Family Violence in the Torres Strait (with special emphasis on causal factors)

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Family Violence in the Torres Strait

(with special emphasis on causal factors)

by Paul Memmott, Charles Passi,

Carroll Go-Sam, Linda Thomson & Lee Sheppard

Paul Memmott & Associates

St Lucia, Brisbane

in association with Aboriginal Environments Research Centre

University of Queensland

Draft of 06/02/09


acronyms and ABBREVIATIONS iii



Background briefing for the research project 1

General research aim 2

Detailed research questions 2

Definition of Family Violence used in this study 3

Summary of project methodology 4

Detailed project components 4

Consultation with Torres Strait Islanders 6

List of Organizations and Personnel interviewed 6

Literature review 9


Introduction 16

The Torres Strait Treaty with Papua New Guinea and the function of the Protected Zone 18

Profiles of individual Island and Mainland communities 20

Eastern Island communities 23

Central Island communities 25

Top-Western communities 29

Mid-Western communities 31

South-Western Communities 34

The Northern Peninsula Area (NPA) 35

Family Violence types in the Torres Strait Region 38

Spouse Assault/Domestic Violence 38

Homicide 44

Rape and sexual assault 45

Child violence 46

Suicide 53

Self-injury 54

Same-sex, one-on-one, adult conflicts 54

Inter-group violence 55

Psychological abuse 57

Economic abuse 59

Cyclic violence 59

Recidivism 60

Dysfunctional community syndrome 61

Conclusions 61

Police statistics on Reported Offences Against the Person1 65


Introduction 72

Customary social structure 72

Further findings on customary violence 86

The persistence of customary T.S.I. kinship behaviour in the latter 20th century 89

Torres Strait Islander Customary Adoption 96

Conclusion 100


Introduction 104

The geographic barriers to family violence prevention in the Torres Strait Region 105

Economic factors underlying Family Violence in the Torres Strait region 110

Substance abuse as a ‘situational factor’ of Family Violence in the Torres Strait Region 112

The breakdown of traditional culture as a set of risk factors for Family Violence 120

Misapplication of customary values and rules 133

Lack of appropriate service infrastructure 143


Introduction 148

Child Safety response 148

The Torres Strait Regional Healing Centre 160

Further counselling services 166

Court and Justice Groups’ responses 170

Policing responses 173

Further single-gender group responses 178

Corrective services 180

Holistic approaches to F.V. service delivery 183

Summary of service gaps and barriers 187

Women’s Services 187

Conclusion 188


Introduction 188

Ingredients in the design of a F.V. response model 188

The argument for a community-based and culturally-based violence response 189

Further strategic planning considerations for a regional F.V. response 192

Leading the Strategy - ‘Busting the bomb’ 192

A set of possible steps for a community-based approach 193

Classification of violence responses according to their time of implementation 194

1. Early prevention responses (‘try to stop it even happening’) 195

2. Early intervention responses (‘stop it just before it happens’) 203

3. Late intervention responses (‘help just after it happens’) 203

4. Late prevention responses (‘stop it happening again’) 204




acronyms and ABBREVIATIONS

A Answer

ABS Australian Bureau of Statistics

ACPOs Acting Community Police Officers

AGM Annual General Meeting

AIATSIS Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

A.I.C.C.A. Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Organisation

AIHW Australian Institute of Health and Welfare

AMPs Alcohol Management Plans

ANUP Australian National University Press

ATOD Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug

ATSI Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander

ATSISU Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies Unit

Bal Balance

BRACS Broadcasting for Remote Aboriginal Communities Scheme

c. circa

CAFS Child and Family Support Strategy

CDEP Community Development Employment Program

CEO Chief Executive Officer

Cf compare

CIB Criminal Investigation Bureau

CIU Criminal Investigations Units

CLC Carpentaria Land Council

CMC Crime and Misconduct Commission

CPIU Child Protection Investigation Unit

CPO Community Police Officer

CRC Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) for Aboriginal Health

CRDVS Cairns Regional Domestic Violence Service

CTS Church of Torres Strait

QLD DATSIPD Department of Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Policy and Development

D.C. Department of Communities (Qld)

DCS Department of Community Services (Qld)

Det. Sgt. Detective Sergeant

D.F.V. Domestic Family Violence

DNA DeoxyriboNucleic Acid

DOGIT Deed of Grant in Trust

D.O.V. Drug Overdose Victim

D.V. domestic violence

DVOs Domestic Violence Orders

EB elder brother

F father

FaCSIA Aust, Dept of Families, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs

F.A.T. Aust, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade

FB father’s brother

FF father’s father

FFB father’s, father’s brother

FM father’s mother

F.V. Family Violence

GF grandfather

H husband

HIV Human Immunodeficiency virus

I.A. Investigation and Assessment

I.C.C. Island Coordinating Council

I.D. identification

IPA Intervention with Parental Agreement

IGC Indigenous Geographic Classification

IPA Intervention with Parental Agreement

JCU James Cook University

J.G. Justice Group

J.P. Justice of the Peace

JUCP James Cook University Press

LMS London Mission Society

LSD lysergic acid diethylamide

MB mother’s brother

MCDS Aus, Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy

MF mother’s father

MFB mother’s, father’s brother

MM mother’s mother

MZ mother’s sister

N.B. Please note

n.d. no date/not dated

NGO Non-Government Organization

NPA Northern Peninsula Area

NTA Notice to Appear

O.I.C. Officer in Charge

PNG Papua New Guinea

PLO Police Liaison Officer

P.M. Paul Memmott

Q question

QPS Queensland Police Service

QUATSIP Queensland Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Police

RAN ‘Remote Area Nurse’ (SBS television production)

SAAP Supported Accommodation Assistance Program

SCAN suspected child abuse and neglect

SD statistical division

SES State Emergency Service (Qld)

Sgt Sergeant

SLA statistical local area

S.N.A.I.C.C. Secretariat for National Aboriginal and Islander Child Care

TAFE Tertiary and Further Education

T.I. Thursday Island

T.I.C.C. Thursday Island Childcare Centre

TOs Traditional Owners

TRAWQ Tamoi, Rose Hill, Applin, Wyborn and Quarantine suburban areas of Thursday Island

T.S. Torres Strait

T.S.I. Torres Strait Islander

TSPZ Torres Strait Protected Zone

TSRA Torres Strait Regional Authority

V.P. Vice President

W wife

ZD sister’s daughter



Figure 1: Map of the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Areas. 2

Figure 2: Proforma of simple ticksheet used by the consultant to request T.S.I. interviewees to gauge the extent of Family Violence in particular communities. 16

Figure 3: Geographic limits of the Torres Strait Treaty, showing the Protected Zone in which certain Torres Strait Islanders and coastal Papuans can move freely for traditional activities. 18

Figure 4: Map of the Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Areas, showing division into six sub-regions (Eastern, Central, Top-Western, Mid-Western, South-Western and NPA). 20

Figure 5: Assessment of extent of Family Violence on a Central Island Community by an experienced T.S.I. D.V. worker. 26

Figure 6: Combined scores from ‘tick-sheet’ survey of perceived frequency of violence types in Torres Strait Island communities, scored by 14 Counsellors attending an Island Coordinating Council Meeting held on 5/12/07. 61

Figure 7: Assessment of extent of Family Violence in all Torres Strait communities by the Social Worker from the Torres Strait Regional Healing Centre based on 18 months of client counselling referrals and client phone-in inquiries and consultations during 2006-07. (No score provided for cyclic violence.) 61

Figure 8: A T.S.I. life-line drawn by H.M. to illustrate traditional roles in Islander culture. 82

Figure 9: Map of traditional trade routes linking Cape York and New Guinea via the Torres Strait Islands. On the Papuan coast, the routes converge upon Mawatta and Saibai. 103

Figure 10: The northern part of the Torres Strait showing Top-Western Islands and the Villages on the Papuan Coast from which cannabis trade originates across to the islands according to Jones (n.d.) 112


Table 1: Population distribution for Torres Strait and Northern Peninsula Area, according to the 2006 Census, with breakdown by locations, sub-regions and Indigenous Identity. 20

Table 2a: Thursday Island Division (Population 6698) 40

Table 2b: Horn Island (Population 623) 41

Table 2c: Badu Island (Population 786) 41

Table 2d: Bamaga (Population 2264) 41

Table 2e: Childers (Population 6506) 41

Table 2: Data on the occurrence of ‘domestic violence’ in the six months from October 2007 to March 2008, as recorded by Queensland Police at Thursday Island, Horn Island, Badu and Bamaga in the Torres Strait Region with a comparison to Childers in the Burnett Region (south-east Queensland). 42

Table 3: ‘Reported Offences against the Person’ according to Queensland Police data for the Torres Strait Region (including Northern Peninsula Area), 2005 to 2007. 63

Table 4: Assaults recorded by the Queensland Police Service in the Torres Strait Region divided by sub-regions, for 2005 to 2007. 64

Table 5: Sexual Offences recorded by the Queensland Police Service in the Torres Strait Region divided by sub-regions, for 2005 to 2007. 65

Table 6: Total Offences Against the Person1 recorded by the Queensland Police Service in the Torres Strait Region divided by sub-regions, for 2005 to 2007. 65

Table 7: Summary of Total of Offences Against the Person1 by sub-region (as extrapolated from Tables 1 to 6). 66


Background briefing for the research project

The Principal Author of this report, Paul Memmott, obtained the following briefing for the research study from the contracting client, the Queensland Department of Communities in early 2007.

“Due to its unique culture and geographic location, the Torres Strait Islander culture is vastly different to that of mainstream Australia and its neighbouring Aboriginal communities. Currently, services, policies and campaigns for family violence in Aboriginal populations have been generically applied to Torres Strait Islander peoples without recognition of the distinct needs of the cultures, and they may not be appropriate or accessible for Torres Strait Islander people. Although it is known that historical and current causes of family violence in the Torres Strait communities differ to those of Aboriginal communities, research literature on how and why family violence manifests in the Torres Strait is scant.

Torres Strait Islander communities are frequently geographically isolated, with limited access to services and infrastructure, and have reduced opportunity for communication with other areas. The majority of services for the Torres Strait are located on Thursday Island. Due to the archipelago nature of the Strait, this leaves many isolated from crisis services such as police and refuges. Safe emergency transportation and alternative accommodation may be non-existent on outlying islands, and there are anecdotal incidents of women fleeing domestic violence situations on unseaworthy vessels.

Limited generic counselling is available on Thursday Island, and no specific family violence counselling exists for victims, perpetrators, or child witnesses. Although there is a Department of Communities funded Healing Centre on Thursday Island, its focus is on engendering a culture of intolerance of family violence across the Strait. It also has commenced a Men’s Group, intended to bring men together to discuss the problem of family violence.

Historical factors, such as dispossession of land, social exclusion, and disenfranchisement have had an effect on the prevalence of family and domestic violence in Torres Strait Islander communities.” [End of DCS Briefing Notes.]

The geographic focus of the research study was originally the Torres Strait Region, comprising all of the island communities as well as the township of Thursday Island as the regional centre. However, after initial negotiations it was agreed to also take into the study, albeit within the constraints of the budget, the Northern Peninsula Area (NPA) with its five communities at the top of Cape York, each of which has a mix of Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal people of varying proportions.

The following general aims and specific questions formed the author’s research framework.

General research aim

It is anticipated that this research will contribute to the current evidence base for informing policy and service delivery for family and domestic violence prevention and early intervention in Torres Strait Islander populations.

Detailed Research Aims:-

What are the unique causes of Domestic and Family Violence in Torres Strait cultures?

What would be a geographically suited and culturally specific model of service, policy and campaign response for the Torres Strait and what range of service provision would this include? How could services enhance access for those at risk?

Detailed research questions

Baseline data:-

What is the incidence and prevalence of Domestic and Family Violence in Torres Strait Islander communities?

Historical factors:-

To what extent did Domestic and Family Violence exist in Torres Strait Islander culture prior to colonisation?

What were the specific causes of Family Violence pre-colonisation and how have these altered post-colonisation?


What are the prevailing cultural and community attitudes towards family and domestic violence in T.S.I. communities?

Risk factors:-

What are the structural, community and individual risk and protective factors for victims and perpetrators of Domestic and Family Violence in Torres Strait Islander communities?

What are the unique factors contributing to Domestic and Family Violence in T.S. communities as compared with mainland Aboriginal people?


What are the barriers to access existing services, particularly for those living on outer islands?


If the Department were to fund such a model, what kind of preliminary community development work is needed to ensure the sustainability of the service?

What would be a geographically suited and culturally specific model of service, policy and campaign response for the Torres Strait and what range of service provision would this include?

Definition of Family Violence used in this study

The definition of Family Violence in this study is drawn from Memmott et al (2001:1) and is “broadly defined to encapsulate not only the extended nature of Indigenous families, but also the context of a range of violence forms, occurring frequently between kinspeople in Indigenous communities.” The notion of ‘Family Violence’ may be summarised as follows:

Family Violence may involve all types of relatives; the victim and the perpetrator often have a kinship relation;

the perpetrator of violence may be an individual or a group;

the victim of violence may also be an individual or a group;

the term ‘family’ means ‘extended family’ which also covers a kinship network of discrete, intermarried, descent groups;

the ‘community’ may be remote, rural or urban based; its residents may live in one location or be more dispersed, but nevertheless interact behave as a social network;

the acts of violence may constitute physical, psychological, emotional, social, economic and/or sexual abuse; and

some of the acts of violence are ongoing over a long period of time, one of the most prevalent examples being spousal (or domestic) violence. (Memmott et al 2001:1.)

Two key attributes of this definition are the inclusion of extended family and the inclusion of forms of psychological and emotional violence. Both of these attributes also appear to be incorporated into the legal definition provided under the relevant Queensland State Government legislation (as does the notion of a ‘group’ since there may be more than one respondent involved in a Protection Order.)

The Domestic and Family Violence Protection Act 1989 defines Domestic Violence as follows:-

“(1) Domestic violence is any of the following acts that a person commits against another person if a domestic relationship exists between the two persons—

(a) wilful injury;

(b) wilful damage to the other person’s property;…

(c) intimidation or harassment of the other person;…

(d) indecent behaviour to the other person without consent;

(e) a threat to commit an act mentioned in paragraphs (a) to (d).

(2) The person committing the domestic violence need not personally commit the act or threaten to commit it.”

Relationships that are defined as domestic relationships for this Queensland Act consist of the following:-

“(a) a spousal relationship;

(b) an intimate personal relationship;

(c) a family relationship; [and]

(d) an informal care relationship.” (Qld Parl. 2006:Clauses 11 and 11A.)

See Appendix 1 for more detail on these definitions.

Summary of project methodology

An analysis of any available oral histories, historical documents and records was undertaken to ascertain incidence of family and domestic violence prior to colonisation and to examine the impact of colonisation on family and domestic violence.

A literature review and scoping of existing services was undertaken to provide a baseline of current domestic violence responses in Torres Strait Islander communities.

Contact was made with specific councils, leaders and service providers to determine best mode of identifying subject participants.

Interviews were conducted with both government and non-government service providers in the Family Violence sector and with community leaders (including some domestic violence victims and perpetrators).

Analysis of available and collective qualitative data was undertaken to identify key themes, emerging trends and key causal, risk and protective factors.

A review of the identified needs of the population was compared against existing services to identify service gaps and opportunities for enhancement.

Quantitative data prepared by the Queensland Police Statisticians were incorporated into the findings.

Proposals were developed from local knowledge, advice and recommendation, analysis of above and other available models from Indigenous cultures.

Detailed project components

This was a demanding project with a finite and quite limited budget. It called for four significant component outcomes. The consultancy attempted to balance the findings in the four component areas below, within the constraints of the budget. (It is noted that the original prescribed role of household interviewing and local capacity building in the project has been de-emphasized since the earlier 2006 version of the project brief.)

(1) Literature analysis. The project called for an historical/ethnographic literature-based analysis that addressed the pre-contact and early contact nature of Torres Strait Islander culture and the extent of family and domestic violence in it.

Comment: We drew initially and primarily on the AIATSIS Library for Torres Strait Island literature. It was originally unclear how successful this analysis was given the lack of specific writings on family or domestic violence in the Torres Straits. (We began at the obvious source, the Haddon/Cambridge Expedition documents.) The client was made aware that the findings would be limited by the literature content. Supplementary literature search subjects for this project [besides violence per se], were kinship and social organization including extended family, family member roles, rites of passage, social networks, leadership, village councils etc. A summary of this literature follows.

(2) The project called for a profile of contemporary violence and its causes in the Torres Strait communities. This was compiled from qualitative findings from interviewing service providers and Indigenous people and available statistics (specifically police statistics). This profile was used to assist in assessing, (a) if and how Torres Strait violence and its causes have changed since pre- and early-colonization times, (b) what makes Domestic Violence/Family Violence in the Torres Straits culturally specific or unique, and (c) how does it differ from Aboriginal Domestic Violence/Family Violence on the mainland. It will also include a detailed causal analysis.

Comment: To collect this information we nominated to rely largely on the extensive expertise that already existed within the agencies on Thursday Island. The most effective way to build an initial qualitative model of violence with a limited budget was, in our view, to tap this expertise. This was achieved by one-on-one interviews and Focus Group Workshops over three intense field trips with follow-up phone/email exchanges.

(3) The model of contemporary Torres Strait violence in (2) also needed to be accompanied by other features, including an attitudinal assessment, a risk factor assessment, a protective factor assessment, a service barrier assessment, and a profile of all existing available services (at least 20 agencies minimum).

This data was collected using the same method as in (2).

(4) From the above information, a culturally-relevant regional violence response plan (services, policies, campaign) was formulated in the form of a model and recommendations, including some attention to preliminary sustainable implementation steps.

Comment: This was in itself a major task. The model is shaped around the needs (and service gap) analysis that were inherent in (2) and (3). However we drew on our experience and writings on Indigenous Family Violence response strategies, both within Aboriginal Australia and overseas (New Zealand, USA, Canada).

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