Family violence: "We need to see the whole picture, hear the whole story"

Assistant Commissioner Lauren Callaway talks about Victoria Police's response to family violence incidents and how we can better support victims.

Wednesday, 1 December 2021 at 12:43 am

When police are called to a family violence incident, the situation has reached a crisis point. Whether that call has come from someone within the home, or from a concerned friend or bystander shouldn’t really matter. Because when that call happens, we know the likelihood of violence is imminent and someone needs protection. 

In most cases, the evidence shows us, those in need of protection will be women and their children.

Imagine then, police make a decision that sees a victim-survivor labelled as a perpetrator of family violence, and conversely the perpetrator being assessed as the victim.

How can this happen? Aren’t police highly trained in recognising the dynamics of family violence? Aren’t they skilled at responding in ways that ensure those most in need of protection are kept safe, while those who are causing harm are held to account?

The answers to those questions go to the very heart of the complexity of family violence.  

As police, we are highly cognisant we need to do better at navigating complex and dynamic family violence situations, many of which intersect with:

  • mental health issues
  • substance abuse
  • child access
  • financial control
  • emotional abuse, and 
  • gender power imbalances. 

Addressing just the physical aspect of family violence is no longer enough. We need to see the whole picture, hear the whole story. We need to tailor our responses to the trauma that may be aggravated by the incident itself, but could also be triggered by:

  • past experiences (including with police)
  • inter-generational violence, and 
  • institutional abuse and fear of repercussion. 

In my conversations with victim-survivors this is the most distressing aspect of our response and the one they want to see addressed as a matter of priority.

We are well advanced in unpacking the ‘why’ aspect to misidentification of predominant aggressors. We know a police force that is diverse, inclusive and gender balanced will produce better safety outcomes and provide a greater understanding of crimes that harm families. It will also reduce biases to make sure we don’t identify victims as perpetrators. 

Our data shows us police practice can be inconsistent. Barriers to communicating with police is the most critical aspect, which can be caused by many factors such as:

  • languages other than English
  • confidence to engage with police, or 
  • not being present when reports are taken. 

Another factor is when one person is presenting as calm and rational, while the other party is highly emotive. We know this is a tactic that perpetrators of coercive control are extremely clever at using to their advantage, and one we must be able to recognise. A person’s emotional state can be closely linked to mental health issues, which when combined with drug and alcohol use, can be present in almost two-thirds of misidentification cases.

Another aspect that is prevalent in misidentification cases relates to perpetrators who deliberately provoke and push victims to breaking point. This provocation can be a long-term effort to control victims, or more targeted to cause a victim to lash out. These incidents can also then be used by perpetrators to apply for intervention orders so that both parties will present to police with complicated histories of their relationships that are not easily assessed.

Importantly, we must never lose sight of the fact predominant aggressor misidentification can be addressed and we are deeply committed to the task. We are engaging all aspects of our organisation, to delve deeper into the issue with the intent of implementing measures that will rectify and reduce its prevalence.

We are also working with our partners in the family violence sector to develop intervention points for acting on the important information our partners may hold that can and should inform police practice. 

We recognise that being misidentified at a family violence incident can have lasting impacts on victims, and particularly erode the confidence victims may have in police to keep them safe. We are listening to those experiences so that we become more informed about the trauma family violence causes in all that we do. It is not an easy task, but one that we recognise is critical to delivering a family violence response that reflects the expectations of our community to keep everyone safe.

Last Thursday, 25 November 2021, marked the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and the start of the 16 Days of Activism. It represents an important opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to reduce gender-based violence and ensure we protect those most in need of protection.

Lauren Callaway is the Assistant Commissioner for Family Violence Command. 

For support and resources, visit our Family violence page.