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Barriers prevent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women from reporting family violence

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face barriers to reporting family violence, including the threat of child removal, homelessness and potential isolation from their family and community, new research shows.

An ANROWS report led by University of Melbourne Professor Marcia Langton and Dr Kristen Smith, with a team of University researchers and participating communities, identifies some of the factors preventing the disclosure of a large proportion of violence incidents perpetrated against Aboriginal women.

These factors disempower women who want to leave violent situations and prevent them from seeking help.

The research was conducted in Mildura and Albury-Wodonga, in regional Victoria, where the team documented how people are using and providing various support services. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women living in regional and remote areas are known to be at greater risk of family violence compared to women in metropolitan areas and face additional challenges when dealing with these experiences.

In observations, focus groups and interviews, housing stresses were repeatedly raised as a key issue. Women who had experienced family violence and service providers said a lack of available housing was a barrier to women leaving violent relationships, and undermined service providers’ other attempts to assist women.

Barbara, a court officer, said: “Housing is the pivotal, critical thing that we need to get right as quickly as possible. Once you’ve got the housing in place you can start to get in the other services.”

The report, Improving family violence legal and support services for Indigenous women , also identifies the varying availability, accessibility or acceptability of family violence legal and support services for these communities.

It shows that the co-location of services must be planned carefully as it can create barriers to help-seeking. For example, co-locating domestic and family violence services with child protection services may exacerbate women’s concerns about the removal of children.

Participants also raised concerns about confidentiality, especially in smaller communities, where services may be familiar with the victim’s and/or perpetrator’s family and friends.

University of Melbourne foundation chair of Australian Indigenous studies and lead author, Professor Marcia Langton said the findings underscored the urgency of increasing funding for agencies working directly with the women and men who need support.

“These are the agencies and service providers who know what is needed in their communities and can get it done—if they have adequate financial support,” Professor Langton said.

A twin project with the same research team is also published today. Improving family violence legal and support services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who are perpetrators of family violence considers the practical and legal supports available to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men who are perpetrators of family violence.

The researchers found that to improve the safety of women, children, and communities, it is necessary to address underlying issues that contribute to the perpetration of violence and can create barriers to accessing services, such as mental health challenges, substance use, and neurological conditions.

The report finds that criminal legal responses may have limited impact on reducing violence due to high levels of distrust of the police and the legal system, resentment and anger resulting from a history of injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and disproportionate criminalisation.

The study also found that mainstream men’s behavioural change programs may not be appropriate for—or even available to—Aboriginal perpetrators of violence, and there is a lack of culturally-specific programs.

Both reports suggest ways to improve relevant support services.

ANROWS CEO Dr Heather Nancarrow said: “It's clear from the evidence presented by Professor Langton and her team that a range of culturally safe support services are needed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and men to effectively address family violence.

"This includes housing and mental health services as well as specialist family violence services, which must work together to support families navigating the impacts of complex trauma and marginalisation.”