Yoorrook Justice Commission hears more evidence on the devastating impact of family violence on Victoria’s Aboriginal women and kids

Today, Djirra gave evidence to the Yoorrook Justice Commission about the devastating impacts family violence has on Aboriginal women and children, particularly for those negotiating health, housing, and education systems in Victoria.

We need real systemic change and investment to ensure any Aboriginal woman experiencing violence can access early, culturally safe, holistic legal and non-legal support no matter where she lives in Victoria.

Read our full statement to the Commission below.


Yoorrook Justice Commission
Social Justice Hearing on 14 June 2024
Evidence by Antoinette Gentile, Acting CEO Djirra

Introduction

I would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation as the Traditional Owners of the land we are meeting on here today.

I want to pay my deepest respects to their Elders past and present and I acknowledge their connection to Country and role in caring for and maintaining Country for tens of thousands of years.

I acknowledge all other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people present and online today. 

I also want to acknowledge all the Aboriginal women and children across this country who have been murdered, seriously injured or are missing because of family violence, systemic violence, and racism.

My name is Antoinette Gentile and I belong to the Wollithiga people of the Yorta Yorta Nations. I am Deputy CEO at Djirra, currently Acting CEO and have been at Djirra for four years.  Prior to commencing at Djirra I worked in the Department of Justice and Community Safety for almost 20 years.  I held several positions during that time including Director of the Koori Justice Unit.  I have also been the CEO of the Victorian Aboriginal Legal Service – many years ago.

I represent Djirra (as the CEO’s delegate) on many Forums and Committees including the Ngaweeyan Maar-oo Koorie Caucus, Aboriginal Justice Forum, Dhelk Dja Aboriginal Partnership Forum, Aboriginal Strategic Governance Forum and many more.

I would also like to acknowledge all the Commissioners, especially our Aboriginal Commissioners.  I know that you have heard countless stories of truth from our people about the impact of the injustices
that government systems and processes have had on generations of our people. 

As Aboriginal people we carry the cultural load every day in our lives and in our work.  The load you carry as Commissioners is immense and the responsibility you feel to ensure our peoples’ stories are heard will stay with you forever.  You have been (and I know that you will continue to be) courageous and bold in your efforts to bring about real change – not only for this generation but for the generations to come. 
I want to thank the Commission for inviting Djirra to speak today on such critical issues impacting on the lives of our people. 

I would also like to note the apology of Antoinette Braybrook, CEO of Djirra, who is currently on leave and has appeared before you previously.

With me today is Anne Lenton, Djirra’s Director of Legal Services.  Anne is a member of the VLA Child Protection Panel and has previously held the role of lawyer in Djirra’s prison support program and managing lawyer. Anne has extensive experience and knowledge of the issues impacting our women – she’s been with Djirra for over 13 years. 

As you know, 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.

Our legal work is in four key areas of law – child protection, family law, family violence orders and victims of crime. We provide individual support services including case management, counselling, drug and alcohol services, and support through our Koori Women’s Place. Our signature early intervention and prevention programs Sisters Day Out, Dilly Bag and Young Luv focus on building women and young girls’ resilience to reduce vulnerability to male violence and system violence. We also provide legal, case management and early intervention and prevention services to women at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre and Tarrengower.

The evidence I give today will focus on the work Djirra does with Aboriginal women and their children experiencing family violence. It will also build on the evidence Antoinette and Anne gave to Yoorrook’s Child Protection and Criminal Justice Hearings in December 2022.

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.  

Context of Family Violence

Family violence is much more than physical and sexual abuse. It includes emotional and psychological abuse, coercive control, financial abuse, and increasingly, technology-facilitated abuse.

Family violence impacts every aspect of Aboriginal women’s lives. It is:
– The leading cause of homelessness for Aboriginal women and children;[1]
– The key driver for removing children from their mothers, families and communities; and
– A primary cause of harm and criminalisation of Aboriginal women.[2]

We need to 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 issue. 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.  

In 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 our 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 data. When women disclose this violence to our frontline workers, it is often the first time they have felt comfortable or safe enough to tell their story.

Misidentification

When Aboriginal women go to police or other services seeking help, they are often misidentified as perpetrators of violence.  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.

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, which leads to Aboriginal women being unsafe.

When police misidentify our women and apply for Intervention Orders against them, this is often not resolved until a contested hearing – which can take up to 12-18 months. This is extremely distressing for our women and by the time the matter has been resolved, the damage (which can include loss of children, housing, or employment) has already been done. Misidentification is an urgent and complex issue with serious consequences and impacts on our women. Djirra is currently working with the Centre for Innovative Justice to conduct a research project which develop an evidence base and make recommendations for systemic reform to prevent misidentification.

Increase in Family Violence in Victoria

We know that current government policies and programs supporting Aboriginal women are not working. Family violence reports in this state have increased 23% since 2017.[3]During this period, demand for Djirra’s services has also increased.  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 this, the government continues to invest in more police and more prisons, and not in what we know works.

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.  

Djirra’s Legal Service recently conducted a review of 360 client files. Predictably, this review found that for all 360 women, their perpetrators were men.  What was shocking though, was the realisation that of these men, 4 were listed as the perpetrator in files relating to 6 separate women; and a further 3 were listed as the perpetrator in files relating to 5 separate women.  As this was only an internal Djirra file review, these numbers do not take into account potential additional victim-survivors of these men, who are not clients of Djirra.

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

According to official data, in 2022-23, 14 Aboriginal women were killed in Australia, 3 of them under the age of 18. As the Senate inquiry into Murdered and Missing First Nations women is discovering, the true numbers are likely to be much higher.

Family violence is “the largest avoidable risk factor for preventable illness, disability and death for women aged 15-44.”[4]  In the 2013 Koori Prisoner Mental Health and Cognitive Function Study, 92.3% of Aboriginal women had received a lifetime diagnosis of mental illness, with nearly three-quarters of these women reporting that they had been victims of child abuse, mostly sexual abuse, and 78% reporting they were victims of violence as an adult.  From the work of Djirra’s Prison Support Program, we know that for women in custody, closer to 90+% of women have experienced family and/or sexual violence.
The health impacts of family violence for Aboriginal women are well documented,[5] but one area that has been particularly neglected by policy makers is head injury.

Nationally, Aboriginal women are 69 times more likely to be hospitalised with head injuries from assault than non-Aboriginal women.[6]  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.

It is difficult to quantify the percentage of our women who have an ABI as this is often something that women do not disclose or are not aware that they have because it is undiagnosed and untreated.[7]
Aboriginal women with cognitive impairments face unique barriers to getting the support they need and are disproportionately impacted by poor system responses.  Even so-called minor head injuries can make decision making difficult, and complex bureaucratic legal processes hard to navigate.

Further, a woman’s brain injury symptoms can mimic the presentation of someone who is drug affected, or they can be seen as being “difficult” or “uncooperative”.  If these symptoms are judged falsely by ignorant and racist individuals or systems, women risk losing their children, exploitation, family and sexual violence, misidentification and criminalisation.

Aboriginal women are at significant risk of lifelong brain injury from family violence, yet we do not have standardised screening for acquired brain injuries. This was a key recommendation of a 2017 study commissioned by DFFH, but it has not been implemented.[8] We call on Yoorrook to recommend standardised, culturally appropriate, screening for Acquired Brain Injuries for Aboriginal people experiencing family and sexual violence in health settings, as a priority.

In Djirra’s experience, it is often difficult and expensive for Aboriginal women to secure the diagnosis and assessments required to access the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). Many Aboriginal women need advocates to help them through a complex system. In Djirra’s experience, accessing NDIS is a particular problem for Aboriginal women in prison and insecure housing.

Child removal has devastating effects on the health of women.  In Victoria, Aboriginal children are 17 times more likely to be removed from their mums than non-Aboriginal children[9] and are 22 times more likely to be in out-of-home care than non-Aboriginal children.[10]  These figures are nearly double the national average and among the worst in Australia.

Racism and the Impact of the 2023 Referendum

Racism in Australian society is nothing new. But some of the Aboriginal women we support have disclosed an increase in their experience and their children’s experience of racism, discrimination, and violence since the ‘No’ result of the Voice Referendum.

All of Djirra’s regional offices are located in electorates that voted ‘No’. Our staff and women, especially in regional Victoria, need more support and assistance, yet, the largest gaps in culturally safe housing, health, and education provision are in regional Victoria.

Racism in Schools

Racism in schools is an ongoing problem for Djirra’s clients and it increased in the lead-up to, and since, the Voice Referendum. Our frontline services assisted clients to develop safety plans with their children, to attend school following the Referendum outcome. Aboriginal children do not feel safe in classrooms where teachers and classmates are openly admitting they and their parents voted ‘No’.

I can’t tell you how many times I have been at an Aboriginal Justice Forum over the past 24 years and heard from Aboriginal community members about the unacceptable racist and discriminatory behaviour being inflicted upon our children – not only by other students at the school but by the teachers and principals.  What inevitably happens is that our children react and are deemed to be the problem.  They are then excluded from attending school and placed at high risk of removal from their family.

As well as the mental health and well-being impacts on Aboriginal children and young people, racism is a known risk factor for disengagement and youth offending.

At a minimum, we need each school to develop, implement and report progress on an anti-racism plan. These plans must be publicly available, and each school’s responses to racism must be open to independent assessment.

What works?

There is ample evidence that Aboriginal community-controlled programs work. As the only statewide specialist family violence service in Victoria, Djirra knows what is needed to keep our women safe. We know that when Mums get early access to legal advice and support, the likelihood of child removal is reduced. Djirra welcomes the Commission’s recommendations 11 and 12 which support this.

Self Determination
A fundamental aspect of Aboriginal women’s self-determination is having a choice about an appropriate service no matter where you live. Djirra’s service is statewide; we provide a unique and holistic service model that spans the continuum from prevention and early intervention through to response and recovery.

Cultural connectedness and support are essential for recovery for Aboriginal women and children who experience family violence and harm. Our Community Engagement Services are available for women on an ongoing basis, whether they choose to drop into our Koori Women’s Place, or attend scheduled programs and workshops either in person or remotely. These spaces and activities create a safe environment for women to share their experiences with other Aboriginal women and Djirra’s Aboriginal staff.

Djirra’s early intervention and prevention programs focus on building trust and confidence and promoting cultural connection for Aboriginal women. Our Young Luv program, for example, equips our young women with the know-how to challenge unhealthy relationships, and to apply positive and safe behaviours. Currently, this program reaches less than 5% of young Aboriginal women in Victoria. All Aboriginal girls and young women should be able to access this program.

As previously raised, there are some areas in Victoria where our women have limited or no access to holistic, culturally safe services. Djirra has developed a business plan for regional expansion to address this need and ensure no Aboriginal woman should have to travel more than 100km or 1 hour to access services crucial for their safety. Despite this critical need, Djirra’s submission to support our regional expansion in the most recent Victorian state budget was unsuccessful. Djirra will continue to advocate for the Victorian government to fund this important initiative.

We also need the Victorian Government, along with other partners, to invest in the first ever Aboriginal Women’s Centre in Victoria. Consistent with what Aboriginal women tell us, we need a single fully integrated centre that offers Aboriginal women access to the most comprehensive suite of culturally safe, Aboriginal women-led services and support. We are finalising a feasibility study with plans to seek funding from a variety of partners to realise this key strategic priority.

Sufficient Investment in Housing and other Social Services

Decades of insufficient and inaccessible public housing has led to especially poor outcomes for Aboriginal people in Victoria. Djirra supports the testimony and recommendations made by Darren Smith, CEO of Aboriginal Housing Victoria, to the Commission.  We know that the Aboriginal population in Victoria will grow to 95,149 by 2036. Aboriginal households will grow from around 23,000 to more than 50,000 over the same period.  That means that we will need an additional 5,085 Aboriginal social housing units by 2036 just to maintain the existing levels and not touch on the need for Aboriginal women escaping family violence. Djirra sees this need in our work, with 68% of Aboriginal women seeking support from Djirra in 2023 either homeless or in insecure housing.

For too many Aboriginal women and children the lack of safe, stable housing means that risks multiply and compound quickly. Currently, an Aboriginal woman experiencing family violence in Victoria can stay in a range of temporary accommodations for up to 8 years while waiting for social housing.
Djirra clients in regional Victoria are often offered tents, caravans or if they’re lucky, motels, as the only available accommodation. These forms of accommodation are unsuitable and unsafe and can lead to child removal, disruption to children’s education or return to an unsafe family home.

In Djirra’s experience, refuges can be difficult to access and often require women to move away from family, Country and culture which leads to disconnection from support networks such as healthcare providers and schooling.  

We know that appropriate, safe and secure housing will make a transformational difference for Aboriginal women and children that experience family violence. This needs to include a variety of culturally safe housing options. With stable hosing, mums and children are safe and much more likely to engage with relevant supports, children are significantly more likely to stay with their mum, to grow strong in their cultural identity, stay in school, and avoid contact with the criminal justice system.

Conclusion

We are tired of hearing and seeing senior government department representatives attend various forums and committees (including at Yoorrook) and say the same things in response to the serious concerns raised by our community.  We need you all to step up.   Stop responding in government speak and telling us that there is no money, there are budget constraints or we are in a tight fiscal environment.
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 a new narrative about family violence that makes Aboriginal women and our experiences visible.  We need government to listen and to hear us.  Aboriginal women deserve better.
Governments and systems need to stop counting Aboriginal women through a deficit lens.  At Djirra, we see our women.  We see their strength, their resilience and their courage.  This is how we enable self-determined solutions for our women.

We need a concerted effort across society to reduce family and sexual violence against Aboriginal women and children.

We need to support Aboriginal women who experience violence by providing 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 this across the State and that requires substantial investment in self-determined solutions that work for our women.

Reference

[1] Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute (2022) Urban Aboriginal homelessness : much more than housing p31; Report of the Parliamentary Inquiry into Homelessness in Victoria (2021) p69; Campo M 2015, Children’s exposure to domestic and family violence: Key issues and responses, CFCA paper no. 36, Australian Institute of Family Studies, p. 5
[2] It is important to acknowledge that family violence is not ‘an Aboriginal problem’, it is a gender problem: most people using violence against Aboriginal women are non-Aboriginal men.
[3] Victorian Government, Ending Family violence annual report 2022
[4] Brain Injury Australia Consortium (2018) The Prevalence of Acquired Brian Injury Among Victims and Perpetrators of Family Violence. p3
Aboriginal women are 11[5] times more likely to die from a violent assault than other women.
Aboriginal women are 8 times more likely to be murdered than other women.
Aboriginal women aged 15+ were 33 times as likely to be hospitalised for injuries from family violence than other women and girls. 
[6] 2 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9861732/  
[7] ABIs are routinely under-diagnosed and there is little awareness of head injury and ABIs across the family violence sector but a recent file review of Djirra’s child protection legal cases showed more than 20% of clients had a cognitive impairment and 90% had PTSD.
[8] Brain Injury Australia consortium (2017) The Prevalence of Acquired Brian Injury Among Victims and perpetrators of Family Violence p43
[9] SNAICC Family Matters (2023) – Entry into to OOHC rate.
[10] Ibid.


Related link: Djirra’s submission to the Yoorrook Justice Commission’s Inquiries on the Systemic Injustice in the Criminal Justice and Child Protection Systems

Media queries: Kate Bowman, Head of Strategic Communications, kbowman@djirra.org.au or 0456 960 011