A serious public health issue world-wide

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While in Australia, with the continuation of government intervention, the focus has been on family violence and abuse in Aboriginal communities, research in the latest Journal of Family Studies highlights a strong association world-wide between family violence and a wide range of health problems.

A special issue of the La Trobe University-based journal, it contains an overview of innovative approaches to the problem, and sixteen articles on research into issues surrounding family violence.

Guest editors from the School of Public Health, Professor Margot Schofield and Associate Professor Rae Walker, say that referral of children to statutory child protection services in Australia has more than doubled in the seven years to 2006.

They say violence against children includes neglect, emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Children are most at risk from sexual abuse from family members and caretakers. Further, many children are harmed by witnessing violence in the home.

A recent study of young Australians, between 12 and 20 years old, found that 23 per cent saw at least one episode of physical violence against their mother or stepmother. These involved throwing objects, hitting, or use of a knife or gun. While family violence and abuse is a serious public health issue, the editors stress that the studies also demonstrate the importance of ‘understanding subjective experience when trying to elucidate the impact of violence’.

Journal editor-in-chief, Associate Professor Lawrie Moloney, says most of the articles focus on men as clearly defined perpetrators. ‘That is perhaps as it should be. Men inflict considerably more damage on women than vice versa, though at the same time they inflict even more on each other.

‘We need to keep hearing from those affected by family violence to help them, and ourselves (as researchers) to make sense of it and to provide programs that can heal at least some of the wounds. We also need to continue to challenge institutions and bureaucracies when they fail adult and child victims of violence and abuse.’

Titled Innovative Approaches to Family Violence, the journal was launched by Professor Belinda Probert, Deputy Vice- Chancellor, Academic. Guest speakers were Robyn Miller, Principal Practitioner, Child Protection and Family Services Branch, Office for Children, Department of Human Services Victoria, who is completing her doctorate at La Trobe University, and Professor Alan Hayes, Director, Australian Institute of Family Studies.

Difficulty of achieving change

Professor Probert said while often the focus was on broader social and political solutions, the value of the journal was its emphasis on the impact of violence and abuse on individuals, public health perspectives, and interventions. As a person who has long held an ‘unfashionable commitment to social justice’, she said continuing levels of family violence demonstrated how difficult it was to achieve real cultural change. ‘Most people still don’t believe the statistics about family violence or think such violence belongs to other times and other places; or they don’t understand the power men have over women and children.’

Women today do have economic and political power, she said, but family violence continued. However, there were promising developments. Men, including rugby players, were joining campaigns to demonstrate that such violence ‘is not on’.

Robyn Miller said that the Victorian Government was committed to strengthening evidence-based practice and that the Journal of Family Studies provides a ‘meta-perspective’ that can inform busy practitioners, policy makers and researchers in many ways.

Such ‘core’ knowledge, she said, was particularly important at a time when governments were integrating family welfare policy, putting ‘children first’, and recognising that the system needed to speak with ‘one voice’ rather than from different ‘silos’ such as courts, counsellors and other agencies.

Professor Hayes hailed the journal as an ‘impressive collection’ which casts new light on many complex problems. ‘When it comes to family violence – which can turn the haven of home into the horrors of hell – we have too often got it wrong,’ he said.

But in recent times, he said, much research was beginning to ‘bear fruit’ with clearer government priorities emerging. ‘In addition, thanks to the work of people like Lawrie Moloney, who for three years has had a part time seconded position with the Institute of Family Studies, we at the Institute now have a much closer working relationship with the Family Court.’