THE focus in the fight against domestic violence needs to shift towards the rehabilitation of perpetrators, and Australia has a lot to learn according to Newcastle-based lawyer and researcher, Joplin Higgins.
Ms Higgins is calling for a change in engagement strategies and the introduction of long-term behaviour-change programs targeting domestic violence perpetrators.
In a report released to coincide with the National Domestic Violence Awareness Month of May, Ms Higgins says the way Australia is attempting to deal with the issue is "like treating cancer with Panadol".
"Currently, there is minimal engagement with perpetrators," she said. " Programs in Australia run on average for 12-18 weeks compared with programs explored in the report that run for over 52 weeks. A few months is clearly not enough time to change, at times, a lifetime of violent and abusive behaviour.
"Responses to domestic violence overseas have prioritised targeting the perpetrators behaviour directly, investing in supporting offenders who are motivated to change."
Australian statistics show that one woman a week dies as a result of domestic violence, and one in three women has experienced physical violence since the age of 15, she said. One in five has experienced sexual violence since that same age.
Men's behaviourial change programs, explored in her report, include a year-long engagement working with whole families, helping to keep victims and children visible while perpetrators fulfilled their obligations.
Ms Joplin travelled to the US to research men's behaviourial change programs and meet with facilitators. Key findings in her report include that increased funding is paramount to ensure funds are not taken away from victim services offering immediate safety to women and children.
Domestic violence has predominantly been viewed as a criminal justice issue, when it is clear a multiagency response is required, she says. Programs operating in Australia are significantly fragmented, varying from state to state and across service providers, she said.
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"Australia's approach lacks coordination of programs as well as consistent messages that operate alongside domestic violence campaigns, early intervention and education in schools."
The one size fits all approach and belief all perpetrators are the same is not sufficient, she said, and not supported by current research.
To date, reforms to domestic violence have been reactive, lacking a coordinated response, and focused on crisis and post-crisis as opposed to primary and secondary prevention, she says. There is a significant wait list for programs and they are lagging behind those based overseas where programs can run over a year and operate from residential facilities.
In Australia the demand for programs is increasing, with waitlists ranging from six to eight months, and varying in length from 12 to 20 weeks, with two to four hours per session.
Ms Joplin has made a submission to the NSW Parliamentary Inquiry into coercive control in domestic relationships which is examining the issues including whether it should be criminalised in NSW.
Many of the submissions point to problems which may be created by the introduction of a new offence which critics say is difficult to prove, would be difficult to police, and once more places the onus on victims.
In their submission, the Hunter Community Legal Centre says for many women, involving the police can lead to additional violence. The creation of a new offence does not deal with any of the "well documented concerns" victims have for not engaging with the criminal justice process, it says. The committee will release its report in June.
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