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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of violence

  • Providing the right support means understanding the causes and effects of violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • It is important to understand the past and current experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as well as the needs of the person you are supporting
  • Remember that domestic and family violence is not always caused by an intimate partner but can also come from other family members and the extended community

Violence in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities

Domestic and family violence happens in Australia across all communities. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities domestic and family violence happens at higher rates than in non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Understanding why this is the case helps support services to better meet the needs of people affected by family violence.

Issues contributing to violence

Increased violence is common in communities where there is a history of disadvantage and oppression. In Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities this is made worse by forced separation from land and culture. These things can lead to conflict in family relationships, racism, ongoing poverty and limited housing.

From 1910 into the 1970s a government policy forced the separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families. At times as many as one in three children were forcibly removed from their families and communities. The trauma from this policy still affects people today and contributes to the way that violence is experienced in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

In addition to this trauma, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are much more likely to suffer from economic and social disadvantage. This can cause feelings of anger, frustration, helplessness and unhappiness. It can also lead to alcohol and drug use as a way of coping, which may cause or worsen mental illness. All of these things can contribute to create a setting of violence, including domestic and family violence, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Responding to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences of violence

  • There are particular things to look for when undertaking a risk assessment with members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities
  • The most important factor for understanding risk in domestic and family violence situations is related to the inter-connectedness of people to the community itself
  • If you don't respond to sexual, domestic or family violence often, our Introduction to responding page is a good place to start

Culturally appropriate response

The most important point to remember when supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples experiencing family violence is the connectedness of people to community. Family and kinship connections are extremely important. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples these connections give a sense of identity and belonging.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities typically have a broad and inclusive concept of family. This means that families are large and there are many people who are considered close family members. For instance, often first cousins are considered sisters, or mothers' distant cousins may be considered aunties. Family is not always dependent on being a blood relative. People who grew up in the same place may be considered a part of the same family in every way that you would expect from blood relatives.

Additionally, it is important to understand that people within Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities often all know each other or know someone from the family in question.

Risk assessment

Using the general Risk Assessment Framework as a starting point, services supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples need to consider some additional risks to understand the situation and provide the best support possible.

Guiding principles

Risk assessments need to be revisited regularly – people’s circumstances change and with that their risk levels change too.

When undertaking a family violence risk assessment there are some guiding principles:

  1. Do not expect that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person you support will disclose everything in the first meeting. This process will take time and is dependent upon building trust in the worker-client relationship.
  2. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family violence services and specialist workers will typically not only work with the person presenting, but will also endeavour to work with the entire family unit and take their needs into account in risk assessment and planning.

Things to consider when conducting a risk assessment

  • Always ensure you have explicit, signed and informed consent for referral to any service, which includes any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander service
  • There are certain areas, suburbs, shopping malls, services and so forth where women know it is not safe to be seen. They know that if they are seen there it will get back to the person they are fleeing. Believe them when they say they do not go to or cannot be seen in these places.
  • Support workers are not the experts in assessing someone's risk in relation to their community, they are
  • When undertaking risk assessment realise that, though the person may be experiencing family violence from their partner, their partner’s extended family may be involved in perpetrating violence against them too
  • It is important to have the full name and age of the perpetrator in order to ensure you have the right information. Many people are named after each other and, therefore, it is very common to have multiple people in the community with the same name. This is also important when referring to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander refuge or service provider.

Specialist support and good practice principles

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisations have a wealth of experience in developing strategies and programs to respond to the needs of their community. These programs include those targeted to effectively prevent and respond to family violence. You can find national, state and locally based specialist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support services by searching our Service directory.

The Secretariat of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Child Care (SNAICC) has consulted with a range of these organisations to develop an evidence-based guide called ‘Safe for our Kids: a guide to family violence response and prevention for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and families'. It includes a set of evidence-based good practice principles that organisation can adopt when responding to family violence. The principles recognise the right to live in dignity free from family violence.

The rights-based framework used to develop these good practise principles recognises human rights detailed in in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples 2007; the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women 1979; and the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989. The full resource can be downloaded from the SNAICC website.

Safety planning with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples

  • Along with the general safety planning checklist and guidelines there are some particular safety issues to be aware of when supporting Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander people
  • These issues include concerns around privacy, attending cultural events, and applying for new housing
  • You can search our Service directory for specialist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander support services in your local area

Privacy and the community

The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community can be close and interconnected. It is important to recognise that this can be the case in both small towns (such as rural or remote communities) as well as large cities.  With this in mind, it can be very difficult for members of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to feel that their privacy is being respected or that they can maintain anonymity about their issues that are related to family violence. This means that maintaining their privacy and respecting their wishes in regards to referrals is of the utmost importance.

When working with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples it can be important for your working relationship to have a discussion around privacy in a way that reflects the cultural distinctiveness of families and community. It is a conversation that is different to one that you would have with a non-Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as their needs and concerns will be different.

When providing a family violence service to Aboriginal and Torres Islander peoples, have a conversation about the following:

  • Reassure and be clear with them that you won't contact other services, whether they’re Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander services or not, without their specific permission and consent first
  • Tell them that you will check to see the consequences of identifying them as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander when referring her to other services – for example, if their information will be shared with staff in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander unit
  • Be familiar with the process and procedures of the service that you are considering for referral pathways – for example, do they have a procedure where they automatically refer people who identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to a specific program or unit? If this is the case, find out who is in that team and talk to your client about whether this is something that they feel is appropriate or safe. Also, they may not want to be automatically referred on to an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander program.
  • Ensure that you respect their privacy outside of the service. Do not approach the person outside of your specific organised times as this may affect their safety

Attending cultural events

For Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, communities are central to identity, culture and lives. For someone experiencing family violence, this should never mean that they or their children have to sacrifice being a part of their community.

Everyone has the right to choose whether or not they or their family should attend a community or cultural event. If the choice is made to attend, it is important all of the risks are taken into consideration and that there is a plan around how to respond if any of these occur. This is to ensure that the event can be attended as safely as possible.

When working with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander client who is looking at attending a cultural or community event, you may want to ask them to consider some of the following:

  • Think about who else may be attending the event – for instance will the perpetrator be there or other members of his family?
  • Be honest if you think that you can be safe if you choose to attend – if you think it is too much of a risk after considering all of the factors then your safety should be your first priority.
  • Plan ahead – call family and friends that you trust to see if they will be there too which may help you feel safe. Ensure that you let them know any concerns that you may have and if appropriate, you could involve them in your safety plan too – for example, you could ask them to keep an eye on you or you could ask them to assist you to leave the event if your safety is at risk.
  • If you know the venue or are familiar with the location of the event try to incorporate this into your safety plan – for example, if you know there is only one driveway into the football ground ensure that you park your car outside of the ground on the street, or near the entrance point so you can easily get away.
  • When you arrive check if there is security and that you know where the security people are.
  • When you arrive you may want to look around the event to see who has attended – there may be people there who are either ‘safe’ people or ‘risk’ people that you may not have considered in your planning and may need to adjust safety plan accordingly.
  • If you don’t have a car and are arriving by public transport, ensure you have the timetables and information at hand to ensure you can leave when you need to and don’t get stuck. You may want to consider putting aside extra money for a taxi in case you need to leave urgently

Applying for new housing

If you are a support worker assisting a woman who is experiencing violence, it is important to be mindful of the inter-connectedness of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. You should ask questions about known unsafe areas.

For women applying for new housing, consider which areas are 'unsafe' and may place you at risk of the perpetrator discovering your new location. If you know where he lives or spends a lot of time, you could either request exemptions if you are applying for government or supported housing from those areas or just don’t look in those areas if you are looking for private rental.