OPINION: The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence’s final report, released last week, recognises the disproportionate rate of family violence in Indigenous communities. Aboriginal Victorians are nearly eight times more likely to be involved in a family violence incident involving police than non-Aboriginal Victorians and the rate is increasing.

Testimony to the commission made it clear that few Aboriginal families were immune to the trauma, despair and damage resulting from family violence.

The cost is most devastating for Aboriginal children. Many are ending up in out-of-home care as a direct consequence of family violence. There is genuine concern that without culturally sensitive and trauma-informed support, these children will contribute to the next intergenerational wave of family violence.

Access to family violence services remains a key problem among Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Victorians. As a means of responding to this issue, the commission recommended increasing funding to Aboriginal-community-controlled organisations to provide frontline services. The report recognised that such services were more likely to deliver culturally sensitive programs and that this may increase community access.

But boosting Indigenous-only services won’t solve the Aboriginal family violence problem. Mainstream services must also become culturally sensitive and responsive so that they too can provide services to Indigenous Victorians.

Crisis support for all Victorians

One might ask why Aboriginal people can’t just use Aboriginal services. Why do they need to use or access mainstream services if they have their own?

The reality is that Aboriginal women and children make choices about which services they wish to access on the basis of safety, accessibility and the guarantee of confidentiality.

If an Aboriginal woman’s abusive partner or his family work at a particular Aboriginal organisation, for instance, she may feel that her safety may be compromised by attending the service. Equally, an Aboriginal woman may feel “shamed up” by the violence she has experienced and may not want anybody in her family or community knowing.

In these instances, she may choose a mainstream service over an Indigenous service. She should be supported in her decision to do so.

It takes time and resources to create a service that is considered culturally safe. The family violence service sector is currently overwhelmed with day-to-day crisis delivery, and needs to be supported in this activity.

Reviews and action plans alone do not build the institutional and attitudinal changes needed to create culturally safe places. This relies on challenging one’s own beliefs, building local awareness, and understanding of the specific experiences and needs of Indigenous communities.

It also requires fostering partnerships with the Indigenous community so that they can provide feedback and support to create culturally safe places.

Court processes for all Victorians

One of the more controversial commission recommendations is to extend the jurisdiction of the Koori Magistrate and County Courts to include offences where the defendant has contravened a family violence intervention order.

The Koori Court is a specialist court that sentences Indigenous defendants who have pleaded guilty to criminal charges. Currently, those involving sexual offences or family violence are excluded.

The aim of the Koori Court is to have more community involvement in sentencing, to reduce recidivism and breaches of orders, and to provide more culturally appropriate sentences. The latter often involves an individualised plan tackling the underlying factors that contribute to the offender’s behaviour by ordering them to, for example, undergo drug or alcohol rehabilitation and/or participation in counselling.

But the Koori Court is not equipped to deal with family violence matters. Nor can it do so under legislative restrictions that preclude the Koori Court to hear such matters.

The proceedings are clearly offender-focused. While victims are entitled to attend the proceedings, processes for enabling this to happen safely are questionable.

Aboriginal victims are likely to be better served by specialist family violence courts rather than Koori Courts. The commission also recommends the Victorian government legislate to ensure that family violence matters are heard and determined in specialist family violence courts within five years.

There is little point diverting Aboriginal offenders from a specialist family violence court system that is skilled in dealing with the gendered nature of violence and the power and control dynamics this violence facilitates. These courts are likely to be much more responsive to both victims and offenders.

I would also caution against the message it would send to the Aboriginal community if Aboriginal offenders are diverted from the family violence court to the Koori Court, particularly if the Koori Court processes are perceived to be more lenient, do not adequately support victims’ voices, or if such processes result in higher rates of reoffending.

More research is required to demonstrate that this model can produce the safety and support needed for Aboriginal families experiencing family violence.

Early intervention and prevention

The commission recognises that while an immediate crisis response is important, the system must be equally invested in early intervention and prevention.

Early intervention is the process of providing specialist support services for a person who needs them. It comprises three steps: early identification; assessment of risk; and immediate access to support and assistance.

Ideally, intervention should take place before the behaviour is even named as family violence. It needs to be when women are beginning to feel uncomfortable or when their partner’s behaviour starts to change.

The support offered could be education and awareness around what constitutes family violence and safety planning, including strategies on who to contact and what to do should the behaviours escalate. It could also include an assessment of underlying issues that are known to trigger violence, such as drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues, experiences of racism, mediating them before they escalate.

The commission recognises the lack of investment in this area. The Indigenous community has been active in improving education and awareness. But they have been reliant on one-off or short-term funding, which may dilute their longer-term prevention messages. This must be addressed.

Supporting Aboriginal children

The commission recognises the impact of family violence on Aboriginal children. It highlights the need to increase early intervention and much-needed culturally sensitive, trauma-informed counselling to children who end up in out-of-home care.

Too often, in an adult world with adult crises, the voices, experiences and needs of children are relegated to the periphery. This report has heard the children’s voices and has recognised that responding to the current crisis in family violence is not just about responding to adults but to all those in the family unit affected by the violence.

The commission’s recommendations, if implemented, will not only improve the conditions of individual children but may also assist in stemming the intergenerational violence that continues to plague our communities.

The report contains 227 recommendations, nine of which are Indigenous-specific. While we need to ensure Aboriginal people are free to use any service, they must be culturally safe and responsive. Overall, the commission’s report provides an excellent blueprint to overhaul Victoria’s family violence system.

Kyllie Cripps is a Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, and Deputy Director of the Indigenous Law Centre, UNSW.

This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation.