doesn’t mean that we actually exit them to somewhere; we exit a lot of women to homelessness. There is nowhere for them to go ... When we say ‘homelessness’, that can mean anything from going to live in an overcrowded place to staying in someone’s front yard, to the riverbed, to families in cars or families just being there. We try our best and we often have overcrowding—but, for every one of them, domestic violence is the driving force of their homelessness.
Nationally, one in 200 people are homeless in Australia, with rates in the Northern Territory 15 times the national average. Significantly, the Committee heard that homelessness forces victims back to unsafe environments ‘where they must measure the level of violence that they will experience in order to stay safe by relying on safety planning’.
Families affected by violence may also be forced into homelessness following a ‘black-listing’ on the private rental market as a result of damage done to the property by the perpetrator.
Family Law Practitioners of Western Australia recommended alternative housing for perpetrators so that victims are not displaced from their home. The PHAA similarly advocated that outreach services provide ‘real options for women and children … to remain safety in their home’.
Safe and secure accommodation is not only important in the critical post‑separation stage, but also for long-term stability and recovery of families leaving violent relationships. At both stages, housing must be accessible, available and affordable in order to prevent homelessness and aid families’ recoveries.
The Department of Social Services advised that families affected by family violence are able to access an income support payment (known as a Crisis Payment), of an amount equivalent to half their fortnightly rate of payment or access to a portion of their future payment as an Urgent Payment. Eligible families are required to submit a claim for a crisis payment seven days after a relevant event.
The National Council of Single Mothers and their Children (NCSMC) stated that the crisis payment ‘has the potential to provide some much needed financial support at a particularly poignant time’. However, it stated that the seven-day window to lodge a claim had prevented otherwise eligible women from accessing the payment.
The NCSMC recommended a review of the crisis payment, commenting that the existing payment does not reflect the needs of women.
More broadly, ANROWS also recommended specialist financial education programs and advice support, designed to:
… help victims rebuild, know their rights, form better alliances with consumer credit and financial services … as well as secure property and funds, and prevent loss upon separation … Providing such services requires drawing on expert support and implementing close collaboration between the family law system and professional counsellors and crisis service workers at the early stages of separation and/or crisis, but also post-crisis and/or post-separation in the longer-term.
ANROWS also supported the provision of crisis relief payments where there is a need to act quickly.
Behaviour change programs
Responding effectively to perpetrators of family violence is crucial to ensuring the safety of adults and children subjected to family violence, and contributing to their recovery and ongoing wellbeing. A number of participants discussed behaviour change programs (BCPs) and the role they can play in ongoing safety of families.
BCPs are predominantly group-based programs varying in duration from 12 to 26 weeks, with some programs referring participants to ongoing support groups. Although the methodologies employed by these programs vary, most BCPs use a combination of psycho-education and cognitive behavioural therapy techniques.
The National Outcome Standards for Perpetrator Interventions establish a set of standards which BCP providers must comply. The Standards were supported by the Council of Australian Governments as a key action under the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children.
No To Violence/Men’s Referral Service (No To Violence) is the peak body in Victoria and New South Wales for services and practitioners which work with perpetrators of family violence. It engages with more than 10,000 perpetrators a year. For No To Violence, the goal of such programs is to improve the safety of families affected by violence:
We would argue that if a woman or child is safer because we are working with a man in our program that would be a success. People want to measure change. I can understand that … We argue that some men will change, some men will start the journey and some men will not change … They leave our programs and go back to a community that continues to support inequality. I think we have to be realistic about how much we can achieve on a small scale when we need a larger scale change to happen within our culture.
The Hon. Professor Marcia Neave AO, former Commissioner of the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, reported that the Royal Commission had received evidence about the positive impact of BCPs and ongoing family safety:
We did hear some very moving evidence from a man in one case who went off and did behaviour change 10 years previously. In fact, his wife rang us and said it had transformed their lives and she thought we should hear from him as an advocate. She was an advocate for it because it had worked for them..
The minimum standard in Victoria for BCPs is a 24 hour program over 12 weeks. No To Violence recommended this be increased to a 48 hour minimum, explaining:
No-one is going to change in 12 weeks or 24 sessions. In some ways, the best our programs can do in lots of ways is to, I guess, present the ideas, the challenges around what change looks like and encourage men to make change. So the longer we can keep a man engaged in our service system, the better..
Similarly, Springvale Monash Legal Service stated that these programs are ‘often short term in nature, and cannot be expected to achieve strong outcomes within their current timeframes’. The Service advised that the design of BCPs needs to be culturally appropriate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and culturally and linguistically diverse perpetrators. Professor Neave also supported long-term BCPs to reduce recidivism.
Court-ordered attendance and referral mechanism
Referrals to BCPs can be from individuals, community organisations, child protection agencies and the police. Referrals may also come from the courts (both state and territory magistrates’ courts and the federal family courts), though these referrals appear to occur more frequently when magistrates or judges are aware of such programs.
However, a number of organisations supported a stronger and structured referral mechanism from the courts and a greater use of court-ordered attendance. No To Violence recommended a court referral system for BCPs and a range of other intervention services, modelled on a court-referral and report back requirements in British courts.
In the United Kingdom, approximately one-third of referrals to BCPs are made through the Family Court, where the Court orders perpetrators to participate in programs prior to decision in parenting matters. The referrals are managed through the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS),which, as noted in Chapter 4, is independent of the Court.
During participation, and at its conclusion, the BCP provider reports back to CAFCASS concerning the risk that the perpetrator poses to the family. CAFCASS uses the BCP provider’s assessment, together with any other relevant information, to make a recommendation regarding parenting matters before the Court.
In recommending the CAFCASS program for Australian courts, No To Violence advocated that BCPs can be ‘an important source’ of information to the Court in decision-making in parenting matters and any ongoing risk that a perpetrator presents to a family. No To Violence stated that court‑referred attendance in BCPs provide an important opportunity to improve the safety of families:
This is a major untapped source of referrals for family violence perpetrators, at a time where women are at high risk of being forced, through the family law system, to provide higher levels of perpetrator access to their children than what might be in the child’s best interest in terms of their safety, stability and development.
The adoption of a court-referral and report-back model was supported by a number of other participants in the inquiry. Professor Neave recommended referrals from the Court and supported the adoption of the approach in the British courts, though cautioned that there may be difficulties with enforcement. The Central Australian Aboriginal Family Legal Unit stated:
[W]hen we’re developing, for example, parenting plans or parenting orders and it's by consent, for example, then there should be some expectation of the man, the offender, engaging in a men’s behaviour change program or having [domestic violence] counselling. This shouldn't be simply lip-service; this should be part of the requirement. He should be submitting … his certificates of completion to the Court for consideration.
The Northern Rivers Community Legal Centre supported improving the integration of BCPs into the family law system, however noted that existing court orders referring perpetrators to anger management courts (as distinct from behaviour change programs) ‘does not reflect best-practice in this area’. The Centre recommended:
It is our recommendation that referrals to accredited [behaviour change programs] becomes systematisied, with model orders being designed for this purpose, in line with the National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book and that, if court ordered, assessment reports be made available to the Court reflecting whether the perpetrator has engaged effectively and participated positively in the program.
Access Community Services also supported a mechanism whereby BCP providers would provide feedback to the Court on the ‘readiness of participants to exit the program’.
The Committee is of the view that holistic and ongoing support services are paramount to the recovery of families following family violence. These support services can also be critical to families’ ongoing safety and wellbeing.
However, the terms of reference for this inquiry limit the Committee’s comments for reform to reform of the family law system. As such, the Committee will limit its comments to those matters falling within the terms of reference, that is, court referral to behaviour change programs and the design of such programs.
Nonetheless, the Committee anticipates that the previous recommendations contained in this report, particularly those relating to property division and financial recovery, will be of some assistance to families rebuilding their lives following family violence.
Court-based support and referrals
Whilst inspecting the Specialist Family Violence Division of the Victorian Magistrates’ Court at Heidelberg, the Committee witnessed the clear benefits of wrap‑around services and co‑located services within the Court building.
In Chapter 4, the Committee noted the benefits of court‑based support in specialist family violence courts that operate in certain states and territories, and recommended the Attorney‑General work with state and territory counterparts to expand the number of specialist family violence courts.
The Committee sees merit in the federal family courts adopting a similar approach to court-based support for both legal and non‑legal support services. The Committee notes the introduction of the Family Advocacy Support Services (FASS) program which, based on early reports, is assisting families with their legal and non-legal support needs. The Committee believes that this could be further extended, as has been operating in the states and territories’ specialist family violence courts.
The Committee recommends the Attorney‑General works to introduce ‘wrap-around’ services co-located in the federal family courts, modelled on the provision of these legal and non‑legal support services in the specialist family violence courts of the states and territories.
As discussed in earlier chapters of this report, the Committee strongly supports the early results from the FASS, and believes these early successes can be built upon, including a more structured approach to referrals to BCPs from the Court, managed by the FASS program.
The Committee believes this referral to BCPs would be an expansion of the FASS program, and could be modelled on the CAFCASS in British courts.
Availability and accessibility of these programs is critical to the ongoing safety of families. The Committee is keenly aware of the need to ensure well regarded and accessible services are available to support a strong and systematic court-referral mechanism, including in rural and regional areas.
The Committee recommends the Attorney‑General works to establish a systematic court referral mechanism to evidence‑based, evaluated, best practice behaviour change programs, through an expanded Family Advocacy and Support Services program, which includes systematic reporting from behaviour change program providers to advise the Court on ongoing risks to families’ safety. Further, the Committee recommends that the Attorney‑General work with state and territory counterparts to ensure adequate funding of evidence‑based, evaluated, best practice behaviour change programs to support the mechanism.
Ms Sarah Henderson MP
5 December 2017