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



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Co-author Charles Passi has stated this need on numerous occasions during the research:-

“[there is a need to] put responsibility back onto the community; to empower the cultural role of Awa, uncles and aunties. Teaching of married couples by Cultural Elders is the traditional way…Must invest back into the role of Awa to teach young people and mentor a young man through his initiation period [by] handing back that responsibility to the community. Empower community to take charge of healing itself.”

In the first instance, this means that T.S.I. Islanders must take responsibility to define forms of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour both in the cultural context and in the Anglo-Australian legal context (including the issue of resolving the mutual contradictions) within the community and on behalf of the community, and to inform the Anglo legal system about such.

“Our leadership needs to standardize who we are; to explain ‘This what Ilan man’, ‘This is how we support Ilan law’” x

Charles Passi went on to explain that there is currently a lack of clear role definitions of women and men in T.S.I. communities, but the traditional rules are already there – there is just a need to identify and clarify these standards and rules to reinforce them and re-empower the people about these matters. Charles has argued for T.S.I. people to workshop a definition of ‘women’s business’ and ‘men’s business’; “they are [originally] Aboriginal [English] terms but how do they translate here in the Torres Straits?” (C.P., 15/10/07).

The D.V. Outreach Worker from the Top-Western Islands, placed a caveat on Charles’s proposal by stating: “Yes, wife’s brother is awa for my son; but role models must be strong or will have wrong effect” However various T.S.I. interviewees were in agreement about this broad proposal for a community-based set of rules and values about Family Violence. For example, one leader stated, “Already [we] have customary law in place to avoid conflict; [so] the question is how to take those practices and put [them] into policies, [and] then integrate with mainstream policy” leader went on to argue for the longitudinal stability of Torres Strait culture and its rules:-

“We must modify the culture. Need to put some practices away, but maintain our identity. We are a nation of people. If [we were] not, we would have been overcome a long time ago. People on the west coast of PNG and Lockhart [River] people do dance like us; this proves we had influence.”

This idea of putting certain obsolete practices ‘away’ whilst simultaneously maintaining functionally relevant customs, had already been voiced by the T.S.I. researcher Christine Cutts in the mid-1990s:-

“Any anti-poverty strategies that are adopted must seek to maintain cultural traits that are important to the cultural survival and uniqueness of our culture, but let go of those cultural practices that are obsolete. At the same time effective practices that were abandoned because of outside cultural forces need to be reintroduced…Traditionally, Islanders had a support network built in the social/family structure. Traditional laws to deter unacceptable or deviant behaviour were enforced by the elders. Reintroduction of traditional methods of punishment that worked as a deterrent in the past should be considered again.” (Cutts 1996:148.)

x [An interviewee] spoke of the critical relation between community-based structures and the government and NGO services:-

“[A] Thab is a tree fork and post support – used to prop up a [leaning] tree. NGO and government services is Thab. They must give the responsibility back to the people. [Government is] based on structures that are not ours. [Our] Akas and awas used to be in the house – now in the old age home. Need to restore the family structure. Initiation phase is part of structure. Need agencies to listen to this. Love has to come in again.”

Whilst discussing how to minimize alcohol and drug abuse, the x [interviewee] said: “The conventional educational approach doesn’t work. Need to move to a community development approach; each community to put their own things in place. [Can] build plenty of infrastructure. But this is missing [i.e. values and structure].” [A] Social Worker added that “Indigenous expertise must be recognised” x A[nother interviewee] also said:

“Government has not taken on the recommendations of the Torres Strait Islanders over the years. Mura Kosker, Lena Passi, Kazi always said F.V. had huge impacts on family life in the Torres Strait Islands. But Department of Community has not been prepared to support. [Kazi] aimed to do prevention strategies – but it has not been funded. Now entering crisis mode. In the past, there were strong cultural ties, and social cohesion...how to sustain this? When governments are making all the decisions, we are always disempowered. Need to link to families, build capacity, strengthen social/family links. But people are not allowed to make decisions…Organizations have to be very smart how to move forward. They need recognition from government that government will support. But Torres Strait Islander people need [themselves] to be decision-makers to deal with D.V..”

Accepting the need for a community-based approach as a design premise or a foundation block for a Family Violence response model then, it is appropriate to revisit the recommendation that was set out in Chapter 4, as follows:-

Broad Recommendation: A community-based, Torres Strait wide strategy needs to be devised to assist all T.S.I. people to understand and adopt culturally-appropriate, as well as legally-appropriate, positive responses to forms of Family Violence as opposed to non-response, complacency, self-deception, and misapplication of cultural interpretations. Such a Regional Strategy needs to be based on a broad consultative process of workshops and have a set of both pro-active (educational/preventative) and reactive (intervention/counselling) components, and needs to be informed by a clear understanding of customary values, attitudes and practices pertaining to F.V., 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.

An understanding of how customary kinship has persisted and whether certain aspects have weakened is critical, not only for analyzing the causes of Family Violence, but also for understanding how certain kinship practices might be supported and strengthened in guarding against Family Violence. A number of critical kinship duties in protecting against potential Family Violence have been highlighted as persisting, albeit to varying extents eroded e.g. the roles of the Awa, the elder sibling, the grandparents, the classificatory kin in general and that of adopting parents. Although it is not possible in a short study of this type to gauge the precise extent of the erosion of their practices, the kinship principles are still widely understood and appreciated as ‘norms’ that should be respected, followed and supported. These cultural norms are therefore available as ‘tools’ that could be ‘sharpened’ and applied in a more systematic manner as part of a regional F.V. response model.

Once the basis for a community-based, Torres Strait wide strategy is planned, it can then be augmented by developing partnerships with the various government mainstream and NGO agencies (including Police, Courts, Justice Groups, Prisons, Corrective Services, Child Safety, Health Services, Local Councils, Mura Kosker, Lena Passi, Kazi, Healing Service etc).

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

At a meeting of the full Island Coordinating Council, a T.S.I. regional leader emphasized the need for the political independence of any regional F.V. model:

“Any [such] programme should sit outside of a political arena. It cannot sit under the Regional Council and must also sit outside the new Shire Council. But it must have linkages to government. It should be an organization with a specific purpose – the healing of children and families. Politics can’t change traditional families or structures. It needs to be a strong organization by itself in our region. We should remind people about our culture. And look for professional help, who to turn to.” x

Charles Passi cautioned that one remedy does not work for everybody in the Torres Strait and each community needed its own research approach A police x [officer] made the same point at the outset of the research:- “Each island speaks for themselves; each island is so unique and individual” x x [Another interviewee] stated similarly:- “Communities have different needs; all communities with their strengths and weaknesses - each community needs its own research plan”

However on the issue of duplication and scale it was said that there were “too many small organizations and duplications here” in the Torres Strait. One T.S.I. leader said that three years ago he counted approximately 20 State Government services, 14 Commonwealth Government services, and 14 government-funded NGO services on Thursday Island, concluding “The Torres Straits is over serviced!”; but despite this, there were still widespread problems

A constructive compromise would be to develop one Response Plan for each of the five Sub-regions which would together combine into one Regional Plan. The common services to be delivered to all of the Sub-regions could then be identified, together with whatever local structures, additional programs and modifications are necessary to suit the local circumstances of each Sub-region.

Leading the Strategy - ‘Busting the bomb’

An early step in commencing a regional F.V. response, is openly and publicly communicating to the Torres Strait society that a F.V. complex of problems exists and will continue to grow if not adequately checked. Educational steps need to follow to ensure a collective social consciousness and acceptance that these problems exist and there is a need to talk about them.

“Publicly admitting the problem of violence in a [Indigenous] community and acknowledging the need for collective action is the first step towards healing and combating such violence. However, admitting that there is a problem, particularly of the enormity that many communities are faced with today, can be a painful and shameful experience.” (Memmott et al 2001:84.)

After the author and his co-author Charles Passi addressed the ICC meeting on the T.S.I. F.V. problem on 5/12/07, Charles was given the support of the ICC Board members to “bust a bomb in the region, before pass it out”, meaning to politicize the problem regionally and to wake T.S. Islanders up from their complacency and hyposrisy, before requesting government support. It was said: “Before we get someone [government] to help us, we must [start to] do it ourselves; must heal ourselves” x Charles Passi has remained committed and spirited about this endorsement of the ICC for him to ‘drop the bomb’ and ‘bust it open’ i.e. to announce the truth and lead a strategic response. If adequately supported by government and NGOs, this could result in the necessary consultative workshop process to design a T.S.I. Regional F.V. Strategy.

There is thus a need to build local services, community-driven and culturally-appropriate so as to address the service gaps. There is a need for local leaders in social planning roles (such as Charles Passi) with support from all of the communities’ leaders, to act as a catalyst so as to result in public acceptance of the problem as well as in home-grown solutions, and to also assist in cultural identity strengthening, leadership capacity-building and social cohesion as parts of the response process.

A set of possible steps for a community-based approach

The following set of steps that are drawn from the preceding analysis in this report, should ideally be combined to establish such a community-based approach. They are offered for ongoing discussion and debate on the design of this process, preferably through a set of Sub-region workshops.

The State Government to entrust a major share of responsibility for Family Violence back to the communities.

A culturally-appropriate, holistic, community-based violence Strategy to be designed with partnership links to T.S.I. NGOs and government departments, the churches, the T.S. Regional Authority and the new Shire Councils. The Strategy to form a regional Family Violence Plan for the T.S.I. region together with an individual plan for each Sub-region.

Torres Strait Islander people to take control and lead the Strategy whilst the Government forms partnerships and passes responsibility back.

The Strategy must reinforce and empower the customary cultural roles of particular kinspeople, including uncles and aunties (awa), grandparents, and in-laws, i.e. draw on the traditional T.S.I. authority system and its roles of kinship responsibility.

A selected group of T.S.I. leaders to develop a simple set of culturally-appropriate T.S.I. standards and rules of behaviour, that can be used as a reference in Schools, Village Committees, Courts, Justice Groups, Healing Services etc. These need to be also adopted into mainstream service policies (police, courts, prisons).

The Strategy must promote culturally appropriate values (e.g. respect, trust, understanding, owning your problem, kinship principles, child and family values).

Healthy customary child and family values should be reinforced and then strengthened through support for a T.S.I. regional children’s services (e.g. Kazi).

The Village Committee Model to be reinvigorated and used to conscript leaders and workers in all communities to direct people in the right direction and establish local initiatives.

Techniques to be developed for communities to gain the capacity to heal themselves (at the individual, family, community, and regional levels).

Such a T.S. F.V. Response Strategy needs to ensure all communities are equitably targeted, especially the more remote ones (outer islands).

Once the community, sub-regional, and regional aspects of the framework are established, a composite of individual programs should be selected and prioritized from NGOs and government departments, either existing or new ones.

This last step of the Strategy is amplified in the remainder of this Chapter.

Classification of violence responses according to their time of implementation

In seeking a composite methodology to build into a regional F.V. Response Plan, a useful way of classifying violence responses and programs is by the time of application or implementation of each response action or program. In this manner, four time categories of programs may be readily differentiated as set out below, viz early prevention, early intervention, late intervention, late prevention (adapted from Memmott et al 2001:74-75). In considering the needs of a violence plan or model in the Torres Strait region, it is useful to consider how a mix of such programs or responses can be selected and prioritized within these four categories in a balanced and composite way to meet local needs. The four categories can be defined as follows:-

Early prevention responses (‘try to stop it ever happening’)

This category of programs aims to counter any likelihood of violence as early as possible, based on the assumption that there is some element of the risk of violence occurring in the long-term future and that all members of a community need to be equipped to deal with such. These proactive programs comprise (i) diversionary activities aimed at preoccupying people in worthwhile pursuits, (ii) educational methods which target all age groups from infancy, (iii) the communal promotion of definitions of acceptable and non-acceptable behaviour, (iv) the training of Indigenous violence counsellors to ensure resourced personnel are available in communities to counter any prospects of violence, and (v) alcohol management strategies.

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

Early intervention programs refer to those that occur prior to violence occurring, but which are triggered by signs of imminent violent situations and thus targeted at persons at-risk. These programs include (i) mediations in disputes, (ii) group therapy and counselling, (iii) night patrols and wardens, (iv) removal of at-risk persons to safe houses, youth centres, outstations etc, and (v) suicide counselling strategies. Many of these methods are similar to those in (3) (following), but they are targeted at a different category of people, namely at-risk individuals as opposed to actual offenders or victims.

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

These programs are implemented during, or immediately after the occurrence of a violent incident, but usually prior to any police prosecution. They include methods such as (i) night patrols, (ii) youth suicide intervention strategy, (iii) women’s refuges or shelters, (iv) substance abuse, intervention programs, and (v) sobering-up shelters.

Late prevention responses (‘stop it happening again’)

Late prevention programs are implemented some time after an act of violence has occurred and are preoccupied with resolving the negative outcomes of that violence. These programs include methods such as (i) mediation and conflict resolution, (ii) counselling and group therapy (e.g. men’s group, social-emotional wellbeing etc), (iii) justice group meetings, (iv) offenders alternate programs (prison-based or non-prison-based). These responses are oriented to stopping any further violence from recurring or happening again.

As indicated above, this system of classification is useful in considering the design of a holistic set of composite violence responses or programs for a community or region, and to include such in its Family Violence Response Plan or Model. These categories will be used by way of sub-headings in the following part of this chapter. Under each sub-heading, are listed the programs that have been identified as needed and desirable within the Torres Strait. However no attempt has been made to prioritize them at this stage. The task of prioritizing for each of the T.S.I. Sub-regions and communities that addresses the four categories of responses outlined above, is one that needs to be done in future workshops in the Torres Strait. The list below should therefore be regarded as preliminary and indicative of what might be considered and evaluated for inclusion.

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

1.1 Revitalisation of Village Committees

As reported in Chapter 5, the ‘Village Committee’ model still retains strong support and credibility as a concept, and interviewees agree that it should be revitalized and resourced. Village Committees would be particularly useful to take a preventative role (both early and late), but could also perform intervention roles. However there are alternative local committee structures for such functions as one [interviewee] x pointed out:- “Why have a Village Committee when already have Justice Group/Church Groups?” x This choice needs to be workshopped throughout each Sub-region and community.

1.2 Establishing trusted F.V. workers in every community

Ideally there should be a community-based F.V. resource worker in each community Such a person could work in conjunction with a Village Committee. (However Iina (1996:vii) warned that it is “…important to screen prospective employees personal histories to see if they are themselves involved or have been involved in domestic violence or child abuse, especially in child welfare roles”.) Both parents and children should be aware of persons and services in the community that they can turn to for help when placed in difficult situations, and of whom can be trusted to represent their interests (Iina 1996:17-18). This proposal was endorsed by an [interviewee] x who said:- “Need an agent established in the community, and for Department people to bless that position; then that person talks to parents” x

1.3 The promotion of effective communication as a general principle

A key recurring issue identified in the research was that there was “not enough effective communication, both in communities and in the workplace; with too much competition between NGOs.” It was said that these communities need “to have some sort of setting [in which] to come together – where you have to drop any [excessively] strong ideology” [e.g. different churches, to allow everyone to work together]. A[n interviewee] emphasized “promoting the need for communication on violence,” and added that, “the violence is not being addressed, and it is alcohol related;[but] small communities are very tight, very loyal [to their kin]” x Community leaders and religious leaders, need to be encouraged to raise awareness of the issues of child abuse and neglect in their communities (Iina 1996:21).

Part of good communication is agency coordination. [An interviewee] stated “Need government with teeth – all the Departments work in isolation of one another…An integrated service delivery model is required” . The researcher Paul Ban reported in his early research that Islanders emphasized the need for Magistrates, Family Court Judges, the Public Trustee etc, to consult with the Community Elders before making a decision which effects T.S.I. families (Ban 1993c:25). A related aspect of improving communication between agencies that was raised, was having better linkages between the Lena Passi Women’s Shelter and other (including new) services to enable planned family re-integration with counselling. A related technological recommendation was the use of more video conferencing in the Torres Strait Region.

1.4 Retaining human resources in F.V. work

An earlier recommendation in this report was that the design of any response to F.V., especially those dependent on community-based workers, needs to include strategies to counter the worker ‘burn-out’, that occurs due to the highly stressed nature of F.V. work. A further aspect of this problem was how to retain younger talented workers in the T.S. region as pointed out by a Social Worker – “A lot of tertiary graduates do not come back to the Torres Straits – [but] local politics needs them” x One answer to this latter problem is ensuring adequately salaried positions and career path options for newly qualified professional workers. In terms of adequate monetary resources [one interviewee] put the case that “If it’s a Government support system, they get paid and have plenty of support, [thus] NGO support workers must get similarly paid” x

1.5 Ongoing documentation of F.V. and evaluation of all programmes

An earlier recommendation was that any long-term Violence Response Model for the Torres Strait Region includes a quantitative profile of Family Violence in individual communities and sub-regional clusters of communities (building on that produced in the previous chapter) to assist with programme design and evaluation, and which can be periodically updated. All F.V. programmes in the T.S.I. also need a program evaluation component.

1.6 Child safety response

A female [interviewee] x pointed out the need for early intervention in situations where children might be witnesses of F.V. (and eventually become victims and/or perpetrators themselves). “Must nip violence in the bud at pre-school, before middle grades” . A network of Childcare Workers, coordinated and trained through an NGO (such as Kazi) is thus needed to provide a powerful prevention and response service to Family Violence problems. They also need to work in close conjunction with the existing services of the Department of Child Safety and the Police in a reactive mode to any child abuse that may be encountered. One [interviewee] . argued the need for a Child Safety Officer or a Recognized Entity in each cluster of islands: “A lot of women know they have support now in place and can take a stand. Only a few afraid to be alone. Cannot have a conflict in this role. Has to be a neutral person. A lot never reported it because they’re afraid”



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