AHURI BRIEF

The ‘tyranny of distance’ trapping Indigenous women in family violence

Lack of resources in rural and remote areas causes difficulties for Indigenous women escaping DFV

Last updated 7 November 2019

The Australian Bureau of Statistics 2016 Personal Safety Survey revealed that, across Australia, 1700 women per 100,000 had experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a current or previous cohabiting partner some time during the previous 12 months. For men, the rate was 800 per 100,000.

In city and urban areas, escaping domestic and family violence (DFV) is stressful and disruptive, however for Indigenous women living in small, remote communities escaping DFV can be especially difficult as these areas experience acute shortages in locally-available crisis, transitional and long-term housing. AHURI research identifies that Indigenous women, together with their children, are routinely turned away from refuges and safe houses because those places are already full. As a result, they effectively end up homeless and often return to an unsafe home.

Relocating far away from the family home so as to escape violence is relatively uncommon for Indigenous women. This is because of the difficulty in accessing secure housing, but also because of strong ties to extended family in the community. The distances between remote outback towns can make travelling back to visit important supportive family members very difficult and expensive. Indigenous women are also reluctant to move long distances as they have no experience of living by themselves in a different ‘alien’ community.

If an Indigenous woman with children still living at home does choose to move from her community, this can create deep problems for her wider kinship network. There can be an expectation that extended kin, both on the mother’s and the father’s side, will be involved with child rearing and, in leaving, she is violating cultural expectations that they should have contact.

if long-term stable and safe housing cannot be secured within a 12 month timeframe ... the mother risks her children being transferred from her care into other permanent care.

As a result, low-income Indigenous women may have to leave their children behind with relatives—which, given levels of crowding in many Indigenous homes, may not be appropriate—or stay in a household exposed to domestic violence. This may give rise to a terrible, unintended consequence whereby Indigenous women are at significant risk of having their children removed by state/territory government Child Protection officers if the children are perceived to be living in unsafe housing. Because there are limited housing choices in community, if long-term stable and safe housing cannot be secured within a 12 month timeframe as currently prescribed in state and territory legislation, the mother risks her children being transferred from her care into other permanent care.

As a reality, local cultural issues need to be taken into account in developing solutions to alleviating DFV in remote Indigenous communities. To prevent Indigenous mothers and families losing custody of their children there is an urgent need to increase crisis and transitional accommodation in regional and remote areas, and to increase the numbers of social housing dwellings for long-term accommodation.

Relocating far away from the family home so as to escape violence is relatively uncommon for Indigenous women. This is because of the difficulty in accessing secure housing, but also because of strong ties to extended family in the community.

AHURI research also found there is also a need to improve collaboration, information sharing and accountability between the different agencies that are involved in supporting Indigenous women and children. This would include key government agencies, such as state and territory departments of social welfare, police services and Centrelink, and important community sector services such as Aboriginal Housing, Aboriginal Medical Services and Mental Health Services. The inclusion of these additional services would ensure wrap-around holistic care that is actively responsive to women and children’s needs.

This AHURI Brief is based on Final Report 320: Improving housing and service responses to domestic and family violence for Indigenous individuals and families