Children are being overlooked in the campaign against family violence, despite new statistics showing they represent one in five victims of family-related homicide, senior researchers say.
Figures released this month by the Australian Institute of Criminology have revealed the complex nature of killings within Australian families over the past decade.
Of the 1088 cases where people were killed by family members, 56 per cent of victims died at the hands of their partner, with women representing three-quarters of those victims.
Children represented 21 per cent of all victims, with mothers slightly more likely to be the killer than fathers.
More than 80 per cent of children killed by their parents were under nine years old, with 32 per cent less than one year old.
AIC research manager for violent crime and exploitation Samantha Bricknell said the impact of family violence on children warranted greater attention in the public debate, which is predominantly focused on men attacking women.
“I think children are still being lost in the broader discussion,” Dr Bricknell said. “The effects on the child witnessing the violence — but also the impact on the child physically and emotionally being the victim of family violence — is in the conversation, but we’re not really looking at this as much as we should.”
The AIC is currently gathering more detail on child homicides in Australia, including what role parental mental health and custodial arrangements might play in children’s deaths.
The lack of substantial data and issues of underreporting have hindered efforts for a clear picture of family violence, with the Victorian government now planning to rely on measures such as hospital presentations and crime statistics to introduce a family violence index by February.
Dr Bricknell said cases of violence against women unrelated to family or relationship dynamics were sometimes brought into the conversation to bolster impressions of a domestic violence “epidemic”.
“It is very difficult to say what is happening now and say it is an epidemic when we don’t know what was happening five years ago,” she said. “I suspect this has been a huge issue for many, many years, for time immemorial probably, but we have to be very careful talking about spikes in violent activity.
“We really don’t know what the situation was beforehand.”
The average number of family-related homicides has dropped since the 1990s — from an average of 129 deaths each year between 1989 and 2002 to an average 101 deaths each year between 2002 and 2012.
University of South Australia adjunct associate professor Dale Bagshaw said that too much emphasis was being placed on deaths and physical violence in the current campaigning, and other types of abuse and the role of children as victims was being overlooked.
“Children as victims of violence are often ignored,” she said.
“The effect of violence on children is quite devastating, both in the short and long term.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by domestic or family violence or sexual assault, call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit http://www.1800RESPECT.org.au