Innovation in family violence prevention

By Kerry Arabena and Lauren Penny

As we come to the end of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, we have been reflecting on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s experiences of violence, and how innovative prevention strategies can be implemented to address the family violence experienced by First Nations families.

Family violence and violence against women have recently been at the forefront in Australia, with increased calls on our governments to take greater action to end gender-based violence and inequality. Although family violence disproportionately affects First Nations women, they have continued to be left out of discussions on how best to address the issues that affect them. The CEO of Mudgin-Gal Aboriginal Women’s Centre, Ashlee Donohue, was one of several Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who discussed this on the SBS panel ‘We Say No More’ earlier this year:

‘The issue is that all these things around domestic violence are looked at through a white lens, and unfortunately that lens doesn’t see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.’

The importance of self-determination has again been in the spotlight at the National Summit on Women’s Safety, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, including Professor Marcia Langton, campaigning for Indigenous-led family violence responses:

‘Let me be very clear about this. Nobody listens to us. They talk over the top of us and tell us what we’re going to have in our communities… 

We absolutely need our own Indigenous plan for ending violence against women and children and we absolutely need local and regional initiatives joined up with all the mainstream services, our representatives at the table, designing the local interventions and stopping the stupidity that goes on in the institutional environment. When people think they are doing the right thing to us, not with us, they make terrible mistakes and lives are at stake.’

The Women’s Safety Summit was also criticised for failing to include ‘experiences of LGBTQIA+ Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who experience gender-based violence’. The focus on women’s safety ‘frames the issue in a fundamentally hetero-normative way’, with some suggesting a national summit to end gendered violence as an alternative. 

It is crucial that we broaden our understanding of the perpetuation of violence to consider the violence perpetrated and experienced in all types of families, across all genders, and by all sexualities. Family violence interventions largely focus on traditional constructions of masculinity in an Australian context which, most recently, has been framed through incidents relating to rape-permissive cultures in private schools and in parliaments. However, this doesn’t acknowledge that these social constructions are configured differently for First Nations men. The impacts of colonisation, including the erosion of traditional cultural roles, have made it difficult for Indigenous men to ‘meet either traditional or colonially imposed standards of manhood’. Family violence prevention approaches must challenge the traditional public discourses around Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men’s masculinity, and demand a stronger focus on healing, prevention and early interventions.

First Nations people have long been calling for a separate national plan to address family violence. Following September’s summit, Women’s Safety Minister Anne Ruston announced that the Federal government would work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to develop such a plan. After all, research shows that a crucial factor in the success of a range of First Nations family violence programs is that they are community-led and delivered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations. In Victoria, for example, the Aboriginal Family Violence Primary Prevention Innovation Fund (Aboriginal Innovation Fund) was set up to support Aboriginal-led organisations to design and deliver innovative family violence prevention programs, and evaluate the effectiveness of these initiatives for First Nations people and their communities. The Karabena Consulting team recently carried out an evaluation of Victoria’s Aboriginal Innovation Fund, including a review of 10 primary prevention projects from Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations across the State. In undertaking this evaluation, we needed to consider what does ‘innovation’ actually mean when it comes to family violence prevention? 

Innovation in this context is the process that adopts new mechanisms, ideas and technologies and adapts them into workplace cultures. Importantly, innovation fosters creativity while implementing traditional strategies such as professional development, effective partnerships and supportive collaborations. A culture of innovation is an environment that supports creative thinking and advances efforts to extract cultural, economic and social value from family violence prevention activities that are initiated within, and targeted at, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. A thriving culture of innovation can leverage the existing strengths of organisations and partnerships, and co-create new research and innovation ecosystems. Innovation is a key strategic enabler to address the growing complexity of problems facing our society, and one that often facilitates multidisciplinary and cross-cultural outcomes relevant for end users and peers working to address family violence and its causes.

COVID-19: An opportunity to innovate?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been increased reports of violence against women and children, with statistics showing the highest number of family violence incidents on record in Victoria. Not only has there been an increase in the frequency and severity of family violence, but the pandemic has also seen a rise in first-time family violence reporting. In Victoria, evidence of the impact of family violence continued to emerge over successive lockdowns. The pandemic has amplified social, economic and cultural stressors that fuel family violence, particularly as the usual service interventions have been greatly impacted by stay-at-home and social distancing mandates. COVID-19 has also exacerbated deep-seated health, social and economic inequities in Australian society, especially the long-standing disparities between First Nations people and other Australians. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to consider how to facilitate innovation in our homes, workplaces and partnerships. We have seen creative and proactive strategies employed, such as using the dropping off of care packages or food as an opportunity to sight children and young people in the home and talk to parents from a safe distance. Recent innovations in family violence prevention have been increasingly delivered through digital and technology-based modalities in response to the pandemic, and there has been a shift in how people are accessing support. For instance, national helpline 1800RESPECT has reported an increase in the use of the online chat function and a higher number of calls received late at night, ‘peaking around midnight’. This is thought to be due to people waiting until their perpetrator is asleep so that they can seek help, as well as seeking support to cope with trauma and nightmares. All of this highlights the need for more flexible service delivery, including providing support outside of traditional work hours. 

Throughout the pandemic, we have seen services transitioning to the online delivery of family violence prevention strategies using chat and messaging-based services, email, and video and voice calls. However, technology poses both solutions and challenges for family violence prevention practitioners in their use of digital supports. As such, the move to online services has proven difficult for some Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, particularly those living in remote communities who may be unfamiliar with, or unable to access, technology, but has also presented opportunities to build capacity in relation to the successful use of technology in various family violence prevention programs. With the uptake of online service delivery, there is an increasing need to fund and deliver more culturally safe online family violence prevention services.

Primary prevention

Although we have seen innovation occurring more in family violence crisis responses, primary prevention needs to innovate in order to keep victims/survivors of family violence safe during home confinement, and to minimise the potential for escalating violence. This will require increased investment in specialist domestic violence service sectors to allow for innovations in remote service delivery, support for the wellbeing of family violence practitioners, and to realise the opportunities for building the capacity and engagement of neighbours, friends and family in helping victims/survivors of violence in safe and effective ways. 

In our evaluation of the Aboriginal Innovation Fund, we explored a range of innovative family violence primary prevention interventions including technology-based models; community-led models; civil, criminal and alternative justice responses; hybrid models (integrating community-led and mainstream responses); place-based approaches; empowerment models; family-based interventions; couples-based approaches; and partner education and finance programs. We learned that family violence is best addressed through holistic approaches that favour complexity, multi-agency coordination and the development and delivery of processes and programs to match government commitments and community needs. For example, our evaluation found that people leaving violent circumstances where companion animals are involved need cross-sectoral support and responses – such as collaboration between veterinarians, family violence workers, and animal shelters – to protect these animals who are at risk of retributive harm. Partnerships between family violence agencies and those involved in the public housing and homelessness sector are also key to supporting people needing to leave unsafe environments.

First Nations-led responses

The policy context in Victoria is primed to generate new or improved services and opportunities for violence-involved families, partly, too, in response to global social movements such as the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter. Approaching the task of innovating family violence prevention strategies requires specific processes and activities to address racism, power inequities and the ongoing impacts of colonisation, and to work with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to support culturally safe, community-owned and -led solutions. 
Numerous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agencies are designing programs and responses to family violence that are unique and centred on culture, healing and sharing information through kinship and extended family networks. These approaches have proven to be central to the success of First Nations-led family violence prevention programs. We believe there could also be significant benefit and opportunity in adopting First Nations approaches in the design and delivery of primary prevention strategies for mainstream family violence services, or services targeting other marginalised groups such as migrant and refugee populations. 
Now, more than ever, it is crucial that innovative strategies are implemented to address the vulnerabilities caused by COVID-19 and the resulting increase in family violence. Our Aboriginal Innovation Fund Evaluation and Summary Report can be found at:

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