Is Western Australia facing a domestic violence crisis?
The number of domestic-violence related deaths in Western Australia has more than doubled this year after two women and three toddlers were found dead at their home last week, government figures show. So far in 2018, 23 people have died in domestic violence incidents (including 10 women and nine children).
Fifteen of those deaths occurred in just three separate incidents: a family murder-suicide in Margaret River, a triple murder of an Ellenbrook mother and her two children and the recent Bedford murders.
In comparison there were 11 domestic violence related killings in the 2017 calendar year.
Domestic Violence Prevention Minister Simone McGurk said the level of domestic violence in Western Australia was second only to the Northern Territory.
“It is societal change, it is systems change, and that’s why we have a dedicated minister in the cabinet.
“The government recognised we needed some particular focus to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to keep innocent people safe.”
According to WA Police statistics, there were a total of 86 homicides in the 2017/18 financial year (not all domestic violence related), and 18,539 family assaults and 2636 reports of family threatening behaviour over the same period.
Ms McGurk said a new family violence restraining order, which had been introduced to bring WA into line with a national system, has a much broader definition of domestic violence.
“Instances that might justify those orders include overly controlling behaviour, aggressive behaviour, threats, threats to children and pets, financial controls and the like,” she said.
The Minister said that there was no strong statistical evidence that drugs and alcohol had caused an increase to the number of domestic violence incidents, but there was evidence suggesting they increased the severity of violence.
“The psychosis that results from methamphetamine use, for instance, could mean that there’s more violence generally and we’ve seen some high profile cases of that publicly in road car accidents and the like,” Ms McGurk said.
“In terms of alcohol, for instance, both drug and alcohol generally, I think the analysis is that it’s not a primary cause, but it could exacerbate the severity of the violence.
“Talking to communities in different areas where there is a concentration of domestic violence, people are saying they know plenty of people who have alcohol problems and they’re not perpetrators of domestic violence.”
Experts have warned against characterising perpetrators in circumstances such as the Bedford murders as “nice guys” who experienced a “snap”, saying murder was usually the culmination of long-term abuse.
Women’s Council for Domestic and Family Violence Services WA chief executive Angela Hartwig said the alleged domestic circumstances of the Bedford murders, if proved, and mass murders in Ellenbrook and Margaret River suggested “there’s a bit of an emergency in what we’re seeing”.
“We need to look at what else can be done,” she said.
“Keep doing what we know is working — keep women’s refuges well-resourced and supported, have domestic violence responses such as police and department of communities, intervention with known perpetrators.
“I think key players need to take stock and think about what else can be done.
“It’s also about working with the wide community on what can we do on a primary prevention level that’s going to reach out to the everyday person so they can say this is not OK and it must be stop.”
She said it was not unusual for a horrific incident to be the first public sign that something was wrong.
“It’s not always those who are having lots of contact with agencies that can face fatal consequences,” she said.
Relationships Australia executive director Michael Sheehan said domestic violence was “about power and control”. He said an act of extreme violence, such as murder, was not “a snap or a one-off anger” but the culmination of abuse.
“Domestic violence is hidden,” he said. “I know in the Margaret River incident they talked about the grandfather being a nice guy and the issue is that it’s hidden.
“Men can be violent and still be nice to their work colleagues. To me it’s a bit horrifying when we hear ‘he was a nice guy’. They’re not nice guys, they present two images: one to the public and one to their family.”
He said with one women in Australia killed on average every week from domestic violence there was a need for better education for service providers to recognise the warning signs, better coordination between services and more funding.
According to Our Watch, 36 per cent of Australian women have experienced physical or sexual violence from someone they know, including 15 per cent who have experienced violence from an ex-partner.
Of women who had experienced violence from a current partner, 39 per cent had never sought advice or support, and 80 per cent had never contacted the police.
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