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

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Truancy was reported as being widespread throughout the Torres Straits. A[police] Officer stated that: “a lot of truancy occurs at New Mapoon; we police truancy informally” Truancy can be categorized as a form of child neglect by both parents and extended family.

Emotional and psychological abuse

Iina (1996:12) outlined certain types of emotional abuse that occurred in the Torres Strait context in the mid-1990s:-

In de facto relationships where the new partner does not establish a bond with the children and resents attention being given to them;

…overprotecting children, e.g. isolating them from experiencing life;

…not allowing children to develop their skills and talents fully because they are expected to spend much of their time helping with household and other chores;

…where children witness domestic violence;

…causing stress by placing too much responsibility on older children for the actions of their younger siblings;

…as a result of institutionalisation eg. Sent away to school or fostered with a family with too many children; and

…rejecting, threatening, mocking and continuous belittling of children.

These were generally found to still apply during the current research. For example, a[n interviewee] x reported that there were two families in which both the husband and wife drink heavily, get drunk, and then fight, with the children present x.

A[n interviewee] x [from] x a Central Island stated not so much physical abuse of children occurred in this community, but occurrences of psychological child abuse were prevalent. She gave a different type of example to the above. The parent may use their children for power in the spousal relationship. The father has more authority over the children, but it is the mother who disciplines them. The mother jumps in when a situation arises, and says ‘no’ to some sort of unreasonable child behaviour. But the father defends the child and ridicules the wife. This starts a fight. The father ‘buys’ the children’s love. The father uses the technique of getting back at the partner through the children. The wife knows she could take the children with her if they separated, but she does not want her children to be without a father. The wife thus eventually becomes complacent, and the children become more selfish and vindictive. x

Child assault - physical

Iina (1996:12) outlined the following types of physical abuse of children occurring in the Torres Strait in the mid-1990s:

when discipline becomes severe enough to draw blood and cause harm to the child – welts, bruises and other markings from a belting etc;

when discipline is administered by someone who is drunk;

when discipline happens in the context of domestic violence; and

when it is not administered in the child’s best interests but out of temper or anger unrelated to the child’s situation. e.g. taking frustration out on the child.

A Child Safety Officer in Cairns x was of the view that there is more Child Safety response work in NPA than in Torres Strait Islander. “In Torres Strait Islander, not that many [reported] incidents, but where we do follow-up it is usually serious. Reporting is left until someone is badly hurt. We hear about it if the Police are involved and/or if someone is badly hurt.” x

A Police Officer x reported a lot more child assault-type official files current for the outer islands. These involved inappropriate domestic discipline on children, with parents using the same techniques by which they were disciplined and their grandparents disciplined, i.e. giving their children a severe hiding for their misbehaviour. x

One DCS Officer was of the view that disciplinary issues re children and child offending were interconnected. Parents over-disciplining their children was the main work in Torres Strait Islander for Child Safety. The work of the Youth Justice Service, also in DCS occurred in parallel with a fly-in/fly-out service during court week at Thursday Island. Certain youths are dual clients, with both Child Safety and Juvenile Offenders (Justice), i.e. to two departments.

Child Assault - Sexual

Iina (1996:13) has defined sexual abuse of children as involving the exploitation of children for sexual pleasure. It can result in a young girl becoming pregnant. It often involves the abuse of a position of trust as community leaders, family members or carers who use the trust of children for their own sexual gratification. Incest is one sub-category of this. Child sexual abuse also includes making a child view pornography.

[A] Police Officer said there occurs some adult on child, and some child on child The x Officer reported that in 2007 there were in NPA about ten known child sex offenders out of 15 in the whole of the Torres Strait Islander/NPA area. An increase in the reporting of child sexual abuse had occurred, partly due to the mandatory reporting of Qld Health and Teachers. A number of repeat offenders of child sex charges are still in their communities. Since they are all reasonably poor communities, children can be easily led with money and enticed into sexual encounters.

A Child Safety Officer said that based on their experience x, that child sexual assault was relatively high in the Torres Strait Islander. A good proportion of child sexual assaults were not captured in the statistics as there was not enough evidence to get convictions in many cases due to the general reluctance to report in the community.

A[n interviewee] said that a lot of the child abuse problems occur in NPA communities, but the type varies. People are reporting these things now, but not the parents. She mentioned the case of a step-father abusing a small girl; . Men in their 30s were giving money to young girls for sexual favours. It was not so much fathers who were molesting their daughters, but more likely to be an uncle or a cousin. x

A particularly concerning problem is the lack of counselling of the child victims of sexual assaults. For example, a Health Worker reported that in his community a few years ago a father was into sexual abuse, and although the father was sent to jail the children did not get counselling. As they grew older, these children have “gone wild”. There have been a few other child victims in the community and they have all lacked counselling. x x

A[n interviewee] x mentioned “a case of sexual abuse that came out of a child being neglected – this child wanted to jump off a roof” .

Adult on child sexual assault

According to a Child Safety Officer, adult with younger child sexual assault cases tend to occur in the Top-Western islands with PNG influence .

x x



The x [police] Officer stated that quite a few adult male sexual offences have occurred on younger children in the Torres Strait region; with quite a few at NPA over the last couple of months and on the outer islands. This x Officer’s experience of working in ‘Taskforce Argos’ x informed that, every paedophile arrested had been sexually abused themselves when younger (excluding one .

A[n interviewee] , outlined a number of recent sexual abuse incidents involving child victims:-

x x x x

x x x

x x x x x x

x x x x x x .

x x

xf xfxfxfxfxfx.

The [interviewee] x

“People say our [] island has a bad reputation for child molesting but at least we are dealing with it. There is more family and domestic violence at [Island X – another x Island] but everything is swept under the carpet there; only one person going to jail. No respect there now.”

Whilst working on this research project with the author, one interviewee x said, : “The amount of child sexual abuse in this region is incredible. We could follow with an NT-style intervention here if this report brings it out. I’ve come back from an Indigenous Men’s Leadership Workshop in Canberra – there was a session for healing. Prominent Torres Strait Islander men stood up there and said they were victims of child sexual abuse – the majority of Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal men. As long as we keep that behind closed doors…” [matter will never change] x

Child on child sexual assault

According to a Child Safety Officer x, a lot of ‘male child-on-male child’ sexual assault in x [her] perception. There had been a couple of group-on-one, as well as one-on-one cases. Some cases in this category also fall under the label of ‘statutory rape’, i.e. consenting under-age teenagers.

xfxfxfxf x


Memmott et al (2001:44-45) provided a brief national description of ‘suicide’ for Indigenous Australia as follows:-

Suicide: occurs at several times the rate of non‑Indigenous suicide; most common in remote communities; largely affects adolescent males but with growing numbers of older males and females; appears to be a strong ‘copy­cat’ element in the timing and method.

A Police Officer noted that suicides in Torres Strait Islander are rare compared to Cape York; whereas drownings are a much higher cause of death in the Straits . This was confirmed by [a] Police officer , who had been on Thursday Island x, said there were not many suicides in the Torres Straits; he had seen only three suicide incidents on Thursday Island , and hardly any elsewhere. The incidence is close to that of the mainstream. He was unaware of any attempted suicides in custody.

However the Correctional Services officer commented that the majority of clients (ex prisoners) suffer from negative type casting and spoke of suicidal tendencies amongst prisoners coming out of jail. “We do get some suicidal ones; then we send them to Health (twice a year visit from a psychiatrist); there is a psychologist but usually only stay for a short time…and may change every six months. It is hard to get continuity. Had a couple who have ‘talked the talk’ on suicide.”

Two suicides (one successful, one attempted), were reported to the author from x [one island], .


One of these Police commented that the Torres Straits had “pretty good suicide statistics – not so high”; whilst another Police x [officer] argued that the reason why there were not have high suicide rates in the Torres Strait Islander were due to the presence of strong Christianity, a unique cultural aspect x.


Memmott et al (2001:46-47) provided a brief national description of ‘self-injury’ for Indigenous Australia as follows:-

Self‑injury: includes self‑mutilation; like suicide, occurring with increasing frequency; a prominent pattern is a history of interpersonal loss and unstable relationships; frequently associated with alcohol consumption; evidence of higher frequency among males and childless women; recent evidence of high frequency among victims of child sexual abuse.

The Police Officer said that self-harming was gradually increasing, especially at Thursday Island. “We are starting to see self-harming, some of it is copycat. x f

A copycat syndrome was reported by a[n interviewee who] said there had been a suicidal death in the community. There was inadequate counselling in the community after this. Then a second youth, who witnessed the first event, attempted suicide. . The need for suicide counselling was highlighted by this case.

A x Police Officer recalled that misuse of a substance caused one child’s death in c2003 – the only one recorded; it was a ‘big shock’ .

A[n interviewee] x described one attempted suicide, which he said occurred out of anger; x . But he then concurred that this was probably an accidental injury. Might be the winner or the loser who does it, after a conflict. x

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

Memmott et al (2001:47-48) provided a brief national description of ‘same-sex, one-on-one adult fighting’ for Indigenous Australia as follows:-

Same‑sex, one‑on‑one adult fighting: may be one of the most common kinds of Indigenous violence, regularly resulting in injury, but is the least reported and inadequately researched; the form of fighting has changed over the last 30 years ‑ used to be controlled to some degree by elders and in some cases inter‑family feuds would be confined to fights between their ‘champions’; fighting is now less structured and potentially more brutal.

A family violence worker commented:-

“Men are bashing other men here – a party happens every fortnight – this is when it can happen. They fight one-to-one with fists – usually people try to stop. Then next day be friends. Most time argue, people try to break up. Girls fight between one another. x

A[nother interviewee] from the same community reported that some young male-on-male fights occurred, fuelled by alcohol and usually over football, drunk and machoism; but he said that it was rare to see women fighting with one another

On a[nother] Island, a family violence Worker said “man-to-man [conflicts], can come at times, when drinking together – [over a] land dispute, or financial dispute” . An[other interviewee] said of male conflicts “This happens occasionally – arguments when drunk; start from simple things e.g. ‘I catch more fish than you’” At a [different] Island, the same pattern was reported: “Fights involve young men versus young men. No women versus women fights – not much. A lot of females here do not drink.” x

A Police Officer had difficulty eliciting cases of men fighting at Thursday Island. He could only give one example, an argument between a father and his drunk son with the neighbours shouting to stop; a one-off incident which resulted in the son staying with friends for the night to defuse However a[nother] x Police Officer reported that a lot of two brothers arguments and brother/sister arguments occurred at Thursday Island .

Several male against female incidents were reported, which constituted family violence, but not domestic violence as defined herein. x .

Inter-group violence

Memmott et al (2001:48-49) provided a brief description of ‘inter-group violence’ for Indigenous Australia as follows:-

Inter‑group violence: major conflict between groups residing in one community but from different geographic origins; includes ‘reverberating’ violence where fight spreads quickly as relations from both sides are drawn into the conflict ‑ at the same time the focus of the conflict may shift from the original protagonists to some inter-group issue; some inter‑group feuds reverberate for years; includes urban gang conflicts, which may be between groups (mainly young male) from different Indigenous enclaves within a major centre; inadequate research into this form of violence.

The evidence suggests that inter-group conflicts do occur in the island communities, but not frequently. Even at Thursday Island where there are four or five alcohol outlets, inter-group conflicts were not as frequent as one might expect.

An [interviewee] x from Thursday Island said no gang attacks occurred there but then recalled one exception: the case of a Torres Strait Islander man being attacked by a group of men – an odd incident x. A[nother interviewee] x. also recalled this: x

But a Police Officer said that x a family was removed from Thursday Island because of problems caused by their boys – . They were relocated for their own safety to a mainland town. The perpetrators became the victims. The same Police Officer recalled two families fighting over land title – but they sorted it out

One x [police] Officer also recalled that there were two gangs who used machetes and were throwing rocks at houses, but it was resolved by the Justice Group. A Justice Group member, x recalled these gang fights: “The Police got hold of the Justice Group. x. It was a joint effort – Elders, Police, Justice Group, parents – had a large meeting early this year. Got the boys together; all agreed don’t want to go to jail. The group mediation ran for three hours. Then boys got up one by one and spoke and said what they were doing wrong. They all shook hands. Nothing has happened since. A community-based mediation. One boy who was in court all the time, has stopped appearing now.”

A [interviewee] x also confirmed that ‘boyfriend/girlfriend’ fights can turn into a prolonged family conflict possibly occurring across several communities due to inter-relationships . Another [interviewee] described how a problem can start off as Family Violence, then moves into men’s fights and women’s fights; and on outer communities it can be like a ‘Mexican Wave’: it can break into multiple smaller fights x.

Reflecting on her experience on a[n] Island, a[n interviewee] said: With younger couples, more family involvement occurs when a conflict happens. This can have a positive or negative result. This is where inter-family violence might happen, if it erupts and spreads.

A[n interviewee] noted that a fight starts from young ones, then another family member gets involved, and that’s when inter-family fighting starts x x

[Some interviewees] x gave a grimmer picture for the NPA area, where they said a lot of violence occurs between families. There was an incidence of violence in the streets in at . The whole community was in the street, with kids setting fire to the grass all around. This resulted in having a community mediation with 60 in one room; the [interviewees were] worried it would escalate over Christmas, so it was decided to get the stress out. A quiet Christmas followed. A second NPA incidence was given, x. 50 people including children became involved in a conflict – a family feud involving Aboriginal T.O.s and outsider Islanders. Children were not only witnessing it but jumping in, and throwing rocks. After this fight, staff who had been either directly or indirectly involved, refused to come to work; they said “how to come to work with people you been fighting with?” [They were advised] to be professional, instructing them “to put on a mask.”

In some communities, inter-group conflicts were rare. For example in [one] community a[n interviewee] said “No gangs here – nobody carries knives” [community is too small] . A[nother interviewee] x conceded that inter-group violence only happened occasionally in [some] Islands x .

An [interviewee] x made a general observation about how police intervention in the Torres Straits can catalyse inter-group violence. The removal of a male perpetrator from a Community by the police may result in ‘payback’ by his family against his spouse, or against the women related to and supporting his spouse.

Psychological abuse

Some aspects of psychological violence have already been discussed earlier under ‘Child Assault’. Memmott et al (2001:49) provided a brief description of ‘psychological abuse’ for Indigenous Australia as follows:-

Psychological abuse: includes verbal abuse, threats, constant denigration and undermining of another person.

An [interviewee] said psychological abuse happens very frequently on his Island in the form of everyday kariyan or malicious gossip . Kariyan was in fact identified as a problem in all communities , making it the most pervasive form of Family Violence in the region.

One man gave an account of leaving his spouse x, when there was a conflict arising from gossiping (kariyan) by her brother’s wife. An [interviewee] at Thursday Island commented that people are often very offended by gossip – they “hear kariyan and keep it bottled up until alcohol or drugs is in the system, and then it breaks loose” x

Most interviewees agreed that there was widespread jealousy resulting in emotional violence; direct jealousy due to a partner having previous relationships and excessive ownership and control of partners – or possessiveness. The emotional violence can be deflected from the spouse to the spouse’s children who are born to a previous partner. A[n interviewee] gave an example:-


Some interviewees reported how incessant criticism can catalyse physical spousal violence. For example a[n interviewee] gave the example of “woman nagging husband, won’t drop it, the husband [in Court then] says he loses his cool”

A[n interviewee] x pointed to the psychological violence imposed by entire families. “Certain families dominate over other families who are afraid to do anything and those families who report, are branded as a bad person – [there is widespread] fear of this” x.

Another form of psychological abuse was overt lack of respect to older people: “Young people swear back at Elders today” . Changing values about ‘respect’ are discussed further in Chapters 3 and 4.

x xsx x

x x

Economic abuse

Memmott et al (2001:49-50) provided a brief description of ‘economic abuse’ for Indigenous Australia as follows:-

Economic abuse: the withdrawal or extraction of money or goods so as to hurt another; often involves the taking of welfare money or wages and its use for alcohol or gambling; frequently involves husbands, sons or grandchildren demanding money from wives, mothers or grandparents ‑ community elders, traditionally respected, often suffer; a roll‑on effect broadens outcomes to related families; offenders may be relatively welfare‑deficient males or childless females.

Most agreed that economic abuse occurs, but few instances were actually recorded in the author’s research. A[n interviewee] said grandchildren give their grandparents a hard time; they take their credit cards, raid their fridges and take their food. She added that from her experience this occurs right through the Torres Straits. x

Cyclic violence

Memmott et al (2001:50) provided a brief description of ‘cyclic violence’ for Indigenous Australia as follows:-

Cyclic violence: family violence over a number of generations can mean that violent behaviours “become the norm in families where there have been cumulative inter‑generational impacts of trauma on trauma on trauma, expressing themselves in present generations as violence on self and others” (Atkinson 1996:7). Sometimes called inter-generational violence; passed from parent to children.

A Social Worker suggested 70% of adults are affected by domestic violence, and that violence was being normalized. Frequently they are the women in the Shelter and when counselled it is often revealed they were abused as children and “never told anybody”. They had sexual encounters as children they did not want. This Social Worker asked “Are the children suffering the same as these adults in the last ten years?” She added these women do not want to talk about this in group therapy contexts. She was of the view that to stop children experiencing it, will take at least a generation.

A number of Torres Strait Islander consultants made longitudinal links between adult violence and childhood victimhood. For example one Police Officer commented: “Some stay drunk for days, binge drinking; those involved often are the ones who saw their father do it – the behaviour is passed on through generations” . [An interviewee] said of the violence evaluation form, “for cyclic violence, tick ‘very frequent’ – children see parents doing it, but they’re the [very] people you need to get help from” x.

x x x x x x x x x x

A Social Worker spoke of the existence of “trans-generational trauma” amongst his clientele . Workers at [a service] x were also in agreement about the prevalence of cyclic spousal violence:-

“[Main cause is] the way they’ve been brought up [referring to women]. The family arrangement they’ve had and grown up in, [typically] involves violence. This could be the husband or the wife. [There is a tendency then to] marry into ones who do same way towards her [i.e. marry someone who maintains the violence pattern of their childhood]. Don’t know how to deal with it – so then turn to drugs and alcohol.”

Cyclic violence can also be linked to recidivism whereby offenders continue to justify their actions as normal behaviour.


A[n interviewee] community acknowledged the issue of recidivism: “It is happening…Perpetrators are in the community, they serve their time, then are sent back into the community. DVOs do not work.” x

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