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Disadvantage and intergenerational trauma play a major role in the high rates of family violence in Indigenous communities
28 Feb 2018 - 3:12 PM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2018 - 3:38 PM

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people experience higher rates of family violence than in the general population, according to a new report. 

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's report found Indigenous Australians have increased risk factors for family violence, such as social stressors, poor housing and overcrowding, financial difficulties and unemployment. 

The report, drawn from 20 major sources, including recent Australian Bureau of Statistics data, shows Indigenous women were 32 times as likely and Indigenous men were 23 times as likely to be hospitalised due to family violence as non-Indigenous women and men, respectively. 

It found one in 7 Indigenous women had experienced physical violence in the previous year. Of these, about 1 in 4 reported their most recent incident was perpetrated by a cohabiting partner. 

While Indigenous children were around 7 times as likely, as non-Indigenous children, to be the victims of substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect. 

But for many, the report comes as no surprise. 

Antoinette Braybrook heads up the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Victoria (FVPLS). 

She says organisations, like FVPLS, who work on the frontline with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims/survivors of family violence grapple with these issues on a daily basis.  

"How many times do we need to investigate how bad this is for our people? It is time now for governments to act," she told NITV News.  

Ms Braybrook says governments need to take immediate action by setting justice targets within the Closing the Gap strategy to reduce family violence. 

"We also need to see a greater investment by governments at all levels into Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations, like FVPLSs, who work to address and prevent violence against our people. And we need to see far greater investment into early intervention and prevention to break the cycle of violence and work with Aboriginal women and children to build resilience and reduce vulnerability to family violence," she said. 

The report says removal of land, and cultural dispossession over the past 230 years has resulted in particular social, economic, physical, psychological and emotional problems for First Australians. 

Ms Braybrook, also the co-chair of Change The Record, says the report does not address racism and the ongoing injustices Indigenous peoples face, which is a big part of why rates of violence against Indigenous women and children are high. 

"It is important though to break down the stigma that this is an ‘Aboriginal’ problem," she said. 

"When we talk about the high rates of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, we are not just talking about violence by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men. Data shows us that the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women in metropolitan areas, and many other areas, are partnered with non-Aboriginal men." 

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Last year, FVPLS worked with SNAICC and NATSILS to collaboratively produce a joint policy paper on family violence response and prevention. 

The Strong Families, Safe Kids report  acknowledges much of the AIWH findings saying, 'understanding family violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities requires recognition of the intergenerational trauma that continues in our communities today.'

The report also found two in five Indigenous homicide victims, or 41 per cent, were killed by a current or former partner, compared with one in five non-Indigenous homicide victims, or 22 per cent. 

Robert Ellis from the BaptistCare Community Services says there are some strategies that have been proven to work with Indigenous people. 

"The appropriate response is to work with the local communities, and every family is unique, so it's taking seriously the story of a local community [and] being aware of what's happening for them, and then listening carefully to a family, particularly to the women and children, and work with men being culturally appropriate," he told SBS News.

Mr Ellis says when working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, it's particularly important to recognise "the complex web of disadvantage that they are being held back by, and finding ways to work with them and build on their strengths". 

Less likely to report incidents 

While Indigenous Australians experience family violence at a much higher rate than non-Indigenous Australians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are less likely to report incidents to police. 

And when incidents are reported, victims may not disclose that the incident was perpetrated by a family member - with some with studies showing that up to 90 per cent of violence against Indigenous women may not be reported.  

It means family violence within Indigenous communities is largely under-reported and the broad spectrum of experiences are not captured accurately. According to 2013 ABS data, incomplete identification of Indigenous Australians in data collections reduces the accuracy of estimates of Indigenous experiences of violence.  

Ms Braybrook says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women face many barriers to reporting and being believed. 

"Systemic racism and the history of colonization in this country mean it is hard for Aboriginal people to trust the police. Far too often our women are failed by the system that is supposed to protect them," she said.  

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Indigenous children over-represented in protection system

According to the AIHW 2015-16 Child Protection Data Collection, more than 46,600 Indigenous children received child protection services and almost 13,000 were the subject of a child protection substantiation. 

Almost 17,000 Indigenous children were in out-of-home care, a rate almost ten times that for non-Indigenous children. 

Antionette Braybrook says in Victoria family violence is the single biggest driver of Aboriginal children being removed. 

"It’s similar right around the country," she said. "The evidence shows us there is a clear link between family violence – child protection and out of home care – youth justice and getting locked up as an adult. This is devastating our families and our communities." 

"But it doesn’t have to be this way. We need to change our system that blames and punishes women for experiencing violence," she said. 

The effect on children exposed to violence can also be lifelong, with children who were physically or sexually abused before the age of 15 more likely to also be victims as adults.

"Children can be victims of or witnesses to family violence—and this early exposure can heighten their chances of experiencing further violence later in life," said AIHW spokesperson Louise York.

One in six Australian women still victims  

The figures also show one in six women in Australia, equating to 1.6 million women, have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of their partners. 

While 75 per cent of Australian men experience domestic violence, on average, one woman a week and one man a month are killed by a current or former partner. 

"Women are more likely to experience violence from a known person and in their home, while men are more likely to experience violence from strangers and in a public place," Ms York said. 

The report also shows family, domestic and sexual violence has a significant toll on victims and society, particularly in relation to people's ability to work, health and financial situation. 

"People who experience domestic violence are likely to need time off work as a result, and women affected by
domestic violence experience significantly poorer health and mental health than other women," Ms York said.

AIHW CEO Barry Sandison said the report was a significant piece of work for the AIHW — and one with a real human impact. But he says there is more to be done. 

"We know that family, domestic and sexual violence is a major problem in Australia, but without a comprehensive
source of evidence and analysis, tackling such a complex issue will continue to be difficult," he said.

"It’s important to note that while looking only at the numbers can at times appear to depersonalise the pain and suffering that sits behind the statistics, the seriousness of these issues cannot be overstated." 

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