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



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A Police Officer conceded that the Community Police had problems because “everyone in a community is related: it is a public confidence issue”, and that many victims’ families did not want to report family violence to the CPOs. People were reluctant to give information to them. He added that the CPOs are under the Council banner, and are poorly resourced. The CPOs cannot effectively apply bye-laws to Council members. If they do, they risk being threatened to be sacked, which undermines their authority. He noted that the CPOs have a high turnover. Another problem was that the regular (sworn) Police Officers flew into the community for the day to serve warrants, when the CPOs’ role was to help find those people on whom the warrants were to be served, but this often resulted in payback against the CPOs later.

Another Police Officer commented that an individual female victim of domestic violence may have opportunities to make a complaint (e.g. to a CPO), but often only does it when the Thursday Island. Police visit; then they come forward to get off the island immediately, so as to avoid any risk of pay-back and to ensure a quick exit. He added there is a responsibility of CPOs to write reports on family violence incidents and fax it back to the Thursday Island. Police, but it was conceded that “the ‘Fax back’ system gets overlooked at times”

The same attitude of reluctance to report was found in the NPA, but an educational campaign managed to reverse this attitude to some extent demonstrating the value of targeting information in this way: “It was very hard at Injinoo because it is a closed community – things were never reported. But [NPA] Healing Centre went in, good staff, access to phones, go to staff house and start calling up Police. Police coming in regularly, residents are reporting more and more. Don’t take things in their own hands so much, let Police deal with it. If it flows to Court, there is a sense of justice being done.” x

Failure to report contributes to slow service response, exacerbating the victim’s plight

A Child Services officer described the difficulty of late intervention. He commented that domestic violence between a couple may have been continuing for some time with children witnessing it; the problems then escalate, “but we don’t get to them till the last crisis point. Reporting is often left until someone is badly hurt. We hear about it if Police are involved and/or if someone is badly hurt. It is slow to report and we can be slow to react due to shortage of staff.” Child Services can request the use of Health or Education staff to monitor the family in question, but they have their own job. They can get harassed by that family if they are too intrusive. He concluded “In Torres Strait Islander., [there are] not that many incidents, but where we do follow-up it is usually serious.” x

Taking advantage of one’s special community status to abuse vulnerable persons

The Iina Corporation found that despite the longstanding traditional benefits of extended family members providing supplementary parenting roles, some children were placed at risk of abuse within such traditional child rearing practices. Children may be abused by a range of carers including their parents, parents’ partners, defacto partners, extended family members and adopted parents. (Iina 1996:17-18.)

In the mid 1990s, Iina noted that when community leaders were requested or encouraged to make a stand against Family Violence, some may have had a serious conflict of interest in addressing such issues, since they themselves may have been involved in child abuse, Family Violence, substance abuse or behaviour that jeopardised the welfare of families or children (Iina 1996:vii). This problem was found to still apply in 2007 by the current author. If such individuals were regarded as trusted leaders, their status provided an opportunity for them to take advantage of vulnerable individuals who confided in them. And when they were reported for betraying this trust through some inexcusable act of family violence (e.g. child sexual abuse), the same status led to others doubting the validity of the complaint, and/or intimidated others responding to the complaint due to the status of the perpetrator. Thus perpetrators may be on Boards or Councils (x Iina added that the religious standing or status or position of the perpetrator in the community “poses a front or shield from acknowledging abuse of children” since it would be an insult to accuse them of any such offence (Iina 1996:18).

An informative observation by Iina in the mid 1990s was that children who have been abused in this manner are often sent away, to a carer/family in a different community “with the perpetrator receiving no punishment, accountability or counselling for the offence committed. In such instances there are no deterrents to perpetrators.” In such cases community denial was even more entrenched, with such a position of trust preventing the perpetrator from facing accusations due to their community status. The end result was a lack of justice and punishment, no deterrence for the perpetrator and no counselling for the victim. The report concluded that “community denial is very much part of the problem and not part of the solution”, and as such required immediate attention. (Iina 1996:18.)

Reluctance to confront family violence problems

A x domestic violence worker made some general observations about Family Violence in the Torres Strait, which included that male perpetrator groups have a propensity to deflect the blame for their behaviour on to adverse historical circumstances and thereby divert the blame from themselves and shed their guilt . In many cases Torres Strait Islander. people refuse to acknowledge that a problem exists; whilst in others they direct the blame to external factors. Let us consider the first tendency.

The author’s consultant, x said: “Men in Torres Strait are still in ‘no talk’ time”, meaning they do not want to discuss honestly the issues of Family Violence and the attitudes of men in relation to problems. This was reflected by the lack of men in the Torres Strait region who are actively and openly involved in addressing family violence. It was pointed out that during domestic violence Prevention Month and its activities (in May - dinner, sausage sizzle and march) men are not visible at these public events.

[Interviewees] commented: “It’s a closed door all the time [but its] got to be everybody’s business. The issue needs to be open.” A[nother] added: “People at Thursday Island are still talking like they were talking 20 years ago. I went to meeting at Thursday Island...A man talked for one hour because no-one was game to interrupt him. The women won’t interrupt a man at Thursday Island. It is different here [at NPA]. The women wear the pants here more.”

Just as men are not prepared to confront their overly possessive or at times chauvinistic attitudes, many women are not prepared to confront or challenge their husbands concerning the same, as the following case study demonstrates. Two consultants independently provided information for this case study profile.

Before got married to her husband, she knew he was like that [i.e. possessive and physically violent], but she still married him. He is such a proud person, he never will change, and has a very loud mouth. He argues about the wrong thing most of the time. The wife is afraid to leave him. In his home structure the priorities are: (1) his children, (2) his dog, (3) then his wife On the outside she’s happy, smart and working. But even her kids tell her what to do. The children are bossing their mother. The children go to the father if upset with their mother. Or they threaten the mother with “wait till dad comes home”. But she is deeply afraid of being alone and will not leave or confront the situation. Some other families do the same thing.

[An interviewee] observed that sometimes domestic violence victims come to [a service] and say they are ‘homeless’ due to their embarrassment about the reason being domestic violence

A reluctance to confront problems often results in a tendency to direct blame to non-Torres Strait Islander. factors. The author’s consultant, x described this trait as follows: “We always blame someone else if we are in trouble: blame the police, or the school teachers. But why blame others if it is our responsibility. Everything begins at home. If children are on the street, and are dysfunctional, look back to the home.” A[n interviewee] x observed this trait in Court: “A lot of parents are in denial. Whilst sitting in Court last week, it was good to see a mother come for her son. [But] when asked to speak, she didn’t want to. She was blaming other people. But hang on, ‘it’s your child, your responsibility!’”

One of the challenging issues is how to bring about an attitudinal change to overcome the complacency and reluctance to change. One [interviewee] x described how they started to introduce attitudinal changes in NPA:-

“When we started, they would say ‘Violence is our culture’. It’s not true. It is the role of the in-laws to do the disciplining. Have to ask them: What is the history of violence? Where does it lie culturally? People starting asking questions in their workplaces and homes. Ask what they want to know. Instead of focusing on the blame or the issue, you give out information. You tell one household, then they tell three other households.”

Consultant commented on a Torres Strait Islander. father who changed his own lifestyle, and then his family followed changing their attitudes accordingly:

“[He] x lead by example, his children then followed. Couldn’t change them by physical disciplining. Need to build the power of mind to change one’s lifestyle. Everybody needs this service. Need to empower the Healing Service. “Everyone fix it the sail”. One of the biggest problems is complacency. A common attitude is “Who does he think he is, judging you?””

A Child Safety Officer suggested that research should examine the correlation between chronic illness (e.g. diabetes) and domestic violence, because perpetrators often blamed their medication for their domestic violence Whereas this could be regarded as a form of blaming other factors than one’s own inappropriate behaviour, at least one . Officer from the Department of Health made a similar comment.

Malicious gossip

Gossip has already been identified in Chapter 2 as a form of psychological violence, but it appears to have a distinctly strong set of negative connotations associated with it by Torres Strait Islanders. Most people whom the researcher interviewed identified kariyan as (or kareyan) meaning ‘bad gossip’ or ‘verbal abuse’. An [interviewee] said that kariyan is a cultural habit – part of life, and in the work place” x. Nevertheless a Torres Strait Islander Creole dictionary gives two related meanings to kariyan, one positive and one negative: “1. oral story or information or communication; 2. bad gossip/negative connotation, ‘poisoned mouth’.” (Shnukal 2004a & b.)

To exemplify kariyan, [the author’s consultant] told the author ‘the Crab in a Bucket’ joke as an example of how Torres Strait Islanders have a propensity to pull one another down. He said this is a serious problem in how Torres Strait Islander. people live, and that there was a social challenge in how to turn the attitude around. People always “look to spread that bad thing around.” The joke goes as follows: A white and a black fisherman are catching mud crabs and putting them in a bucket. The white fisherman says ‘won’t they get out?’ The black fisherman says ‘No, they’re Torres Strait Islander. crabs’.

As well as being a psychological form of Family Violence, gossip can be a precipitating factor underlying physical violence.

Recommendation from this whole section of the report: A community-based, Torres Strait wide strategy needs to be devised to assist all Torres Strait Islander. people to understand and adopt culturally-appropriate, as well as legally-appropriate, positive responses to forms of domestic violence as opposed to non-response, complacency, self-deception, and misapplication of cultural interpretations. Such a strategy needs to be based on a broad consultative process and have both educational (pro-active) and counselling (reactive) components, and needs to be informed by a clear understanding of customary values and attitudes pertaining to family violence, kinship and parenting and the need for them to be adapted to the current Australian social and legal norms, without losing cultural sensitivity and practicality of outcomes.

Lack of appropriate service infrastructure

A review of the available family violence response services follows in Chapter 5, but some general points can be made here about the lack of appropriate service infrastructure which indirectly facilitates the perpetration of family violence in the Torres Strait Region.

Lack of cultural appropriateness of services

There was a general consensus amongst consultants that service delivery had to take local cultural specificities into account. As one Torres Strait Islander. Child Safety worker stated: “Torres Strait Islanders are unique; any intervention should [therefore] be different”

A[n interviewee] “Island custom must be legislated. We a minority in a minority. Everything [culturally] gets washed away. [Should] treat [us] as Torres Strait Islander not Indigenous people” x The translation of this is that Indigenous Australians are a minority, and within that minority, the Torres Strait Islander. people are an inner minority whose culture is often glossed together with Aboriginal; and hence recognition of the values and significance of Torres Strait culture is completely lost.

A[nother interviewee] , was asked why family violence services are not effective in the Torres Strait. His first answer was that they are not culturally appropriate or not culturally acceptable. He pointed out that there were cultural differences between each of the Torres Strait Islands as well as between Torres Strait Islander. and Aboriginal cultures. “What you do at Murray Island is different to Badu and to Yarrabah.” Then he turned to behavioural differences and gave an example of a government education advertisement concerning optimum healthy drinking limits of two or three glasses of alcohol per night. “It doesn’t talk about what happens if you drink ten or 15 glasses or if you binge drink all day. This is what people drink at a tombstone opening or at a wedding. Then they don’t touch a drink for two or three weeks. Torres Strait Islander. people do not drink two or three wines per night with dinner.” [He] concluded that “Torres Strait Islanders need to be recognized for being a Torres Strait Islander; for what they are culturally”

In Indigenous service delivery the appropriateness of a particular person as a service provider may be dependent on the grounds of kinship and/or cultural identity and/or gender. Two examples follow.

The author’s consultant, , raised the issue of a family violence worker needing to be in a culturally appropriate relation in order to effectively work with particular clients: He gave the case of brother-in-law and sister-in-law avoidance example. x x. [He] then gave a second example of a professionally experienced non-Torres Strait Islander. Social Worker going to assist in a sexual assault case. The female Torres Strait Islander. victim would not meet with this white Social Worker and viewed her as not being culturally appropriate. The girl wanted to see a Torres Strait Islander. woman in their party, but the latter was not professionally qualified.

Inappropriate funding scales and structuring of NGOs

A number of interviewees were concerned about the best way for the Torres Strait communities to structure Torres Strait Islander. (NGO) services in the region to most effectively address family violence. For example, an [interviewee] x raised the problem. She said that the Department of Communities officers split up [a] service into three or four organizations. But [the] preference is to pool funds and services into one. x taught us that model; to combine our buckets of money. But the Department has been responsible for splitting everything up. Combining buckets of money may achieve better scales of economy, but integrating services may also achieve a more holistic response to situations. For example, [the author’s consultant] recalled an example of a husband phoning [one service] x and his wife simultaneously ringing [another service] to deal with their dispute over one child. This couple soon split up. He said “we could have done more damage” by acting as separate organizations in attempting to resolve the matter.

[Interviewees] x explained their strategy to avoid such circumstances. This involved weekly case worker meetings between organization representatives to talk about and compare findings on what was happening for a particular family or kin group who are affected by a problem.

However not all splits in service organizations have been a direct result of government action. Organizations have chosen to split within themselves due to the political interests of executive members. x x

Lack of appropriate information and human resources to deliver it

As early as 1996, Iina Torres Strait Islanders Corporation reported that in Torres Strait Islander communities there was a lack of “resources to provide specific and culturally appropriate counselling services”, as well as a lack of information regarding child abuse prevention issues. Consequently, people did not know what programme could be accessed or funded, and in many cases did not understand what their rights were in regards to child abuse prevention. Iina argued that programs aimed at child abuse prevention needed to provide an appropriate counselling service aimed simultaneously at males, females and children, i.e. all members of the family who are impacted. (Iina 1996:20.)

The same problem was reported by Cutts in the mid 1990s as well:-

“In regards to domestic violence victims, much depends on that awareness of the wider community and knowledge of whom to turn to for assistance in times of need. Not knowing one's individual rights is attributed to limited educa­tion. Hence many Torres Strait victims of domestic violence feel trapped, because their awareness level is limited and therefore the options available to them are limited.” (Cutts 1996:140.)

[The author’s consultant] contrasted the more advanced system of family violence programmes in the NPA with the comparative lack of programmes in the Torres Straits. “The difference is [that] NPA are working together. Torres Strait is not happening – we have a new breed who don’t think about the cause anymore. Uni graduates are smarter in management but do not have heart for the cause.” He went on to argue the need for more researchers and workers to put the facts about family violence on the table and to lobby on behalf of the Torres Straits. He noted that x was only funded for 21/2 positions, and was a ‘toothless tiger’ due to its lack of resources, despite its important earlier history and role in Torres Strait. “

A x Child Safety Officer argued that Torres Strait Islanders did not have the skill base to assess alternate ways of parenting. A lack of resources was underlying this, resulting in an educational resource gap. He stated that there was a lack of human resources at Thursday Island. and no capacity to provide information sessions. The author’s consultant x also lamented that there was no family planning or marriage counselling services available to young couples experiencing difficulties in their early years of marriage. A Social Worker said “We are not looking after victims”

Worker Burn-out

As noted elsewhere throughout Indigenous Australia (Memmott et al 2006:27), family violence and domestic violence workers come under extreme duress in their day-to-day work. For example, a Worker x x commented that “the family [of the perpetrator] hate your guts. I have been abused by private phone calls. When things get too hard, I go bush, just disappear. A whole family will ‘get up you’ [over an issue].” Violence workers are thus themselves regular victims of psychological violence. [The author’s consultant] recounted the burn-out he suffered when he worked [with victims] A[n NGO] representative x said that their NGO, had “to protect our family violence workers too…If children are taken away [due to neglect or abuse], we’ve still got to live in our community” x

Another Community Health employee x made the same observation about non-Torres Strait Islander. workers from the mainland: “Mental Health Counsellors burn out. We get several in a year here from Thursday Island.. There is a frequent turnover of staff.” x

Recommendation: The design of any response to family violence, especially those dependent on community-based workers, needs to include strategies to counter worker ‘burn-out’ due to the highly stressed nature of family violence work.

Lack of economic incentive for local family violence Workers

One [interviewer] expanded on the lack of economic incentives for local family violence Workers. “Trained workers come under the Council, but Council has no finances to employ them – so they come under CDEP. If they get training and go to college, then those people are lost to the mainland – they get better paying jobs there.” Remuneration is poor on the islands and there is no housing package for locals. Native Title also restricts housing development; the majority of landowners want compensation for new blocks of land for new housing.

Lack of physical infrastructure

There is a woeful lack of infrastructure for each of the handful of family violence workers operating throughout the Torres Strait Islands. [A] x worker at said there was no Women’s Shelter at St Pauls.

The ATSI Women’s Task Force on Violence Report noted the disadvantages of poor service access due to remoteness and inadequate local service and infrastructure provision:

“People on the outer islands of the Torres Strait are even more isolated when violence erupts. There are no medical facilities for the injured, and no watch-houses where offenders can be detained. Victims must wait for assistance to arrive from Thursday Island, and while they wait, they may be exposed to further violence and potentially fatal injuries. The situation is worse on weekends, when victims of violence may have to wait until Monday for either medical or police assistance.” (Qld, DATSIPD 1999:141-152.)

A recurring concern expressed by x [a] Police Officer , was that there was nowhere for male domestic violence victims to go for retreat when being victimized, especially on Thursday Island. This Police Officer . stated “if a husband is getting flogged [by his spouse] on Thursday Island, our Police have to get him out as soon as possible or they will be there all night trying to sort it out, and he will end up being charged for retaliating” x

Failure of the churches to take a systematic regional stance

The author’s consultant x was critical of the church in failing to address family violence in the Torres Strait. He said: “The church has been part of the community for the last century. Everyone is looking for healing in the church but it is not happening. The church is not servicing people properly. Yet the (Anglican) church has a Parish on every island. The church has a duty of care. Why is it not attending to it?” [He] x then went on to mention two of the limitations of the Church arising from its past bad practices. He said that Torres Strait Islander. people need to “start looking at ourselves/at the truth, [in particular] the church did play a role in suppressing the people – it caused trauma.” On another occasion [he] . argued: “the Torres Strait celebrates its history with the Coming of the Light. One of the biggest Torres Strait organizations is the church and people are spiritual. But where has the church been with respect to family violence”? x



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