FAMILY violence continues to be one of the biggest issues police are facing around Australia and Ballarat is no exception.
In 2015, the nation's first Royal Commission into Family Violence began, with a final report handed down early the following year. One of the recommendations within that report was the creation of a Family Violence Investigation Unit within each police division, so that members would be better equipped to investigate family violence incidents.
Established in 2018, the Central Highlands Family Violence Investigation Unit is overseen by Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall, with a focus on investigating high end family violence crimes and an ultimate goal to prosecute offenders.
An investigator for 25 years of his 31 year policing career, Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said that investigating family violence had evolved throughout his career. While it has always been a subject of investigation, earlier in his career he only saw the serious assaults and outcomes of imprisonment.
"Now Victoria Police is undertaking a more strategic approach and the family violence space is receiving the understanding, funding and effort that is required. But we are only just starting to make inroads," he said.
The CHFVIU is a dedicated investigative unit responsible for the investigation and coordination of all family violence related incidents across the police service area, which includes the City of Ballarat, Hepburn Shire, Pyrenees Shire, Golden Plains and Moorabool Shire.
The unit is comprised of three detective sergeants, seven detectives as well as at most times, a number of frontline members.
These members work closely with three family violence court liaison officers who provide support, referrals and professional assistance during family violence court proceedings at the Ballarat Family Violence Specialist Court as well as at Bacchus Marsh.
The members of the unit have direct oversight of all family violence reported incidents within the region.
All members in the unit work closely with support agencies such as Berry Street, the newly formed Orange Door, WRISC, Cafs, BADAC and the DHHS as well as with all police members investigating and responding to family violence incidents within the division.
The CHFVIU provides support around the clock to frontline police, who turn out to all initial reports of family violence, as well as working closely with the Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Unit (SOCIT), often with whom joint investigations are run.
Currently, this is about 210 to 250 incidents each month, with Ballarat itself accounting for close to 60 per cent of those incidents.
The CHFVIU takes carriage of approximately 20 per cent of that number - the most serious family violence offences.
Often the incidents investigated by the unit are also based on the nature of the vulnerability of the victim, including elder abuse or reports involving victims from culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
An important part of the unit is the role of senior sergeant Todd Sparkman, who oversees family violence training for not only the unit but all members in the police service area.
As a training officer, he leads the skill uplift across the division and reviews all police responses to family violence, working with members one-on-one about how their incident response could be improved.
Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall has managed the unit since its inception in 2018.
He has been involved in implementing a number of beneficial initiatives including a commitment to investigation of and response to incidents during night shift to ensure specialist support is provided 24/7, the expansion of the unit to covering the court at Bacchus Marsh and the daily triage of all incidents of family violence to ensure a consistent approach across the division.
I do it because I see the work as rewarding, vital and worthwhile. It's a tough gig, to be honest, and I am always learning most days.Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall
"That's one of the great things about policing - in this role I have some licence to implement initiative and that's rewarding."
As the work can be confronting for the team, members receive regular specialist support and counselling.
"My job in part is to understand and know my team and be aware of their strength as a whole.
"Central Highlands has a very diversified mix of personalities. This assists us in our day to day response to family violence and victims requiring support."
What he finds helps him to focus on the job is exercise.
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Becoming involved with police
Recently, the unit moved into a state-of-the-art facility in Ballarat Central, alongside the SOCIT unit and police prosecutors.
The facility was built to be victim-centric and boasts five victim and witness suites never before seen in the area.
One room is larger than the others, a family room, and is filled with an array of colourful toys and books for small children.
An important skill for members of the CHFVIU is to build relationships with and to support victims, as typically they first meet in the midst of turmoil.
Engaging outside support from other services to ensure a victim's ongoing safety, each case is managed in a unique manner as no two cases are the same.
Whilst the majority, about 70 per cent, of victims are women and the impacts to them are usually far more severe, there are also cases involving male victims.
"Family violence is possible in all relationships and often is revealed in same-sex relationships as well," Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said.
Children are also commonly exposed to the behaviour, and it can have a lifelong detrimental impact to their development.
"Sons, daughters and siblings are often caught up in family violence and we do see a generational response at times where victims of family violence can become perpetrators as they mature."
Going to court
Another recommendation of the Royal Commission was the establishment of family violence specialist courts.
The court at Ballarat has been operating for several months and is designed to lessen the impact of court proceedings on victims.
It is equipped with specialist waiting areas, support, dedicated police and a variety of options to assist with giving evidence such as visibility screens when giving testimony to video links.
Another initiative led by the Ballarat area, which will soon be statewide, is police utilising their body worn cameras to capture the testimony or evidence of a victim.
With consent, it is filmed at the scene or from a hospital bed. This then limits the necessity for the victim to recount the incident again later, in an effort to reduce them reliving the trauma.
The video evidence provides the court with a detailed account of what occurred, and captures the emotional response and trauma at the time of its being filmed.
Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said that video evidence captured the emotions, fear and concerns for the court.
"Attending court and giving evidence is still not easy. However, it is a positive step in the elimination of ongoing family violence and victims are not alone in the journey," he said.
The perpetrator does not receive a visual copy of this evidence, but does receive audio.
"This has been a really positive initiative for us. I'd like to assure all future affected family members not to be afraid to take this process - it's quicker, more accurate and more convenient and can decrease the need to retell the story multiple times.
"Children are also supported in court and are only called to give evidence as a last resort. In most cases this will also be evidence captured by way of video."
While about 80 per cent of cases that reach court result in remand, an average of one woman is still killed each week around Australia by a current or former partner.
Up to 40 per cent of crime links to family violence in some way. Family violence, a crime in itself, is often committed by perpetrators of other crimes such as serious assaults, homicide, firearm and weapons offences, drug related offending, armed robbery and aggravated burglary.
It is easiest to identify when it is perpetrated as physical violence, but it can also take the form of controlling behaviour, financial control, sexual violence, demeaning acts and the isolation of a victim.
All of these forms of violence can have a significant effect on victims and families.
Meanwhile, family violence can often continue even after separation, with perpetrators looking to find new ways to exert controlling behaviours. Sometimes this involves third parties and other means, such as technology.
Keeping up with advancements in technology can be difficult for police as offenders often employ the use of advanced technological methods in order to surveil, track or exert control over their victims, but police are continuing to advance their efforts and are utilising technology and other innovative investigative responses to counter the use technology in family violence.
Further, Victoria Police is currently undertaking a response to family violence known as the Case Prioritisation Model. This involves police using a formula which assesses the needs of families it needs to prioritise, plan and work with - including the victims, children as well as the offender.
"By targeting families and trying to understand causation for family violence, the unit has a proactive response that will hopefully reduce the number of high risk incidents, of which death is the ultimate tragic outcome," he said.
Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said the challenge was to continue to engage the community in recognition that family violence is a crime and can end in tragedy.
Working with perpetrators
Police take a zero tolerance approach to family violence.
"Do the wrong thing and we will look to progress using the full capability of the law," Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall said.
However, police are also open to encouraging perpetrators to change behaviour through mandatory programs or referrals to other services.
"We understand we can't completely arrest our way out of family violence and are always looking at ways to work with offenders," he said.
The police response can be varied, and above all, police look to provide a safe place for the entire family impacted by the violence.
In some instances, this involves supporting rehabilitation and in others, providing other options for perpetrators to prevent further offending.
This can be short term accommodation or short term emergency supplies, which police can help to provide through partnering with support services.
"I'm very proud of the efforts of the FVIU team and some of the most satisfying moments in this position is the reunification of families in safety rather than the permanency of incarceration or separation," he said.
"[But] of course the latter is often the only available course of action as in the end our focus is one of future safety for victims and children."
While Detective Senior Sergeant Coxall believes police have made progress in tackling family violence and that both confidence to report and outcomes at court are improving, there is still a long way to go until police can say they are on top of the issue.
Fortunately, family violence is being reported by victims with an increasing confidence in the police systems, protocols and support available.Detective Senior Sergeant Tony Coxall
"[It] is now a regular conversation within family groups, workplaces and the community as a whole."
Family violence is an issue that has lasting effects on victims, their future decisions and the paths they take in life. As such, the unit supports victims with both honest conversations and updates both through the investigative process as well as through court proceedings.
With all police now learning to recognise that reporting family violence is an extreme step for a victim and takes substantial courage, they are continuing to try to provide support, understanding and action.
"Going forward the unit will continue to balance the immediate response and safety of victims and the prosecution of offenders along with the long term change of behaviour and increased safety and well-being for victims and children."
If this story has brought up issues for you, contact Lifeline, 13 11 14; 1800Respect, 1800 737 732; or Kids Helpline, 1800 551 800. The family violence unit can be contacted by phoning 4372 9000.
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