Police response to family violence

Last week on Monday 3 August, Jacky Tucker, Women’s Health West’s Family Violence Services Manager, together with Fiona McCormack, CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, gave evidence at the Royal Commission into Family Violence hearing on the initial police response to family violence.

Jacky’s witness statement and a full transcript of the hearing are available online. Here are a few edited extracts from Jacky’s responses on the day.

On changes in culture

I have been working in the family violence sector for over twenty years and I would describe the changes in the last ten years as dramatic.

Leaders in this state are really clearly saying that family violence is unacceptable in our community.

When Ken Lay was Victoria Police Chief Commissioner, he made strong public statements about how police should respond, which helped build a sense of trust in the community and women to make that phone call.

We have seen the dramatic impact made by leaders in police stations, including senior sergeants, station senior sergeants, police advisers and family violence liaison officers.

On police training and incident response

I am a really strong supporter of the Victoria Police family violence units, but not at a cost to the general policing’s understanding of family violence and responding to it. We’re unlikely to gain the number of family violence units needed to cover every family violence incident in the state.

So we have to put our trust in the training and professionalism of those front-line officers. The way they approach the scene, the way they investigate the incident, the way they engage with both the respondent and the woman or other family members involved in the incident is critical.

At the time of the incident police rarely photograph women’s injuries or damage to property. This means that if the case does not proceed to assault, there is no evidence to track what happened.

The result is that responsibility of collecting evidence of future incidents is transferred from police to the woman. Why is it a woman’s responsibility to collect evidence to prove the criminal act of breaching an intervention order?

Yes, it’s part of your work that you treat people with respect, listen and have empathy, but it’s also your remit to prepare the scene, collect the evidence and build a case for future prosecution, whether it’s going ahead this time or next time.

In June we received 57 referrals from police identifying the woman as the respondent. After assessment and conversations with the women, we identified six of those as perpetrators of family violence.

We recognise it may be difficult for police to ascertain who the primary aggressor is when they attend an incident, but I think police need support and training to accurately identify the perpetrator.

There’s a myth that women who are victims of family violence will present as submissive … and often, when a woman is angry, that anger is wrongly used to identify her as the perpetrator.

On the increasing demand and Women’s Health West’s response

After the introduction of the Code of Practice in 2006, Women’s Health West received 708 referrals in one year. In this past year we received 8,170 referrals from police.

We currently receive L17s [police referrals] via a fax. The crisis response team collects the referrals and we triage based on the police code.

[Part of the L17 documentation enables police to tick the kind of violence that called them to attend; codes 1 to 14 represent conduct that would be capable of being criminal conduct as well as being family violence, codes 15 to 20 are non-criminal forms of family violence.]

Our response to 1 to 14 codes is different to 15 to 20 codes. Staff are automatically allocated the 1 to 14s to follow up with a phone call, that’s the first triage.

The second triage happens when the coordinator applies her experience and expertise on managing or understanding risk to the 15 to 20s and decides whether or not the person will get a service and be re-entered into the system.

In June this year we received 733 referrals. About 295 of those were coded 15 to 20. We did not call 90. So we are trying really hard to make sure that the pile that ends up not getting a response are assessed at low risk.

We used to send those women a letter but unfortunately we are no longer have time to do that because demand has increased again this year by 34 per cent. We are hoping to introduce a system that will allow us to at least text an acknowledgement message.

We use case management funds to provide this service as we’ve never received any formal funding for it. The department recognised that we had moved case management dollars to the front end to support the police response, and provided us with two extra EFT to replace those case management positions.

On following up cases with the police

We record all the L17s [police referrals], whether we have been able to successfully make contact with her, a summary of the conversation, what supports were offered, whether she had been through our intake service … whatever involvement she’s had with Women’s Health West.

We keep police informed about the status of all L17s. We CC the police liaison officer and we will inform the police adviser if we identify particular issues. If we identify a particular level of risk but have not been able to contact the woman, we will inform police directly.

Occasionally, if a woman is at imminent risk of further violence, we will escalate the response to ‘extreme risk’, which requires a regional response.

Escalating means making quick recontact with police, putting measures in place. Not all women make the choice to leave the family home, so it’s about talking to police and organising drive-bys, ‘Can you go and knock on the door, make sure she is alright’.

We can put all sorts of things in place, including making sure the safety notice or the interim intervention order is in place. The police are then able to follow up with the perpetrator. They generally make it a priority to speak with him and say, ‘You’re on our radar, we’re concerned’.

Since 2008 the western region has had an extreme risk strategy in place where police and family violence services, including men’s services, can identify families at extreme, immediate risk to come together and develop a plan to respond to that level of risk.

In a year we generally have somewhere between 8 and 12 escalated cases.

The planned introduction of the Risk Assessment Management Panels (RAMPs) … will introduce some really good initiatives about how we manage those people at the higher end of risk.

On contacting women and sending the right message

From the perspective of a family violence service that speaks every day to women who have recently had police at their door because of a family violence incident, it’s absolutely important for women to be sent the right messages.

They get phone calls from police about statements. But when a family violence service is responding, the conversation is really about getting a more fluid representation of her experiences. It’s also talking about her options and where she is now.

We build a relationship with women so that they are more likely to engage with the service system more broadly.

For women who haven’t had previous contact, first we tell them we are calling because the police have provided us a referral. Then we very gently ask her to disclose what happened … getting information from her about the perpetrator, which is the cornerstone of all risk assessments, ‘Where is he now? Did he come back last night?’, that sort of thing.

If she wants support for her partner we provide her with information about the local men’s behavioural groups. We also talk with her about how she would approach her partner about taking on some responsibility. Some women feel quite comfortable about approaching him. We talk to other women about how safe it is to challenge her partner about his violence.

Even when a woman says, ‘No, thank you very much, I don’t need your support today’, we have sent the right messages to her that: one, violence is not acceptable in our community and, two, that services like Women’s Health West are available, that the violence is no longer invisible, that she can call us any time she wishes during business hours and that if it’s at 2am she can call Safe Steps.

If you are in immediate danger call the police on 000. If you, or someone you know, is experiencing violence, call Women’s Health West on 9689 9588 or Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre on 1800 015 188 after hours.