‘Holistic reform’ key to NSW’s DV response

The criminalisation of coercive control in NSW will come to naught unless a “holistic reform agenda” around domestic violence is implemented, frontline organisations have told a state parliamentary inquiry.

The NSW parliament’s committee on coercive control held its third day of hearings on Wednesday as part of an inquiry into whether that form of domestic abuse should be made a criminal offence.

Coercive control is broadly defined as a pattern of behaviours used to intimidate, humiliate, surveil and control another person.

The Salvation Army family violence state manager Petra Jenkins and Good Shepherd NSW policy head Laura Vidal on Wednesday said systemic changes should be prioritised over the criminalisation of coercive control.

That included an overhaul of the apprehended domestic violence order (ADVO) framework to acknowledge and include acts of non-physical abuse.

A consistent approach to defining family and domestic violence which includes coercive behaviour was also needed, Ms Jenkins and Ms Vidal said – one which could be used across the entire legal system.

Ms Vidal said victims of family violence were required to navigate a range of social structures, from law enforcement to the courts, that provide little relief from economic and debt abuse.

While a stronger criminal law response was not unwelcome, Ms Vidal said a phased, society-wide solution to coercive behaviours should come first.

“It’s our view that effective change requires strong emphasis on non-legal responses, and non-legislative mechanisms for achieving remedy, recovery and justice are powerful tools in supporting women and children to rebuild their lives as determined by them,” Ms Vidal said.

“Given the difficulties police already face in identifying coercive control, we’d be concerned if a new criminal offence were to be introduced.

“We’re asking for a holistic reform agenda that looks at how we define and understand domestic violence, inclusive of physical and non-physical forms.”

The inquiry on Tuesday heard women who report domestic abuse in NSW were encountering police who do not understand it, inadvertently collude with perpetrators and fail to keep women and children safe.

Women’s Legal Service NSW law reform and policy coordinator Liz Snell said improving the response of police remained the most urgent issue and criminalising coercive control would not be a “panacea”.

The community legal organisation neither supported nor opposed the criminalisation proposal but argued the government could make other changes to improve safety for women and children.

Ms Snell said police should have training on perpetrator tactics, trauma-informed responses, cultural safety, challenging victim-blaming attitudes and recognising conscious and unconscious bias.

Women’s Legal Service NSW also proposed police work with specialist sexual and domestic abuse workers when responding to such cases.

Police often wrongly identify women as the predominant aggressors when they need protection, which deters them from reporting again.

Indigenous women who report abuse risked being targets of racism, the committee also heard, while women from multicultural backgrounds may not recognise their abuse due to the normalisation of controlling behaviours.

First Nations and migrant women have had such a “negative experience” with authorities like police that many don’t believe another criminal offence will improve the situation, Women’s Legal Service principal solicitor Pip Davis said.

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