Rising levels of domestic harm is having horrific consequences on Hawke’s Bay communities. Those on the frontline agree we must make urgent changes if we want to reduce our spiralling rates of violence and protect the next generation.
They say home is where the heart is, but what if it isn’t? For hundreds of adults and children in Hawke’s Bay, instead of a loving, safe space, their home is a daily battleground of chaos, noise, fear and abuse.
The prevalence of domestic violence in New Zealand is staggering. We have the highest rate of reported violence against women in the developed world, with one in three women experiencing physical, sexual or coercive violence from a partner. In 2020 NZ Police recorded 165,039 family violence investigations.
When we think of domestic harm, we often assume this means physical violence, but this isn’t always the case. Abusive relationships can, and usually do, involve a range of damaging behaviour, which can include physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and financial abuse. Often perpetrators keep victims socially isolated from friends and family members, monitor texts, calls and emails, or use coercion as a means of control. The perpetrator can be a man or a woman.
Social and economic disadvantages in education, employment, health, housing and income all significantly increase the risk of domestic violence. Add a pandemic into the mix and you’ve got an explosive recipe for escalating stress, anxiety and suffering.
For adults and children living in homes where domestic abuse is present, the noise can be inescapable. Yet often family harm remains a silent battle for victims – unseen and unheard by anyone else – as most incidents go unreported.
Situation in Hawke’s Bay
Over the past year, Hawke’s Bay Police received around 160 family harm reports per week – a number which increased over the Christmas period, as it did in other regions.
Our family violence rates in Hawke’s Bay are twice the national average and at a severity level that is one of the worst in the country, says DOVE Hawke’s Bay general manager Stewart Eadie.
The region’s largest provider of family violence services, DOVE offers education and support to affected individuals and families. Eadie says he and his 22 staff know all too well the wide-spread consequences of family harm on communities and the desperate need to reduce the problem. “The impact on our next generation is growing much faster than the available resources, which doesn’t paint a pretty picture at all,” he says.
DOVE has been operating for 27 years and in that time, Eadie has seen a shift in the way we view domestic violence. “People are coming to terms with recognising the significance of what is happening in our communities that was (previously) normalised as part of a relationship.” In spite of this change in attitude, domestic violence remains an escalating issue in our region and from a social perspective, the consequences are “horrific”, says Eadie.
Poverty, housing issues, drugs and alcohol all contribute to family harm incidents in Hawke’s Bay and around the country. It is a complex issue with no easy answers.
DOVE works with about 900 clients a year and demand always exceeds resources. Of those, 70% know they need help and self-refer by walking through the door. The organisation works closely with other agencies to provide counselling, education, addiction services, housing and advice to clients.
Staff work with them to build trust, go into their homes to provide support when needed and provide a non-judgemental perspective. Often clients are reacting to childhood trauma and suffer from anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
Hawke’s Bay Police and community partners like DOVE meet regularly to address family violence matters, and to facilitate follow-ups and wrap-around care for those experiencing family harm.
For Eadie, his greatest concern is the impact of family violence on children. More than half of family violence police callouts have children as witnesses, and the lifelong impact is significant as they are 6.5 times more likely to replicate this behaviour in adulthood, he says.
“It’s hard-wired. They’re twice as likely to go on and receive or give violence in the same way they’ve experienced.”
For adult victims the effects are also significant. In an effort to support victims of family violence, the Domestic Violence Victims’ Protection Act 2018 came into effect in 2019. The law requires employers to provide paid domestic violence leave for up to 10 days and an extension of flexible working arrangements for victims. It’s a step forward, but there’s still a very long way to go.
Rise of family violence and Covid
The reality is our domestic violence rates here and around the country are trending upwards, says Hawke’s Bay Police family harm manager, Senior Sergeant Caroline Martin. “Nationally, there continues to be an increase in calls for service to police for family harm-related events. The Eastern Police District is no different to any area of New Zealand in this respect,” she says.
Family violence remains a high priority for police, says Senior Sergeant Martin. “Reducing the number and impact of family harm episodes, along with our partner agencies, is a key focus.”
Like other social issues, Covid has had a significant impact on domestic violence. The stresses associated with
lockdowns, home schooling and job losses have triggered escalating violence. Eadie reports a 20% upturn in client numbers over the past two years.
The true impact of the pandemic is hard to gauge however, as many instances of family harm go unreported. The shame around family violence means victims often keep it hidden, leaving them without the help they need, says Eadie. “People are uncomfortable with it and as a result it’s buried.”
A new approach
Government, police and community support services recognise the need for a new strategy, if we’re going to tackle our appalling domestic violence rates.
Last year the Government announced a National Strategy to Eliminate Family Violence and Sexual Violence. The plan proposes 40 actions across six “shifts” to deliver change. These include moving towards strength-based wellbeing, mobilising communities, sustainable workforces, primary prevention, integrated responses, increased capacity for healing.
Planning, skills upgrading, collaboration and programme design are underway, with delivery of the draft measurement framework targeted for December 2022. This means data showing the full extent of the problem won’t be known until this date. The final action involves collecting relevant numbers, leading to “Increased efficacy in primary prevention approaches and investment”. This will start from January 2024.
Urgent change and a new strategy is needed now, says Eadie. Historically, we’ve taken a siloed approach to domestic violence – men versus women – and it’s been proven not to work. “We have long recognised that the current system isn’t working, and we need to act if we are going to interrupt our current trajectory,” he says.
Because of this, DOVE is in the process of radically changing the way it approaches family violence. In 2020, the organisation reviewed its programmes using research and client feedback to align with best practice and client needs.
As a result of the findings, a service redesign is underway. Under the new model, they will look at the whole picture of what’s happening within a family surrounding a client rather than the historical siloed approach.
Through evaluating what clients need, staff can provide tailored, holistic support, says Eadie. The aim is to empower individuals and their family to truly understand their situation and transform their lives. “If we want to make lasting change we’ve got to be prepared to walk with these people,” says Eadie.
The organisation works individually with the 300-400 clients on their books at any time, most of whom are motivated to change, says Eadie. When someone walks through the door or rings, staff celebrate their bravery in asking for help. “Each person coming to us, whether they are experiencing violence or using violence to control their partner, we want them to experience we care and we don’t judge”, says Eadie.
The first step is listening to their story to understand how staff can best support them, making sure they and their family are safe and helping with any immediate needs. These might be legal support for a protection order, a safety alarm, food, accommodation, and help with addiction.
Once these have been taken care of, staff sit down with clients and try to understand what brought them to this place. It’s a time-consuming process that takes training and experience from dedicated staff, says Eadie. “It’s normally taken a lifetime to come to this place, with a lot of hurt along the way. So understandably it takes time to work through the issues and plan a way forward.” Most clients work with DOVE for several months.
As well as tailored individual support, DOVE offers a range of programmes for all ages and genders to help clients to make lasting changes to their lives.
One of the most recent programmes is Male Survivors Hawke’s Bay, which supports men who have been sexually abused or assaulted. It’s an important and much-needed programme, says Eadie. The level of male sexual abuse is higher than people think, affecting around one in six men according to national figures. However, the percentage of DOVE male (and female) clients who have experienced sexual abuse is significantly higher than national averages, and the trauma they suffer is significant. Evidence shows these families desperately need support to break entrenched intergenerational patterns, says Eadie.
Addressing social issues including, trauma, mental health, addiction and poverty in the family and collaborating with community partners is key to reducing our shocking domestic violence levels. Early intervention to protect future generations must also be a focus, says Eadie.
The approach echoes recent findings by the national Family Violence Death Review Committee, which describes the current system as fragmented. The report recommends taking a comprehensive approach that responds to family violence within the family context of social issues to create systemic change. Children are born into families where they experience intergenerational violence and without intervention this has a lasting detrimental impact. “Prevention for these families and whānau is about interrupting intergenerational patterns of violence and the associated transmission of trauma,” says the report.
Hawke’s Bay Police recently confirmed a formal partnership with local
iwi to address domestic violence in the region. The aim is to help further improve coordination and collaboration with agencies to get the best outcomes for those experiencing family harm, says Senior Sergeant Martin.
As a society, we need to break down the barriers of family violence so people start talking about it and asking for help, before it’s too late, says Eadie. “The ripples of family violence are extending faster than we can intervene. If we don’t do something this is going to get bigger and bigger.”
A survivor’s story
Tina (not her real name) has experienced domestic abuse her whole life – first at the hands of her father and then her partners. Growing up in Hastings in a large family, life was stressful, chaotic and unpredictable. Physical violence was part of daily life for Tina and her siblings, who lived in fear of their father coming home drunk and angry. Looking back, she describes home life as “something like Once Were Warriors”.
After she left home, Tina’s romantic relationships followed a similar pattern. As a teenager, Tina met her first boyfriend and the man who would become the father to her children. A gang member, he had also grown up with extreme violence. At first the relationship went well, but after Tina gave birth to their son things changed, she says. “He became emotionally abusive – it was jealousy when we had our son because all my attention went away from him to our baby,” she says.
The abuse started with put downs and social isolation, which Tina didn’t recognise as abuse at the time. “He would tell me I was nothing; I was being treated like a doormat, and he said I wasn’t worth being alive. The thing is, I let him do that to me.”
The couple stayed together for several years and had two more children. During the last six months of the relationship the abuse turned physical. Tina suffered regular beatings, at times, in front of their children. “The thing I regret is our son was in the next room and he heard him bashing me, and [my son] came running in and tried to grab a butcher’s knife.”
Tina tried to leave numerous times, but she always went back. Eventually, with the support of family members who were fearful for her life, Tina left the relationship.
Her next partner was also emotionally abusive. “The put downs and saying I’m a hopeless mother. I was thinking ‘Why are you treating me like I’m nothing?’. I promised myself I would never ever let someone treat me that way again but then I let him do it to me.” After several years together, Tina gathered the strength to leave him and change direction for good.
DOVE has been integral in helping Tina move on by providing education, resources and emotional support whenever she needs it. “If it wasn’t for DOVE Hawke’s Bay I would be absolutely lost,” she says.
The trauma of her past still affects Tina, but she’s determined to show her children and grandchildren a better life, free of abuse. “It’s the mental stuff that stays with you, not the physical. The only love I’ve known my whole life is abuse.”
If you or someone you know is being exposed to physical violence now, call the police on 111.
For support services and resources for family harm contact:
• DOVE Hawke’s Bay on 0800 368 342 or 06 843 5307
• Heretaunga Women’s Centre on 06 878 5401
• Women’s Refuge on 06 878 9519