Why a history of family violence is a community risk

Fiona McCormack, CEO Domestic Violence Victoria
Jacqui Watt, CEO No to Violence/Men’s Referral Service

Thursday 26 January 2017

As the horror of the Bourke Street mall rampage was starting to sink in late that Friday afternoon, reports emerged that the driver was well known to police for, among other things, his history of family violence. Those words were chilling for those affected by family violence and workers in the sector. There is emerging evidence that the use of violence against family members can be a red flag for violence in the public sphere.  The Lindt Café, the truck attack in Nice, the Orlando nightclub attack, and now this tragedy in Melbourne, are a reflection of this.

The Coroner has begun piecing together a full understanding of the background to this terrible event and there will be many complex factors involved. Media reports indicate that mental illness; drug use and criminality are all part of the driver’s history. Rightly, questions will be asked about how different services and systems could have acted to prevent this from happening. It will be a hard task to unpack which elements in this history is ‘the cause’.

Not all people with a mental illness are violent. Nor are all people who use drugs or criminals. But all perpetrators with a history of family violence regularly choose to use violence against those closest to them. For that reason, family violence should be considered to be a serious warning sign of violent behaviour, irrespective of other factors such as mental illness or drug use. And we need systems and services that can respond to it accordingly.

While not all perpetrators of family violence go on to commit horrendous violence against the public – in fact many only ever use violence behind the closed doors of the family home – specialist family violence services that work with victims and perpetrators recognise the pattern of violence. They know that without intervention, the perpetrator’s violence will escalate. Their assaults will occur more often, become more violent and their behaviour more controlling. The risk to their victims increases dramatically. Perpetrators of family violence have many of the same characteristics of those who commit public violence. They act out of a similar sense of entitlement, retribution and self-importance. They lack empathy and compassion for their victims and others. They choose threats and violence to control their environment and to get their own way.

The evidence shows that ‘swift and certain’ justice interventions are the most effective response to perpetrators of family violence. This means that police and courts are able to deliver immediate and serious punishment, including jail time, before the violence escalates to a dangerously high level. Other interventions, such as individual counselling and men’s behaviour change programs, work best when perpetrators can promptly get the support they need to stop their violence.

The police, courts and other key workers must be able to collect and share information about perpetrators of family violence in real time. This must include the number, severity and location of incidents as well as other related data about mental illness and use of alcohol and other drugs. Access to this critical information would enable perpetrators to be continuously monitored, triggering system-wide alerts and interventions to prevent serious harms occurring.

This is not new. The Royal Commission into Family Violence in Victoria highlighted all these important issues. It recommended sweeping changes to improve the way this state responds to family violence and the Andrews Government has committed to implementing them all. But it will take time to build the workforces, set up the laws and information sharing technologies and set up and resource the service systems.

In the meantime, Friday’s Bourke St Mall tragedy demonstrates how urgent it is that our systems – police, courts, corrections, specialist family violence services for victims and perpetrators as well as mental health and alcohol and drug services – are all resourced to play their part in holding perpetrators accountable for their use of family violence.

No one knows if this would have prevented the Bourke Street tragedy. But if police and others recognised a person with a history of family violence as a potential high risk to the community, this could pave the way for a range of effective inventions to monitor and stop his use of violence.