The Royal Commission into the Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability has heard from girls and women with disability about their constant barriers to accessing help and receiving justice for abuse and violence towards them.
Part two of Public Hearing 17: the experience of women and girls with disability with a particular focus on family, domestic and sexual violence, began on Monday and witnesses, advocates and service representatives appeared in front of the Commission across the week to provide their lived experiences.
Part one of the hearing was held in October last year, during which the Commission learned of the shockingly high rates of violence and abuse experienced by women and girls with disability.
During the second part of the hearing this week, witnesses shared their stories of physical, sexual, financial and emotional abuse by not only their partners and family members but also support workers and others in their community.
Many had stories of not being believed by services they reported the abuse to - everyone from police officers to the jury in a court case brought against the abuser.
In some instances, witnesses spoke about how disability service providers who were involved in cases of abuse by a support worker did not support the women who experienced violence.
The Commissioners heard of areas where Government and non-Government services had fallen short of supporting women with disability who experience domestic violence and grilled the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) on the policies for addressing domestic abuse and trauma through disability services.
However, there were also some witnesses’ stories that involved being supported by police, family violence services and legal advocates.
Royal Commission Chair Richard Sackville thanked witnesses for taking the time to share their experiences.
"It takes a great deal of courage and determination to describe those experiences in a forum and an environment such as a public hearing of the Royal Commission and we are extremely grateful to the witnesses who’ve come forward, been prepared to share their experiences with us and with the community at large,” says Mr Sackville.
"The evidence…was often very confronting and very distressing, but that evidence is also exceptionally important.
“We have listened very carefully to those stories, they will play a key part in formulating recommendations to address the policy issues that have been identified during the course of the hearing and we also hope that the people who shared their experiences so generously with us have found giving evidence not only worthwhile but perhaps liberating.”
Mr Sackville thanked advocacy groups who had helped to arrange the hearing and supported witnesses, including advocacy organisation Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA).
Systems provide a lack of support for women with disability
Representatives of WWDA appeared in front of Commissioners on Thursday to discuss systemic changes that would support women with disability and end domestic violence.
WWDA Executive Director Carolyn Frohmader told the Commission that Australia is a signatory to seven human rights treaties and therefore the Government is obliged to prevent and address all forms of gender-based violence.
“Six out of the seven human rights treaties bodies for the last 18 years have made recommendations to Australia to implement national legislation to prohibit sterilisation,” says Ms Frohmader.
However, she says the prohibition of sterilisation of women and girls with disability still has not been implemented and that the practice continues to be a form of violence perpetrated against women with disability, often because of their domestic settings.
WWDA Policy and Projects Officer, Vanamali Hermans, adds that there is also a lack of policy to address violence and the impact of sexism in Australia’s largest disability support body - the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
“Not only is there not an effective gender strategy, there is no gender strategy at all,” explains Ms Hermans.
"There is a considerable amount of evidence that women and girls with disability have more difficulty accessing the NDIS than men and boys.”
Accessing disability support through systems like the NDIS was mentioned by several witnesses as one of the most important factors they needed to be able to leave abusive relationships in which their partner was their carer.
"It is really concerning that the NDIS has not implemented a gender strategy to deal with issues such as gender-based violence,” says Ms Hermans.
She also says that the NDIS does not have any accessible resources on violence for participants, meaning there are barriers to many women and girls accessing information on violence.
Law enforcement may misidentify victim-survivors, says expert
Today, Tasmanian Legal Aid’s Director, Vincenzo Caltabiano, discussed other barriers and challenges faced by women with disability in family violence situations and spoke about the “misidentification” of women with disability by police.
He says there are regular cases where police incorrectly identify women with disability as perpetrators rather than victims of domestic violence when attending incidents.
“…I note some recent work out of Victoria and even on Victoria Police’s own assessment, about 12 percent of instances involving women who were identified as perpetrators on further investigation it was identified that had been a misidentification,” explains Mr Caltabiano.
This misidentification could happen in situations where women tell police their actions in reaction to their abusers and the details of their actions are misinterpreted by police, among other reasons, Mr Caltabiano says.
“It might also be in terms of a person's presentation, they may not appear to be a conventional victim, if you like, they may be angry, they may be shouting and it’s at those moments, as I say, that difficult decisions need to be made and it may be that misidentification [occurs],” he says.
“That misidentification can lead to significant consequences for the person involved, not only in terms of an order and perhaps removal from the home, there’s then the increased risk of charges arising from breaches of that order [and] it has issues and challenges with regard to the care of children.”
Other witnesses spoke of the additional barriers of community attitudes, intergenerational trauma and language differences faced by women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, First Nations women and Deaf women.
These witnesses outlined how the intersectionality of their backgrounds and identities with their disability meant society made it even harder for them to report abuse and to find support.
If reading this has raised concerns for you, please call Blue Knot Counselling and Referral Service on 1800 421 468, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636 or 1800-RESPECT on 1800 737 732 for sexual, domestic and family violence related support.