This week marks National Child Protection week in Australia. The theme is ‘Every child, in every community, needs a fair go. To treat all of Australia’s children fairly, we need to make sure every family and community has what kids need to thrive and be healthy’.
How can this theme and mission be achieved a society like Australia which has a rising increase in cases of Family Violence, and in a community where our two largest states are in lockdown? We know that our church congregations are made up of people from local communities. Our local communities are not immune from stresses and challenges, and the more serious issues such as intimate partner and domestic family violence. So, its stands to reason that we will encounter situations of family violence within church communities, due to its prevalence across all stratas of Australian society.
Part 1: Understanding Family Violence:
Family Violence is defined in section 4AB of the Family Law Act 1975 (“the Act”) as violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family (the family member) or causes the family member to be fearful. The Act further outlines examples of behaviour which could constitute Family Violence such as:
- an assault; or
- sexual assault or other sexually abusive behaviour; or
- stalking; or
- repeated derogatory taunts; or
- intentionally damaging or destroying property; or
- intentionally causing death or injury to an animal; or
- unreasonably denying the family member the financial autonomy that he or she would otherwise have had; or
- unreasonably withholding financial support needed to meet the reasonable living expenses of the family member, or his or her child, at a time when the family member is entirely or predominantly dependent on the person for financial support; or
- preventing the family member from making or keeping connections with his or her family, friends or culture; or
- unlawfully depriving the family member, or any member of the family member’s family, of his or her liberty.
Additional forms of Family Violence can be spiritual violence – where a person is prevented from participating in, or coerced into religious activities.
The impact of family violence on children:
The Act outlines that a child can be exposed to Family Violence or experiences the effects of Family Violence if they:
- if they see or hear Family Violence; or
- overhears threats of death or personal injury by a member of the child’s family towards another member of the child’s family; or
- sees or hears an assault of a member of the child’s family by another member of the child’s family; or
- comforts or provides assistance to a member of the child’s family who has been assaulted by another member of the child’s family; or
- cleans up a site after a member of the child’s family has intentionally damaged property of another member of the child’s family; or
- being present when police or ambulance officers attend an incident involving the assault of a member of the child’s family by another member of the child’s family.
Exposure of Family Violence can have prolonged effects on family members, including children – even if is not directly witnessed – which can cause significant issues in children for the rest of their life. Children in utero (unborn), toddlers, primary and high school aged children can all be victims of family violence with physical, emotional and psychological impacts.
Children often experience Family Violence in their homes either as a direct witness to Family Violence between their parents and as a direct victim having Family Violence being directed towards them. Over 2/3 of women who report Family Violence state that their children have been affected in some ways by the Family Violence.
How common is Family Violence?
In Australia, the statistics concerning Family Violence and abuse are significant.
- One in five women and one in 20 men in Australia has been sexually abused or threatened since the age of 15.
- One in 6 Australian women and 1 in 16 men have been subjected, since the age of 15, to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or previous cohabiting partner (ABS 2017b).
- Family, domestic and sexual violence happens repeatedly—more than half (54%) of the women who had experienced current partner violence, experienced more than one violent incident (ABS 2017b).
- In 2014–15, on average, almost 8 women and 2 men were hospitalised each day after being assaulted by their spouse or partner (AIHW 2017b).
- From 2012–13 to 2013–14, about 1 woman a week and 1 man a month were killed as a result of violence from a current or previous partner (Bryant & Bricknell 2017).
- Almost 1 in 4 (23%) women and 1 in 6 (16%) men have experienced emotional abuse from a current or previous partner since the age of 15 (ABS 2017b).
- Almost 1 in 5 women (18%) and 1 in 20 men (4.7%) have experienced sexual violence (sexual assault and/or threats) since the age of 15.
- Women were most likely to experience sexual violence from a previous cohabiting partner (4.5% of women) or a boyfriend/girlfriend or date (4.3% of women) (2017b). In 2016, on average, police recorded 52 sexual assaults each day against women and about 11 against men (ABS 2017d)
If we can just slow down for a moment and think about these stats. These statistics tell a story about Australia. Intimate partner and family violence is a lot more common – and close – than we like to admit.
Will Family Violence affect me?
Unfortunately, Family Violence is on the rise in Australia. In an increasingly stressful climate in the midst of a global pandemic, with closed state and international borders; lockdowns in Sydney, Victoria and Canberra and economic and social pressures without an outlet, the presence of Family Violence is a real threat to Australian families.
It is important to note that Family Violence occurs in all socio/economic groups. Family Violence is not determined by the financial position of the parties, their racial or cultural background; their socio-economic status or even their religious or faith background. It exists everywhere. Family Violence occurs in many families and the perpetrators of Family Violence are both males and females. Unfortunately, male victims of Family Violence are often not spoken about and suffer in silence, as Family Violence appears to be associated as males causing Family Violence to females. Females can be perpetrators of Family Violence. Victims of Family Violence can be children – but adults, parents, the elderly, people who have a disability can also be victims.
Spiritual or religious abuse
Unfortunately, Family Violence can occur in families that attend church/religious group on a regular basis. Going to church does not make you exempt from Family Violence. A common form of abuse in families who are part of a religious community is spiritual abuse. Spiritual abuse is sometimes called religious abuse. This occurs when someone is using their spiritual or religious beliefs to hurt, scare or control you. Sometimes a person can use their lack of spiritual or religious beliefs to hurt, scare or control a person who hold a spiritual or religious belief. So, what does this look like? Spiritual abuse can be exertion or control. It could prevent a person from practising their faith in the way they choose or feeling like they are required to fit a particular mould to upload their marital vows. Spiritual abuse can cause emotional or psychological pain. In some families, people will use biblical principles or other religious texts to hurt, scare or control a person.
Many victims suffer in silence as they do not know who to turn to or are afraid of the isolation and separation that can occur when they report their Family Violence.
Natalie Fielding is a Lawyer (Australian Legal Practitioner). She works predominately in the areas of Family Law and Family Violence and practices extensively through the Family Law system in various states in Australia. Natalie is an Accredited Specialist in Family Law through the Law Institute of Victoria. Natalie holds a Bachelor of Law and Bachelor of Arts degree with majors in Criminology and Sociology. Natalie is a Principal of Lewis Holdway Lawyers in Melbourne. Natalie sits on the board of a number of different charities in Australia including Focus on the Family. Natalie is a member of a working group at Hillsong Church concerning Hillsong Church’s response to domestic violence.