What do we mean when we say ‘family violence’?

Carrie Leonetti explains why lumping violent and sexual crime in with domestic arguments and mental health crises under the term ‘family harm’ is problematic.

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Opinion: Aotearoa New Zealand could be accused of giving up on holding perpetrators of family violence to account, concluding that our rates of domestic violence and child abuse are so high and our failure to improve our statistics so poor that we should just divert our criminal justice resources elsewhere.

The New Zealand Police recently issued its Briefing to the Incoming Minister of Police, in which it proposed that the response to “family harm” and child protection be downsized through “managed withdrawal”, allowing “others” to fill that role. According to the briefing, police have already been “triaging lower priority” episodes of “family harm” for the past six months, only responding when there is “an immediate risk to life”

“Family harm” is a misleading and, I’d argue, an obfuscating term. “Family harm” is an umbrella term that includes violent and sexual crimes, such as rape, assault, strangulation, non-criminal forms of family violence, such as coercive control, financial abuse, stalking, intimidation and harassment. It also includes family dysfunction that is not family violence, such as mental health crises, substance abuse and arguments.

It’s crucially important that police can distinguish between these three categories of harm so they can respond appropriately to each. Calling rape, assault, and stalking “family harm” sanitises the reality of family violence, minimises the threat posed by perpetrators, and conflates serious crimes with disorderly conduct. It also obscures any meaningful assessment of the appropriateness of police responses. The appropriate response to an intra-familial rape is very different to the appropriate response to a drunken argument, but the police characterise both as a “family harm investigation”.

Perhaps because the briefing at no point acknowledges that many acts of “family harm” are actually crimes, it characterises “incidents relating to family harm” as “related to social dysfunction” and “social issues”, rather than acts that are appropriate for “traditional visible policing”.

It appears to disown the role of police in responding to “events in people’s homes”. It relies on a concerning and outdated view of family violence and the role of the criminal justice system in protecting victims. It harkens back to the bad old days when family violence was dismissed as “just another domestic”.

Associate Professor Carrie Leonetti is from the Faculty of Law, University of Auckland
Associate Professor Carrie Leonetti is from the Faculty of Law, University of Auckland

The briefing continues what I’d say is an increasingly common police strategy for deflecting the blame for their poor responses to family violence, by claiming that many callouts are for non-criminal forms of amorphous “family harm”. The problem with this claim – which has never been documented through police data – is that while family violence callouts have increased, victimisation levels have remained extremely high, hospitalisation rates for victims of family violence have increased, while arrests and prosecutions have actually fallen.

The rate of domestic violence-related homicides remains intractably high, and our problem with family violence is getting worse. Our police callouts are increasing, but the police are recording fewer and fewer callouts as crimes. The mystery of the declining police action is compounded by the lack of police data relating to their decision making.

Questions we need to ask: How many 111 calls reporting family violence don’t result in arrests or prosecutions? How are police deciding that a call for help for “family harm” doesn’t involve a crime worth investigating? How do police decide when the risk of further violence is high enough to warrant expending their resources on an arrest? Family violence experts have made their position clear: family violence in Aotearoa New Zealand isn’t getting better, but police responses are getting worse.

According to the police policy on prosecuting family violence, last updated in 2022: “Given the seriousness of family violence, prosecution is often the most appropriate resolution response to such incidents. Furthermore, this response enables police to meet its dual roles of ensuring community and victim safety and preventing re‐offending.” It concludes: “Prosecution is therefore an important mechanism through which police manages its role in reducing the occurrence and impacts of family violence in New Zealand.”

According to the briefing, however, more than half of police investigations of family harm do not result in an offence even being recorded, let alone result in an arrest or prosecution. The next sentence in the briefing is redacted, so the police have decided not to share the reasons why. Media reports suggest that many of these investigations are not recorded as crimes in error – they are crimes but the police are failing to recognise them as such or respond appropriately.

In December 2021, Aotearoa New Zealand adopted a new 25-year strategy to combat family and sexual violence called Te Aorerekura. According to the strategy: “Women impacted by violence and their children want to feel safe and protected when they reach out for help from the justice system (the police, the courts and lawyers). They want to be believed and they want the professionals they encounter to take the violence and the risks they face seriously.

”The strategy calls on police to provide better help and protection and ensure accountability for people who use violence and for participants in the justice system to be protected, safe, and supported. It recognises that an unsafe response can result in violence being minimised or condoned, causing further trauma.It’s an incredible act of courage for a victim of family or sexual violence to call for help.

Surely, a victim who takes this brave first step wants a police response, not a “triager” to decide that their suffering doesn’t warrant taking police resources away from some “real” and more important crime.As the strategy concludes: “Too many people affected by violence have come to regret speaking out and seeking support.” The police briefing suggests that this will continue to be the case. The implicit message to perpetrators is that their odds of being caught, arrested, prosecuted, and held accountable for family violence are low.

Poor police responses to family violence are an age-old problem and one that police appear to have decided to accept. The official policy of Aotearoa New Zealand is that family violence is “not okay”. The reality is that our rates of family violence remain among the highest in the developed world, and we continue to lack the one thing we know brings safety to victims: meaningful accountability for perpetrators. We have essentially decriminalised family violence.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not
necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom.

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Sophie Boladeras I Media adviser
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