There are many questions being asked in light of the tragic death of 11-year-old Luke Batty, killed by his own father. Why was Luke’s father, Greg Anderson, not in jail? Why were there outstanding warrants against him? Why did he slip hrough the cracks of the mental health system?
Other questions are rarely asked, and do not dominate the front pages of newspapers. Why do men commit horrific violence against their partners and their children? Why do men feel they have a proprietary right to their children, regardless of the risk they pose to them? Why are our systems are not better resourced to keep women and their children safe from violent partners and fathers?
Violence against women is endemic in Australia. According to the 2012 ABS statistics, one in three Australian women have experienced violence. The most likely place for a woman to be physically assaulted is in her own home (62 per cent of women physically assaulted compared to 8.4 per cent of men). In Victoria, in 2012/2013, there were 60,829 incidences of family violence recorded by Victoria Police. Of these incidences, 76 per cent of perpetrators were male.
In most states, family violence is recognised in law as encompassing not only physical abuse but also psychological, emotional and economic abuse. At its core, family violence is characterized by control and dominance.
In tragedies like this one, too often, we fail to make the link between gender inequality and male violence against women. There is an extensive body of research that identifies the key determinants that contribute to family violence, namely unequal power relations between men and women, gender stereotypes and broader cultures of violence in our community.
Addressing the key determinants can only be achieved by implementing a long term, evidence-based primary prevention strategy.
The National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and their Children 2010-2022, is a framework that brings together state and national initiatives to address community attitudes and behaviours and to promote respectful relationships. The Federal Government is currently consulting on the second stage of its implementation, and is taking an opportunity to “take stock, reflect on gaps, develop new actions and strengthen implementation”.
Primary prevention is essential to addressing family violence, but is only one piece of a bigger puzzle. It's also important to consider how our family law and family violence systems deal with the endemic nature of family violence.
At its core, a family violence system that effectively responds to and intervenes in family violence must be able to ensure the safety and well-being of victims, hold the perpetrators to account and provide all victims with equal access to the system regardless of their background, disability or postcode. Is this just a pipe dream?
With an estimated 60,000 incidences of family violence in Victoria per annum we are seeing a system that is buckling under the weight of this crime. Change is possible but it requires a genuine commitment by government at both a policy and budgetary level to improve responses and interventions. In Victoria, the Magistrates Court finalised 31,332 intervention orders in 2011/2012. Despite the enormous number of family violence cases going through courts, access to specialist victim support services, safe waiting spaces at court and places in men’s behaviour change programs, remain limited.
Alongside the family violence system sits the family law system, tasked with determining if and when a child should spend time with a parent who has a history of violence. In June 2012, the Family Law Act 1975 was amended to improve the framework of decision-making to give priority to a child’s safety in determining what is in the best interests of the child and to enable allegations of family violence and sexual abuse to be brought before the court.
Though this legislative change is important, it is not enough. Professionals in the family law system must have the skills to conduct sound risk assessments and make decisions based on a comprehensive understanding of the nature and dynamics of family violence. Only once this understanding exists will the family law system protect children at risk.
It is also a continuing challenge in the family law system to address misconceptions about parents having a proprietary right to their child. Terminology such as “equal” and “shared” in the Family Law Act does little to displace these beliefs.
What lessons we learn from the Batty tragedy will depend on the Coroner’s Court Systemic Review of Family Violence Deaths, which is central to identifying gaps in the system and recommending changes to assist in preventing future family violence deaths. The full picture of this tragedy and the lessons to be learned will only be revealed once a systemic review is undertaken by the Coroner’s Court.
Luke Batty's killing holds up a mirror to our community and our systems in a way that reflects deeply entrenched, systemic flaws. These are flaws that can only be addressed with honest questions and conversations about family violence, its causes and how we respond, to ensure that women and children are always safe.