Victorian domestic violence royal commission begins first day of public hearings in Melbourne. Monday 13th July 2015

Ten gaps in family violence system identified by Government:

  1. Poor measurability of the scale and breadth of family violence in Victoria
  2. Lack of consistent and sufficiently resourced prevention frameworks and programs
  3. Limited understanding of the short and long-term impact of family violence on children and young people
  4. Poorly resourced and underinvestment in responses to family violence as demand for services grow
  5. Inconsistent and poorly tailored responses for high-risk groups and specific cohorts, including failure to be culturally responsive
  6. Weak legal consequences that fail to hold perpetrators to account
  7. An inaccessible and complex justice system in which victims do not always feel safe
  8. Lack of an integrated response model and insufficiently robust governance structures
  9. Barriers to sharing information
  10. Challenges to working with the Commonwealth Government

Source: Government submission to Royal Commission into Family Violence

Victorian domestic violence royal commission begins first day of public hearings in Melbourne

So far today police in Australia would have dealt with on average 609 domestic violence matters
Learn more about these numbers

Victoria's Royal Commission into Family Violence begins holding public hearings in Melbourne today, with Victoria Police and at least one family violence victim to appear on the first day.

The Victorian Government established the royal commission earlier this year, describing family violence as a national emergency.

It is estimated to cost the state $3.4 billion a year.

In 2013 there were 44 family violence-related deaths in Victoria and more than 65,000 domestic violence incidents reported to police.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the royal commission would "give us the answers we need and nothing will be off limits".

"We need a system that protects the vulnerable, punishes the guilty and saves lives," he said.

The inquiry, headed by former Court of Appeal judge Marcia Neave, has already had more than 1,000 submissions and will hear evidence from victims, family violence experts and Victoria Police.

The Government's own 63-page submission to the inquiry proposed a new domestic violence offence, and a dangerous partners register, to protect women and children.

Victorian Minister for the Prevention of Family Violence Fiona Richardson said the current system was "failing women and children in particular".

"Our submission calls for a complete overhaul of the system because we know we need to do more to keep women and children safe," she said.

The submission identified what the Government saw as 10 key gaps in the state's response to the issue, including under-funded services, and weak legal consequences for offenders.

Dr Chris Atmore, a senior policy adviser at the Federation of Community Legal Centres, said Victoria's domestic violence response was "broken but not irredeemable".

"In about 2005 the current system began with a lot of promise and quite a lot of injection of funds," she said.

"Now in 2015 we think it needs two things: One is it's time for more substantial investment especially as there's a growing demand particularly for intervention orders.

"Two, the early promise and commitment for all the services involved in responding to family violence to collaborate across government and community organisations has not really been achieved."

The royal commission will also hear that homophobia, anti-terrorism laws and racism are barriers preventing some family violence victims from seeking help.

Submissions from the Australian Muslim Women's Centre for Human Rights, Victoria's Aboriginal Legal Service, and the LGBTI community agreed that minority groups had been "vulnerable" and "invisible" in family violence discussions.

Rosie Batty among witnesses

Australian of the Year Rosie Batty is also expected to be among the witnesses to appear at the public hearings over the next month.

  • Ms Batty's son, Luke, was killed by his father Greg Anderson at a cricket ground south-east of Melbourne in February last year.
  • Anderson was shot dead by police soon after.
  • Luke's death is seen as one of the catalysts for the royal commission.
  • The Batty case raised questions about Victoria Police's ability to enforce court-issued intervention orders that are supposed to protect vulnerable women and children.

Children's brains changed by severe family violence, royal commission hears

So far today police in Australia would have dealt with on average 608 domestic violence matters
Learn more about these numbers

Children can literally sense fear through skin contact with their parents and are impacted by violence into adulthood, the Royal Commission into Family Violence has heard.

The inquiry began on Monday and is continuing today with a focus on how domestic violence affects children.

Social worker and family therapist Robyn Miller said children literally sensed fear through skin contact with parents.

"Children and very young babies can sense the fear in their parent and that has a profound impact ... the relationship between the baby and the child's primary carer, usually the mother, is critical to that child's development," she said.

"If the mother is being hurt, the baby — even though it may have been in a different room — will be impacted by the experience of the mother, who is likely to be in shock, experiencing fear, and if it's an ongoing state, where the violence is embedded in the relationship, that cannot but impact on the baby.

"So children they can smell fear, they sense it literally through the skin contact."

She said children were particularly wired to "read the non-verbal cues of their parents" and could sense signs of violence.

"I think we need to put aside that children are somehow passive witnesses or that they're not impacted if they're not directly exposed — they are," Dr Miller said.

Director of the Centre for Women's Mental Health at the Royal Women's Hospital Professor Louise Newman said exposure to "high levels of ongoing threat and violence" from birth to age four could affect brain development.

"We know that being in situations — particularly if they're prolonged and ongoing ... of fear and terror is associated with a very big physical stress response, with the release of stress-related hormones," she said.

"Those hormones can have a direct impact on the developing brain — the brain when it is developing so quickly during the early years is very sensitive to those sorts of hormones and what we do know from studies ... is that the brain can literally be changed by the impact of those stress-related hormones."

Professor Newman said childhood trauma could continue to impact some children into adulthood.

"Children who experience these degrees of trauma, can have a brain that remains very sensitive to the effects of any later trauma, and less efficient at dealing with stress and trauma," she said.

"So it really sets up a vulnerable brain."

She told the inquiry it was unclear how children exposed to "less severe" situations were affected because it had not been extensively studied, but there was "no known safe level of violence or traumatic exposure in children".

Services for at-risk pregnant women, children

Professor Newman said pregnant women in stressful situations released hormones which could cross the placenta and impact the baby in utero.

"The babies have been followed, and those babies can have growth problems, both in their nervous system and brain but [can] also be small, and so are potentially very vulnerable in terms of their ongoing development," she said.

"That means it's very important that we look at better identification of women who might be in those high-risk situations during pregnancy."

Counsel assisting Mark Moshinsky told the hearing the commission heard there were not enough services for children and young people.

He said there were waiting lists of up to six months.

"Specific mention was made of the lack of child psychologists, limited access to therapeutic services for children and young people, the lack of alcohol and drug services, and the lack of detox programs for children aged under 14," he said.

Violence in Aboriginal communities

The hearing was told nine out of 10 Aboriginal children in "out of home care" have been removed because of family violence.

The Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People, Andrew Jackomos, told the hearing some Aboriginal leaders were reluctant to accept that men were the major perpetrators.

He said that led to a lack of funding for women's services.

"What we need is money going to programs that support the rights of victims, that support the rights of Koorie women and children to know their rights and to defend them," he said.