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Ending domestic violence

Jul 29, 2019 • 19m08s

Australia is ahead of the world in some of its responses to domestic violence, but its national plan has no measurable targets.

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Ending domestic violence

45 • Jul 29, 2019

Ending domestic violence

[Theme music]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media. I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

Australia is ahead of the world in some of its responses to domestic violence. But its national plan has no measurable targets and is focused on attitudes rather than deaths. Jess Hill on what could be done differently, and what can be done now.

Just a warning, there are descriptions of violence in this episode.

[Theme ends]

ELIZABETH:

Jess you’ve been working on this book about domestic violence, particularly domestic violence in Australia, for years. But I wanted to start with one of the case studies that really struck me, can we talk about the city of High Point, in North Carolina?

JESS:

High Point is a city of about 100,000 people. Like virtually every city, domestic violence had been a huge problem there.

ELIZABETH:

Jess Hill is a Walkley-Award winning journalist. Her book is titled See what you made me do.

JESS:

It was the leading cause of homicide in the city and their rate actually was twice the national average. It was also for police, the most dangerous call out that they could get.

So there was one fortnight… it really freaked the community out.

Archival tape — Police officer:

“Highpoint 911 what’s your emergency?”

Archival tape — Unidentified woman:

“Yes I need someone escorted out of my house.”

Archival tape — Police officer:

“Okay, is it a relative?”

Archival tape — Unidentified woman:

“Um no, no he has a gun.”

Archival tape — Police officer:

“What...who is it?”

Archival tape — Unidentified woman:

“My Fiance…”

JESS:

Two men killed their partners and then themselves. The city sort of realised that they needed to take a more focused approach and a different approach to what they'd already been doing.

So something I really focus on is this moment in February 2012.

[AMBIENCE]

JESS:

It was a town hall meeting. It looked like any other town hall meeting, plastic chairs lined up in the hall, a bunch of community members in the back...but what was really different was that there was - down the front - a row of 12 men who were domestic violence perpetrators and they were about to be called out in public.

As the men were sitting down the front, these community members filed in. One by one they all talked about the fact that they were against domestic violence, but they were for these men and they wanted to see them improve.

Jim Summey, who was the head of this community group - big bear of a man - basically looks directly at these 12 men and he says...

Archival tape — Jim Summey:

“We are against what you’re doing, but we are for you. If you’re willing after this evening to stop what you’re doing, then we will do everything we can to help you. However if you’re not willing to do that, then when the law enforcement come in here, you’ll find out what’s going to happen if you’re not willing to do that”

JESS:

...and this phalanx of law enforcement filed in, and seated in this row overlooking the hall was the chief of police and his deputy, federal agents, federal marshals, the prosecutor's office, Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms they took turns explaining to these men, if they chose to continue abusing that they were going to get them no matter what they did...

Archival tape — Unidentified Man #1:

When did it become ok to beat down women? Well we’re telling you tonight in High Point it’s no longer OK. How many assaults, domestic violence assaults are you allowed? We’ve got seven people with strangulation. All our federal… ATD, DEA, FBI, secret service, all of our marshalls, our federal folks are involved in this group. It is huge…”

ELIZABETH:

And what is the main policing strategy behind the system they were using here?

JESS:

It's called focused deterrence -- the premise is pretty simple: it's a small group of people commit the majority of violent crimes and their criminal records can be used as leverage to convince them to stop offending.

It started in Boston where gun crime was just off the charts and in the 90s when this academic David Kennedy who came up with focused deterrence, Boston police took advice from Kennedy to basically identify their most dangerous criminals and send them that same message, talked about in the town hall, only it was delivered by former gang members and church leaders and other respected locals. And it said “we want you to change because we care about you. But if you insist on continuing your violence you won't get away with it. And the response will be swift and severe.”

ELIZABETH:

OK, but what does it actually look like when they say we're going to throw the full force of the law at you if you don't comply?

JESS:

What it looks like is the prosecutor's office making you a priority. There was one man in High Point - he was up on larceny charges right - the sentence for larceny was pretty low, generally speaking, but because he was also a domestic violence offender, they managed to sort of jerry rig the system to get these 150 day sentences but back them up against each other so that he ended up getting almost a year in prison for something that is otherwise like a pretty low grade crime. They said that that basically start to send a message, that anything they could find in your record, anything they could find, they would pin you on.

ELIZABETH:

So Jess, one view might be though that using more intense policing methods is not the answer regardless of the problem that it's trying to solve. What would you say to that?

JESS:

I'd say if this was just a policing strategy that that criticism would be totally appropriate. That sort of stick-only approach is not what works. I think what works in High Point is it's a collaboration of community groups and police groups saying, we realise that there may be individual factors in your life that if we help you sort them out, that may help you stop your violence. We're giving you first the carrot - we're going to support you and help you in any way that you need - but then the very, very big stick... which is, if you've thought you were going to get away with this, that moment is over.

ELIZABETH:

This system that's being used in High Point, it relies on a pre-existing criminal record being able to be leveraged to change behaviour into the future. How many of the perpetrators were-- of domestic abuse did actually have a criminal record, were known to police, and therefore made this kind of pulling levers strategy actually possible?

JESS:

I think they looked at 17 domestic homicides over a time period of a few years. All of them had a prior criminal record that could have been leveraged. Worse still though, in every single case the victim had attempted to seek help and the police were aware that there was a domestic violence situation. Before that time that high point made this a priority, they didn't even have that data. They didn't know whether there were similarities between all of the domestic homicides or not. That's the case in Australia in a lot of different jurisdictions. We don't have a lot of really precise data to show us, how is it that we may target these offenders in a more effective way?

ELIZABETH:

And did High Point’s focused deterrence approach work?

JESS:

After the focus deterrence had been used for a few years domestic homicides went down by about two thirds.

Now they didn't eradicate domestic homicide. They still had...I think there were about eight domestic homicides over about a decade.

ELIZABETH:

So they went from something like, on average three homicides, domestic homicides, a year to less than one.

JESS:

Yep.

ELIZABETH:

OK

JESS:

And that's a radical change.

ELIZABETH:

So Jess I know this is is a multifaceted approach. It involves a lot of collaboration. But if you had to boil it down, what do you think it is that makes this High Point approach different to anything we've seen in Australia?

JESS:

What is really unusual is the justice systems commitment to essentially leverage any type of criminal activity on behalf of the perpetrator and prosecute that as hard as they could.

Policing was getting better in High Point just as it's been getting better here. But the difference is that they realised that getting better wasn't good enough. You know that they had to just take this major leap frog into making it number one, because it actually was the number one issue they were facing. And that's what's sort of confounding - for most police in the country it takes up the majority of their time as an offence. This already is taking up the most time so why not be more focused on it?

ELIZABETH:

And what is the state of things in Australia right now?

JESS:

I guess from a national perspective we have a National Plan to Reduce Violence against women and their children. That's been in place since 2010 and it's set to expire in 2022.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“I look forward to the day when a Prime Minister can stand, whether it’s here or in the chamber or anywhere else...and say that a young girl being born today won’t experience this over the course of the first 20 years of her life. I Can’t say that today…”

JESS:

And essentially what is underpinning that plan is to change the community's attitudes not only towards violence but also towards the gendered norms that underpin that violence, and to bring up the next generation of kids to have completely different attitudes towards relationships.

Archival tape — Scott Morrison:

“What I have to stress is it’s very focused on prevention. It’s very focused on changing attitudes of all Australians... because disrespect of women and children, while it won’t always end necessarily in violence towards women and children, that’s certainly where it starts…”

[Music starts]

JESS:

I just want us to start trading domestic violence like the actual national emergency it is, rather than treating it like some sort of political objective, where we we we get to a more gender equal nation. That's a wonderful ambition, but let's stop women and children being victimised today.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Jess, in some respects Australia has been a world leader in its response to domestic violence prevention. But that said, many of the strategies are long term, they're lacking in kind of objective measurable goals. What could some of those measurable goals be?

JESS:

It's hard to quantify a lot of what happens in domestic violence because it is happening in private, but some of the objectives in the plan are terribly amorphous. To have a what is a deliverable outcome like “relationships are respectful” or “communities are safe and free from violence”... what does that look like? Why aren't we looking at ‘we want to reduce domestic homicide by a certain percentage’? Why aren’t we saying ‘we want to reduce the number of women and children being turned away from emergency accommodation by a certain percentage’? Because unless we have particular targets, it's like governments can't fail.

ELIZABETH:

Jess, if we were to set goals like those that have been set in High Point, what would we need to do in Australia to practically meet them?

JESS:

We would have to take a pretty fundamentally different approach to what we're taking right now, and this is a bit of a controversial suggestion because it's very hard to police. But there is a certain type of domestic abuse that follows a predictable pattern. It's called coercive control. It's the kind of abuse people refer to as intimate terrorism. The types of either tactics or behaviours that you see in these relationships: Isolation, gaslighting micromanaging of behaviour, surveillance and monitoring, terrorising, degrading, threatening to such an extent that the victim’s survival is all that she can focus on. They're the most dangerous relationships to be inside and the most dangerous relationships to leave.

The problem that we have in our legal system, is that while we say domestic violence is a crime, it's actually not a crime. What we have are crimes that are committed within a domestic violence context.

ELIZABETH:

So things like assault or...

JESS:

Yeah assault or rape or even stalking. But we don't have a way of criminalising the course of conduct that underpins coercive control. So essentially we have what is the most dangerous form of domestic abuse - affecting 60 to 80 per cent of women who seek help, that is by and large invisible to the eyes of the law. I really think that we need to look at making coercive control a crime. They have done that in England and Wales and Scotland and I believe Ireland as well, to varying success. I think that Australia, and certainly I would say Victoria, is a really good place to roll out the best kind of coercive control laws in the world.

ELIZABETH:

Jess, what else would need to happen do you think, particularly as it relates to police activity, and kind of the reporting that women might bring to police?

JESS:

At the moment, the Australian Bureau of Statistics says that about 20 per cent of women who report being abused right now have reported to the police. So that means that 80 per cent have never reported. That's a fundamental problem and there are a lot of reasons why they're not reporting to police: wanting to protect their partners, afraid that their children will be removed. But what we know is that actually and counterintuitively getting police involved is actually the best protection that you can get. Up until the police are involved the perpetrator is the most powerful person in the room. When the police come in, that's showing that there is a power greater than them that can enter the home.

There's an incredible model that's been trying to deal with that low reporting rate which is pretty consistent across the world.

Archival tape from South America and India

JESS:

They’re called Police Stations for Women and they exist in a number of countries but especially throughout South America.

And what they are is a network of police stations that are staffed mostly by women. And police are there to protect the woman no matter what the woman decides to do. So if the woman decides ‘I just want you to go around and talk to him’, or ‘I want you to get him out of the house’ then that's what they'll do. And they're having really amazing results. So what is there to lose? I mean, It's not an expensive thing to trial. Why don't we just put a few women's police stations, even in just some of the worst affected areas, and see what happens?

ELIZABETH:

And Jess in your mind, what would it mean if we were open to trialing things like police stations for women, like some of the other strategies you’ve mentioned, as a country, what could that mean for us all, not just those directly affected?

JESS:

Taking domestic abuse seriously and really understanding the scope of the problem. The fact that we have 2.1 million women alive today who have been victims. This underlies so much of what we see going wrong around us. It underlies growths in homelessness rights. It underlies the increase in women going to prison. It's a causative factor for mental illness, for substance abuse.

When it comes to deeply cultural problems that seem intractable, in the past, we have been incredibly courageous in confronting them. You know driving home drunk was like a badge of pride back in the 70s and 80s. When we saw that was causing incredible problems, our politicians committed to introducing random breath testing units. Now politicians had to burn a serious amount of political capital to get that done. And yet they did it. And now it's hard to imagine Australia without it. That's what it looks like to take it seriously. You know, it's not popular.

ELIZABETH:

But it's possible.

JESS:

But it's possible, and we've not really given our best efforts to stopping domestic violence.

In my opinion, if we were to really focus on fixing domestic abuse using proven strategies, it would be one of the greatest nation building exercises in Australia's history.

ELIZABETH:

Jess thank you so much.

JESS:

Thank you.

[Advertisement]

[Music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

Police have responded violently to a protest in Hong Kong’s western New Territories, firing tear gas and rubber bullets and beating protesters with batons. The 300,000 protestors were gathered in response to triad assaults on commuters. The police crackdown follows earlier mass protests in Hong Kong, aimed at maintaining democratic protections from mainland China.

And in sport, it has been revealed that Australian swimmer Shayna Jack failed an out-of-competition drug test before the world titles in South Korea. Swimming Australia is accused of covering up the finding, only making it public after the championships. Jack has previously won gold at the Commonwealth Games. She withdrew from the world titles, citing "personal reasons".

[Music ends]

Australia is ahead of the world in some of its responses to domestic violence. But its national plan has no measurable targets and is focused on attitudes rather than deaths. Jess Hill on what could be done differently, and done now.

Guest: Author of See what you made me do Jess Hill. 

Background reading: 

Stopping coercive control and family violence in The Saturday Paper
See what you made me do, by Jess Hill, published by Black Inc.
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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45: Ending domestic violence