Systemic responses continue to fail and traumatise Aboriginal women who survive violence

8 Jun 2018

I was extremely alarmed to read the recent ABC news report about an Aboriginal woman from a western NSW community who had been charged, and further held in a local police cell overnight, for not attending court to provide evidence as a result of domestic violence...

Marlene Longbottom

I was extremely alarmed to read the recent ABC news report by Sofie Wainwright and Declan Grooch about an Aboriginal woman from a western NSW community who had been charged, and further held in a local police cell overnight, for not attending court to provide evidence as a result of domestic violence

Regardless of previous cases where victims were charged, as reported in the ABC article, the action taken by the magistrate of the local court was an inappropriate response to an extremely complex issue.

The complexity of violence against Aboriginal women is too large to write in such a small word limit. However, for the purpose of this article, I will provide some context in how the system and structures of government continue to fail to protect Aboriginal women.

As an Aboriginal PhD researcher in the field of violence and trauma, Aboriginal women have spoken to me about their experiences of all types of violence; including physical, rape/sexual, verbal, psychological, mental, emotional, financial and spiritual. A little over half of the 14 participants in this qualitative study  experienced violence with non-Aboriginal partners, so this is not just an Aboriginal issue; violence against Aboriginal women is a whole of community issue.

Participants of the study provided me with permission to share their stories through an informed consent process in addition to having ethical approval by the NSW Aboriginal Health and Medical Research Council Human Research Ethics Committee.

Aboriginal women speaking up

Aboriginal women self-reported extreme forms of violence, suffering major debilitating injuries, some of which they will live with for the rest of their lives, along with long term, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, in addition to multiple chronic diseases.

When reporting violence or seeking assistance, the women described explicit and further traumatic incidents of racial and gender based microaggressions targeted at them by a range of service providers, including government agencies such as the police, courts, health services in addition to non-Aboriginal community services and private business.

In describing their experiences, I draw from the work of Sue et al (2007) that documents the theory of microaggressions. These microaggressions occur across domains of race, gender, class, sexuality and ableism through the enactment of microassaults, microinsults, microinvalidations and environmental microaggressions.

The women in this study explained in great detail their interactions with these agencies, resulting in a reluctance to report the violence and would do so only when it was severe.

Aboriginal women are hesitant to approach a system whose purpose is to protect the public from harm, yet as can be seen from the ABC news report cited above, by holding an Aboriginal woman in a cell overnight in order for her to provide evidence is extreme and, as the article reports, was a highly traumatic experience for Ms King.

Had she received adequate support, it could have quite possibly avoided her overnight detention and reduced the impact of the trauma that she encountered.

But what sort of support could that have been? Had Ms King been simply provided with some form of transport, court support, advocacy and housing assistance, the difficulties she faced in attending court, may have been addressed. It is seriously, that simple.

The ABC report does not state whether or not Ms King was offered the option to provide evidence by video link. But it is notable that this has been successfully used in other cases, as an alternative to victims being present in the same court room as the person who perpetrated the violence. Having this option available, means that survivors feel safe enough to share their evidence, without the intimidation of the perpetrator’s presence and the fear for their personal safety. This worked well for one of the women I interviewed.

“When they [Police] came I think my experience was a pretty positive one, they came on the night of the assault and took my statement. It was all just talking as if I was yarning to them and it was video recorded and then that meant I didn’t have to go to court. I was able to be excused, I didn’t have to attend”

However, another participant shared her experience of attending the court in person while the perpetrator was present which resulted in experiencing intimidating behaviours by the perpetrator

“When I did the AVO against him, I had to go to court. There was no women’s area, you had to sit there and he’s making faces at me across the room like it’s all fun and games”

Not only do Aboriginal women have to contend with the fear of retribution from the person perpetrating violence, but they may also have to deal with community members, an extensive family network or friends who may feel the need to support the perpetrator and thus blame the survivor for reporting the violence.

“It’s not just him, it’s his friends, it’s his family, it’s everybody and he’s the victim, you’ve left him. The most vital time between you leaving and getting established, you are on death row. You’re not in danger while you live there; you’re in danger when you leave. You’re always looking over your shoulders and they are at their worst. [It’s like] you have got a target on your back”

Aboriginal women then engage with a system that potentially invalidates their experiences, questioning whether or not they are ‘sure’ they want to proceed to report the incident(s). Further, it was believed that the judicial system is designed to support the person perpetrating violence, not the survivor. There was a belief held by the women that leniency rather keeping the perpetrator to account was common, coupled with the perception that Aboriginal women’s stories of violence are unlikely to be believed.

“That’s what they say or that’s what they’ve said to me.  Oh are you really sure you want to do this, are you really sure. I said to the last one [Police officer taking my statement], I wouldn’t fuckin be here if I wasn’t sure”

“In terms of my faith in the court system, I believe that the police and the judicial system is designed to protect the perpetrators and get them the easiest sentence. There’s no support, there’s no validation, they sure as hell don’t believe Aboriginal women”

The systemic response can inadvertently create situations where Aboriginal women who have experienced violence become caught in the criminal justice system. In retaliation to years of violence this participant stated she was later charged with public nuisance and placed on a suspended sentence as a result of retaliating back to the long-term violence she had encountered with the perpetrator.

“When I was getting interviewed by the police, I mentioned about being raped at knife point and saying other things that this person did to me, the coppers took his word over mine and basically said that I’d been lying about being raped”.

System responses are points of vulnerability

We are currently witnessing a shift in the trends towards greater imprisonment of Aboriginal people with alarming rates of overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in prison who have encountered interpersonal violence.

This is one part of a very complex situation which leading intersectionality theorist Kimberle Crenshaw states in her Ted talk that creates and becomes the point where vulnerability can intersect  “It’s about how structures make certain identities the consequences of and the vehicle for vulnerability.”

#MsDhu is another example of the ways in which the system is failing Aboriginal women. Ms Dhu was taken into custody for unpaid fines to later be treated inhumanely by the custodial officers and health service staff who acted with an absolute lack of duty of care for her health and wellbeing. The Coroner’s report stated Ms Dhu died of complications as a result of septicaemia. However, while in police custody and health service care, none of the staff of the agencies involved in the three days leading up to her death have been formally reprimanded through their place of employment for their conduct and the way in which they treated her.

In the case of #MsDaley, the system failed her with the New South Wales Department of Police Prosecutions throwing out earlier formal charges initially, however this was later overturned with a reassessment by the DPP. Five years later #MsDaley’s death was acknowledged with the two men responsible charged, and now serving time in prison.

What is often spoken about is the need to address the response to supporting Aboriginal women in times of crisis. And rightly so, safety of the survivor and children are vital. However, what is often left unaddressed are the ongoing structural and systemic issues that mean time and again we see Aboriginal women enter a system either as a victim or moving through as an offender.

Ms King from western New South Wales is the latest to have become part of this narrative. Aboriginal women will continue to be caught in these systems if there remains inadequate support that is culturally unsafe and not from a trauma informed standpoint.

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