Family violence is a crime

It is often said that New Zealand’s most violent places are its homes. Like many “often-saids”, it’s an exaggerated generalisation. New Zealand homes are mostly safe and peaceful. Some homes, however, are violent and abusive places, where physical, emotional and psychological wounds are inflicted on family members – too often children. Violence inflicted by adults on each other in their homes has traditionally been called “domestic violence”. Until the early 1990s, and the passing of the Domestic Violence Act 1995 in New Zealand, the community and authorities tended to treat domestic violence differently from other forms of assault – what went on between a couple and their family in their home was considered their private business. The now more commonly used term, “family violence”, describes violence in all its forms among family members. The term recognises that violence affects the whole family, children in particular. Children are likely to be physically and emotionally abused in a home where there is violence already. Children who see and hear assaults on others in the home are likely to suffer emotional and other health problems.

New Zealand studies indicate that in cases where women had been beaten, many of the children in the relationship had also been abused. Interviewing children, researchers found that almost all could give detailed accounts of violent behaviour that their mother or father never realised they had witnessed. Battered women are more likely than other women to assault children. A United States study found that women who were chronically violent to their spouse were also likely to abuse a male child. The same study found that nearly all violent men assaulted their sons. (National Center for Health Statistics.) Family violence appears to be an established fact in our communities. Recent statistics show a rise in reported cases, but that might be a good sign – it is likely to indicate that people are coming forward more readily to report violence, rather than saying nothing and the case not showing up in statistics. If we all recognise there is a problem, we can do something about it.

Why are some of our homes unsafe? And what can be done about it? Perhaps our starting-point should be to recognise that family violence is a crime. It is not a private matter that is no one else’s business. The Police and courts take family violence seriously. Police will act when they suspect or uncover incidences of family violence. New powers (see under Police Safety Orders) allow them to remove an offender, or even a suspected offender, to remove the immediate risk and to give everyone an opportunity to assess their situation.

When they attend an incident, they also use an internationally recognised scoring tool to assess partner risk. They also have a Child Risk Factor Tool, which helps them predict the risks for children. Family violence is rarely a singular or random event. Where it is present, it punctuates the life of a relationship and it gets worse as time passes. Most reported family violence is committed by men against women and children, although women, like men, can assault children. A growing number of men say that female violence against them is not treated as seriously as male assaults on women. International research indicates only about 20 percent of family violence incidents are actually reported. So a lot is happening in our community that the Police don’t know about. Whether we’re a victim, neighbour, part of the extended family, teacher, carer or just a member of the community, we can help make it stop. The numbers don’t make good reading. They reflect a sad situation for too many New Zealand families.

Not all family violence is physical

Not all family violence is physical Psychological and emotional abuse doesn’t leave cuts and bruises and broken bones. But the unseen, emotional damage can be as great and the effects as long-lasting. Psychological abuse can be caused by repeated putdowns and name-calling, intimidation and harassment that make victims feel bad about themselves. It is likely to feature yelling and threats of physical assaults, threats to leave or threats of suicide. Looks, actions and expressions might be used to instill fear. Items valuable to the victim might be destroyed or their pets harmed. Psychological abuse can include mind-game manipulation and control of someone’s money, time, vehicle or contact with friends as a way of asserting power over them. The Domestic Violence Act 1995 made psychological abuse an offence. Providing victims with a means of protection, the Act defines psychological abuse as “including intimidation, harassment, damage to property, threats of physical, sexual or psychological abuse, (and in relation to a child), abuse causing or allowing the child to witness the physical, sexual or psychological abuse of a person with whom the child has a domestic relationship”.

What is child abuse

The Office of the Children’s Commissioner defines child abuse as:

  • physical – all physical injuries to children where there is knowledge that the injury was not accidental, or knowingly not prevented;
  • sexual – the use of a child for sexual and/or physical gratification of someone who takes advantage of their power and/or the child’s trust;
  • neglect – serious deprivation of the necessaries of life such as food, shelter, supervision appropriate to their age, and essential physical and medical care;
  • emotional – adults’ negative attitudes and behaviours that harm a child’s emotional and physical development.

What is elder abuse

Just as some of our young are vulnerable to abuse in the home, so are some of their grandparents. Age Concern says elder abuse occurs when a person aged 65 or more suffers harmful physical, psychological, sexual, material or social effects caused by the behaviour of another person with whom they have a relationship implying trust. Elder abuse comes under four categories:

  • physical – infliction of physical pain, injury or force;
  • psychological – behaviour that causes mental or emotional anguish or fear;
  • sexual – sexually abusive and exploitative actions entailing threats, force or the person’s inability to give consent;
  • financial – the illegal or improper exploitation and/or use of funds or other resources.