Yarrawonga has a family violence problem.
It’s not exclusive to this town, or exclusive to the north-east, country Victoria, or anywhere else.
Family violence is a problem experienced everywhere and it lives right here in Yarrawonga.
The in-tray on the desk of Yarrawonga Sgt Damien Loiterton is piled high with paperwork and most, if not all of it, relates to family violence incidents.
He says local officers attend an average of at least one family violence incident every day in Yarrawonga.
That’s seven a week, 30 a month, 365 a year – and that’s a conservative estimate.
“Family violence doesn’t discriminate based on socioeconomics, race, religion or anything else,” Sgt Loiterton said.
“No-one is exempt. It is husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters, uncles, grandfathers, cousins.
“Family violence isn’t always what you expect and not always apparent where you might think – but it is always there.”
Sgt Loiterton has worked in country policing for most of his lengthy career. He’s seen campaigns and media trends in reporting on family violence come and go – but the problem remains the same.
“Family violence exists everywhere, that doesn’t change, but what is improving is the conversation around the issue which is in part due to the work of high profile victims such as Rosie Batty,” he said.
“It always used to be that people thought what happened behind closed doors should stay behind closed doors.
“But slowly that thinking is changing and people are understanding that they can provide help and support, they can report to police if they are concerned and they can make a difference.”
Yarrawonga Police respond to reports of family violence, providing immediate intervention and ensuring the safety of the victim and the perpetrator.
They have at their disposal a number of steps to address the situation which can involve taking a perpetrator into custody, issuing a safety notice which sets short-term conditions on the parties involved or moving to court proceedings to seek an intervention order.
“In the case of both the victim and the perpetrator we then get in contact within seven days of the incident to make sure they have received a referral to support services and ask whether or not they’ve acted on that referral,” he said.
“I’d say in 85 percent of cases people say they are seeking support and further help which is a very important step.
“There has always been a misconception around family violence with people saying ‘well why doesn’t she just leave?’ and my answer to that is ‘why does he use violence?’.
“Why should the responsibility be levelled at the victim and not the person who chose to take that step in the first place? To use violence is a choice.”
Understanding family violence from the perspective of the perpetrator is something into which Sgt Loiterton has invested considerable time.
For many years he has volunteered his time to run men’s behaviour groups where he works directly with violent men in helping them understand their actions.
“The group usually runs for 14 weeks, with a two-hour session each week. I’ve been involved just recently with a group in Wangaratta,” he said.
“One of the things we ask the men early on is ‘what was the worst act of family violence they committed?’
“The answer always starts with ‘I only…’ ‘I only called her names’ or ‘I only punched her in the face’.
“It’s that mindset that what they did wasn’t that bad or that if she hadn’t done this then I wouldn’t have had to do that.
“That way of thinking is learned over a long time – 10, 20, 30 years and it takes a lot to change. They say if you’ve used violence for 10 years it takes 10 years of change to really break that pattern.
“The groups are a small step toward that change.”
Sharing stories to help others
In 2012 Sgt Loiterton was named a Victoria Police White Ribbon Ambassador for his work with both the perpetrators and the victims of family violence.
Part of his work involved encouraging women to share their stories, anonymously, which were written on cardboard cut-outs and displayed.
People read those stories and gained a greater awareness and understanding of how family violence impacts women and children.
He encouraged local victims to consider sharing their stories, an initiative supported by the Yarrawonga Chronicle, as a way of shining light on the problem.
“The community needs to remember that family violence is not going anywhere,” he said.
“It is a problem that needs to be taken seriously and talking about the problem is important.”
Victoria Police prioritise addressing family violence
Over the last five years Victoria Police have noted an increase in the rates of reporting of family violence incidents, which is believe to be, at least in part, due to increased confidence in police responses to family violence.
A Victoria Police spokesperson said, “we know through research that family violence is an underreported crime. Because of this we hope to continue to see an increase in the number of incidents reported to police”.
“An increase in community awareness and understanding that family violence is a crime has also likely influenced this increase.”
Since November 2011 Victoria Police has more than tripled the number of family violence teams across the state, with 32 teams now working in some of the most demand-driven areas.
The Victorian Government has also committed to further transforming police’s frontline response to family violence by recruiting an additional 415 dedicated police officers, rolling out mobile devices and body worn cameras and establishing a Family Violence Centre of Learning. This is outlined in the Community Safety Statement.
Earlier this month Victoria’s first agency dedicated solely to family violence reform, Family Safety Victoria (FSV) was formed.
FSV will lead the implementation of a range of new initiatives including establishing the Central Information Point that will allow police, courts and government services to track perpetrators and keep victims safe.
A problem shared
Mulwala Police Sgt Grant Churchin said across the river the instances of family violence were quite low, however the problem does exist.
“For the seven months of this year we have had only 12 cases of domestic violence reported to police,” Sgt Churchin said.
“A number of those reports were during tourist season involving visitors to Mulwala.”
Sgt Church said addressing domestic violence was a high priority for NSW Police.
“NSW Police actively targe repeat domestic violence offenders,” he said.
“We also have a domestic violence team in Albury who review all our reported domestic violence incidents.
“Victim protection is treated very seriously. We take swift and immediate action against those offenders involved in any form of domestic violence.”