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Acting on family violence


Cite as: April 2014 88 (04) LIJ, p.28

The Acting on the Warning Signs program run by Inner Melbourne Community Legal Centre in conjunction with the Royal Women’s Hospital is an innovative legal and health partnership.

The recent death of 11-year-old Luke Batty at the hands of his father has brought the often-shunned problem of family violence to the fore in Victoria.

Luke’s father had a history of family violence and mental illness when he killed his son in February at a cricket oval in Tyabb before being shot by police.

The tragic nature of such crimes and sobering scale of family violence has left many to wonder what can be done.

One program is tackling the issue at the coalface by reaching out to victims who may be cut-off from legal advice by providing an outreach service at a hospital. The Acting on the Warning Signs program, run by Inner Melbourne Community Legal Centre in conjunction with the Royal Women’s Hospital, is based on a legal and health partnership model popular in the United States.

Lawyer and project coordinator Linda Gyorki said research showed that legal professionals were only consulted for about 16 per cent of legal problems. Instead, people often turned to trusted health workers, particularly in family violence cases.

Ms Gyorki said a full-time GP was likely to see at least one currently abused woman each week, according to a University of Melbourne study.

“There are many women who may be presenting to health professionals with symptoms of family violence although they may not be obvious,” Ms Gyorki said.

New crime figures have revealed nearly 21,000 family violence-related assaults were committed in 2013 while during the 2012/13 financial year 29 people died as a result of family violence.

It is, according to VicHealth, the biggest contributor to ill health and premature death in women aged 15 to 44 years.

LIV president Geoff Bowyer said the legal process had to offer protection to victims and help perpetrators to reduce recidivism with more than 70 per cent of offenders having been subject to more than one intervention order.

Mr Bowyer said programs like Acting on the Warning Signs and the Advocacy Health Alliance, run by Loddon Campaspe Community Legal Centre with Bendigo Community Health Services, empowered women by informing them of their legal rights.

But he said the problem ran deep in the community with gender inequality often embedded in children from a young age, tacitly contributing to the “endemic issue”.

Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Ken Lay believes a cultural change is needed and for the whole community to confront the “unacceptable” violence experienced by women and children.

A staggering rise in the number of recorded family violence incidents, up by nearly 400 per cent between 2003 and 2013, has been partly attributed to a resolve by police to crackdown on what was once considered a domestic problem.

“One in three women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15 and this is most likely to have been inflicted by a current or former partner,” Mr Lay said.

“It presents an ongoing challenge to police to respond to the increasing volume of family violence incidents, and more than ever our relationships with other agencies is essential in supporting this work.”

The Acting on Warning Signs program aims to make it easier for patients at the Royal Women’s Hospital to access legal services as pregnancy and illness is a rare chance for some victims to seek help. “One of the key features of violence is control so it could be that women feel that they’re at risk of Googling a lawyer’s name, looking for a legal service, their internet might be monitored, their phones might be monitored, they might not be able to get out of the house to go and see a lawyer,” Ms Gyorki said.

“By having a legal service on site at the hospital . . . [they are] able to see a lawyer without having to expose themselves to any risk.”

The program also trains health professionals to become “clinical champions” who can recognise and respond to family violence warning signs.

Since August 2012, 120 midwives, doctors and allied health workers have completed the training while the outreach service, which from 2014 operates twice-weekly and is staffed by Ms Gyorki or another CLC lawyer, has been consulted 100 times.

Sadly, many of the women using the outreach service are pregnant.

“There have been studies that have found between 4 and 9 per cent of women are abused during their pregnancy and/or after the birth.” Ms Gyorki said.

Mex Cooper


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