In the course of its inquiry the Committee received evidence from and regarding the wide array of services that respond to family, domestic and sexual violence (FDSV).
These included government and non-government services whose responses to FDSV are only one component of their work, such as organisations in the housing, health, justice, policing and financial sectors.
As noted in Chapter 1 of this report, responses to violence and related services have been examined in detail in a number of previous parliamentary and other inquiries. Response initiatives and services were comprehensively described in many submissions to this inquiry, which assisted the Committee’s understanding of the sector.
This chapter considers some key matters highlighted in relation to responses to family violence and service providers, including funding, flexibility, coordination and workforce development. It firstly considers specialist family violence services, then access to other services in the FDSV context: housing, health, justice and law enforcement, and financial support.
This chapter also examines evidence heard by the Committee about addressing FDSV issues for workplaces and workers. This includes the wellbeing of frontline workers in the FDSV services sector, and particularly the impact on them of circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, this chapter discusses proposals for mandated paid family violence leave.
Specialist family and domestic violence services
The Committee heard evidence about specialist family and domestic violence services, which is an umbrella term covering a variety of services designed to provide direct support and assistance to victim-survivors. A definition was provided by the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence which said such services are:
… services funded to specifically respond to family violence, although the organisations that deliver these services may do work in other areas as well. There are three main types of specialist family violence services for women and children: support services, accommodation services (refuges), and family violence counselling services.
The character of these services as front-line support organisations which grew up as a direct and practical response to an identified need was highlighted by the Royal Commission’s description of their origin as a ‘network of community-based women’s refuges established in the 1970s and [which] has expanded to provide a range of support services for women and children affected by family violence’. Elaborating, the Royal Commission found that ‘Government policies and service responses to family violence in Victoria have been shaped by history and the efforts of women to bring this problem into the open to gain the recognition it deserves’.
Specialist family and domestic violence services were originally established as voluntary organisations. But in the wake of growing public awareness, changing police approaches, and legislative and policy changes, these services are now largely delivered by not-for-profit organisations funded by government.
Generally, organisations tend to focus services around a particular aspect of the needs of victim-survivors of FDSV, such as accommodation, health, and legal assistance, but in recognition of the multi-dimensional and inter-connected challenges facing people experiencing violence, often provide a range of other related services.
For example, McAuley Community Services for Women specialises in providing accommodation and other support for women and children who have faced family violence and/or homelessness. The organisation told the Committee it provides:
… safe crisis and refuge services, temporary and longer-term accommodation, as well as a respite bed for those needing a short period of intensive support. An essential feature of our model is the provision of intensive support 24/7, 365 days of the year. … We also provide direct support to children in their own right and help nurture the confidence of their mothers.
In addition to remediating clients’ problems with accommodation, however, McAuley focuses on economic empowerment through an employment support program. It explained how the extension of services beyond immediate accommodation needs facilitates an integrated response to complex challenges:
Locating an intensive employment support service within a family violence and homelessness support agency means an integrated and accessible response to all the other needs that arise. McAuley can, for example, assist women to access family violence flexible support packages for moving costs or security upgrades at their home, offer connections to legal help and mental health support, and connect them with our skill development programs and local training services.
Illawarra Women’s Health Centre is a different example, of a specialist family and domestic violence service focused on integrated health care and social support for victim-survivors. The Centre described its operations as follows:
… the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre has a focus on mental health, women experiencing domestic and family violence and sexual assault, and sexual and reproductive health. The community-based Centre sees over 6,000 women a year…providing integrated care and social support to women with complex needs using a social model of health and a community development approach to service delivery…
The Centre offers specialised domestic and family violence programs for girls, boys and young women, and women with intellectual disabilities.
Women’s Legal Services Australia focuses on specialist legal support and has recently extended its services to complementary financial counselling and social work:
Women’s Legal Services provide legal assistance to members of our community identifying as women in a holistic approach. Primarily we address all forms of gender discrimination, providing advice on family law, family violence, child protection and discrimination, in most cases where there has been a relationship breakdown and/or violence. Legal assistance services our organisations provide include a mix of legal advice on the phone, duty lawyer services (on the spot legal assistance in courts), mediation, ongoing legal representation for priority cohorts experiencing particular disadvantage, as well as outreach and community legal education.
More recently, many Women’s Legal Services have expanded our service provision to include financial counselling and social work to complement our legal assistance.
As discussed in Chapter 7, other specialist family and domestic violence services conduct perpetrator prevention programs, which may be part of early intervention strategies, but are also often engaged on referral from services, police or courts after acts of FDSV have taken place.
The Committee received arguments from many specialist service providers for additional recognition, resources, flexibility and support.
Many witnesses stated that more funding was required for their organisations to adequately provide services.
For example, Ms Roxanne Moore from National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services told the Committee that:
…we've made a number of recommendations around the need for urgent funding to be put into Aboriginal community controlled services and wrap-around supports—that cultural healing and culturally safe counselling and all of those supports that are needed.
Ms Alison Birchall from Domestic Violence Victoria also spoke of insufficient resources for specialist family violence services:
… wellbeing issues have been difficult to mitigate due to workforce challenges within the specialist family violence sector that existed prior to the onset of the pandemic. Foremost amongst these is that it's a sector which is not yet adequately resourced to respond to victim survivors' demands for specialist family violence services. Although there has been significant and welcome investment into family violence reform by the Victorian government, including increased funding for specialist family violence services, it's still not enough to respond to the increasing number of victim survivors seeking support.
Sally Stevenson from the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre told the Committee that despite the great increase in demand for its services since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, ‘we've had no new funding at all throughout this pandemic to respond to that overwhelming need’.
Chapters 2 and 3 of this report discuss funding provided for FDSV services by the Australian Government and state and territory governments, including funding initiatives launched in response to COVID‑19.
Several witnesses representing specialist family and domestic violence services also recommended that funding in the FDSV sector be made more flexible.
Mrs Jacqueline Brady from Family and Relationship Services Australia spoke in favour of more flexible funding for specialist family and domestic violence groups:
I'd suggest that there will be a necessity to find a way to provide funding for these services that allows a level of flexibility. I think that that is the nature of what we find in the delivery of the sorts of programs that we're talking about to children, families and communities throughout Australia. It is something that does need to feature and, I suppose, has been a point that we have various conversations with the Department of Social Services and the Attorney-General's Department in that you can have an overarching framework or guideline but having flexibility in how it's delivered.
The Victorian Government provides family violence flexible support packages as a flexible funding option for specialist services working with victim-survivors. Ms Tania Farha from Domestic Violence Victoria and the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria spoke to their benefits:
The other thing we've found here in Victoria is the provision of flexible funding packages for services to use with women in order for those finances to be used as a means to address the individual needs of the victim-survivors rather than them being confined to a particular funding allocation or funding stream. These flexible support packages have really increased the dignity and choice of victims-survivors when they're rebuilding their lives as a result of family violence and helped them regain autonomy and independence in the face of family violence. It has really become an integral intervention option in the specialist family violence support model here in Victoria.
Ms Farha went on to describe the flexible funding package in more detail:
In this system, I guess you'd call it a bundle or a package of funding that can be utilised for the needs of an individual rather than allocated for a specific stream. For example, rather than being allocated purely to accommodation, it's a bundle of money that the specialists in family violence can use. For example, it might not be accommodation that is required for that individual; it might be a whole range of other services and needs. They can allocate according to the victim's needs.
Innovative use of technology
The Committee also heard about innovations in the methods by which family violence response organisations provided services, including use of technology, and adaptation to circumstances brought about by COVID-19.
Ms Abbey Newman from the Australian Association of Social Workers told the Committee that many specialist family and domestic violence frontline workers had increased their skill base to meet remote work requirements:
There was a very quick upskill for a lot of family violence workers in the transition from face-to-face practice to telehealth and the use of technology. There was some thinking around safe technology plans and how we check with women whether or not they are aware of how safe their technology is, and also making sure that workers are asking the appropriate questions before they go ahead with any work.
One innovative approach using technology to support victim-survivors was offered to the Committee by the StandbyU Foundation, which outlined a new system it had created to assist women experiencing family violence to remain safe and access support. The project provides victim-survivors with smart watches and coordinates them with a group of friends, family and supporters.
The StandbyU Shield was described as follows:
Your StandbyU Shield is made up of three parts:
PEOPLE - We bring together your friends, family and case workers into a personal support network
PLAN - Together, we create an action plan based on your personal scenarios and safety concerns
DEVICE - Your plan is uploaded into your wearable device and linked to your supporters
Mr Chris Boyle from the StandbyU Foundation elaborated on how the Shield functions:
With our solution, the software workflows fit within any smart watch type of device which can make a call, and it's independent in a SIM. So we use off-the-shelf products…and we modify that hardware through shutting down certain features to ensure that we get maximum battery life. The functions of our StandbyU Shield can work through a call tree workflow… which sends out the location and also sends alerts to on-call responders… It's something that just looks like an Apple type watch, but it is not; it is a simple bit of hardware which can tell the time, as with everything, and can count your steps and your calories. And that's part of the introduction that some women use; they say, 'This is my new Fitbit.' But at the side of this is an SOS feature which really discreetly allows that workflow to occur.
The StandbyU Foundation received $500,000 in funding in 2019 under the National Plan to trial its program with 100 digital safety watches for a one-year period, which ended in June 2020.
Contributors to the inquiry raised concerns about the challenges to the specialist FDSV workforce, and the need for more attention to be given to workforce development, security, planning and support.
Domestic Violence Victoria and the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria outlined the difficulty of developing and maintaining an adequately skilled and trained FDSV workforce, submitting that despite recognition of this issue by various inquiries and under the National Plan, ‘both the response and prevention sectors have continued to experience significant workforce shortages and a lack of coordination and resourcing to support retention, skill development and leadership’. They stated that these workforce deficits have undermined the reach and effectiveness of programs and interventions.
Others focused on the need for a better approach to workforce planning and qualifications in the sector. The Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre recommended the establishment of a ‘family and domestic violence workforce taskforce that provides expert advice on training and education needs, pathways and funding models to support workforce development’, while the Salvation Army recommended a national family violence workforce strategy, including minimum qualification and service standards.
Domestic Violence Victoria and the Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria proposed that:
…one of the benefits of national work would be around a workforce capability framework, to ensure consistency across the workforce. There's also the attraction and retention of staff into this workforce…it's also the structural and systemic issues around pay, promotion, career progression and a number of issues that impact family violence services and other community services. That is something that could be discussed across states and at the national level.
The Victorian Government advised the Committee about its efforts to build a highly skilled workforce through an Industry Plan, including mandatory minimum standards for practitioners in the FDSV sector.
On a related point, the Australian Services Union (ASU) argued that the competitive tender model of funding for family violence services had been ‘incredibly disruptive’, to the extent of driving support workers out of the sector. Ms Natalie Lang from the ASU’s NSW/ACT Branch stated that:
There is a workforce implication, but the workforce implication has an output implication. Skilled, experienced workers who have a high degree of qualifications and work to professional standards are being driven out of the sector or from doing frontline work because competitive tendering erodes the working standards. But it's also incredibly disruptive because organisations in the community sector don't actually have tender writing departments; they're completely focused on putting every dollar and cent into frontline work. So when a competitive tendering arrangement comes out, during a time such as this, they have to devote their time and energy not to doing the important frontline service delivery work but to simply ensuring they have funding to be able to continue their services.
Access to other services
There are a range of services involved in the response to FDSV in Australia. Many of these services have a broad remit that includes responses to FDSV as one of several areas of focus.
The Committee received evidence from several witnesses that these services needed to be better integrated. There were various suggestions about what form better coordination and integration would take.
Mrs Kirsty Windeyer, Coordinator-General of Family Safety for the ACT Government spoke to the benefit of cooperation across the service provision spectrum:
The next national plan would also benefit from ensuring participation of all sectors in the development and monitoring of the plan and the actions under it. This would include bringing the police, the courts, the health system and others closer to the process so it's not only seen as the job of the various offices for women around the country to participate. Each of the focus areas requires national and territory commitment and investment and [joint] development, and the ACT is looking forward to this.
Ms Jocelyn Bignold from McAuley Community Services for Women spoke about the lack of an accepted definition for what coordination in the sector would look like:
Most of our research tells us that integration is critically important, both vertical between states and horizontal between systems. One of the things that we're looking at is that we don't have, across either states or nationally, an articulated definition of what coordinational integration means.
The Australian Institute of Family Studies highlighted that:
…the systems and services with which separated families interact are fragmented, with the potential for this fragmentation to contribute to the ineffective identification of, and response to, risks of harm, including violence against women and their children.
Dr Jacoba Brasch QC, President-elect of the Law Council of Australia, submitted that the siloing of responses to family violence risked victim-survivors not being appropriately protected:
… a magistrate, a County Court judge or whoever might be hearing a family violence issue also needs to know about what's going on with housing. What's available? Are the children going to school? What are the children's needs? Are there also Family Court issues going on? ... [The] family violence system cannot be siloed off from all the other systems that need to look at the family as a whole.
Ms Katherine Boyle from Economic Justice Australia and the Welfare Rights Centre provided the Committee with an example of the importance of coordination, highlighting the interaction between financial issues, the legal system and social work support in one victim-survivor’s experience:
I wanted to provide an example of what can happen when you don't have social workers on the ground, in the first instance, addressing issues, and I think it really illustrates how important they are. Not too long ago, we had a client come to us who was at the general division of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. She was appealing a debt raised by Centrelink. The debt was on the basis that she had received too much family tax benefit because she had not declared the income support that she had received from her ex-partner, who was a perpetrator of domestic violence. She had received no income support from him. She had not claimed it for fear of her ex-partner. So she had never received it, but the way Centrelink's rules work is you're deemed to have received it even if you haven't. She got all the way to the general division before she even knew that we existed and contacted us. We put her in contact with a social worker who did a retrospective exemption from the requirement to claim child support and suddenly that whole legal proceeding went away. The debt was waived and she was also exempted in the future from having to claim child support. If that had been picked up early on, she would never have ended up in the tribunal. Quite apart from the stress it clearly placed on her, that whole process was an enormous waste of resources. A single referral to a social worker would have prevented that cascading of events.
Women who experience violence and abuse are more likely to have insecure housing or to become homeless. Improving coordination between domestic and family violence services and housing services can reduce the risk of victim-survivors experiencing homelessness.
The Law Council of Australia’s submission to the Committee urged more focus on preventing homelessness for victim-survivors:
In this regard, Justice Project stakeholders overwhelmingly stressed the multiple ways in which lack of housing and crisis accommodation contributes to homelessness and prevents victims from escaping their situation. In order to address critical shortages and gaps, legal, policy and service frameworks should be improved to prioritise homelessness prevention.
Ms Louise Miller Frost from the St Vincent De Paul Society South Australia provided the Committee with an example of the role a housing service can play in supporting victim-survivors:
We run a 20-bed accommodation facility. It's actually a former nursing home, so every room has an en suite, and we provide food so that people who come here don't actually have to leave; they can stay and all of their needs are provided for. The women and children who come to us are often very traumatised. They have usually just walked out of a dangerous situation. The ability to be safe—and to be safe in an enclosed environment with security, with panic buttons, with duress rooms and with police surveillance—as opposed to staying in a motel, where you are somewhat exposed to the public, is a really important part of why they feel safe with us.
Contributors to the inquiry also emphasised the importance of housing approaches and solutions beyond immediate crisis accommodation.
Ms Christine Craik, representing the Australian Association of Social Workers, highlighted the importance of housing for victim-survivors and their families in both the short- and long-term:
The most unsafe time for women and children is the three months following separation but also the first year. There needs to be a range of housing options from crisis housing through to long-term housing. We find with a lot of the housing options that 12 months supported housing would be considered an amazing support for women and children escaping family violence. Yet in 12 months you've hardly scratched the surface in terms of rebuilding and recovering. You've probably not even finalised things in court, had a chance to do some training or get back into the workforce if you've been out of the workforce or continue with work, given the ins and outs of medical appointments for the children and you for legal requirements et cetera. Twelve months is a drop in the ocean. If we're going to talk recovery, we need to think long-term affordable housing for women and children who are rebuilding their lives after family violence.
Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) emphasised how housing stress can prevent a victim-survivors being able to permanently leave a violent partner:
Housing stress is a huge barrier to safety or to permanently leaving a violent partner. Breckenridge, Rees, valentine, and Murray (2016) found that women were more likely to return to their partner if they had difficulty maintaining independent accommodation. According to the 2016 Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) Personal Safety Survey (2017), around one in five women returned to violent partners because they had no financial support, or nowhere else to go. Insecure housing has many flow-on effects: it can affect child protection issues, custody issues, the ability to retain possessions, the ability to get and keep a job, and the ability to maintain social connections (Cortis & Bullen, 2016).
Ms Jocelyn Bignold from McAuley Community Services for Women highlighted an international response to the question of housing after incidents of FDSV:
What the Austrian system does, which is different to ours, is use what's called barring orders. At the very first point of contact from police, they have a strong and swift legal response with a very clear message. Their message to all of their citizens is: whoever hits must leave. It's very simple and very clear. Everybody understands it. So, at the point of contact, when police attend an incident, the perpetrator of violence must leave the house for 14 days and the police must check compliance within the first three days.
The Committee also heard from Ms Thelma Schwartz from Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Services that FDSV shelter housing needs to be provided for both victim-survivors and perpetrators:
Ideally, in some of these regional and remote communities, there should be a solid investment in relation to support shelters and crisis shelters. We're not only talking for mum and children, but we actually need a place for men to go to.
Both physical and mental health services can be extremely important to victim-survivors of FDSV. Ensuring access to these services is a priority for many organisations and several groups are exploring new methods to coordinate with health providers.
Relationships Australia highlighted that FDSV often goes hand in hand with health issues:
…family violence is rarely present in isolation from other issues such as substance abuse, mental health problems or personality disorders.
Speaking to the issue of mental health provision, Mrs Christine Morgan from the National Mental Health Commission stated that:
In the National Mental [Health] Commission's submission to this committee, we noted that more and better quality effort and coordination is needed at the national level to address the needs of women dealing with both mental health illness and domestic family sexual violence, to increase systemic cooperation between the domestic family and sexual violence and mental health sectors, to improve data quality around violence and…mental illness, and to intensify approaches that are…informed and primary prevention informed.
The National Mental Health Commission also advised that:
…the intersection between domestic violence and mental health is clear, with DFSV impacting on the ability to achieve public mental health objectives. Despite this, there is typically limited capability across mental health and DFSV services to effectively respond to both issues.
As in other areas, there were concerns about a lack of coordination between health and other response plans and services in cases of FDSV.
Ms Denele Crozier from the Australian Women’s Health Network, expressed concern regarding a lack of coordination between various national plans:
If there was cohesion between the national disaster plans, the men's health plans and the women's health plans so that they didn't contradict each other, then, if somewhere some work was happening that was exceptional, you could expand that work instead of reinventing the wheel. The lack of oversight and coordination is quite astounding in terms of efficiencies and vision.
Examples of good practice in coordination of service provision at the community level were provided to the Committee. Ms Crozier highlighted wrap-around health services in New South Wales:
In New South Wales, for example, we've got the Women's Domestic Violence Court Assistance Service. Every time the police attend an incident, within 48 hours the service will contact the woman to offer care, especially care getting an AVO or getting to court, and also referrals for further support. When someone is ready to leave or is in a state of trauma, the sooner they get to care, the better. So taking a look at health needs would make a big difference to the number of women who can get out, stay out, restabilise and take control over their lives. They say women who experience really complex trauma need anything up to 100 hours counselling over three to five years.
The Committee received evidence from the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre and the University of New South Wales regarding a new initiative to set up a specialist Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre:
In response to this complex and urgent need, and in line with best practice recommendations outlined above, the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre in partnership with UNSW is working to establish a Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre…
This Centre of Excellence will offer a whole-of-organisation trauma sensitive approach that enables recovery from FDSV trauma and helps to break the intergenerational cycle of violence. A range of holistic, and free, health, legal and psychosocial services will be provided.
In discussion of FDSV and health issues, the proposal for a specific Medicare item number for family violence was also raised.
Ms Christine Craik from the Australian Association of Social Workers spoke of the benefits for mental health service provision if a Medicare item number was created:
We can learn from international programs as well, but we can bring in change and be the world leader in this space. There's nothing stopping us. Some examples of that would be if we were to bring in a Medicare item number for family violence counselling. That would make quite clear the reason for some specific mental health issues or the reason for a mental health plan.
Ms Abbey Newman from the Australian Association of Social Workers was also supportive of the creation of a Medicare number when she appeared before the Committee:
It's also really important to have a family violence Medicare number so that it directs GPs in making referrals to specialist services. There's an assessment called the K10, which identifies specific mental health conditions, like the rate of depression and the rate of anxiety. What we find is that depression and anxiety are a result of experiencing family violence.
The Committee was advised that in 2019, at the request of the then Council of Australian Governments (COAG), the independent Medicare Benefits Schedule Review Taskforce considered this issue, following a recommendation of the 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. The Taskforce advised against the establishment of a specific Medicare item number for family violence, noting that:
establishment of MBS items for family violence services, or any specific MBS item that may identify a person as a survivor of family violence, presents a significant risk to patient privacy and to the physical and emotional safety of affected patients;
such an item may also increase survivor reluctance to disclose this information to their GP, preventing or delaying access to services; and
the MBS is principally a mechanism for the payment of medical benefits for clinically relevant services according to patient clinical need, not based on consideration of the cause of the condition. As such, the MBS is not well placed to capture data on this issue.
In the health context, access to treatment for substance abuse for clients with a history of domestic and family violence was another issue raised in evidence before the Committee. Chapter 6 discusses evidence regarding the role of alcohol and other drug use as contributing factors to FDSV.
Ms Jennifer Duncan from the Australian Alcohol and Other Drugs Council advised that initiatives to reduce problematic levels of alcohol consumption were known to have benefits in reducing violence, including FDSV. She recommended increased access to treatment services for those experiencing alcohol and other drug dependency:
… in the development of the next National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children we would encourage the identification and resourcing of strategies that will deliver capacity to guarantee rapid and supported treatment access to clients where domestic and family violence and the problematic use of alcohol and other drugs are both indicated in case history.
One response to alcohol-related FDSV discussed in evidence was the use of Alcohol Management Plans (AMPs). The Northern Territory Government describes an AMP as:
… an agreement to tackle the harm caused by alcohol abuse in a way that works for the community. It must have a strong focus on reducing alcohol-related harm and improving community safety, particularly for women and children.
The plan is developed in partnership with the community and with support from local organisations and government staff. It must be agreed to by the community and government.
Alcohol management plans employ an integrated approach with supply, demand and harm reduction strategies.
They aim to minimise the nature and extent of harm caused by the excessive consumption of alcohol.
The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education and the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research discussed AMPs within the context of addressing alcohol supply and consumption in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities where problematic drinking has been identified as a major concern:
The central principle of AMPs is harm minimisation across a community, particularly in relation to women and children. Strategies for AMPs vary across communities and can encompass a variety of measures such as restrictions on the hours of alcohol sale, restrictions on particular types of alcohol known to be associated with problematic drinking, the declaration of dry areas, awareness and education campaigns, youth diversion activities, and setting up or strengthening the capacity of women’s shelters and support groups.
The justice system is an important but also complicated segment of the services accessed by victim-survivors. As it is spread across both state and federal jurisdictions, and is comprised of multiple complex processes, coordination can be particularly difficult.
While Chapter 2 discusses the problem of inconsistent legal definitions of FDSV, and Chapter 3 considers broader issues of coordination between jurisdictions within Australia in relation to FDSV planning and policy, the Committee also heard about the challenges and coordination issues facing police and justice responses.
Coordination between systems
Several contributors to the inquiry raised concerns about insufficient cooperation and coordination in police and justice responses to FDSV.
Dr Brasch from the Law Council of Australia highlighted poor communication in the legal and related sectors:
The Law Council has long drawn to the attention of various governments the difficulties in family violence with silos. Family violence is the system here. Child protection is another system elsewhere. And then we have the reality of family law as another section elsewhere. But those systems don't articulate to each other. Then you have the allied difficulties of housing and education. Until all of those silos, as they are often called, cease being separate—the child protection court is integral when we are looking at family violence. It is about children as victims as well, which is sometimes forgotten; we concentrate on the adults. When you don't have those systems articulating and talking to each other, the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing.
Several witnesses highlighted the need to provide legal services in coordination with other supports. The Committee heard how some groups in the sector were adapting so as to provide more targeted and integrated resources and support to clients.
National Legal Aid noted that Legal Aid Commissions are increasingly employing social workers to support their clients:
Whilst LACs have always worked closely with respective local social support providers in relation to non-legal needs associated with family violence, LACs are increasingly employing in-house social workers to support clients experiencing issues in connection with the use of violence.
Access to justice
The Committee received evidence arguing that the often high costs of legal support were a barrier to many victim-survivors in the justice system.
Women’s Legal Services Australia submitted that financial disadvantage can prevent victim-survivors from accessing the justice system:
Many women facing significant disadvantage and barriers to access to justice are unable to get the legal help they need. Private legal representation in family law is prohibitively expensive and free legal assistance in family law, even for the most disadvantaged, is difficult to access.
Mrs Gabrielle Canny, representing National Legal Aid, told the Committee:
Income tests are below many established measures of relative poverty. It is not the case that people are too wealthy to be eligible for legal aid; rather, they are not sufficiently impoverished.
In its submission National Legal Aid noted the 2014 finding of the Productivity Commission that ‘more people were living in poverty (14%) than were eligible for legal aid (8%)’.
National Legal Aid drew the Committee’s attention to a Legal Aid Commission trial to provide assistance with family law property matters up to $500,000, which commenced in January 2020. It also noted a pilot for legal assistance with small claims property matters taking place at four Federal Circuit Court registries.
Another challenge is prioritisation and case management, and particularly the need to protect vulnerable parties and children in proceedings.
A key trial project discussed in evidence was the Lighthouse Project, which was launched in December 2020 in the Federal Circuit Court in Adelaide, Brisbane and Parramatta, and will be extended to the Family Court of Australia in 2021. The Federal Circuit Court of Australia explains that the Lighthouse Project:
… will play a central role in the Courts’ response to cases which may involve family violence, by shaping the allocation of resources and urgency given to such cases. It will improve the safety of litigants who may have experienced family violence and children who may have experienced associated risks such as child abuse.
While noting that it is a pilot project, Domestic Violence Victoria argued that the Lighthouse Project is not a specialist family violence response and recommended improvements to the project’s family violence screening and triage tools.
Women’s Safety NSW highlighted the importance of specialist family violence courts:
Specialist domestic and family violence courts have been trialled and established in many jurisdictions around the world, including in Canada, New Zealand, the UK and the USA. Various trials of the specialised courts have been conducted in most Australian states since the 1990s. They have evolved in recognition of the prevalence of domestic and family violence, and the crucial role that the criminal justice system plays in protecting victims and holding perpetrators to account…
Specialist courts recognise that the court process is often a traumatic experience for victims of domestic and family violence. By ensuring that victims have access to specialist support and advocacy services and providing all court staff with specialist training on domestic and family violence, they prioritise victims’ wellbeing and facilitate greater sensitivity to the experiences of victims throughout the justice process.
In a submission, the Attorney General’s Department provided a breakdown of Australian Government funding for legal assistance programs and initiatives, including the National Legal Assistance Partnership 2020-25 (NLAP). Under the NLAP, the Australian Government is providing over $2 billion to states and territories for frontline legal assistance services delivered by community legal centres, legal aid commissions, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services, Domestic Violence Units and Health Justice Partnerships, and the Family Advocacy and Support Service.
In addition, the Department advised that in May 2020 the Australian Government announced an additional $63.3 million in funding to help address the impact of COVID-19.
A national electronic domestic violence order database
Some submitters referred to the National Domestic Violence Order Scheme (NDVOS) as an example of effective cooperation and coordination across jurisdictions in the legal sector.
The NDVOS is a statutory scheme under which domestic violence orders issued in any Australian state or territory will be automatically recognised and enforceable nationwide, removing the need for individuals to manually register their orders in a new jurisdiction. The NDVOS was agreed by COAG in 2015 and commenced in November 2017.
The Department of Social Services advised that the NDVOS is currently supported by an ‘interim information-sharing solution that leverages the National Police Reference System, which enables courts and police to obtain information about domestic violence orders issued across Australia’:
These information-sharing capabilities ensure police have greater situational awareness when responding to domestic violence incidents, improving both victim and police safety, and ensure local courts can recognise, amend and otherwise effectively deal with domestic violence orders, even if issued interstate…
In this Committee’s 2017 inquiry into family violence and the family law system, the Committee recommended the expansion of the information-sharing platform to include orders issued under the Family Law Act 1975 and state and territory child protection legislation.
In the present inquiry, evidence included a number of other suggestions to enhance the NDVOS, which focused on the lack of a national electronic database giving police and courts access to domestic violence orders.
Legal Aid NSW said that while it welcomed the introduction of the NDVOS:
… in practical terms, there is difficulty in the implementation of the scheme in that there is no national electronic database where all DVOs can be accessed by state and territory police or family courts. Such electronic access would make the process of enforcing DVOs much easier for the victims of family violence…
The Law Council of Australia said a national electronic database would make the process of enforcing orders in other jurisdictions easier for victim-survivors:
… in the absence of a national database, [having an order registered with a court in another jurisdiction] is difficult to achieve and not straightforward for a victim to navigate. Additionally, if a protected person seeks to vary a DVO or to extend a DVO when it nears its expiry date, the process can also be complicated to navigate and may place the protected person at risk of exposure to the defendant.
The Law Council said the establishment of a national database should be accompanied by training of relevant staff to ensure entries to the register are standardised. It relayed the Law Society of New South Wales’s suggestion that provisional, interim, and final domestic violence orders be stored, as the grounds are only recorded on the provision order.
When asked about information sharing across jurisdictions, Commander Sue Young from the Western Australia Police Force said that ‘policing jurisdictions have difficulty sharing information in a timely way around domestic violence orders’:
If you then introduce the courts, the child protection agencies and a whole raft of other areas that hold data relating to family violence, that would create a much richer response. …it's really reliant on information-sharing capability and the complexity that comes with that. If the Commonwealth government could help that problem, it would be useful.
The Victorian Government highlighted the inability to make domestic violence orders in one jurisdiction for incidents of violence that occur in another jurisdiction:
At present, Victorian Magistrates are unable to grant an intervention order in circumstances where all the alleged family violence took place interstate and occurred while the affected family member was outside Victoria. This creates challenges for victim survivors who have relocated for safety reasons and is contrary to the intent of the [NDVOS].
It recommended that the Commonwealth consider expanding the NDVOS to enable an intervention order to be made in any jurisdiction, regardless of where the incident occurred.
The Committee heard evidence from the Attorney-General’s Department that current legislation allows state and territory courts to vary family law orders in additional jurisdictions:
…if there is a family violence matter which is before a state or territory court, that court already has the power, for example, to vary a family law parenting order that might be in place so that it's consistent with the family violence order which it might impose.
Law enforcement plays an important role among the services responding to FDSV. Police are responsible for gathering evidence which can subsequently be used in the justice process, and they also enforce apprehended or domestic violence orders (AVOs/DVOs) to prevent continued violence or abuse from perpetrators. Therefore, access to and trust in police services is integral to tackling FDSV.
Assistant Commissioner Mark Jones from the NSW Police Force highlighted the amount of focus NSW Police devoted to FDSV:
For our general duties police, 40 per cent of their time is spent responding to instances of domestic and family violence.
Assistant Commissioner Jones also stated that the NSW Police Force had specially trained police to focus on domestic violence:
…there are specialist DV police to assist in the monitoring and to assist in the compliance checks, for example, and to assist in locating high-risk offenders.
He noted the NSW Police Force’s focus on the reporting of FDSV:
If the reporting of DV were to go up, we would be okay with that, because that simply means the community has greater confidence and we would say that all our campaigns, such as No Innocent Bystanders, are working because the reports would go up. We don't want the incidence to go up—that's clearly the case—but we want the reports to go up, because this is an underreported crime, very much like sexual assault.
The Committee heard that another approach to support access to police services was to station non-police frontline workers in police stations to create a space that might be more comfortable to victim-survivors. Ms Leonie McGuire spoke about one such program that she had previously overseen:
The police really liked it because it took away from them the onus of the emotional work and the trauma that they are not particularly comfortable or skilled at dealing with. It enabled them often to get evidence from women when they would not otherwise have thought about other crimes that were happening. It made the police station a safe place for Aboriginal women in particular to approach, and they do say people vote with their feet. There were evaluations of that program and they all said it was a great success, with large and increasing numbers approaching. Those four women had a delightful little office in the police station that they set up with flowers and posters. It was a very safe little spot in an otherwise fairly organised setting.
The Committee also heard about how Australian state and territory police services are attempting to increase service provision and coordination.
Inspector Michelle Plumpton from the Tasmanian Department of Police, Fire and Emergency Management highlighted one new approach to increase coordination by Tasmania police:
… The Safe Families Coordination Unit, which is managed by Tasmania Police. That's a multiagency co-located unit based on South Australia's MAPS model. There are employees of all government agencies based in that unit, and each of those employees has access to all the systems that each agency has responsibility for—that is over 60 IT systems within the Tasmanian government that this multiagency co-located unit has access to.
Inspector Plumpton also noted that Tasmania Police has a pro-intervention approach to FDSV:
We have specific powers that are extended to allow us to take someone into custody for the purpose of investigating a family violence offence, and that includes the ability to issue what we call police family violence orders, which are issued by an authorised officer or a sergeant of police. It lasts for 12 months. These mirror the similar orders that are in most states, in relation to preventing a perpetrator from contacting a victim or child or from going to various areas or sending messages and going through about those protective type of orders. We do, obviously, have court based orders and family violence orders issued by a magistrate, but Tasmania Police can issue orders that last 12 months without the need to go to a court.
The Committee heard evidence from Acting Deputy Commissioner Michael Chew about ACT Policing’s new initiative to engage with families via early intervention:
ACT Policing has implemented some key initiatives to support victims and minimise the causes of family violence, including taking on a multiagency family violence model. This is a perpetrator focused model concentrating on identifying early indicators of at-risk behaviour, and is designed to make perpetrators accountable for their actions and behaviours. This model shifts the focus onto early intervention of low-level family violence perpetrators, which alleviates the burden on victims to take action to seek solutions and support for themselves and for their families. ACT Policing alone cannot break the cycle of family violence, and the success of the model is reliant on ACT Policing's collaboration with partner agencies and other government directorates within the ACT.
The Committee also received evidence about an innovative approach to police responses, focused on silent calls for assistance. In its submission to the Committee, Women’s Safety NSW highlighted the United Kingdom’s system which is called ‘The Silent Solution’:
In the UK, mobile calls to 999 (the official emergency number) that are silent are diverted to the police’s ‘Silent Solution’ system – a system to filter out accidental or hoax emergency calls, but also to help people who are unable to speak. Through this system, callers hear an automated police message that asks them to press 55 to be transferred to their local police force. Once connected, the police call handler will attempt to communicate with the caller by asking simple yes or no questions.
Women’s police stations
The Committee heard evidence on ‘Women’s Police Stations’, a concept that originated in Latin America in the 1980s. The police stations are predominantly staffed by women and focus on responding to gender-based violence.
The Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Centre for Justice summarised the role of these stations:
Women’s Police Stations are a unique invention that emerged in Latin America in the mid-1980s specially designed to respond to victims of gender-based violence in response to the demands of women’s rights movements. (Carrington et al. 2019; 2020a; 2020b). They work from a gender perspective in multi-disciplinary teams with social workers, counsellors and lawyers to respond to women who seek their assistance. They provide childcare and offer victims a gateway to other support, but do not prioritise a criminal justice response over the wishes of those who seek their services.
Professor Kerry Carrington from the Centre elaborated on the operation of these stations when she appeared before the Committee:
They operate very differently to normal police stations. First off, the major benefit is that they have multidisciplinary teams, so they have social workers, psychologists, counsellors, lawyers and police, who work together. The majority of the workforce are still police. There are usually around about 20 per station. They don't have a holding cells, so it makes them very cheap to run. They operate usually out of converted houses. They all have child care. So, as soon as a woman reports, they take the children to child care at that site. The children are provided child care and counselling; they're provided a one-stop shop. All the officers and employees have specialist training to deal with domestic and family violence.
Professor Carrington went to on to describe one of the reasons she believed these stations were so successful:
The other way that they enhance prevention is that they encourage women, especially women with children, to seek help and intervention much, much earlier. That, I think, is the key to their success. They form very strong bonds with the local community, local preschools, kindergartens and childcare centres. They work very closely with churches and neighbourhood centres. They bond themselves in the community, and through those bonds and loyalty networks they have enormous respect in the community and enormous trust and loyalty, and that's what makes women go early.
Women’s Safety NSW also discussed women’s police stations in its submission:
The establishment of women’s police stations in a number of countries provides a best practice model of policing that may be used to re-evaluate Australia’s police response to domestic and family violence.
While acknowledging that the widespread establishment of women’s police stations in Australia ‘may not yet be feasible’, Women’s Safety NSW noted that there were elements of the practice that could be adapted and integrated in the Australian context:
Greater presence of women police in police stations and within the ranks of general duties officers, specifically to support victim-survivors making reports of violence;
Implementation of a more integrated service response to domestic and family violence, combining policing with counselling, social work, legal support and other crucial support services through an onsite partnership approach with a women’s specialist domestic and family violence service program;
Use of a more informal environment with comfortable facilities and spaces appropriate for children to increase women’s comfort and likelihood to engage with police;
Support provided to victim-survivors at police stations not being conditional on a formal police report being made;
Increased community engagement through awareness campaigns, events, outreach programs, support groups, and education; and
Increased community work targeting offender behaviour.
Many victim-survivors will require access to financial support. Leaving an abusive situation can be expensive with costs including deposits on new dwellings, rental bonds, travel costs, furnishing costs and the costs of providing for any dependents the victim-survivor might have.
In its submission to the Committee, Australian women Against Violence Alliance highlighted the expense of leaving an abusive relationship:
Victims/survivors of violence often have to be the ones to bear the costs for leaving the relationship, the family home and their community. It is estimated that on average, it costs $18000 for a victim/survivor to leave [a] violent relationship and establish safety. This would include costs associated with reallocation, safety upgrades, legal costs and medical costs.
Debt was also a subject brought to the Committee’s attention by several witnesses. Many victim-survivors may accumulate debt either from the cost of leaving an abusive relationship or from a perpetrator who may have access to their financial accounts.
Ms Leanne Ho from Economic Justice Australia spoke to the Committee regarding the issue of victim-survivors and debt:
We've been pleased in recent years to see that the Department of Social Services and Services Australia have been willing to make practical reforms in response to our recommendations. These have included changes by the DSS to the guide to social security law. We're seeing through our centres that these are having a real and positive effect in cases turning on whether a person was a member of a couple and whether to waive recovery of debts. This is preventing the revictimisation of people being forced to repay substantial debts that are the result of coercion or duress on the part of violent partners or family members. However, we are concerned that, unless there are measurable benchmarks included or attached to the national plan and the Services Australia Family and Domestic Violence Strategy, the effectiveness of these plans and strategies will be severely limited. We need to see continued funding of legal services and research based on frontline experience to identify the critical areas where support should be targeted and implemented.
The Committee also heard evidence on whether victim-survivors of FDSV should be allowed early access to their superannuation.
Mrs Sandra Buckley from Women in Super spoke about superannuation access when she appeared before the Committee:
I think it's a double-edged sword. Obviously, it would enable women to gain access to a particular amount of superannuation under hardship provisions, but what it does mean is that we’re then not enabling them to have future financial insecurity, because very often people who do gain access under these provisions don't actually have anything else to fall back on.
In 2018 the Australian Government’s Women’s Economic Security Statement included a commitment to extend the ability to access early release of superannuation to victim-survivors of family violence. The statement said:
While superannuation should ideally be preserved until retirement, there are certain immediate and extreme circumstances where the benefits today outweigh the benefits of maintaining those savings until retirement. The Government considers that family and domestic violence is one of these special circumstances based on stakeholder feedback.
However, the Committee was advised by Mrs Buckley from Women in Super that this announcement has not been enacted.
The Committee also heard evidence that programs to assist victim-survivors with employment can be a valuable financial service. Ms Bignold presented to the Committee on a program McAuley Community Services for Women runs to support employment for victim-survivors:
We found that the generic Commonwealth job services were not meeting the needs of women who were seeking employment at that point when they were still experiencing family violence. They were advising women to sort out those problems first and then come back to meet the employment needs. Women were saying to us that they actually wanted to address their employment needs as a form of getting out of a violent situation. So, it's a very careful method of working with women in that we need to make sure they are safe and that we have a duty of care to employers and also attend to the women's aspiration for employment. So, it is really job preparation—CV or resume writing, interview practice—as well as an awful lot of psychological and social support and encouragement and practical support such as driving them to interviews and supporting them after the interview and following up through the employment if they've been successful.
The Committee also heard evidence about the value of linking employment services to family violence support, because traditional job service networks are not meeting the needs of victim-survivors of FDSV. Ms Bignold told the Committee that specialist FDSV employment workers should be co-located with more general FDSV services, citing the advantage of locating an employment service with a homelessness or family violence service.
Workplaces and workers
The Australian Council of Trade Unions told the Committee that:
Family, domestic and sexual violence against women is a workplace issue. It is a workplace issue because it can and does occur at work or using work resources; it is a workplace issue because it impacts significantly on women’s ability to attend and participate in work; it is a workplace issue because financial stability and employment are absolutely crucial to enable women to leave violent relationships and to recover from violence. It is a workplace issue because violence against women is estimated to cost the Australian economy about $22 billion per year, including $1.3 billion in lost productivity, victim and perpetrator absenteeism, and the cost of replacing employees who have left the workforce, either through injury or death, due to family and domestic violence.
Two aspects of family violence and workplaces highlighted in evidence to the Committee were the experiences of frontline FDSV workers, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the issue of family violence leave for employees under Australian law.
Wellbeing of frontline workers
Work in the family violence sector is demanding and stressful, and the wellbeing of frontline workers was raised during the inquiry.
In a submission to the inquiry the Health Services Union NSW/ACT/QLD noted that:
Workers in frontline services perform work that, by its nature, can often be emotionally demanding. In many cases, workers might experience burnout, secondary traumatic stress, and vicarious trauma in the course of their duties.
One particular issue highlighted to the Committee was that 2020 was an exceptionally challenging year for frontline workers in the FDSV sector. As noted in Chapter 2, the pandemic and related ‘lockdowns’ in individual states and territories, and the resulting spike in reported incidents, strained the resources of some organisations providing frontline services.
As the Australian state with the most significant experience of long-term restrictions, frontline workers in Victoria faced a broad range of challenges for both service provision and employee health and safety.
A joint report from the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre and Domestic Violence Victoria found a significant increase in the workload of Victorian frontline workers in the FDSV space:
… many practitioners observed that they were working longer hours to meet the increased demand on the sector and to navigate disruptions to service pathways because of the COVID-19 restrictions… Similarly, practitioners explained how service disruptions have extended the time taken to complete tasks.
Ms Alison Birchall from Domestic Violence Victoria told the Committee about the heavy burdens on its workforce created by COVID-19:
… providing specialist family violence support during the pandemic has both exacerbated pre-existing workforce challenges and created new ones. … the experience of delivering specialist family violence services remotely from their homes has created a new set of workforce wellbeing concerns for services and practitioners, related to: carrying risk in responding to new manifestations of family violence emerging during the pandemic, working in isolation and without incidental support, working longer hours, and the blurring of personal and professional and home and work boundaries. … As a predominantly female workforce, specialist family violence practitioners have also experienced the gendered impacts of COVID-19 on top of this.
It was noted that a shortage of qualified practitioners (as discussed above) may have exacerbated the stress on frontline workers. Ms Birchall explained:
There's a chronic shortage of supply of qualified and experienced practitioners seeking employment in the specialist family violence sector. This has made it difficult for services to fill vacancies and to provide backfill for staff absences. Our members have reported anecdotally that staff absences for wellbeing issues have increased during the two lockdowns. And vacancies create increased workloads for other practitioners and service managers, resulting in further absences for wellbeing issues and practitioners carrying larger workloads and working with higher levels of stress.
Dr Naomi Pfitzner of the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre expanded on the particular challenges for FDSV specialists working from home:
What our research really highlighted was that the COVID-19 restrictions, and particularly the working from home directive, has made it extremely challenging for domestic and family violence practitioners to maintain professional and personal boundaries. As with the rest of the Australian community, during these lockdowns, practitioners have experienced general stress and anxiety related to the pandemic. But they have this added burden of having to talk about highly emotional and traumatic situations from their living rooms and sometimes, unfortunately, from their bedrooms.
As noted above, remote work also required frontline workers to quickly acquire or strengthen skills in telehealth and technology, in order to adapt to supporting their clients remotely.
Dr Pfitzner spoke about learning and applying the lessons of the pandemic for workers’ wellbeing:
… with national leadership through the national plan you have a great opportunity to develop national guidelines for how to support practitioners' wellbeing and health when they have to pivot to remote service delivery models, whether it's bushfire season, whether it's at times of flood or whether it's at times of global health crises.
The challenges posed by the pandemic did result in some positive changes in how organisations support frontline workers during periods of crisis. Dr Pfitzner noted:
In our research that we conducted during the stage 3 and 4 restrictions in Victoria we did collect evidence about some promising practises that we saw in terms of supporting practitioners' wellbeing. One of the strategies that we heard about and that practitioners praised was the development of a wellbeing buddy system, where practitioners were paired with colleagues that they stayed connected to during the whole of the restrictions. The key here was, with remote practice, the burden really fell on practitioners to pick up the call and tell their manager that they were struggling or that they needed support, whereas when they're onsite, in an office, you can see when someone's had a hard phone call or is dealing with a distressing situation and you can just have a chat in the kitchen or in the corridor. That debriefing is so critical to their wellbeing.
Family violence leave
As part of the evidence received regarding FDSV and the workplace, the Committee heard from witnesses discussing the possible introduction of ten days paid family violence leave into industrial awards.
On 26 March 2018, the Full Bench of the Fair Work Commission varied all modern awards to include a new entitlement to five days’ unpaid family violence leave
Following the decision by the Fair Work Commission, the Fair Work Act 2009 was amended to insert an entitlement to the National Employment Standards for five days of unpaid family violence leave in an annual period.
The Commission indicated that it would undertake a review of unpaid family violence leave in 2021 with consideration as to whether further unpaid leave should be granted, whether employees should be given greater rights to access personal and carer’s leave in order to assist with family violence and whether paid family violence leave entitlements should be revisited.
Some state and territory governments voluntarily offer paid family violence leave to their employees, as do some large employers such as PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Qantas.
In cases where organisations do offer paid family violence leave, there are a range of ways a victim-survivor can provide proof of abuse to an employer. For example, under the Victorian State Government public enterprise agreement:
Evidence of family violence may be required and can be in the form of an agreed document issued by the Police Service, a Court, a registered health practitioner, a Family Violence Support Service, district nurse, maternal and health care nurse or Lawyer.
The Committee heard from union groups and service providers advocating that the present five days’ unpaid family violence leave should be increased to ten days’ paid leave, as has occurred in some other jurisdictions internationally.
Groups in favour of paid leave asserted that it was extremely important in enabling victim-survivors (predominantly women) to maintain their employment, access services and escape from dangerous home circumstances.
The National Tertiary Education Union argued that, regardless of their mode of employment, every worker should have access to paid leave ‘to deal with issues around family and domestic violence/intimate partner violence’:
This should be available as a discrete form of paid leave without limit, to ensure that employees facing domestic violence are not forced into resignation or loss of income at a time of crisis. Such leave should cover all matters arising from or as a result of domestic violence, including but not limited to:
Attending medical/counselling appointments.
Attending court hearings and accessing legal advice.
Organising alternate care or education arrangements for children.
Rebuilding support networks with children, family or others.
In its submission the ASU stated that:
The evidence is very clear that paid domestic violence leave provides survivors with an opportunity to undertake legal and medical appointments, relocation of home, school, childcare and other essential measures to address their situation without the risk of losing their job or income at a time when access to reliable income has been proven to be one of the most significant determinants in the decision to leave a violent relationship and remain away.
The ASU also highlighted a study by Dr Jim Stanford from the Centre for Future Work that:
… did some economic modelling on the cost of providing paid family violence leave as a universal entitlement to all workers. That research identified that it would cost just 5c per worker per day across our economy if we provided paid family violence leave for all workers.
ASU representatives also made the point that:
Most domestic violence services only operate during business hours, so women do need to take time off work to access that support.
White Ribbon Australia and Communicare submitted:
Until 10 days paid FDV leave is a universal minimum employment standard, vulnerable employees will have to make an unacceptable choice between their safety and having a regular income.
To gauge broader support for paid family violence leave the Committee heard from witnesses representing Australian business interests.
None of the business groups that appeared before the Committee were at that time prepared to support the introduction of paid family violence leave entitlements.
Mr Peter Strong, Chief Executive Officer of the Council of Small Business Organisations of Australia (COSBOA), stated that the organisation was not in favour of mandated paid family violence leave:
There will be a lot of unintended consequences. There will be perpetrators who will ask for domestic violence leave because they've been unfairly accused—and some people are unfairly accused. There are so many situations we'll have to get ready for that, instead of focusing on the real issue, we will be talking about the rules around proof, the rules around when you get it, the rules around how many days, the rules around pay. It is not something any employer I know wants to get involved with in small business.
Instead, Mr Strong suggested that Centrelink could shoulder the costs of paid leave for FDSV:
Our solution is to give the experts a greater role in this. Give the women's health services and all those very fine organisations around the country the capacity to go to Centrelink and say, ‘This person has no leave. This person has an issue.’ You have some capacity to give that person access to Centrelink funds, if that's what they need.
Other concerns raised by COSBOA were that formalising the process of paid family violence leave might complicate a process which is best handled informally in smaller businesses and that business owners were already legally responsible for their employee’s health and wellbeing.
Ms Lindsay Carrol from the National Retail Association (NRA), told the Committee:
When the full bench of the Fair Work Commission determined to vary 120 modern awards to include the entitlement to five days of unpaid family and domestic violence leave, we fully supported this measure. Since that entitlement came into effect in August 2018, we've actively sought feedback from our members about the take-up of that leave. That feedback has led us to conclude that the impact of that entitlement on our members was negligible. One of our larger members, with over 2,000 employees, had budgeted for an increased cost of a minuscule 0.05 per cent.
However, Ms Carrol advised that the NRA had not canvassed its members’ views on the proposal for paid family violence leave and did not have a formal position on the proposal.
Mr Brent Ferguson from the Australian Industry Group noted that the Fair Work Commission is scheduled to review family violence leave provisions in 2021, and proposed that:
… a proper approach is to not do anything further in this space until we've at least read the commission's review, and we're particularly concerned about the impact it would have on smaller businesses, were they to have to meet the additional costs. We say it's a step too far now to impose this additional obligation on top of all the other obligations that employers have to provide—the various measures to assist employees.
The Committee recognises the invaluable and also extremely difficult nature of the work done by specialist family and domestic violence services.
The Committee acknowledges the significant funds provided for specialist services under the National Plan and through other initiatives, including the Commonwealth’s outstanding response in providing additional funding for FDSV violence services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Combating FDSV and supporting victim-survivors remains of the utmost importance, and the Committee recognises the views of many that there remains a need for additional resources to support some specialist services in their work.
The Committee also notes service providers’ support for flexible funding models, such as those offered in Victoria, and encourages all states and territories to consider the utility of flexible funding.
The Committee believes that the rapid adaptation of services to the challenges of the COVID -19 pandemic is promising.
The Committee acknowledges innovative approaches to support for victim-survivors, such as the work performed by the StandbyU Foundation. The Committee sees the example of the StandbyU Shield pilot as demonstrating the need, as discussed in Chapter 3, to ensure a better systematic approach to evaluation and follow up on pilot and trial programs under the National Plan.
It also demonstrates how business can play a vital role in reducing the scourge of FDSV, something which is often overlooked. The Committee believes that business, which often brings an entrepreneurial and innovative flair, should be encouraged to develop tools to assist in primary, secondary and tertiary strategies to reduce FDSV.
The Committee recognises concerns raised during the inquiry in relation to challenges to workforce security and professional development in the FDSV sector. The Committee considers that this will be assisted by moves to provide longer-term funding to specialist service providers (including through the states and territories), and also notes that social work and other relevant degree studies were exempted from changes to higher education fees in 2020.
The committee recognises the testimony from submitters about the extraordinary amount of need for the services provided by specialist family and domestic violence service providers. The Committee understands that the investments made by state and territory governments and the Australian Government to date, whilst significant, are not enough to meet the unmet need.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments commit to increasing the overall baseline funding for specialist family and domestic violence service providers.
Access to other services
The Committee recognises the importance of service integration across the broad range of services that support victim-survivors, and the need to continue supporting better communication and cooperation between sectors and organisations.
The Committee believes that state and territory governments could benefit from the creation of integration plans so that service providers are aware of the best practice for a coordinated approach in the FDSV space.
The Committee wishes to highlight the role that state and territory governments can play in facilitating improved communication between government and non-government service providers by facilitating wrap-around services where possible.
The Committee acknowledges that the states and territories are primarily responsible for public housing and homelessness issues. Notwithstanding this, the Committee considers there is a role for the Australian Government to play in providing additional funding to the states and territories as well as community housing providers for the creation of additional emergency and short-term housing options, via the National Housing and Homelessness Agreement. The Committee notes this issue will be the subject of further recommendations in the forthcoming report of its inquiry into homelessness in Australia.
In considering funding for emergency housing, the Committee urges all jurisdictions to consider making more housing available for perpetrators to prevent victim-survivors from being forced to flee their homes.
The Committee considers that further examination of the Austrian system of ‘barring orders’ could be undertaken by state and territory legislators to evaluate its applicability in Australia.
The Committee recognises the importance of the provision and availability of supportive housing models to assist victim-survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence to find safety for themselves and their children. The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments collaborate to identify programs that could be implemented across the country, and ensure that specialist and ‘wrap-around’ support services have access to dedicated, long-term funding.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments collaborate in the provision of affordable housing solutions in Australia to meet long-term needs for those made homeless by family, domestic and sexual violence, and to address the backlog of victim-survivors who cannot access affordable housing.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments:
consider implementing policies to remove perpetrators rather than victim-survivors in cases of family, domestic and sexual violence, where this can be achieved without threat to the safety of victim-survivors; and
consider funding for emergency accommodation for perpetrators to prevent victim-survivors being forced to flee their homes or continue residing in a violent home.
The Committee takes seriously the impact of FDSV on the health of victim-survivors, including mental health and trauma. The Committee encourages further work on understanding these issues, and ensuring integrated and effective responses.
The Committee considers the establishment of a multi-disciplinary Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre as a pioneering and evidence-based response to the health impacts of FDSV. The Committee considers this initiative is worthy of funding by the Australian Government with the New South Wales Government in light of its potential for impact on a broader scale.
The Committee recognises that alcohol and other drugs are often associated with FDSV. This is discussed in Chapter 6.
After careful consideration and noting the view expressed by the independent MBS Review Taskforce, the Committee does not support the inclusion of a specific Medicare number for the treatment of physical or mental health issues arising from FDSV.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in conjunction with state and territory governments, resource additional research regarding the intersection between mental health and family, domestic and sexual violence. There should be a particular focus on the lived experiences of victim-survivors and the children of victim-survivors who have experienced both family violence and mental health issues.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in partnership with the New South Wales Government, fund a trial program of the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre’s Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre. This funding could be part of a pilot program over a five-year period with a view, subject to positive evaluation, to rolling out similar services around the country.
The Committee notes the important role played by community legal centres, legal aid commissions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Services in assisting victim-survivors of FDSV.
While noting that significant Commonwealth, state and territory funding has been provided for legal services in the FDSV sector, the Committee considers that many of these organisations continue to lack adequate and secure resourcing.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments provide additional funding on a 50-50 basis to community legal centres for a minimum of five years to assist victim-survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence. Such funding should be tied to appropriate reporting mechanisms and performance indicators, including but not limited to the full disclosure of funding provided to community legal centres by the states and territories.
The Committee encourages making social workers available to victim-survivors going through the justice system and believes additional funding from the Australian Government, and state and territory governments, would enable legal aid commissions to better assist their clients.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments provide funding on a 50-50 basis to legal aid commissions and community legal centres to engage more social workers experienced in family violence, child protection and family law matters.
The Committee would hope to see improvements made to the family law system to better support families experiencing family domestic and sexual violence. These improvements should include improved information sharing, mandatory training for family law professionals and holistic service supports for families as they move through the family law system.
The Committee also welcomes innovative approaches to increase access to justice in family law and related matters for those experiencing family violence, including the Lighthouse Project and the Legal Aid Commission trial projects.
The Committee recommends that, subject to positive evaluation of the Legal Aid Commission Small Claims Property Trials, the Australian Government along with states and territory governments fund on a 50-50 basis the establishment of a small property mediation program.
The Committee believes further consideration should also be given to providing additional funding for ‘tele-family advocacy services’ similar to tele-health services.
While noting that some states and territories have already established or are already establishing specialist FDSV courts, the Committee considers that all jurisdictions should have access to these specialised courts.
The Committee believes there needs to be improved and systematised communication between courts and police and specialist domestic and family violence services regarding bail applications and sentencing, to ensure that victim-survivors are kept up to date on proceedings.
A national electronic domestic violence order database
The Committee notes stakeholder support for the introduction of the National Domestic Violence Order Scheme, but remains concerned that, more than three years on from its introduction, there is no comprehensive, national electronic information-sharing system in place to support the scheme.
The Committee considers that the intent of the NDVOS is undermined by the lack of an effective information-sharing system, and urges the Australian Government to work with state and territory governments to implement a national electronic database of domestic violence orders.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in collaboration with state and territory governments, implement a national electronic database of domestic violence orders to support the National Domestic Violence Order Scheme. The database should include provisional, interim, and final domestic violence orders and should record breaches of orders.
In addition, the Australian Government should:
work with state and territory governments to develop standardised training material to be delivered to relevant staff alongside the introduction of the database; and
consider whether the database should be accessible by specialist family and domestic violence service providers in addition to courts and police.
The Committee also notes continued calls for the NDVOS to be expanded to include family court orders and orders made under state and territory child protection legislation, and reiterates its previous recommendation to this effect.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with state and territory governments, expand the National Domestic Violence Order Scheme to include orders issued under the Family Law Act 1975 and orders issued under state and territory child protection legislation.
Acknowledging that FDSV is rarely a one off event, the Committee is of the view that there may be merit in the introduction of a register of convicted FDSV offenders, similar to the proposed National Public Register of Child Sex Offenders.
The Committee acknowledges that this matter was not raised in detail in evidence to this inquiry, and wishes to see research undertaken on whether such a register would contribute to increased safety for victim-survivors and their families.
The Committee emphasises that careful consideration would be required to determine the parameters under which a register would operate, and that extensive consultation, including with law associations and representatives of victim-survivors, should inform the development of any proposal.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Social Services commission research on the potential benefits and risks to victim-survivor safety of the establishment of a publicly accessible register of convicted family, domestic and sexual violence offenders.
The Committee notes the focus that state and territory law enforcement services are devoting to responding to FDSV incidents and urges law enforcement to continue to prioritise FDSV responses and support for victim-survivors.
The Committee recognises the benefit that could result from the introduction of an option to make silent calls for police assistance and recognises that the United Kingdom’s ‘Silent Solution’ is a well-regarded example of this practice.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government work with the states and territories to adopt a variant of the United Kingdom’s ‘Silent Solution’ for silent calls for police assistance.
The Committee recommends that the states and territories increase criminal penalties for breaches of apprehended or domestic violence orders, and ensure that the judiciary receives further training about the importance of security to victim-survivors of family, domestic and sexual violence and their families.
The Committee believes that the women’s police stations model primarily present in Latin American nations shows promise and should be examined by law enforcement services in Australia for any elements that could be incorporated by Australian policing.
The Committee notes that leaving a violent relationship can incur a significant cost, which can cause financial hardship for victim-survivors. The Committee notes that the Australian Government’s commitment in 2018 to extend the ability to access early release of superannuation to victim-survivors of family violence has not been enacted.
The Committee has recommended above (Recommendation 75) that the preference should be for perpetrators to leave the home where this does not threaten the safety of victim-survivors. The Committee nevertheless acknowledges that in many circumstances victim-survivors will need to leave their homes and rebuild their lives. The Committee heard evidence that the costs of leaving the family home and establishing a new one can be as high as $18,000 and that these costs often act as an impediment to leaving an abusive relationship. The Committee urges all Australian governments to consider doing more to financially assist victim-survivors during this process.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government and state and territory governments jointly develop a mechanism to provide resources to victim-survivors to assist them to leave their home and resettle to escape a violent relationship. This should include examining ways in which the Commonwealth may recover the costs from the perpetrator.
The Committee also considers that where possible FDSV specialist employment workers should be resourced to co-locate within family violence support services, to better assist victim-survivors in finding and maintaining employment and financial independence.
The Committee recognises the importance of stable employment to victim-survivors of FDSV, as well as the significant economic impact of FDSV on businesses and workplaces, in relation to lost productivity and absent or departed staff.
The Committee recommends that the Australian Government, in conjunction with state and territory governments, ensure that the next National Plan recognises that family, domestic and sexual violence impacts upon workplaces.
The Committee recommends that the next National Plan include greater emphasis and specific detail on the crucial role of work and economic equality in the advancement of gender equality and the prevention of family, domestic and sexual violence.
Wellbeing of frontline workers
The Committee recognises the particular demands and stresses placed upon workers in the family violence sector. Australia is indebted to them for their important work, and owes it to them to protect their wellbeing. The Committee considers that the next National Plan should recognise and respond to the stress and vicarious trauma experienced by workers in the FDSV sector.
The Committee recognises the additional challenges faced by frontline specialist FDSV service providers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including the increased stressors occasioned by working at home and remotely.
The Committee reiterates its comments on these matters in the context of COVID-19 responses in Chapter 2, and its recommendation (Recommendation 14) that the next National Plan include increased support for the health and wellbeing of frontline workers, including during emergencies and crises.
Consistent with that recommendation, the Committee also encourages service providers where possible to create crisis plans to ensure support mechanisms are in place for future crises.
Paid family violence leave
As many services that support victim-survivors are only open or are primarily open during business hours, leave is an important tool to allow victim-survivors to access services. Without an ability to take leave, those experiencing FDSV may be faced with a choice between accessing services and maintaining employment.
The Committee believes that wherever possible victim-survivors should be supported to continue their employment if they wish.
The Committee recognises that many employers in both the public and private sector have voluntarily elected to provide paid family violence leave.
The Committee understands that there are concerns from the Australian business sector that mandating paid leave might result in negative outcomes for businesses. In this regard, while the Committee welcomed evidence from a few business representative groups, the Committee was disappointed that other major organisations were invited to provide the perspective of the business community to the Committee and declined or were unable to do so: the Business Council of Australia, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman.
The Committee believes that the upcoming Fair Work Commission review of family violence leave will provide a useful opportunity for evidence gathering and an evaluation of family violence leave.
Given the scope of amendments to leave entitlements is a broad and complex issue that goes beyond the scope of this inquiry, the Committee defers to the pending Fair Work Commission review with regards to paid family violence leave.
Mr Andrew Wallace MP
23 March 2021