Domestic violence linked to alcohol use is a national emergency
The Alice Springs crime wave has received widespread coverage over the past week. This crime wave and in particular the data on domestic violence assaults draws attention to a contentious issue that goes beyond Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory – the relationship between alcohol and other drugs and domestic and family violence.
In Alice Springs there are big differences in the offense data between 2021 and 2022: a 44 per cent increase in assaults; a 53 percent increase in domestic-related assaults; A 54 percent increase in alcohol-related assaults and a 59 percent increase in property damage.
Alice Springs has become the focal point for alcohol-fuelled violence in Australia. Photo: Getty Images
The NT and federal governments have finally recognized that these shifts in private and public safety need to be taken seriously.
The directions for effective action are controversial and varied, although most people point to the link between the lifting of alcohol restrictions in remote Aboriginal communities and village camps, and the increase in violence and property damage.
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Linda Burney argues that if The Voice had already been convened, alcohol restrictions would have been applied earlier based on consultations with the Aboriginal community. Not everyone agrees. Others in the Aboriginal community suggest that reinstating restrictions on alcohol is simplistic and will not solve the underlying problems.
Recent reporting seems to have forgotten earlier attention to the closure of some remote communities as a result of the floods and the resulting increase in poverty and homelessness, and men, women and children disconnected from their land moving south to Alice Springs and the surrounding area.
Moreover, the media and commentators have overlooked that the root causes of violence and alcohol problems lie in colonization and the resulting trauma for Aboriginal people. Indigenous domestic violence advocates point to the relatively increased rates of domestic violence in Alice Springs prior to the lifting of alcohol restrictions.
These advocates do not reject connections between the use of alcohol to numb trauma and excuse violence. However, they insist that the increased rates of domestic violence require long-term need-based funding.
Alcohol is a problem in many communities. Photo: Getty Images
Pointing to problems in Aboriginal communities can distract from recognizing that they are not the only places with a drinking problem.
Despite decades of evidence to show that the use of alcohol and other drugs increases the severity of violence against victim-survivors (shown in more than 40 percent of domestic homicide cases), both the drug and alcohol sector and the domestic violence sector remain stubbornly in silos.
Women who use violence
Many in the family and domestic violence sector argue that alcohol and other drugs do not directly cause violence and abuse of women and children, and therefore these behaviors are a distraction from the central concerns of preventing and responding to domestic violence. The latest national plan to end violence against women and children rarely mentions alcohol and other drugs.
There is silence in this area.
In fact, alcohol and other drugs used in the context of sexual and domestic violence are an integral part of the tactics of coercive control used by many perpetrators of violence and abuse. The various ways in which these tactics are applied are varied but consistent – for example, culturally a woman who is drunk or otherwise drugged (often as a result of her abuser’s behavior) is not an ideal victim, and neither not an ideal woman. She broke ‘the rules’ that give sympathy, understanding and protection to victims.
This cultural perception is exploited by perpetrators of abuse to ensure that the woman is discredited and that any testimony she gives to others either formally or informally is undermined.
Alcohol restrictions targeting Aboriginal communities are controversial. Photo: Getty Images
His behavior is excused, and her behavior is judged – not only by individuals, but also by courts.
We recently saw defense attorneys brutally discredit the testimony of Brittany Higgins by referring to the amount of alcohol she had consumed, and continually referring to the brief video clip of her alcohol-impaired state as she passed through security.
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Equally troubling are the ways in which the experiences of children living with family and domestic violence and drug use affect mothers and/or fathers are ignored. If their father reaches for the bottle or goes to the bar to cause fear, then this is an example of coercive control – drug use coercion.
Many women also numb their experience of violence through drugs. In the lives of children, these problematic issues with one of their parents are not hidden, but integrated.
Our team of family and domestic violence researchers recently received a major grant to explore with Odyssey House and Kids First an integrated program to address the issues of fatherhood that arise when men use violence in the context of alcohol and other drugs.
This is consistent with holistic service responses already occurring in the Aboriginal services sector and reflects the fact that it is time to venture beyond the orthodoxy of the seasoned sectors and recognize that alcohol and other drugs are an integral part of the tactics of violence and is coercive control.
Perpetrators use this tactic to excuse their behavior, discredit and undermine many victim-survivors of domestic and sexual violence, and frighten their children.
This is not a problem exclusive to Aboriginal families and communities. The Alice Springs crime wave draws attention to a wider problem in our community that we must not continue to ignore.
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