Monday, August 3, 2009

Family Violence - Make It Your Problem

Last week, I had a black eye and a graze on my chin, to emulate a person affected by family violence.

While I got to wash my bruises off at the end of the day and go back to my violence-free life, the reality for thousands of New Zealanders each week is the opposite.

Family violence is a huge criminal problem in New Zealand and all the people spoken to in this article want you to make it your problem that you do something about.

The facts call for change; half of all murders in New Zealand are at the hands of someone the victim knows, and every six minutes police are called to a family violence incident.

Family Violence; how bad is it?family-violence1

To get a real feeling for what I was writing about, I took to the streets of Auckland Central, Newmarket and Mount Albert with a black eye and a graze to my chin (done with special effects makeup) to see how people would react, and to see how it felt to be a walking victim for a day.

I had many one-on-one encounters with people in shops and on the street, but no one said a thing. Some people looked at me then clearly looked away, others avoided eye-contact, and it took longer than usual for some shop assistants to assist me.

While I did not have any clear expectations of what this experiment would entail, I thought that at least one person might ask me about the bruises, even in passing. If I were a man, sporting a black eye, I’m sure reactions would be different.

I went to a travel agent and had a conversation about the prices in the window. I went to the Karen Walker store in Newmarket, and as the only customer in the store, the assistants looked uncomfortable but still endeavoured to show me their latest look-book. I even asked about eye-makeup at the Body Shop which, ironically, is doing a campaign on the anti-smacking referendum, yet they had no comments about my face.

I am certain that as soon as I left stores, or walked past people together on the street, they would have talked about the young lady with the bruised face.

Family violence often happens behind closed doors and the evidence, as in facial bruising, is kept hidden until it’s healed. I’m sure my blatant exhibition of my injuries made many people feel uncomfortable, but it really did make me question why no one asked if I was ok.

I started to understand the sense of shame some victims may feel about being bruised and beaten by the person who is meant to love them, especially when no one else I passed on the streets was sporting bruises. I wondered what people were thinking of me; were they wondering who did this? If I was beaten by a partner, had I left them, and if not, why?

Staying with an abusive partner is something I grappled to understand, so I asked the Auckland City Police District’s family violence coordinator, Detective Senior Sergeant Vaughn Graham, why someone would stay in a relationship where they were being hurt; he believes there are many reasons.

He notes that relationships will rarely start out violent, but it is something that will happen over time, after trust has been built up.

“They are sort of wooed into that relationship - not coerced and forced into it straight away. It’s not always an apparent trap, it’s a slow problem they find themselves in, and then they don’t have tools to get themselves back out.”

The Auckland City District Police have a dedicated team to deal with family violence incidents. On average the police will attend 5000 callouts a year. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg; research shows this is only 10 to 15 percent of cases of family violence out there.

This is because there is a stigma that is stopping people from speaking out and asking for help.

This might be because it is too hard for a victim to admit they are in a bad situation, or it could be the fact that they don’t have the ability or know-how to ask for help, Graham says.

Then there is the fear.

“Offenders will often trap victims, (they will) isolate them. As easy as it is for other people to call the police and ask for help, some people are quite often too scared to.”

Graham sees a range of people; sometimes they are a first time incident, which he says is fortunate because they can intervene early to prevent it from happening again, or they may be people the police have seen again and again.

However, family violence does not discriminate by culture, religion or socio-economic standing.

The criminal process – here to help

The Auckland City District Police give top-priority to family violence callouts because of the safety concerns. The police usually arrive within ten minutes of receiving the call, and will investigate the matter and gain statements from the victim and any witnesses.

They need to work on the basis that the complainant will, at some stage, be reluctant to participate in the prosecution process because of the nature and relationship they share with the offender, so they will speak to neighbours, other witnesses, as well as the victim and also use the 111 calls as evidence.

They also try to get information from the families involved. Graham says this can go either way: some families are really supportive while others are very protective, despite some horrific things happening in the families.

Neighbours are usually good independent witnesses, who can provide good evidence. The problem is sometimes this evidence comes too late.

Nia Glassie for example.

The police collect all the evidence and, if they are satisfied an offence has been committed, they will arrest the offender, charge them, then hold them in custody to appear in court the next morning, where they will usually be bailed with the condition they have no contact with the victim.

Whenever there is an arrest, advocates from Shine, an Auckland family violence victim support group, which works closely with the police, will go to the home to see the victim while the perpetrator is in custody. They will talk the victim through the court process, help them determine a plan to keep safe in the future and arrange a lawyer and refuge if needed. This will take an hour to an hour and a half, and Shine does about 20 of these a week.

After the initial bailout, there is a three week wait until the offender appears in the Auckland Family Violence Court. This allows them time to engage a lawyer and get copies of all the police evidence. This court is usually presided over by Judge Lex de Jong.

This court is one of six in the country, the courts were set up with the purpose of getting both the victim and the offender the help they need.

Sentences can range from making the offender attend a stopping violence programme – to teach them to live without violence, through to serving time in prison.

De Jong says that with the establishment of these courts, there has been a huge turnaround in people’s guilty pleas in family violence cases. Before these courts it was about 80 percent pleading not guilty, now it is about 80 percent pleading guilty.

At their first appearance at this court the offender will enter their plea. If it is a guilty plea for a first time offence of low-level violence, such as pushing or hitting on the shoulder, de Jong says they will give the offender the chance to be discharged without conviction, but they must work for it.

They will have to go to a stopping violence programme and often alcohol and drug counselling, because about 90 percent of the attacks happen when the offender is on drugs or alcohol. Most stopping violence programmes last for 20 weeks, and the court monitors the offender’s progress.

They will go back to court after about 12 weeks with a letter from the programme provider to make sure they are attending, and then the third and final court appearance will happen when they have finished the programme, and they will tell the judge what they learnt from the programme. As long as they have no other convictions in that time, they attend all the counselling sessions, and the victim does not complain again, they will be discharged without conviction.

However, when it comes to serious incidents, there will be a conviction and the offender will also have to attend the stopping violence programmes. Some offenders will be supervised for a maximum of two years, depending on the problems.

De Jong says this is a “last ditch effort get them to address problems.”

He notes that the majority of people are going to reconcile with their partners, so the court needs to find ways for the offender to rehabilitate because often the victim will either say they want their partner to change, that they still love them, or feels safe and wants them to come home.

I go along to one of the Family Violence Court list days.

An assortment of people come draping in and out of the court; some look dishevelled, lacking in sleep with bloodshot eyes, wearing scruffy clothes, while others are in crisp shirts and clean suits. Many look morose.

A 23-year-old Paheka man is called forward. His mother is in the gallery to support him and we learn that his partner, who he assaulted, is outside with his step-son. He is enrolled in a drug and alcohol counselling programme and relationship counselling.

De Jong tells him he is responsible to set a good example for his child, as the child will follow what he does.

He acknowledges the man’s guilty plea, and tells him the court is here to support him, not punish him.

Later, a Middle Eastern man, here on a work permit with his family, was spoken to through an interpreter. He has completed the stopping violence course for a “single slap” and has since reconciled with his wife with who he shares a child of 14 months.

De Jong asks him what he learnt through the programme.

“I have learnt to control my anger and to use different methods to calm down and also to find alternatives to get out of a situation.”

De Jong discharges him without conviction but says if it happens again, he will be treated in a very different way.

“The responsibility rests on your shoulders.”

Next, a Maori man named Marsh, who appears to be in his 30s, is in front of de Jong seeking bail. He denies the assault he has been arrested for on the weekend. However, he has nine pages of prior convictions. The man looks enraged as the complaint is read out.

Marsh is accused of driving over the Harbour Bridge, with his partner and father in the car, swerving over the road and threatening to drive off the side of the bridge to kill them.

In the process, he allegedly punched his partner twice in the mouth, struck her with a screwdriver, kicked her in the back, and strangled her until she lost consciousness.

He is also accused of climbing through the woman’s window, and assaulting her while she was in bed.

While Marsh denies the accusations, de Jong says the police have photographic evidence of the woman’s injuries.

De Jong rules that Marsh is too high of a risk to the victim in this case, so is further remanded in custody.

Changing views

The emphasis the criminal system now places on the seriousness of family violence is clear and, as recent research shows, society is catching on.

This newfound concern can, in part, be attributed to the Campaign for Action on Family Violence which includes the It’s Not OK! campaign - best known for its effective ads that have played on TV since 2007. The campaign aims to increase visibility, understanding and personal relevance of family violence and to get people to act on it.

Campaign manager Gael Surgenor says the campaign is about making family violence everyone’s business, and she feels this has been successful.

A survey conducted last October, to look at the effectiveness of this campaign, found 95 percent of respondents recalled seeing the ads and over two thirds said they understood more about family violence because of this, and had discussed the issue. 20 percent of the respondents had taken some sort of action, such as talking to family or friends about violence they were worried about; this number was doubled for Maori and pacific respondents.

Last year the emphasis was on getting the message across that family violence is never OK, this year they will be focusing on asking for help, and how to give help.

“One thing we have discovered, as the campaign has gone along, is people do want to help and do want to intervene but they are not sure how to.

“A lot of it is promoting ideas that it is acceptable to do it (get involved). If you did see someone with a black eye, or you did hear something, instead of thinking ‘that’s not my business I’m not going to do anything,’ think ‘I am going to do something.’”

Surgenor points to the recent Sophie Elliott case as a good example of people close to the victim and perpetrator not recognising family violence.

“A lot of the signs that she was in danger were there but no one recognised them because people don’t know them. If we came to a situation where most people acted when they suspected something, we would save lives.”

She says a key thing is to keep offering to help people if you are worried about them.

“When someone dies, whether it’s a child like Nia Glassie or an adult like Sophie Elliott there are always people who knew something was going on but they didn’t do anything about it because they didn’t realise how serious it was.”

The Campaign for Action on Family Violence has put out a book of family violence survivors’ true stories. The themes are obvious throughout; all eight writers had abusive parents, which in turn, led them to either becoming abusive to their partners and children, or end up in abusive relationships. However, all the stories detail the changes the writers make in their lives, and their violence-free outcomes. All of the writers end up in health or social-work related careers, using their experiences to help others. All stories describe the different forms of family violence- it’s not just physical, but can be sexual, emotional, financial, and psychological.

In one of the stories, George writes about his extremely violent mother. “She’d strip us naked and send us outside to get a stick from the hedge. She’d tell us the dimensions of the stick she wanted, and we’d have to go outside in full view of the street and our friends and get one from the hedge in front of the house.” This kind of abuse followed him into his adult life, where he also beat his wife. However, he took a stopping violence course, and now lectures at a university and has been violence-free since 1993.

Lorri writes her physically and sexually abusive childhood set her up “to be a walking target.” She ran away from home, was put in juvenile detention, and also got into abusive relationships. Because of her experiences she decided to set up a women’s refuge. She sums up what has become apparent in every story; “our culture doesn’t respect children and we are abusive towards them, and then as adults they get their own back on their parents and so the generational abuse continues. It is abuse – whether it is sexual, emotional, physical, financial or psychological. We continue to act it out one way or the other.”

Why you should

While my personal experience left me disheartened, as Surgenor says, it will take time for people to start acting on what they see.

Unitec graduate Jill Proudfoot is the client services director at Shine and also says that everyone should care because family violence affects the whole society, not just the people involved, as the campaign stories show.

“If we have a violent-free society it benefits everybody. For example if children grow up in violent homes they are much more likely to become violent, flaunt the law themselves in various ways, it’s a huge cost to our society not only the human cost but the financial cost…so everyone needs to care.”

Detective Senior Sergeant Vaughn Graham says family violence “really strikes at the heart of morals and who we are as a community and nation really.

“If you argue on the side of ‘it’s not our problem’ then you need to look back on our morals…would you really say ‘it’s not my problem?’” asks Graham.


What to do if you need help, or suspect someone else does.

Call the Police: 111

Are You Ok?: 0800 456 450

Auckland Women’s Refuge: 09 378 7635

Shine: 0508 DVHELP (384 357)