Anna Leask is senior police reporter for the New Zealand Herald.

Family violence: What can we do to fix the problem?

New Zealand has the worst rate of family and intimate-partner violence in the world. Eighty per cent of incidents go unreported — so what we know of family violence in our community is barely the tip of the iceberg. Today is the final day of We’re Better Than This, a week-long series on family violence. Our aim is to raise awareness, to educate, to give an insight into the victims and perpetrators. We want to encourage victims to have the strength to speak out, and abusers the courage to change their behaviour.

Family violence is the biggest specific crime in New Zealand and costs us $4 billion to $7 billion each year.

Our front line police spend more than 40 per cent of their time responding to family violence incidents, and every few minutes someone calls a crisis line seeking help. Police attended 105,000 family violence incidents last year -- only the 20 or so per cent that were reported.

Family violence is an epidemic in New Zealand. So what is the solution?


There is no easy answer, no silver bullet, quick fix, single piece of legislation or police action that can tackle the problem. Whatever we do will take time -- experts suggest up to 20 years -- and a lot of hard work until we see a real difference.

"We've got to be really bold, we have to acknowledge the truths of this and be brave," said Superintendent Tusha Penny, national crime prevention manager for the police. "We have to try new things. The harsh reality is that we are already getting things wrong and people are getting hurt. We can do better.

Our challenge is to make people as safe in their homes as they are on the street.
Superintendent Tusha Penny

"All New Zealanders have a fundamental right to live in their homes and be safe.

"Family violence is predictable, it's stoppable. We can make a difference. There are groups of people doing really good stuff, but there is no national framework. We have a pile of information, but we don't know what to do with it."

Superintendent Tusha Penny says we can make a difference. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Superintendent Tusha Penny says we can make a difference. Photo / Mark Mitchell

The "good stuff" includes, but is not limited to, changes to the way police respond to and deal with family violence; a government review and overhaul of relevant legislation; a proposal for new family violence-specific offences and the introduction of the Integrated Safety Response (ISR) model, which allows government and NGOs to respond collectively.

Part of the ISR model is an "intensive case management process" for high-risk cases, meaning police and agencies can work together to respond to situations.

People spoken to from the police, government, and help agencies believed that the upcoming changes across the board - from NGO to government level, had the potential to make a significant dent in the family violence incident rate.

"I really believe if we get this right, we are on the cusp of a huge transformation," said Ms Penny.

Countless ideas, initiatives and campaigns from community to government level are aimed at family violence reduction and prevention -- too many to list. But they all follow the same themes -- improving legislation and response, educating and raising awareness of the issue and the warning signs, promoting equality and healthy relationships and properly funding support agencies.

Strengthening legislative response

In 2014 the Prime Minister announced a package of initiatives aimed at reducing family violence. Part of that was a review of family violence legislation and a stocktake of all current family violence systems and services.

Justice Minister Amy Adams said while much had been done over "many years" to address the situation, family violence "remains one of New Zealand's most significant social issues".

"Clearly something isn't working. A single action or change won't make this problem go away ... We can't legislate our way out of this," she said.

Phil Paikea of the 'It's Not OK' campaign with Northland police family violence coordinator senior sergeant Marie Nordstrom. Photo / John Stone
Phil Paikea of the 'It's Not OK' campaign with Northland police family violence coordinator senior sergeant Marie Nordstrom. Photo / John Stone

A comprehensive "rethink" of family violence was crucial.

"If we aren't prepared to acknowledge and get people at least talking about it we're not going to resolve anything. There are a number of things we should do better and a number of things we should try. Carrying on as we are is not okay," Ms Adams said.

"Change won't happen quickly. We need to look at every aspect of what we do ... This is a journey of many many years. There isn't a simple one-way train to the solution.

Thinking long-term was key.

It's a journey of 1000 steps. It' s important to manage expectations. A lot of small things need to change for big changes to happen.
Justice Minister Amy Adams

Janet Fanslow, from the Family Violence Clearing House, the national centre for research and information on the issue, said it was hugely important to make sure any new initiatives were given a good run -- and enough funding.

"To make a difference it's actually going to have to be sufficiently resourced and it's also going to have to be sustained," she said.

"The devil is in the detail and we need to ensure we are investing sufficiently to do this well."

Mrs Adams said trying new things was the biggest step.

"Some of these changes will work and some might not -- but what we're not going to do is sit back and let this keep happening," she said.

Women's Refuge chief executive Dr Ang Jury agreed.

We can't just keep on reinventing the wheel.
Dr Ang Jury

"The discourse isn't developing, it's the same conversation, and that's because no one's come up with the answer yet."

Funding safe futures

It's no secret that funding is tight for services like Shine and Women's Refuge. The more we can give them, the more they can help, says Green Party MP Jan Logie.

"We have to remember that family violence refuges and specialist agencies save lives. They provide women and children with a roof over their heads when they have nowhere else to go," she said.

"Refuges are absolutely essential and there is no way we've got a working response to family violence without them."

Ms Logie recently surveyed 20 refuges around New Zealand and was "really disturbed" to find 11 had been forced to cut services or staff in the previous six years because of a lack of funding.

While the rate of family violence has gone up, state aid for Women's Refuges has not, hence on going fundraising such as street collections. Photo / Ben Fraser
While the rate of family violence has gone up, state aid for Women's Refuges has not, hence on going fundraising such as street collections. Photo / Ben Fraser

"Every single one was exceeding their targets, some by 200 per cent. It's absolutely huge. We've seen in the statistics that the rate of family violence has gone up, but funding has not been increased to be able to support these services and enable them to meet that demand.

"There are needs in the community that cannot be responded to."

It is deeply disturbing to hear that one refuge has increased the criteria for safe house admission -- that was the only way they could keep up with demand.
Jan Logie

"In that area they are turning women away and we cannot have that, it's completely unacceptable."

Going forward, she said, funding NGOs had to be a priority.

"We have an epidemic of family violence. It's endemic in this country and if we're going to try to turn that around and change it then we need the state to be able to properly fund it and ensure that the services are sustained, that when somebody needs help they can get it and it's the right help."

Education and awareness

Do we know enough about family violence? The answer from authorities and agencies is an astounding "no".

"New Zealand hasn't really grasped the full extent of the problem," says Justice Minister Amy Adams.

So what do we do about that?

Janet Fanslow, from the Family Violence Clearing House, said: "We know we have a problem but we are often a little bit inclined to cite that problem in other people -- it's that group over there.

"The awareness of the problem needs to come very strongly with awareness of the solution. The scale of the problem is quite overwhelming. Part of our job is to break that down."

Justice Minister Amy Adams says "New Zealand hasn't really grasped the full extent of the problem." Photo / George Novak
Justice Minister Amy Adams says "New Zealand hasn't really grasped the full extent of the problem." Photo / George Novak

Women's Refuge chief executive Dr Ang Jury said: "If we're going to look at societal change what I believe needs to happen is a really solid education -- not about violence, kids know what that looks like -- but about how we be together as people. We spend an awful lot of time in education talking about respect. But it doesn't explicitly address intimate partner relationships between people.

"A lot of kids at 12 and 13 are already starting to get into these relationships, there are 15-year-olds living together and in some of those cases there is already quite serious violence. The information needs to be with our little people so they are growing up with it ... and not getting it when they are 15, 16 or 17 and already in these situations."

Aaron Steedman, who runs Shine's men's programmes, wanted to see a much stronger focus on stopping non-physical abuse.

If you can stop the verbal and emotional abuse, then you will stop the physical. There needs to be a lot more work around respectful relationships
Aaron Steedman

Women as equals?

New Zealand also needed to pick up its game when it came to gender bias, Women's Refuge chief executive Dr Ang Jury said.

While we think we are a forward-thinking country of equals, we're not.

"I believe that in countries that have very strong gender organisation of society, that helps to create the problem. If you look at countries like Sweden and Norway, the countries that have put a lot of effort into gender equality, their rates of family violence are much lower," she said.

"We think we're doing really well with equality -- but we're not.

"For example, we have a huge gender pay gap. When a woman has a baby there is the instant expectation that she will be the one to stay home, give up work and care for that baby," she said. There's still a thought that it's okay to control women.

There's still a thought that it's okay to control women.
Dr Jury

"I don't think it's getting any worse but it's certainly not getting better."

Working together

Family violence is not just a problem for victims. It affects us all.

Every person in New Zealand has a part to play in addressing the problem.

We have the worst rate of family violence in the developed world. The majority of that violence is against women by their male partner or ex and against children.

We can, and must, do better than this. We must encourage women and other victims to ask for help.

We must not be afraid to ask "are you okay" if we suspect something is going on.

We must educate ourselves on the warning signs and make sure everyone around is aware.


Family violence happens in every part of the community. No one is immune but everyone has the ability to effect change.

Sergeant Tracey Sarich has been part of the police family violence team for eight years. She knows better than anyone the damage this is doing to our country.

"If you're a victim -- tell someone," she said.

"It doesn't have to be police, but find someone you trust and speak up.

"For everyone else, if someone confides in you, you are now their guardian angel."

If you go home and do nothing -- you have failed them.
Sergeant Tracey Sarich

"So tell us, our shoulders are wider. If not us, just tell someone -- tell a doctor, tell a support agency, tell someone you trust who can help you do something. I know it's a breach of someone's confidence to tell, but it's the best thing you can do."

If you don't speak up and tell someone, you're accepting it. If you don't do anything about it, you're condoning it.
Sergeant Brendon Muir

Abusers key to helping

If we want to help our victims, we have to help their abusers.

The Family Violence Death Review Committee is an independent panel that advises the Health Quality & Safety Commission on how to reduce the number of family violence deaths. Co-chair Denise Wilson said past approaches focused on the victim only and clearly had not worked.

"There must be more focus on the person using violence, in addition to the victim," she said. "Changing the behaviours of those using violence is the most effective way to prevent family violence.

"It's also really important to understand that family violence is not an isolated incident. Incidents that come to our attention are all symptoms of wider issues."

The review committee's fifth annual report stated that treating abuse as a problem that could be remedied solely by giving victims advice and leaving them to take action, or treating abusive people as beyond saving, did not work. "Family violence is a pervasive problem in our society that has the potential to destroy the lives of both the direct victims and indirect victims (usually children), and also the lives of those using violence. We need to work together and improve our responses considerably if we are going to bring about change."

Paid leave for the sufferers

For most family violence victims, the workplace is a safe haven. But what happens when they can't get to work? Perhaps they have to be in court, or their partner has injured them so they can't or don't want to leave home. Maybe they can't leave their kids.

Green MP Jan Logie has a bill before Parliament which, if successful, would remedy that. The Domestic Violence -- Victims' Protection Bill supports victims to stay in paid employment, maintaining productivity and reducing recruitment and training costs for employers. Ms Logie said staying in employment was critical to reducing the effects of violence.

Green MP Jan Logie has the  Domestic Violence - Victims' Protection Bill before Parliament. Photo / Supplied
Green MP Jan Logie has the Domestic Violence - Victims' Protection Bill before Parliament. Photo / Supplied

"We know that work is a pathway to safety for women, that when you're in a workplace you still have relationships with other people, earn your own money, and all of that helps women get to safety." The bill would provide victims of family violence up to 10 days' paid leave. "It enables women to go to court, to be able to find a new home, for cases where she can't get to work because of her partner."

Similar leave is available to women in parts of Australia and for staff of the Warehouse Group, which in September launched a "Family violence -- it's not OK" initiative for The Warehouse, Warehouse Stationery, Noel Leeming, Torpedo 7 and the group's online retailers.

The paid leave is in addition to leave entitlements and can be used for medical appointments, legal proceedings or activities related to family violence.

If you're in danger NOW:

• Phone the police on 111 or ask neighbours of friends to ring for you
• Run outside and head for where there are other people
• Scream for help so that your neighbours can hear you
• Take the children with you
• Don't stop to get anything else
• If you are being abused, remember it's not your fault. Violence is never okay

Where to go for help or more information:

• Women's Refuge: Free national crisisline operates 24/7 - 0800 REFUGE or 0800 733 843
• Shine, free national helpline 9am- 11pm every day - 0508 744 633
• It's Not Ok: Information line 0800 456 450
• Shakti: Providing specialist cultural services for African, Asian and Middle Eastern women and their children. Crisisline 24/7 0800 742 584
• Ministry of Justice:
• National Network of Stopping Violence:
• White Ribbon: Aiming to eliminate men's violence towards women, focusing this year on sexual violence and the issue of consent.

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Take a stand - NZ is #BetterThanThis

New Zealand has the worst rate of family violence in the developed world. One in three women will be subjected to physical or sexual violence from a partner at some point in their lives.

Take a stand. Change your social media profile picture to demand that we are better than this. Right-click on this image below (or press and hold on your mobile device) to save, then upload to your social profiles. Or you can download the image here.

- NZ Herald

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