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Veteran families

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The nature of service in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) affects a range of lifestyle aspects for the serving member and their family and can make it difficult to develop and maintain social connections outside of the military (AIHW 2022c). ADF service increases the likelihood of exposure to trauma (either directly or indirectly) and affects support networks, for example, separation from family during deployment (AIHW 2022a). Veterans (see Box 1) and their families may also experience specific challenges in seeking support for family and domestic violence (FDV) (Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2022).

The Defence Strategy for Preventing and Responding to Family and Domestic Violence 2023–2028 and DVA Family and Domestic Violence Strategy 2020–25 are part of the Australian Government’s response to FDV. The strategies aim to improve awareness and support for veterans and their families affected by FDV (Department of Defence n.d.; DVA 2020).

This page focuses mainly on intimate partner violence (IPV), rather than FDV, due to the available data. While IPV among veteran families could include violence perpetrated by a veteran or a partner of a veteran, most of the research to date has focussed on IPV perpetrated by veterans. Further research is needed to build the evidence base about the experience of FDV within veteran families (Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2022).

In the 2021 Census of Population and Housing, one in 20 (5.3%) Australian households reported at least one person who had served, or was currently serving, in the ADF (ABS 2022).

What do we know?

There is a lack of research regarding IPV perpetration and victimisation among veteran families (Cowlishaw et al. 2022; Pollard and Ferguson 2020), and FDV within veteran families more broadly.

International research has reported higher rates of FDV within military families when compared with civilian families (Cowlishaw et al. 2022; Hinton 2020; Kwan et al. 2020; Pollard and Ferguson 2020). Specific factors that are unique to military families may contribute to conflict in relationships and increase the risk of IPV – for example: family separation and reintegration due to deployment; frequent geographic moves resulting in social isolation and economic dependence on the serving member; and trauma experienced during service (Daraganova et al. 2018; Gierisch et al. 2013; Pollard and Ferguson 2020; Yu et al. 2021). Similarly, there is a complex interaction between mental health and the experience and use of violence, and research indicates some veterans may also be at increased risk of mental illness following transition out of regular ADF service (Van Hooff et al. 2019).

The male-dominated military environment has been identified as a hypermasculine culture that emphasises operational effectiveness and deployability (Pollard and Ferguson 2020). Members who display characteristics that are considered feminine or weak (such as empathy, fear, sadness) and those who seek help, could be perceived as a liability that should be removed from the group. Cultures like this may influence attitudes, behaviours and social norms that are associated with violence against women (Our Watch 2021) and reinforce the stigma associated with seeking help, contributing to the under-reporting of IPV (Pollard and Ferguson 2020).

Issues with under-reporting of IPV that may be more specific to military families include: financial-, housing- and health-related dependence on the serving member or veteran; the military reputation of the serving member; and the possibility of the serving member being demoted or discharged and losing the benefits associated with service (Fitz-Gibbon et al. 2022; Hinton 2020; Pollard and Ferguson 2020).

Data sources for reporting on veteran families

  • Timor-Leste Family Study (see Box 3)
  • Vietnam Veteran Families Study (see Box 4)
  • Family Wellbeing Study (see Box 5)
  • Specialist homelessness services collection (see Data sources and technical notes).

What do the data tell us?

Data on the experience of FDV within veteran families are currently only available from a limited number of sources and are not routinely reported. However, data development activities are being undertaken to enhance reporting in this area, including the potential use of the ABS ADF Service Variable (see Box 1) to explore data from the ABS 2021–22 Personal Safety Survey.

When examining the available data, it is important to note the available data are not contemporary and only provide part of the picture:

  • The studies included in this page are cross-sectional – the data cannot identify causality but may provide an indication of potential associations between IPV and ADF service.
  • For the studies included in this page, reporting on IPV was limited to physical and/or sexual violence and some aspects of emotional abuse. The wider range of behaviours and harms that are now understood to be IPV, such as financial abuse, stalking and coercive control, may not have been captured in these studies.
  • Findings from the studies included in this page are largely based on male ADF members and their female partners due to the higher proportion of males represented in the veteran population. According to the 2021 Census of Population and Housing, most (86%) veterans (including those currently serving and those who had previously served) were male, and 14% were female. However, there was a higher proportion of females (21%) represented in the currently serving ADF population (ABS 2022).

The studies included in this page used the Woman Abuse Screening Tool (WAST) to measure IPV. However, findings are not comparable across the studies due to differences in the veteran cohort included in the studies and the application of the WAST (refer to Boxes 2–6 for information about the use of the WAST).

Timor-Leste Family Study

One in 10 (10%) current partners of members who were deployed to Timor-Leste between 1999 and 2010 reported the experience of IPV post-deployment.

One in 10 (10%) serving members’ partners reported the experience of IPV post-deployment to Timor-Leste (McGuire et al. 2012). There was no statistically significant difference in the reported level of IPV between ADF members who were deployed and those who were not. IPV was significantly associated with poorer mental health scores and symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder for partners (McGuire et al. 2012).

Spouses and Partners of Vietnam Veterans – findings from the Vietnam Veterans Family Study

Less than 2% of current partners of Vietnam veterans reported experiencing IPV.

Overall, less than 2% of current partners reported there had been IPV at some stage in the couple relationship. Mean levels of abuse in the couple relationship were higher for the partners of Vietnam veterans (1.4%) compared with partners of Vietnam-era personnel (1.2%) (Yu et al. 2021).

IPV was reported as an underlying reason for the relationship ending by:

  • 28% of previous partners of Vietnam veterans
  • 17% of previous partners of Vietnam-era personnel (Yu et al. 2021).

Family Wellbeing Study

Around one in 20 (4.8%) current partners of ADF members or those who had recently transitioned from service in 2015 reported they had experienced abuse at some stage in their relationship.

Around 1 in 20 (4.8%) partners reported they had experienced abuse at some stage in their relationship. The authors noted that the lower rate in this study compared with the Timor-Leste Family Study may be related to the effects of recent deployment on the participants in the Timor-Leste Family Study. As noted, deployment may increase the risk of conflict in relationships and increase the risk of IPV (Daraganova et al. 2018).

Other findings from the study include:

  • A higher proportion of partners of ex-serving ADF members (8.4%) reported the experience of IPV, when compared with partners of current serving members (3.1%).
  • Partners with poorer physical health and/or who were psychologically distressed were 3 times as likely to report experiencing IPV than partners who did not have these health issues.
  • Partners of members who had served more years in the ADF were less likely to report the experience of IPV (Daraganova et al. 2018).

Partners were asked whether they had ever been without a permanent place to live and the associated reasons – of the almost 205 partners who had ever been without a permanent place to live, 6.4% reported it was due to violence/abuse/neglect (Daraganova et al. 2018).

Transition and Wellbeing Research Programme Secondary Analyses

In 2015, about 3 in 10 (29%) recently transitioned ADF members and 1 in 5 (22%) current ADF members reported any IPV exposure in their current relationship.

Findings from the secondary analyses of data from the Transition and Wellbeing Research Programme indicate high levels of IPV among veteran families. Any IPV exposure in their current relationship (see Box 6) was reported by about:

  • 3 in 10 (29%) transitioned ADF members
  • 1 in 5 (22%) current personnel
  • almost half (46%) of partners of transitioned ADF members
  • 1 in 4 (24%) partners of current personnel (Cowlishaw et al. 2023).

These findings should be considered in relation to the limitations of the available data (see Box 2, Box 6 and Cowlishaw et al. 2023).

Emotional abuse was the most common type of violence reported by all groups, followed by physical abuse. Rates of self-reported IPV exposure were similar for men and women among both transitioned and current ADF members (Cowlishaw et al. 2023).

Findings also indicated that higher rates of IPV exposure for members and partners were associated with financial hardship and/or exposure to trauma. Conversely, protective factors, such as social connection and resources were associated with lower rates of IPV exposure (Cowlishaw et al. 2023).

The use of IPV by transitioned members was explored for a sub-set of around 265 couples for whom Mental Health and Wellbeing Transition Study (MHWTS) data for the transitioned member was linked with their partner’s data from the Family Wellbeing Study (FWS). Findings indicated that high proportions of transitioned members who used IPV reported harmful drinking (69%), suicidal ideation (63%), depression (59%) and PTSD (58%) (Cowlishaw et al. 2023).

What else do we know?

  • 1 in 4 clients

    of specialist homelessness services in 2021–22 who were current or former members of the ADF had experienced FDV

    Source: AIHW Specialist Homelessness Services Collection

Homelessness is an important aspect to consider in understanding the welfare of veterans (AIHW 2019). In 2021-22, around 1,400 SHS clients were current or former members of the ADF (AIHW 2022b). Of these:

  • One in 4 (25%) had experienced FDV
    • One in 8 (12%) had experienced FDV and had a current mental health issue
    • Less than 1% (0.5%) had experienced FDV and had problematic drug or alcohol use
    • One in 20 (4.6%) had experienced FDV and both of the additional selected vulnerabilities (current mental health issue and problematic drug or alcohol use)
  • 13% reported FDV as the main reason for seeking assistance
  • 15% were assessed as needing FDV services (AIHW 2022b).

Analysis of data generated by linking information from the Department of Defence personnel system data with the AIHW’s Specialist Homelessness Services Collection (SHSC) explored the use of homelessness services for the contemporary ex-serving ADF population (that is, ex-serving ADF members who had at least one day of service on or after 1 January 2001, who discharged after 1 January 2001 and before 1 July 2017). This analysis included an assessment of women who needed domestic and family violence services (DFV) (AIHW 2019).

53% (or 145) of female ex-serving ADF members who were SHS clients between 1 July 2011 and 30 June 2017 needed DFV services.

Between 1 July 2011 and 30 June 2017, 1.7% (or 274) of the female contemporary ex-serving ADF population had accessed SHS (AIHW 2019).

  • 53% (or 145) of female ex-serving ADF SHS clients were assessed as needing DFV services.
  • Female ex-serving ADF SHS clients who needed DFV services had a longer length of support than those who did not need DFV services – 43% had a support length of 91 days or longer, compared with 25% of women who did not need this type of service (AIHW 2019).
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