Data on family violence presents a vexed narrative. On the one hand, the community and policymakers are alarmed that last year’s pandemic-induced lockdowns fuelled a record number of police call-outs to family violence incidents.
At the same time, the increasing numbers of victims seeking assistance is a heartening sign that awareness campaigns are working.
Monash Gender and Violence Centre director Kate Fitz-Gibbon said “since the  royal commission we’ve seen changes in policing practice, changes in public campaigns [and] changes in media reporting around high profile cases [that] have driven increases in police reporting – and that’s actually a positive story”.
“Because that family violence was happening in the community, but it wasn’t being reported.”
So how much family violence is out there? What are the trends? What does it mean? Below we present five key data sets that lay out the answers to these questions. It is important to note that a 2016 Victoria Police change to offence categorisation means most statistics are reliable only for the past five years. That is a short period to see clear patterns, but there are still clear markers on the scale of the problem.
1. How many family incidents are police turning up to?
Crime statistics show that more people called police to disputes in the home over the past few years.
There was a 4.5 per cent dip in the volume of family incidents attended by police in 2017, the year after the royal commission’s report was handed down. By 2018 the number was back to the same volume seen in 2016 and it has increased each year since.
Dr Fitz-Gibbons says the 7.5 per cent increase in family violence incidents recorded during the pandemic of 2020 threw an outlier into the trajectory of police data for the past half-decade, as police were called to 92,251 incidents in a year defined by two prolonged lockdowns.
Even without that surge, there was a 7.5 per cent increase between 2016 and 2019.
The population was also growing strongly over this period, which could help explain some increase in volume.
Looking at the rate of incidents police attended per 100,000 people can help account for population growth.
That measure shows that only from 2019 onward has the prevalence of incidents within the community risen above the rates seen in 2016.
Changes to offence categories in 2016 may account for the higher rate seen that year.
2. Nearly half of all ‘crimes against the person’ in Victoria are family violence-related
How enormous an issue family violence is for police is laid bare by the number of “crimes against the person” (a police term that separates these offences from others such as property destruction, theft or fraud) that are related to family abuse.
In 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, 45 per cent of all crimes against people were family violence-related.
More than half of all assault and abduction offences were family violence-related and 54 per cent of all stalking, harassment and threatening behaviour crimes were between family members.
A Victoria Police spokesperson said the year-on-year increases in harassment crimes were, in part, due to the increased use of abuse and threats sent via social media and phones.
“Unacceptably, police are increasingly seeing family violence perpetrators use technology such as social media, tracking apps and devices to control and abuse victims,” a spokeswoman said.
The prominence of this “technology-facilitated abuse” has resulted in specific training modules for police on understanding how perpetrators use it to control victims.
3. Intervention order breaches have increased
The number of intervention orders – civil court orders which limit a perpetrator’s behaviour or movements – issued by Victoria Police has increased over the past three years when they have attended a family violence incident.
In 2019 there were 27,022 incidents in which police applied for an IVO or issued a temporary “family safety notice” (this is often a precursor to a court-issued IVO process), up 10 per cent from the year before.
Police are also dealing with a high number of perpetrators who break conditions on their court orders. Between 2016 and 2019, the number of recorded breaches jumped 20 per cent. This is one of the few pieces of data in this space where a longer 10-year time frame is available from the Crime Statistics agency and the trend is stark.
Although the increase is partly linked to the higher volume of orders made, Victoria Police said a cultural shift in recent years meant officers more aggressively pursued those who breached orders.
“These numbers reflect not only the higher reporting rates resulting in more intervention orders generally, but also our improved understanding and focus on ensuring victim safety by holding perpetrators to account,” a police spokeswoman said.
4. Regions, urban fringe struggle most
Mapping statistics for local government areas clearly shows where the situation has deteriorated, rather than improved since the royal commission.
Latrobe in Gippsland, Mildura and Horsham remain among the worst-affected areas for family violence as they were in 2016.
Other areas have seen an overall increase in the rate of violence since 2016 including Swan Hill, Wellington, Glenelg, East Gippsland, Greater Geelong and Mitchell shire.
Closer to Melbourne, Hume, which takes in Sunbury and Craigieburn in Melbourne’s north, saw a 12 per cent increase between 2016 and 2019, before the 2020 pandemic spike.
5. The number of people dying from family violence jumped again last year
Although often quoted in media reports, Dr Fitz-Gibbon said the number of people killed at the hands of family members – while tragic and important – was not the best tool to measure whether things are improving for victims of violence and doesn’t reveal the sheer scale of the problem.
“Homicides are incredibly horrific, but they are the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “We know that it’s a very small number of people that will show up in police and courts statistics.”
The Coroners Court of Victoria identifies how many homicides each year can be related to family violence. The graph below shows that the number of family violence deaths was trending down between 2015-2016 to 2018-2019, but spiked again in 2019-2020 to 19 deaths.
Crime Statistics Agency of Victoria chief statistician Fiona Dowsley said more time was need to see where the homicides trend was going.
“In Australia, thankfully we don’t have a very high homicide rate compared to a lot of countries around the world, we have quite a low homicide rate – and whenever you have a relatively low number of things that occur, small changes can look really big,” she said.
“So year-on-year fluctuations can be difficult to assess.
“While one homicide is too many, from a statistical point of view it’s hard to determine trends in small volatile counts.”
Dr Fitz-Gibbon said while she and others in her sector would like to see a decrease in family violence statistics, she is heartened that more victims are coming forward.
“For so long, women didn’t feel that they could call the police and respond to their kind of violence,” she said.
“All the research tells us that family violence increased in frequency and severity during the pandemic, and that’s not a negative reflection on the royal commission.
“But it does remind us that this is not an issue we’ve dealt with, it is something that is still very much a state emergency.”
With Craig Butt
Support is available from the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service at 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732).
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