Indigenous Domestic and Family Violence: Setting the Scene

Written by Dr Kyllie Cripps as part of the FWF2020 ThinkIn, Our Culture of Violence.

It is widely recognised in Australia that Indigenous people are over-represented as both victims and offenders of domestic and family violence (DFV). This situation arises as Cripps and Adams (2014) describe when ‘people in positions of powerlessness, covertly or overtly direct their dissatisfaction inward toward each other, toward themselves, and toward those less powerful’ (p400). Langton (2008) asserts that those most at risk of being victimised are family members, especially women and children. The statistics support these findings:

  • 2 in 5 Indigenous homicide victims were killed by a current or previous intimate partner, twice the rate of non-Indigenous victims (Bryant & Bricknell 2017 p24);
  • In the 2014–15 National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey, 2 in 3 Indigenous women and 1 in 3 Indigenous men reported that they had experienced physical violence and that the perpetrator was a family member (AIHW 2019 p86);
  • Indigenous women were also 32 times as likely to be hospitalised due to DFV then non-Indigenous women (AIHW 2019 pxii) the subject of substantiations of abuse and/or neglect at almost 7 times the rate of non-Indigenous children (AIHW 2020 p30). Emotional abuse, which includes exposure to DFV, was the most common type of substantiated harm (AIHW 2020).

Some have argued that there exists a ‘culture of violence’ in Indigenous communities that normalises these experiences. Certainly, the media has used this language to frame Indigenous communities as being violent; for example, following an interview by Crown Prosecutor Nanette Rogers on the ABC Lateline program in May 2016, hundreds of articles were published with headlines that included ‘A culture of violence that must change’ and ‘Sex abuse ‘rife’ in NT communities’. This kind of engagement has incited several ‘moral panics’ over the past two decades that have not only defined the problem as an ‘Indigenous problem’ but inscribed solutions through a dominant lens, for example the Northern Territory Emergency Response to the Little Children are Scared Report (Cripps 2007). This approach reinscribes ‘power and control’ in ways not necessarily understood by those rushing in with ‘good intentions’.

The unintended consequences are borne by Indigenous women and children and can often result in the breaking up of families in the immediate and long term, reinforcing our historical experiences with the State (Cripps and Habibis 2019). This essay shines a light on these unintended consequences: firstly by reflecting on how the cultural framing of a ‘culture of violence’ fails to appreciate the specificity of Indigenous women’s experiences; it then reflects on DFV responses as ‘good intentions’, describing their unintended consequences for Indigenous women and children; and in the final section the essay reflects on possible solutions.

CULTURAL FRAMING OF THE PROBLEM

When reflecting on a ‘culture of violence’ it is important to unpack how this is often framed through cultural lenses in ways that can inhibit the way we see the problem but also how we respond to it. Firstly, when we frame Indigenous DFV as an Aboriginal problem too often it insinuates that the victim and perpetrator are both Indigenous and certainly in some cases they are, but not in all cases (Our Watch 2018). In framing it as an Indigenous problem we obfuscate from identifying and responding to those who happen to be non-Indigenous.

When cases do come to light of non-Indigenous men having abused Indigenous women, the media framing of those cases questions the role and responsibility of Indigenous women in the violence, insinuating that they either consented or were somehow to blame.

For example, the case of Lynette Daley, an Aboriginal mother who was the victim in a sexual homicide on the North Coast of NSW in January 2011. It took extensive lobbying by the victim’s family and their supporters for the perpetrators in this matter to be charged and for the matter to ultimately be dealt with in the court some years later (Meldrum-Hanna 2016, ABC News 8th December 2018). The media headlines referring to this case included: ‘Review of Sex Death Case’, ‘Beach sex death – Mum of seven died after a ‘wild, drunken beach sex session’. The articles also relied heavily on the testimony of the accused who normalised their actions: ‘These things happen … girls will be girls; boys will be boys’ (Robinson 2017).

Reflect on these statements for a moment. Now also think about how the media engaged and the nation reacted in September 2012 to the news of Jill Meagher — a non-Indigenous woman who was a victim of sexual homicide. Whilst the circumstances are somewhat different, it does speak to the ways in which the media and society engage with Indigenous women’s experiences differently. The message in all of these instances should have been and should always be that violence is unacceptable and inexcusable regardless of the race of the victim.

Equally, when framing DFV as an ‘Indigenous problem’, it gives people an out — that when their efforts to ‘fix’ the problem don’t work then the blame rests with Indigenous people and that it is their problem to fix. This response recognises in part that this problem is hard, and that it is complex and that to ‘fix’ this problem requires more than just ‘good intentions’. It’s worth acknowledging that in making the choice to walk away from this problem, non-Indigenous people sit in a privileged position. Indigenous women as victim/survivors or indeed as advocates or supporters for victim/survivors do not get to walk away from this. This is our lived reality and we recognise that to create a safer world for all of our community members we have to stand up every day to ‘fix’ the problem.

One final point to be made in relationship to the framing of a ‘culture of violence’ is the misnomer that exists that Indigenous DFV is ‘cultural’; in my experience it is not. Elders, both men and women, in our communities across the country have repeatedly and consistently asserted that the violence perpetrated against women and girls today is not ‘cultural’. It is a product of a multitude of interrelated factors that are not dissimilar to the factors in non-Indigenous communities that contribute to DFV, with the exception that interweaved through these factors are experiences of intergenerational traumas connected to policies and practices of the State with Indigenous peoples including removal from country and family (Cripps and Adams 2014).

RESPONSES TO DFV AND ‘GOOD INTENTIONS’

Whilst responses to DFV have evolved over time, they still rely heavily on the law and the criminal justice system to be responsive to the harms of DFV (Hunter 2006).

For Aboriginal people the law is a double-edged sword.

On one hand, there is the potential for it to offer protection but on the other we have all too often seen the law weaponised in ways that have harmed Indigenous people. Indigenous community members, if they haven’t experienced personally, will have seen the all too familiar and routine posting of social media videos of our community members being treated by police in ways that make them second guess whether they would offer them protection in their time of need. Certainly there are also well publicised examples of Indigenous women who have reached out to Police in DFV situations only to be treated with disbelief and at times contempt, as in the case of Andrea Pickett, who repeatedly asked the WA Police to take her experiences of DFV seriously. The fact that they didn’t ultimately resulted in her death (McDermott 2012, Western Australia Coroner Alistair Hope 2012).  

Andrea’s case is not an isolated example. There are others including Tamica Mullaley’s case where her partner assaulted her, then abducted, assaulted and killed her 10-month-old son Charlie (Allam 2020). The Police in this matter, according to the Corruption and Crime Commission Investigation, became so distracted by Tamica’s behaviour that they failed to focus on the crimes committed against her and also failed to assess the seriousness of the situation evolving with her child. The Police’s handling of both these matters speak to a ‘culture of violence’ where DFV experienced by Indigenous women and children is not treated as seriously as it should be, and where policies to respond to DFV give way to stereotypes and cultural bias resulting in dire consequences.

Indigenous victim/survivors have also reported that when seeking help there are instances of them being treated as ‘criminals’. Some have been arrested for outstanding warrants or fines (Wahlquist 2017); others have been arrested for behaviour or actions that Police have failed to associate as being DFV trauma related (Allam 2020). Yet there are also other examples, where Indigenous women have called on Police repeatedly and when the help has not been forthcoming, they have had no other option but to defend themselves (see for example R v Melrose 2001 NSWSC 847). In these circumstances, our women are seen as the aggressors, but had they been offered timely assistance, they would potentially have never been in those situations in the first place.

Some may well argue that these are isolated examples, that these are not a reflection of the majority of police practice in DFV situations and that may be so, but in small tight knit communities such as ours the reality is – it only takes one of these examples to ripple through our communities to heighten feelings of mistrust. Victim/survivors, when weighing up their options for safety during the crisis and its aftermath, must weigh up the demands of multiple stakeholders as the figure below illustrates.

Whilst all stakeholders have ‘good intentions’, individual agencies can often have competing interests with other agencies. When these interests are coupled with legal and policy frameworks that direct agencies to operate in particular ways, the pressure that is applied to Indigenous women to make decisions often fails to comprehend the fuller landscape of the people and agencies that our women are having to negotiate. In these circumstances ‘power and control’ over Indigenous women’s lives is held by others. The question is, how do we support our women to be self-determining in the aftermath of domestic and family violence? So that they do not continue to be the victims of perpetrators of violence, or indeed of a system that perpetuates a ‘culture of a violence’ that produces un/intended consequences?

POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS

Decades of reports into Indigenous domestic and family violence, as well as child and child sexual abuse, are our voice to solutions. The wealth of experience and wisdom that they contain have only been implemented in part by governments across the nation. This is a national shame and speaks to what Professor Megan Davis refers to as ‘the ritualistic and performative ways’ in which Australian governments politicise Indigenous issues, including DFV (Davis 2020). The solution in part has to be structural reform – constitutional reform to ensure that Indigenous voices can be expressed and heard by Parliament and government, that can enable discussions around the implementation of community solutions to take place, and for these solutions to become a reality that is resourced not as a pilot but as sustainable programs that can and will make a difference to the safety and wellbeing of our women and children.

The voice of Indigenous women, especially victim/survivors, must be at the centre of solutions as they are implemented locally.

Their insights about what is needed, what works, what doesn’t, but especially around the unintended consequences that they have experienced and how these might be addressed, must drive local initiatives. This will enable opportunities for Indigenous women to be self-determining, and enable them to talk back to the ‘culture of violence’ in ways that empower themselves, their families and their communities to be safe for the future.


Dr Kyllie Cripps is a Scientia Fellow and Senior Lecturer in the Law Faculty at the University of New South Wales. Kyllie, as a Palawa woman, has worked extensively over the past twenty years in the areas of family violence, sexual assault and child abuse with Indigenous communities, defining areas of need and considering intervention options at multiple levels. She has led three major Australian Research Council grants in the areas of Indigenous family violence.

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