A remote hope: Addressing domestic violence in regional areas
The rate of domestic violence is disproportionately high in regional NSW. But the acute shortage of housing means that many women return to the perpetrator, and children suffer. Can federal and state government plans address this?
In December last year, a report by the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) indicated that the rate of domestic assaults in local NSW communities in the previous 12 months was 30 per cent higher than the national average. The report also revealed that regional NSW has experienced higher rates of violence annually over the past five years, with a 19 per cent increase in reported domestic violence assaults since 2018.
The BOCSAR figures show Tumut in the Riverina region had the twelfth highest rate of domestic violence assaults per head of population in NSW in 2017.
Karen Tobin is the manager of Tumut Regional Family Services (TRFS), and previously a case manager. Tumut, located in the western foothills of the Snowy Mountains, has a population of approximately 6,700. TRFS was founded over 30 years ago by a group of volunteer women. Tobin volunteered for the job before joining the staff.
Tobin explains, “Tumut is a small town compared to Wagga and the bigger cities in our areas. We are just over 100km, or an hour and a half, from Wagga, so our service is part of an alliance with their support services. We are funded to support women and children and we have a partner service that supports men and another that supports youth.”
She says: “People here have family and friends here and work here; their support systems are here. This housing crisis is the worst we have ever had. Snowy 2.0 is being built near here, so the local landlords have put up their rent in exchange for Snowy Hydro businesses renting here and paying whatever their companies will pay.”
“A lot of people may not offer because they’re aware that there’s nowhere to live if they’re present, so they stay where they are and put up with it,” Tobin says, lamenting the housing shortage.
‘A lot of people [experiencing domestic violence] may not present because they are aware that there is nowhere to go if they are present, so they stay where they are and put up with it.’
TRFS has a four-unit retreat, which is always full, and there is a waiting list. When a woman presents, TRFS calls local motels to secure a one- to two-night stay. Food, toiletries and discretionary money are provided, and a business worker discusses where the woman can stay in the longer term. If she has family interstate, she is provided funding to travel there. Otherwise, neighboring towns are generally preferred for their proximity to her friends and family.
“It’s a small town, so if someone’s car is in front, people might recognize the car and know who arrived here. It’s hard to say if DV has increased, but the number of our clients offering monthly has almost doubled. We get a lot of referrals from various services and we are funded to see 55 DV clients a year, but we go way above that. I would say everyone goes above that. In addition, many people show up for the homeless service and then it becomes clear that they have experienced DV and there is a history of trauma. We see intergenerational clients, where we see the mother and then later we will see the daughter.”
Tobin is optimistic that the NSW five-year domestic and family violence plan and the 10-year national plan to end violence against women and children will have a positive impact.
“Funding has increased during the time I’ve been in this role and I can’t see it going down. We are funded through a mix of state and federal funding because we provide both DV and homelessness services.”
No simple solution
Jackie Fitzgerald is executive director of BOCSAR. She says towns in western NSW such as Moree, Walgett and Bourke report levels of domestic violence more than five times the state average.
“Domestic violence is a difficult policy area and there is no clear literature on what can be done to prevent and intervene,” she says. “There is no doubt that high rates of domestic violence are linked to socio-economic disadvantage, systemic unemployment, high rates of drug and alcohol abuse and poor educational outcomes. There is no simple solution that can be thrown into communities to turn things around. This is an intergenerational disadvantage. The government has the will to turn these problems around, but the way out of this level of violence is not obvious.”
Jackie Fitzgerald, executive director of BOCSAR
Fitzgerald explains: “We base our information on crime statistics recorded by the police, so it has limitations, but according to that data, the rate of domestic violence in north-west NSW is much higher than in the rest of the state.
“Bourke, Walgett and Moree have alarmingly high rates of domestic violence, much higher than the state average per population of 400 incidents per 100,000. In general, we see higher rates of all forms of violence in the regions. In Coonamble it is almost four times higher than the state average, Dubbo three times higher than the state average, Moree five times higher and Walgett almost six times higher. These communities are small, but Walgett had 138 incidents and Moree had 283 incidents last year, so even though the locations are small, the volumes add up. This is an indication of a serious problem in those communities.”
In 2012 the NSW Women’s Alliance was established. It formed a collective of leading organizations with expertise in sexual, family and domestic violence, including Domestic Violence NSW, Women’s Legal Service NSW, ACON, Muslim Women Australia, No To Violence, NSW Council of Social Service and Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Center .
On August 11 last year, NSW Women’s Alliance launched its Action To End Gendered Violence campaign, in line with the 2023 state election. The Alliance proposed seven recommendations to reduce sexual, domestic and family violence, including investing $20 million a year in violence prevention, an additional $133 million a year for specialist services, and an extension of the consultation period for the NSW -coercive control bill, which was considered problematic.
A national plan
Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW) is one of the members of the alliance. Delia Donovan, chief executive of DVNSW since 2020, says: “The national plan was released around October and I was pleased to see that there was significant consultation. The plan brings together the federal, state and territory governments and includes provisions on accountability to ensure that progress is tracked, monitored and reported on.”
Delia Donovan, Chief Executive of Domestic Violence NSW
Donovan continues, “The national plan also emphasizes the importance of engaging men and boys. The plan is very inclusive in terms of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, multicultural and LGBTQI+ communities. We still want to see strong funding commitments with specific measurable targets.”
We need to significantly change the way we think about family and domestic violence, Donovan asserts.
“We have to work on the ground, in the community and in schools. People also enable domestic and family violence in terms of victim blaming and media reporting. In this landscape we need to properly fund support services, but we need to think about how we fund prevention. We need to look at cultural and systemic work to address these entrenched patriarchal systems.”
DVNSW advocates on behalf of its regional members.
Donovan says: “There is a lack of housing, transport, safe rooms in courts and general infrastructure. In those regional areas, there are much more traditional gender norms and values and patriarchal power structures, and ideas about privacy and ‘keeping it in the family’. There is higher gun ownership in regional areas of NSW, much more isolation, natural disasters are much more frequent: floods, droughts and fires. People in regional and remote Australia are 24 times more likely to be hospitalized as a result of family and domestic violence.
“Every year we hold a regional forum with our members and we are reaching out to the NSW Government to attend, but there is a real problem with housing that has been evident year after year. When women have nowhere to go, they return to the perpetrator to avoid homelessness.”
She adds, “The main thing we want to drive home is that you can’t have a plan without funding attached, so we know what we can deliver, and that it’s quality assured. An independent, transparent review process will enable us to ensure we are meeting targets, and to review, track and monitor progress.”
Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) report
NSW Plan for Family Violence and Domestic Violence
National plan to end violence against women and children
Action to end gender violence