CHILDREN from some violent homes are turning to substance abuse and joining gangs to find support, a Ballarat magistrate has said.
Unless the cycle of family violence is broken, leading magistrate in the Family Violence Division in Ballarat, Noreen Toohey, fears more children will turn to dangerous forms of coping mechanisms – like alcohol, drugs and gangs – to find much-needed solace from bad domestic situations.
She said while many children from violent homes looked to dangerous coping methods, others continued the cycle of violence later in life.
Ms Toohey, who is also regional co-ordinator of magistrates at Sunshine, said breaking the family violence cycle must begin with educating children about respect.
“Children should not be expected to be the adults. It’s the adults who should be the role models,” Ms Toohey said.
“(However), if the children see violent behaviour in their own homes as normal, then the cycle will continue. It often starts with teens assaulting their parents and then it escalates.”
In the 2012-13 financial year, 1071 family violence matters were finalised in Ballarat, compared with 2600 in Bendigo, 2800 in Geelong and 4371 in Sunshine. In the Grampians region, which covers Ballarat, Ararat, Bacchus Marsh, Edenhope, Horsham and Stawell, the figure was 1813 for the same period.
Ballarat had one of the highest rates of family violence in the Grampians region in two of the past six years, a report by Women’s Health Grampians found. Between 2006 and 2012, the average annual figure for family violence incidents was 972.
And, according to official figures, Ballarat police attend about 140 incidents of family violence in the region each month, an increase of 30 per cent in recent years.
While the increase seems excessive, members of Ballarat’s Family Violence Unit believe it is due to increased reporting, rather than a rise in the actual number of figures.
A strong advocate for the White Ribbon campaign, Ms Toohey believes a united community approach is the only way to break the family violence cycle. But, she said change must start at the school level and programs should be incorporated into children’s schooling.
“Children must learn how to be respectful in a relationship and how to negotiate in a relationship. As they grow up and understand the concepts, they can apply these concepts.”
However, she predicted, adding such a program to the school curriculum would not happen in the near future. “Probably not in my lifetime. It will be a generational thing.”
Asked how effective the legal tools at her disposal were in curtailing family violence, Ms Toohey said mandated men’s behavioural change programs run through Child and Family Services (CAFS) were very useful in bringing about change.
“(As magistrates), we have the power to impose intervention orders, or there is the possibility of criminal charges and men’s behavioural change programs. The intervention orders come with strict conditions to ensure the safety of those involved,” she said.
However, it was behavioural change programs that Ms Toohey believed held the one of the greatest chances of facilitating results in curbing family violence.
“Programs like men’s behavioural change are fabulous. They teach those involved what the problems are and how they can go about making change.
“If we don’t have these types of programs, what are we left with? Jail is ultimately what happens in the case of serious violence and repeat offenders.”
However, she believes that, in most cases, change does not happen overnight.
“Yes, some offenders do come back (to court). But how do you measure the success of such behavioural change programs? If success is measured on people never reappearing, then that is unrealistic. It’s a chip, chip, chip process, where you chip away and try to address the issues. A person becomes aware of the issues and slowly make changes. Some people take longer than others, but, as a society, we have to be realistic.”
She said the full impact of domestic violence on the entire family unit was not fully appreciated.
“Most people don’t fully appreciate the effect, particularly on children. By learning to change their behaviour, these people can make a real difference.
“Every day (in court) we talk about children and how family violence impacts on them. Some of these impacts may manifest in children not being able to learn at school because they’re worried about their home environment, high levels of anxiety because they feel like they’re walking on eggshells at home and others going on to suffer from panic attacks and other anxiety disorders.
“The paramount concern in the courts is the safety of the children involved.”
The cost of family violence on the community is enormous and has a huge impact on the entire family.
“When children are involved, it affects everyone, not only the parents and children, but also the grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins ... all of those who love the children,” Ms Toohey said.
“As a result of the family violence (and subsequent court action), some grandparents and others in the extended family may have no contact with the children.
“As a community, we need to look at not only the financial cost of family violence, but also the social and emotional costs.”
Family violence crossed all socio-economic and age groups ... it doesn’t discriminate, Ms Toohey said.
“There is a perception that family violence is centred around a certain class. It doesn’t single out any particular group of people, it strikes all socio-economic groups (and) crosses all boundaries. There are just some who can hide it better than others,” she said.
“(Some) people are ashamed and humiliated (about admitting to family violence) and don’t want to say what is going on in their lives. (Some) would rather put up with the violence that let others know.”
Statistics show that one woman a week is killed by her partner or former partner during a family violence situation. “These are very real figures,” Ms Toohey said.
In June this year, The Courier launched the It’s Up to Us campaign, endorsed by the White Ribbon Foundation and local and national welfare organisations.
During the five-month campaign and in the lead-up to White Ribbon Day on November 25, The Courier will be publishing regular stories on family violence. We are also asking readers to go online to pledge an oath to stop violence against women.
Join us on this journey. Tell us your story and sign the oath by clicking on the link at thecourier.com.au
It’s up to us to make a difference.
Anyone who needs help can phone the after-hours crisis support line on 1800 015 188, WRISC on 5333 3666, Lifeline on 13 1114 or police on 000.