The first part of this series (“Family portrait or ideological caricature?” News Weekly, March 12, 2016) highlighted the fact that the Queensland Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence, in its report released in February 2015, presented domestic and family violence principally in the context of a perpetrator and a victim. However, the Parkinson Paper finds that the research literature commonly identifies four types of domestic and family violence. These are: coercive controlling violence; violence driven by conflict; violent resistance; and separation-instigated violence.
The violence driven by conflict predominates in general community studies and this violence typically involves intimate partners “losing control” rather than “using violence to assert control”. The use of language of “victim” and “perpetrator” does not easily fit with the nature of violence driven by conflict; nor does an analysis that insists that only one gender is responsible, even if the patterns of female violence within intimate partnerships are different from male violence, and women are at greater risk of injury. The Queensland taskforce appears to focus on coercive controlling violence and ignores the other three types.
Wide net for study
The Parkinson Paper indicates that the research for the paper was unique in the Australian literature on domestic and family violence in three ways. First, the cohort of interviewees was not selected for the purposes of a study on domestic violence and was not recruited through domestic violence support services or advocacy groups. Second, it includes men’s accounts of being respondents to family violence orders – or in a few cases, applicants or cross-applicants. Third, in several cases, there were accounts from both former partners, giving their different perspectives of the same events.
However, in contrast to the Parkinson research, the Queensland taskforce consultation and engagement was predominantly with woman advocacy groups or individual women. The Parkinson Paper analyses both women’s and men’s accounts of violence, based upon in-depth personal interviews. The inclusion of both men and women, and particularly those who were party to and reporting on the same relationship, is an important aspect of the research.
One survey in particular led to an important finding. The survey identified a group of parents among whom uncharacteristic acts of violence were precipitated by separation or were reactions to traumatic post-divorce events. In these cases, violence occurred only during or after the separation period and was not present during the marriage itself. This type of finding, however, does not fit the “perpetrator and victim” view of domestic and family violence.
Another finding in the Parkinson Paper was that in NSW about 45 per cent of applications for domestic violence protection orders do not lead to final orders, mostly because the complainant does not proceed beyond an interim order. Interim orders tend to be made as a matter of course.
The Queensland taskforce’s reporting of protection orders does not clarify whether the orders are temporary or final orders. It seems that the taskforce’s objective is to present a domestic and family violence crisis where perhaps the real crisis is a marriage and relationship crisis between men and women.
Three ways to understanding family violence
What approach should we take in order to understand the problem of domestic and family violence? The Parkinson Paper references at the level of research and theory at least three separate bodies of learning that describe problematic intimate relationships. One set of literature deals with conflict, another with violence, and a third with abuse.
Those who specialise in the study of abuse understand abusive relationships as being first and foremost about power and control, and taking a relationship out of the conflictual category and putting it into the abusive category. These different perspectives can all co-exist to describe different patterns of conflict and violence within intimate personal relationships, but too often one theoretical perspective is maintained to the exclusion of any other understanding of the problem.
The Parkinson Paper states that the different theoretical perspectives are particularly important in characterising behaviour that does not involve physical assaults. One person’s “blazing row”, involving a lot of yelling, name-calling and recrimination, may be another’s “verbal abuse” or “emotional abuse”. One person may see a couple in conflict, while another identifies a party to the relationship as the victim and the other party as the perpetrator.
These different theoretical perspectives also lead to quite different views about family violence. On one view, violence is physical assault or the threat of it. Domestic violence specialists often posit a much wider view. This wider view typically defines family violence as including “physical, sexual, psychological, social and financial abuse and neglect”.
The authors of the Parkinson Paper make the point that, while achieving agreement on what does and does not constitute “violence” may be impossible, the findings of their study do at least justify asking the question whether family violence orders (FVOs) are always the best way of resolving the diverse range of behaviours and circumstances that may lead to an application for family violence orders, and that currently receive an undifferentiated response from legislatures and the courts.
The diverse range of situations where FVOs were sought suggests that post-separation family violence does not fit neatly into any one-size-fits-all definition of family violence based upon elements of power and control, although such a definition is common in government reports on domestic and family violence. These findings of the heterogeneity of violence are consistent with a large body of overseas research.
Family separation and violence orders
The Parkinson Paper reports that much of the behaviour that led to FVOs being sought and granted in the study may best be characterised as post-separation conflict-initiated violence. The violence is a consequence of the conflict itself and not part of a larger pattern of coercive control. Nor does it involve premeditated violence. FVOs were thus seen as one of the weapons in the war between the parents, a means of striking a blow against the other, and gaining an advantage in the parenting proceedings.
It may well be that many FVOs are sought on the basis of verbal abuse, alleged threats or because of non-injurious physical altercations, when the real motivation may be a collateral purpose such as striking a blow in the legal conflict, engaging in a tit-for-tat application or attaining some other perceived advantage. Such collateral uses may have the effect of discrediting FVOs to the detriment of all those who really do fear for their safety and need the protection of the courts.
Court orders that use the emotive language of “violence” in ways that are discordant with the normal English usage of the word may well do much to damage to the prospects of early resolution of parenting issues. It is a misreading of the situation to define one person as the “victim” and the other as the “perpetrator” in many of these cases of violence driven by conflict in the aftermath of separation.
The Parkinson Paper also gives an insight into the figures of FVO applications in Australia by comparing the numbers of FVO applications in NSW (2008) with the numbers in England and Wales (2006). This comparison highlights that, per capita, there were 10 times the number of applications in NSW as in England and Wales.
One reason family violence orders are so common in Australia is because of the high level of police involvement, at least in some jurisdictions. Police involvement to deal with cases of relatively minor post-separation conflict comes at a substantial cost to the community.
There must also be concern about the potential devaluation of the currency of an FVO because so many are sought and granted. This may put at risk those women and children who really need such an order to protect them from physical harm.
At the very least, there is a need for more research using general community samples rather than clients of domestic violence services or participants recruited through advocacy groups.
The evidence from this study suggests that there is at least a danger that applications for FVOs have become such a routine aspect of post-separation conflict that efforts that others in the family law system are making to reduce that level of conflict between parents are being undermined. Children will suffer as a consequence.
In Australia the typical portrayal of domestic and family violence is coercive controlling violence involving a perpetrator and victim. Men are presented as the perpetrators and women and children the victims.
The Parkinson Paper points out that this view is not an accurate representation of the problem and that violence driven by conflict predominates.
Hence the problem is not mostly a gender inequality crisis but more likely a marriage and relationship crisis between men and women, with children caught in the middle.
Clearly, there is a need to ground responses to domestic and family violence in the truth, otherwise the design of responses is likely to be wrong and cause more harm than good.
In the third and final part of this series the reasons for the false representation of domestic and family violence will be explained, together with how this representation is being applied.