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Data Tracking for Children and Young People Affected by Domestic and Family Violence

Thank you, Madam Speaker. In recent years, the attention of those who research and work in the area of domestic and family violence has increasingly turned to children. Children and young people may be directly affected by violence in the home, as victims – or, in many more cases, they may be affected as witnesses to the violence. Importantly, ‘children who witness violence experience the same level of negative psychosocial outcomes as children who directly experience physical abuse’.

In fact, those who merely overhear family violence without ever having seen any actual acts of violence still experience the same trauma. For this reason, it is best to refer to young people who have been affected by violence as this term acknowledges that all children may be impacted ‘by the presence of domestic violence in their family, regardless of the nature of the violence’.

Several extensive reviews of published research have established that children and young people who are affected by domestic and family violence may experience significant negative impacts to their physical, emotional, social, behavioural, developmental and/or cognitive wellbeing and functioning. These impacts may manifest in a large number of ways: antisocial behaviours, anxiety, depression, poor concentration, delayed language acquisition, eating problems, social withdrawal, sleeplessness and so many more.

Children who are affected by violence in the home often struggle at school. It affects not just their behaviour and mental states but also their capacity to learn. In one study, children whose parents had reported intimate partner violence were found to have performed on average 12.2 percentile points lower than their peers.

The negative impacts of domestic and family violence on children and young people are far too often compounded by the disruptions to stable home life that this violence often causes. When non-offending parents and their children find it necessary to physically flee the violence, this may certainly result in an increased sense of personal safety, but it can also result in a sense of loss and grief for the children who are separated from family members, friends, pets and schools whom they have learnt to trust and rely on. It also tends to disrupt links to community and cultural activities. Research links lack of stability in a child’s life with an increased risk of contact with the youth justice system, an increased risk of future homelessness and an increased risk of future unemployment.

The effects of domestic and family violence on children and young people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds can also be compounded by a number of factors. These include language and cultural barriers. In addition, the experience of being a migrant or refugee is, at best, already destabilising in the life of a child. Children from refugee backgrounds especially may have even more complicating factors, including having witnessed extreme violence in the form of war and having previously been forced to flee their homes.

Obviously, Madam Speaker, these and other impacts can have lifelong consequences in the lives of many children if not adequately addressed. Research suggests, for example, that those who experience violence in the home when they are young are more likely as adults to experience violence in their own homes. The ACT’s Coordinator-General for Family Safety recently stated that female children who witness violence at home double their risk of being victims of such violence when they are older.

Some studies suggest ‘that witnessing or being the victim of violence as a child has a direct impact on later perpetration of partner violence’. Other studies have called this linkage into question. In any case, we have enough clear evidence that witnessing or experiencing violence in the family negatively impacts many of the children affected by it in significant and lasting ways.

It is in the context of this increasing understanding, both here and overseas, that the ACT’s Domestic Violence Prevention Council (or DVPC) called an Extraordinary Meeting this past April specifically to move the conversation towards including children who have witnessed or experienced personal and family violence. The council’s report, released at the end of August, makes a number of important observations. First, young people who have experienced violence in the home ‘have special needs, in addition to the needs of the adults around them’.

This is an important point, Madam Speaker. For many years we seem to have operated under the assumption that caring for the needs of the parent has automatically met the needs of that parent’s children. But children are individuals, and in many, though not all, cases, they may have their own needs. Responses to violence can almost never be one-size-fits-all.

The DVPC report’s second main observation is, and I quote, that ‘many at risk children and young people are “invisible” in the ACT’s domestic and family violence system’. This observation, Madam Speaker, strongly resonates with me.

As I have noted once or twice in the past, I grew up in a home that was plagued by domestic violence for much of my childhood. From my earliest memories, my father abused my mother, my four siblings and me.

This violence did not stop when we migrated to Australia. But after some time, our mother made the difficult decision to rescue us. She managed to save up the bond for a small flat, and with the assistance of a borrowed shopping trolley, we quickly packed up our few possessions and fled.

Very few of the people who knew me as a child would have known about this abuse. As is so often the case with domestic violence, it was not something we talked about. I certainly didn’t tell my classmates or teachers at school, where, as a migrant, I struggled each day just trying to understand what people were saying to me in English. Nor did we tell our neighbours or family back home.

Though Mum sometimes rang the police to ask for help when Dad was outside our new flat shouting, I don’t think that the good officers who responded ever really saw me or understood clearly the impact that all of this was having on us. They dealt with Mum but never with us kids. In essence, we children and our distress were invisible. Madam Speaker, I know from firsthand experience the impacts of domestic violence on children that I spoke about a few moments ago. I experienced most of them, and I did so in complete silence.

The DVPC report recommends ‘systemic changes’ ‘to enable system-wide cultural change and to build the evidence base required for credible and accountable action’. The report then recommends action in five priority areas. I am happy, Madam Speaker, that the government has responded quickly to the first of these recommendations, committing $100,000 to assist the Coordinator-General for Family Safety and the Children and Young People Commissioner to co-design an appropriate framework that will allow for consulting actual children and young people in order to better understand their needs.

This design process is an important part of implementing this recommendation. As experts have noted, discussing traumatic events with a child victim can easily re-traumatise the child or even cause further harm. The Children and Young People Commissioner has publicly acknowledged these risks and is committed to developing a framework – aided by those with professional expertise – that allows for a consultation process that will protect those who have already been victimised by domestic and family violence.

The immediate response to this recommendation signals that the government understands the issue and is committed to finding a way to implement what is a rather challenging proposal. No doubt there will be obstacles going forwards, but the process has been started, and no one at this point in time can fairly question the government’s commitment.

I have moved this motion today, Madam Speaker, because I hope to see a similar response to recommendation five in the DVPC’s report. As the report itself notes, an essential element in making sure that children and young people who are affected by domestic violence move from ‘invisible’ to visible is the collection and utilisation of good data.

Currently, as explained in the DVPC report, there are ‘limitations in ACT approaches to identifying clients and capturing case data’, and this ‘lack of data masks the true extent and nature of unmet need’. This ‘low visibility in official data about domestic and family violence’ occurs in part because children are not considered the primary clients from the perspective of services being delivered. Fixing this problem is identified in the report as ‘crucial’.

The good news, Madam Speaker, is that, in the opinion of the report’s authors, the ACT is in a very good position to begin implementing this recommendation straightaway. The ACT’s human services agencies have already developed a common dataset that ‘addresses many of the DVPC’s earlier recommendations regarding collection of [domestic and family violence] data in the ACT’. In addition, in preparation for the National Data Collection and Reporting Framework, which is meant to be operational in four years’ time, the ABS has already developed a framework to guide the collection of this data, including ‘advice on implementing data collection, storage and reporting’.

In light of these facts, Madam Speaker, it would, in my opinion, be a shame not to move forward as quickly as possible on this recommendation. And it would certainly be a shame to put off till the launch of the National Data Collection and Reporting Framework in 2022 the crucial data collecting that will help us give visibility to the now-invisible children and young people who are affected by domestic and family violence.

As one of those former invisible children, I therefore call upon this government to take decisive action as it did with recommendation one, and commit to better collection and use of data and evidence to inform domestic and family violence strategies for children and young people, with a commitment to begin taking steps no later than the end of this financial year. No doubt there may be obstacles, but this recommendation is neither controversial nor inherently risky.

The rest of the recommendations in the DVPC’s report are likewise important, and I therefore call upon the government to report back to this Assembly by the end of 2018–19 with an outline of what they will be doing in response to these recommendations as well.

Madam Speaker, I commend this motion to the Assembly.

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