Djirra shines a light on murdered and missing First Nations women at Senate Inquiry

Today Djirra’s Acting CEO Antoinette Gentile and Director of Legal Services Anne Lenton gave evidence at the only Victorian hearing of the national Senate Inquiry into Missing and Murdered First Nations Women and Children.

In addition to our specialist evidence, we were proud to stand alongside two incredibly brave Djirra women Young Luv Lead Courtney Ugle and Cultural Programs Design and Facilitation Lead Kirby Bentley as they told Senators about their own lived experiences of violence and the heartbreaking loss of their much-loved family members.

All eyes are now on the Government as we await the Inquiry’s final report.

The headlines might have faded but this country is still in the middle of a national crisis on women’s safety – and the devastating violence perpetrated by men of all backgrounds on Aboriginal women is STILL virtually invisible.

We’ve told our truth and our expectations are high. This can’t be an Inquiry that creates just another report that sits on a shelf gathering dust.

It’s time for real accountability, bipartisan action, and investment in Djirra’s self-determined solutions that work to keep Aboriginal women and children safe from violence.

Photo caption: Kirby Bentley – Djirra Cultural Programs Design and Facilitation Lead; Antoinette Gentile – Acting CEO, Djirra; Courtney Ugle – Young Luv Lead.

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Media contact
Kate Bowman
kbowman@djirra.org.au
0456 960 011
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Inquiry into Missing and Murdered First Nations Women and Children
Public Hearing on 18 June 2024
Opening Statement by Antoinette Gentile, Acting CEO of Djirra

I begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the lands that we are on today, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations. I acknowledge their longstanding connection to Country and Culture and pay my respect to their Elders past and present.

I also want to acknowledge all the Aboriginal women and children across this country who have been murdered or brutally disappeared because of family violence, systemic violence, and racism. This includes our women and children who have died whilst in custody or in the supposed “care” of the state.

I’d like to acknowledge and thank the Committee for inviting Djirra to speak today on such a critical issue impacting the lives of our people.

My name is Antoinette Gentile and I belong to the Wollithiga people of the Yorta Yorta Nations. I am Deputy CEO of Djirra, currently Acting CEO, and have been at Djirra for four years.  Prior to working at Djirra I was employed at the Department of Justice and Community Safety for almost 20 years.  I held several roles during that time including Director of the Koori Justice Unit.  Antoinette Braybrook, Djirra’s CEO and Change the Record Co-Chair, is on planned leave and is therefore unable to give evidence today.

I’d like to introduce Anne Lenton who is here with me today. Anne has been with Djirra for over 13 years.  She has held the role of lawyer in Djirra’s prison support program, has been a managing lawyer, and is now the Director of Djirra’s Legal Service.

Djirra is a specialist, Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisation with over 22 years’ experience working on the frontline of Aboriginal women and children’s safety. Djirra provides holistic, culturally safe, legal and non-legal support to Aboriginal people experiencing family violence across Victoria – around 98% are women and children.

We wouldn’t be able to give this evidence if it wasn’t for the dedicated staff that work at Djirra and the courageous women who entrust their lives and stories to us.

My opening statement will focus on Djirra’s critical work across Victoria with Aboriginal women and their children and will build upon our submissions made to this Inquiry, including the written submission made jointly with Change the Record in April 2023 and more recently this year by Djirra.  Change the Record are an apology today, and so for any questions that relate to national issues, I request that these be taken on notice for their written response.

Anne will make a short statement regarding highlighting some issues that we have identified in our legal work.

Djirra supports the comments made by Aboriginal women leaders and others previously in this Inquiry, who highlighted that: Aboriginal women don’t just go missing, they are disappeared. And when their families report them as missing, police do not treat them as missing persons or act on these reports with urgency. Throughout my statement, and for the purpose of this Inquiry, I will use the terms “missing and murdered” to include describing women who have been disappeared.

First Nations Women Must be Counted

The number of women being murdered in Australia is a national shame and crisis. So far in 2024, 3 women have been murdered every fortnight. As the Committee knows, the current data is inaccurate about the number of missing and murdered First Nations women. From the data that does exist, we know that 14 First Nations women and children were killed in 2023.  We also know that First Nations women are:

  • In Victoria, 45 times more likely to experience family violence than other women; and
  • Nationally:
    • 33 times more likely to be hospitalised from family violence than other women; and
    • 8 times more likely to die due to violent assault than other women.

While these numbers are shockingly high, we know the true numbers are much higher.  These numbers don’t include the instances of family violence that go unreported, or the deaths and disappearances that are not properly investigated by police and other services.

We must change the narrative on so-called Aboriginal family violence: the assumption that Aboriginal family violence is a community problem is false. It is a gendered problem. In Victoria for example, the Crime Statistics Agency, which is based on Victoria Police data, states that Aboriginal men commit 60% of the violence against our women. This is not Djirra’s experience.

We know that more than 90% of family and sexual violence goes unreported.  We also know that 2 out of 3 women accessing Djirra’s Legal Service, and 72% of women accessing our Individual Support Service, had a non-Aboriginal male partner in 2023.

These men have often had little or no prior contact with the criminal justice or child protection systems, and so they are not counted in much of the official family violence and crime data.  This data is absent from the public discourse and official statistics and programs.  Without reliable and comprehensive data, we cannot meaningfully capture or tell our stories.  First Nations women are made invisible to policy and lawmakers.

Data Sovereignty

First Nations data sovereignty is key to making us visible, and to self-determination. The current inadequate data collection and reporting systems are confined to “counting” and focus on deficits. This does not tell our story. Instead, it limits our ability to articulate the self-determined solutions that we know deliver effective healing, prevention and early intervention. It limits our ability to explain how we, at Djirra, equip our women with the knowledge and ability to stay safe, resilient, strong in Culture and identity and to access information, advice and assistance as required.

We call upon this Inquiry to recommend Governments invest in real time tracking and reporting of missing and murdered First Nations women and children, and family violence perpetrated against First Nations women and children.

Consistent with the recommendations of the Productivity Commission’s review of Closing the Gap (2024), we also call upon this Inquiry to recommend that Governments invest in data sovereignty and capability building within ACCOs, particularly specialist family violence prevention and legal services like Djirra.

Failure to Investigate

It is clear from Djirra’s frontline work that reports of family violence against First Nations women, and reports of missing and murdered First Nations women, are not taken seriously or properly investigated by police officers or other investigative bodies.

For example, in Djirra’s experience the Victorian Police Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence is applied inconsistently, or not at all, by police officers.

Our women regularly report instances of Police minimising the violence, not believing them and refusing to take statements, telling women that “it’s been too long and they should have come in earlier”, or “the violence isn’t that bad so why bother”. Djirra’s frontline teams advocate strongly to ensure Police don’t turn our women away.  

When statements are taken by police, or when Aboriginal women are reported as missing or to have died, police officers and other bodies often make very little effort to properly investigate these reports.

For example, we see:

  • Instances where perpetrators tell Police that women who are missing don’t have family, even though they do, and this is taken at face value and no further enquiries are made.
  • Women with drug and alcohol dependencies are assumed by police to have died from a drug overdose, without proper investigation. This may be despite circumstances where there has been ongoing family and sexual violence, and the perpetrator has regularly plied the woman with drugs and alcohol to control her.
  • Women who die on our roads, in circumstances where they are chased off the road by perpetrators, are treated as simply having died in car accident.
  • Intervention Orders or warrants for arrest are not being served on perpetrators who deliberately cross the border out of Victoria.   These actions and investigations are stalled due to little cooperation between the police forces of each state, and so perpetrators are able to avoid arrest and continue inflicting family violence from interstate.
  • Mothers who seek information from the Department of Fairness, Families and Housing about the whereabouts of their children who are under State care, are told that they have lost contact with their children and are unaware of their current living situation.

In a system that judges, dismisses and punishes our women, it is no wonder that women are reluctant to come forward.  When women disclose family and sexual violence to Djirra’s frontline workers, it is often the first time they have felt comfortable or safe enough to tell their story.

Misidentification

Misidentification is a significant issue we see in our work.  In a recent review of Djirra’s casework, at least 24% of the women we supported in 2023 had been misidentified as perpetrators of violence by police. Misidentification leads to criminalisation, incarceration, and is a major contributor to the removal of children. It also has ramifications for women’s access to housing and employment.

Violence in the home is a major risk factor for Child Protection involvement and Aboriginal child removal. Djirra has supported women who have reported violence to police, only to be issued with a warrant for their arrest, often over poverty-related offending such as unpaid fines. This Catch-22 situation prevents Aboriginal women from reporting family violence, or Intervention Order breaches, as they cannot safely seek the support they need to escape family violence.

The Department of Social Services Escaping Violence Payment program is a very clear example of the critical need for Aboriginal-led and designed initiatives. When Djirra supports Aboriginal women to access this program, we have a much higher success rate than women who self-refer. This is because we can ensure Aboriginal women have culturally safe, fast access to these payments as part of our broader holistic service delivery model.

We are calling on the Inquiry to recommend that, at a minimum, Escaping Violence Payments for First Nations people be administered by specialist Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations like Djirra.

Serial Perpetrators 

There is a growing recognition across the country of the need to do more about serial perpetrators of family and sexual violence against our women.  

Djirra’s Individual Support Service recently supported a woman whose perpetrator had been listed as the Respondent in 17 prior Family Violence Intervention Orders, that protected 6 different women.   

More needs to be understood about the increased risk and vulnerability of Aboriginal women in circumstances where men have perpetrated violence before. 

Health Impacts of Family Violence

Family violence is the “largest avoidable risk factor for preventable illness, disability and death for women aged 15-44”. The disproportionate violence and intergenerational trauma experienced by our women also increases the risk of suicide and unnatural and early death. As set out in our submission with Change the Record, rates of suicide of Aboriginal women are at least double that of other women.  Between 2011 and 2021, at least 73% of Aboriginal women who were recorded as having committed suicide in Victoria, had also experienced family violence.

In our view, many of our women’s deaths have not been properly investigated and it is likely therefore that some of these deaths have been mis-recorded as suicides or accidents.

It is not uncommon for our frontline teams to hear from women who have expressed suicidal ideation due to the severe violence and trauma they are experiencing. Djirra’s holistic model enables us to wrap around and provide critical support to our women in these circumstances. That women feel safe to trust at often the most challenging time in their lives, demonstrates the success of our programs including our signature early intervention and prevention programs, Sisters Day Out, Dilly Bag and Young Luv.

Screening for ABI’s

One health impact that has been particularly neglected by policymakers is brain and head injuries.

First Nations women are 69 times more likely to be hospitalised with head injuries from assault than other women. Between 2006 and 2016 in Victoria, 54% of family violence related admissions to hospital, and 42% of family violence related presentations to emergency departments, were by people who identified as Aboriginal and who suffered from a head injury. Non-fatal strangulation can also lead to brain injury, with Aboriginal women 70% more likely to experience an Acquired Brain Injury (or ABI) than non-Aboriginal women.

We call upon the Inquiry to recommend standardised, culturally appropriate screening for acquired brain injuries for First Nations people experiencing family and sexual violence, as a priority.

We need a Royal Commission

We commend the work of this Inquiry and look forward to the release of its report. However, a more comprehensive investigation in the form of a Royal Commission is needed to sufficiently understand and address this critical and complex issue.

A Royal Commission will have stronger investigative powers, including the power to compel groups to produce documents or give evidence at a hearing. In circumstances where some services have chosen not to participate in this Inquiry, a Royal Commission would have the power to compel them to do so and provide a more thorough investigation of how systems have worked against First Nations women and children that experience family and sexual violence.

A Royal Commission can also examine more systematically across all jurisdictions the current failures and potential solutions, including hearing directly from families and relevant ACCOs about their lived experience of the current systems operating within each state or territory and of their impacts.  In doing so, this offers scope for a more comprehensive set of recommendations relevant to all jurisdictions that all levels of government can consider and act upon.

Therefore, we call upon the Inquiry to recommend the establishment of a Royal Commission into missing and murdered First Nations women and children.

We Need Urgent Investment

Family violence prevention and legal services such as Djirra, provide holistic, culturally safe, trauma informed specialist legal and non-legal services to First Nations people experiencing family and sexual violence. In just the last year, demand for our services grew by 33% compared with the previous 12 months, while the first quarter of 2024 saw a further 22% increase in demand.

Despite our expertise, and the high demand for our services, we are chronically under-resourced. As Dr Mundy reports in his Independent Review of the National Legal Assistance Partnership, FVPLSs are the worst funded legal assistance providers across the country. For too long, limited funding and funding uncertainty has put Aboriginal women’s safety and lives at risk.

Specialist family violence services like Djirra cannot wait for the outcome of this Inquiry, or Royal Commission, to receive the additional funding needed to provide frontline specialist legal, early intervention and case management services.  The expansion of these services is particularly needed for regional areas where there are fewer choices for women seeking safety and less funding available to ensure access to culturally safe early intervention, prevention and response services for First Nations women and children escaping violence.

Aboriginal women matter to us, and we must matter to governments.

We call upon this Inquiry to urgently recommend a substantial increase in investment to specialist family violence prevention and legal services like Djirra to expand our holistic service offering for First Nations women and children experiencing family violence.

Conclusion

In conclusion, a complete system and cultural change is needed, especially in relation to the policing and investigation of all instances of First Nations women and children experiencing family and sexual violence.  We are tired of seeing our women being killed, seriously injured or missing – whether that be by a person who uses violence or because of failed government systems and processes which see our women incarcerated and die. 

We need to end this crisis.  Aboriginal women have been invisible for too long. We must be seen, heard and counted, but not through a deficit lens.

At Djirra, we see our women.  We see our women’s strength, resilience and courage, which underpins all of self-determined solutions.  Aboriginal women who experience violence must have access to early, culturally safe holistic support that connects our women and children to culture and community, builds resilience and wellbeing, and aids recovery and healing.  

We need to see this across the State which requires a substantial increase in investment into Aboriginal-led specialist family violence prevention and legal services.