A greater focus on interventions for perpetrators of domestic violence rather than on jail time is needed to bring about systemic change in society, the peak body for men’s behavioural change has said.

No To Violence says while the recommendations of the recent Parliamentary committee to criminalise coercive control, were a step in the right direction, without any immediate funding for perpetrators intervention programmes victims of domestic and family violence are still vulnerable.

A key recommendation from the enquiry was to ‘consider’ further funding for programs like Men’s Behavioural Change. But Russell Hooper, head of advocacy at No To Violence, is sceptical.

“The recommendation in the report is not that they fund, it’s that they ‘consider’ funding. I think it was clearly a bit of a political lens which was applied retrospectively to the recommendation,” he said.

Mr Hooper presented recommendations on behalf of the group at the enquiry in March, which emphasised the importance of funding in conjunction with any laws on coercive control.

“You can’t really look at coercive control without looking at a systemic response and that needs to include working with men who use violence…  because, without that, nothing is going to change,” added Mr Hooper.

Just because you’re convicted doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to go to jail for a very long time… and when they come out they are just angrier.

Men’s Behavioural Change is a group-based programme that allows violent men to reform their behaviour and establish healthy relationships. There are only 28 registered organisations in NSW that run the programme, a limited amount when considering the number of violent men in need of intervention.

While criminalising coercive control is a positive step, jail time may not be an effective long-term solution to what Mr Hooper says is a systemic issue.

“Just because you’re convicted doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going to go to jail for a very long time… and when they come out they are just angrier,” he said.

Consideration for funding will depend on further research into the efficacy of programs, research which Mr Hooper says is impossible given the current scarcity of resources.

And limited resources for Men’s Behavioural Change programmes has produced wait times of up to a year for perpetrators. Long waiting lists means that high-risk applicants get priority while lower-risk applicants may be falling through the cracks.

“People are using the lack of research as an excuse not to work with these men, but how are you meant to build that research if you’re not funded to do it,” said Mr Hooper.

“If you made the decision that you need to get help with your behaviour and then you’re told you have to wait 20 weeks, there’s a high chance you are going to disengage.”

Lockdowns have reduced intake even further, with some programmes running online and others ceasing completely. Mr Hooper says while he is optimistic about the future of the domestic and family violence sector, “the change isn’t happening fast enough”.

The Parliamentary Committee 

Evidence from 150 submissions and over 100 witnesses saw a NSW parliamentary committee made up of members from the Coalition, Labour, the Greens and One Nation, reach a unanimous agreement to make coercive control illegal.

The recommendations came amid urgent and ongoing discussion on what was described by committee chair Natalie Ward as the ‘domestic terrorism of coercive control… a silent, hidden and deathly pandemic”.

According to the Australian Bureau of statistics, one in six women over the age of 15 has experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or previous cohabitating partner.

Data shows women and children’s deaths in 2021 caused by relationship violence.

The 23 recommendations in the report, reiterated what researchers and those in the sector have known for decades –  the common denominator for so many domestic violence-related deaths is coercive control.

Evidence presented at the inquiry from the Domestic Violence Death Review Team found 99 per cent of intimate partner homicides were preceded by coercive and controlling behaviour.

Women’s Safety NSW included a survey from victim-survivors in their testimony that reflects the adequacy of existing laws. Respondents said: “It feels like there has to be physical tangible evidence; I have to have physical injuries. That my psychological ones don’t count or are too hard to ‘prove’.”

The enquiry recommended changing the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act 2007 to include coercive control in the definition of domestic abuse.

So what is coercive control?

Visceral language is used in the report to describe this insidious form of abuse as a kind of  ‘death by a thousand cuts’.

The NSW governments discussion paper on coercive control describes it as: “A form of domestic abuse involving repeated patterns of behaviour – which can include physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial abuse, accompanied by threats of violence and the fear it causes, the cumulative effect of which is to rob victim-survivors of their autonomy and independence.”

But as acknowledged by the report, coercive control is bespoke – perpetrators tailor their abuse to the specific vulnerabilities of each victim.

Migrant women may experience threats to visa status, while women of different cultural groups may experience things like family pressure, financial abuse, or forced marriage.

Aboriginal women can be threatened with the removal of their children by reporting them as neglectful and abusive, they can isolate them from their community and belittle their cultural practices.

For the LGBTQ+ community, identity abuse can include threats to ‘out’ them or control over gender expression.

People with disabilities may experience abuse through control over their medications and violations of sexual and reproductive rights.

There were never any fists involved… he ‘accidentally’ elbowed me in the temple, trying to help… he ‘accidentally’ helped me topple downstairs.

A panel organised by the Older Women’s Network NSW, ‘Insidious Entrapment’ brought experts in the field of domestic and family violence in the weeks leading up to the release of the inquiry.

Talie Starr, described her very personal struggle with the physical and psychological effects of coercive control.

“There were never any fists involved,” said Ms Star, who endured six years of domestic violence before leaving her husband.

“He ‘accidentally’ elbowed me in the temple, trying to help me get a spider off the wall when I had shoulder surgery, he ‘accidentally’ helped me topple downstairs and end up needing surgery because he was worried because I had a disability, so he just really wanted to help me”.

Ms Star said accidental abuse can be difficult to identify which is why learning about coercive control and its many forms is so important.

Renowned journalist Jess Hill’s landmark book and documentary series See What You Made Me Do has become one of the most widely disseminated programs on coercive control.

Jess Hill’s landmark documentary See What You Made Me Do (SBS).

Her testimony at the inquiry likens the methods used by coercive controllers to those used to encourage compliance in prisoners of war developed and contexts outside of domestic abuse including ‘cults, trafficking and kidnapping scenarios’.

Concerns from Indigenous groups 

Aboriginal women are one of the fastest-growing prison populations in Australia. They make up one-third of female prisoners in NSW despite making up just 3 per cent of the population.

A history of deep-seated trauma and mistrust of police has Indigenous groups concerned that women won’t report.

Panellist Christine Robinson, the coordinator for Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre, said if not supported by education, funding laws are useless.

“We have Aboriginal women that still don’t understand that they are being sexually assaulted or that they are being sexually abused in a relationship… if the non-Aboriginal community is struggling with it and what it is, imagine what it’s like for Aboriginal communities… It’s 10 times worse,” said Ms Robinson.

The report acknowledged that police are currently trained to investigate individual incidents of physical violence, and as a result, victims are often told that what they are experiencing isn’t a crime.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has reported that Aboriginal women who have experienced family and domestic violence have lower levels of trust in police and hospitals, compared to Aboriginal women who have not experienced any physical violence.

Graph shows the proportion of women in both groups able to get general support, able to get support in a time of crisis and those able to confide in family and friends.

ATSI women trust figures show victims of domestic violence have lower levels of trust in the police (ABS).

Ms Robinson said having a concrete definition acknowledged by the law would make a huge difference in getting people societally to accept that violence takes many forms but the process needs to consult with the communities who will be most affected by these laws.

A cultural shift in the way we see domestic and family violence

In 2019 Hannah Clarke and her three children were murdered.

Her estranged husband Rowan Baxter, showed no signs of physical violence but displayed behaviour consistent with coercive control that preceded the murder of his wife and children.

Hannah’s case has brought national attention to flaws in a system geared towards individual incidents of extreme physical violence and has catalysed action on criminalising coercive control in Australia.

Hannah Clarke’s case sparked national debate on domestic violence in Australia (Facebook).

Tasmania is currently the only jurisdiction in Australia to legislate on coercive control alongside our commonwealth counterparts England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Tasmanian legislation has been criticised by advocates for having little impact and few prosecutions. While advocates hope that NSW will soon follow suit, the onus remains on the government to provide funding for education and prevention programmes working towards systemic change outside of the courts.