It’s been described as a ‘crisis’ and a ‘national emergency’ for years. And yet as we mark another Domestic and Family Violence (DFV) Prevention Month, Australia’s DFV statistics are more disturbing than ever.
One in 6 Australian women and 1 in 16 men have been subjected to intimate partner violence since the age of 15.
When the definition of an intimate partner is expanded to include casual relationships, young women aged 18–25 are twice as likely as older women to experience violence.
As a specialist youth services agency, Youth Off The Streets is all too familiar with the devastating impacts of domestic and family violence on young people’s physical and emotional wellbeing.
Last financial year, our data showed that 56 per cent of young people accessing our services had experienced DFV.
Like many community services organisations, the dramatic spike in DFV during the pandemic was revealed to us by those coming forward for help.
Many young people were facing homelessness, unable to live in safety at home. In May 2020, we had a 42 per cent increase in referrals to our Inner West Youth Homelessness Service. We also saw more sibling groups presenting with lived experienced of DFV than ever before.
Other young people resort to drug and alcohol use as a way to cope with the trauma of DFV, and significant numbers are dealing with poor mental health.
In our experience, it’s not uncommon for young people exposed to DFV to be facing all three of these issues – often alongside other challenges – at the same time.
But the ripple effects of COVID aren’t the whole story when it comes to young people and the impact of DFV on their safety and wellbeing.
Since Youth Off The Streets was founded 30 years ago, DFV has been a driver of every key challenge facing the young people we support: abuse and neglect, homelessness, substance misuse, juvenile crime, mental ill-health and disconnection from education and employment.
So it is alarming that in 2021, we still have high numbers of young people seeking help because of DFV. In our homelessness services alone, this year we are already seeing a clear upwards trajectory in the numbers of young people turning to us for support due to DFV.
But much like the issue of youth homelessness – underfunded and largely invisible in the community – young people’s experiences of DFV are not being heard. The conversation around DFV remains adult- and child-focused, along with the specialist services that support survivors.
DFV is horrific and damaging to everyone who experiences it, but this is especially the case for children and young people.
Trauma and chronic stress caused by DFV – experiencing violence directly, as well as being exposed to it – can have serious and long-term implications for their physical, psychological, social and financial wellbeing.
Young people with lived experience of DFV have very different needs to adults and younger children.
As their analytical thinking skills develop, teenagers become actively involved in trying to understand the violence that has occurred in their life.
Their attempts to anticipate when it will next happen, protect themselves and other family members, and survive in an environment of fear and secrecy can leave little room for school work, sports, socialising, and other activities that foster a sense of belonging and safety.
Adolescence is also a time of transitions. Young people are establishing their identity, planning for the future, and starting their own intimate relationships.
The young people we work with at Youth Off The Streets often come to us feeling like they are to blame for DFV, rather than being victims of it. Some don’t even recognise that their situation is one of DFV.
There are still misconceptions and a lack of understanding around behaviours that constitute DFV, and the early indicators that more serious and abusive behaviour is likely to occur.
Young people growing up with DFV tend to normalise these behaviours, and sometimes they are unable to identify that they are living in an unhealthy environment.
Early intervention is essential here, both as a protective factor and as a way to break the cycle of DFV.
At Youth Off The Streets, we support young people to remove themselves from a crisis situation into one of safety. We build trust in our team and create a positive support network for them.
Within our six independent high schools, we also run a specialist DFV education program called Power Within.
The goal of the program is to encourage young people to have open conversations, with the facilitator and each other, about how to identify DFV, what each stage of the cycle of abuse looks like, and how to stay safe.
While we know our interventions are making a positive impact, we also know we’re just scratching the surface.
It is deeply concerning that young people experiencing DFV often fall through the cracks of the child protection system, or they get directed towards DFV services developed with women and children in mind.
The gap is clear. We need to start treating teens and young adults as DFV survivors in their own right. We need to listen to their voices as the experts in their own lives and experiences of DFV. And more funding urgently needs to be directed towards DFV support service providers, so that they can develop and deliver responses that are tailored to young people.
We can’t afford to ignore the impact of DFV on young people, or the pressing need for more early intervention and education programs.
If the next generation doesn’t know how to recognise DFV, reject violence or avoid repeating the cycle of abuse they’ve been exposed to, all our efforts to tackle violence against women and children will become increasingly ineffective and unsustainable.
Lex Nadine Lutherborrow, CEO, Youth Off The Streets
If you’re seeking help, the following services can support you. If your life is in danger, call 000.
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800
Lifeline: 13 11 14
National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line: 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732)