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How do people respond to FDSV?

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Actions taken in response to family, domestic and sexual violence (FDSV) include informal support (such as disclosure to a friend or family) and formal support (such as police and legal services, health professionals or housing assistance).

This topic page provides a broad overview of help-seeking behaviour in response to FDSV. While the reporting focuses on national quantitative data, some contributions from people with lived experience are included on this page to deepen our understanding of how people respond.

Information about specific formal support provision is provided in related topics, see Responses.

What do we know?

There are many formal and informal supports that may be used by people who experience FDSV, including family and friends, health professionals and helplines. Support may be in the form of crisis or post-crisis responses and there are multiple entry points for victim-survivors to access support. Entry points may vary depending on victim-survivors’ personal help-seeking needs or goals at different times, and awareness and availability of support services in their area.

However, FDSV frequently occurs behind closed doors and is often concealed by, and denied by, their perpetrators and sometimes by their victims (AIHW 2019). Intimate partner sexual violence, in particular, is under-reported and often not disclosed (Backhouse and Toivonen 2018). For victim-survivors of sexual or psychological forms of abuse, it may be more difficult for them to identify the behaviour as abuse and seek support (Hegarty et al. 2022).

The burden of responsibility to disclose violence often falls on the victim-survivor and this can be a key barrier to seeking support.

Disclosure

When deciding whether to disclose violence, victim-survivors make judgements about whether it is safe to do so. Spangaro et al. (2011) identified three dimensions of safety that may be considered by women deciding whether to disclose intimate partner violence: safety from the perpetrator, safety from shame and safety from institutional control (for example, having no control regarding involvement with statutory child protection services).

The reasons victim-survivors don’t disclose violence include:

  • fear of making the violence worse or other consequences (including involvement of child protection and other social services)
  • concerns they won’t be believed or will be judged or criticised
  • believing that they are to blame for the abuse or feeling shame and embarrassment
  • concerns about confidentiality
  • not recognising the behaviours as abusive
  • dependency on the perpetrator, for example, for daily care
  • perpetrator tactics of isolation and control (Backhouse and Toivonen 2018).

In a mixed-model study involving online surveys and qualitative interviews with over 1,100 victim-survivors of intimate partner and/or sexual violence, the three most common barriers to help-seeking that were identified were shame (63%), lack of awareness of services (62%) and concerns about confidentiality (50%) (Hegarty et al. 2022).

Disclosure of child abuse

Some of the challenges to disclosure for children are similar to those mentioned above (for example, feelings of fear, shame, embarrassment, concerns about not being believed, not recognising the behaviours as abusive). However, there are some specific challenges for children and young people when disclosing abuse. This includes not having the language skills to communicate the abuse, fear of upsetting their parents, lack of parental support and lack of confidence in adults and their ability to help (Alaggia et al. 2019, DCYJMA 2022, Esposito 2014).

See also Children and young people and Child sexual abuse.

With increasing awareness and understanding of FDSV in Australia, people may be more likely to identify and report violence and/or seek services (AIHW 2022).

Barriers to seeking formal support

In addition to the challenges of disclosing violence, barriers to seeking support include dependencies in the relationship for daily care or income, limited access to services, negative experiences with the police and legal systems and concerns about giving evidence against family members (Backhouse and Toivonen 2018; DSS 2022).

What are some of the challenges in getting help that people don’t talk about?

'People don’t talk enough about the enormous burden reaching out for help from services involves. It is so time consuming. Managing post separation abuse becomes a full-time job that you don’t get paid for.'

Lily

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

In the mixed-model Hegarty et al. 2022 study described above, almost half (48%) of the participants said they could not get help when they needed it for relationship issues or sexual assault. Service-level barriers to receiving help included not being able to understand the terms used by the service workers, availability of appointments and the cost of services (Hegarty et al. 2022).

What was the main barrier for you in accessing support? 

'The main barrier was finances and access to services. Violence doesn’t occur only at convenient times, yet a lot of services were designed so that you could only access them at limited times in business hours. The services often assumed you weren’t working, had access to unlimited childcare, and hours to come along and wait for assistance.'

Jasmine

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

The lack of services designed specifically for children and young people who experience family and sexual violence has been identified as a key issue in Australia (ANROWS 2016, FVRIM 2022, Royal Commission 2017). Disconnects between services that respond to family violence, including child protection and justice systems, has also been highlighted as a barrier to effective service provision (ANROWS 2016).

These barriers can be heightened for specific groups of people such as people living in regional and remote areas, women on temporary visas and women with disability. These are discussed further in Is it the same for everyone?.

To leave a violent relationship, victim-survivors also need safe and affordable housing, economic security and social support. The economic and financial impacts of violence can be substantial, and people may be faced with the choice between staying in a violent relationship and economic insecurity.

Strategies that can help to reduce some of the systemic barriers faced by victim-survivors include the provision of safe and affordable housing, social security supports such as crisis payments, social security payments and rent assistance, paid domestic and family violence leave and affordable childcare (DSS 2022). Some of these supports are discussed in further detail in financial support and workplace responses.

People who use violence

There is limited research on help-seeking behaviours of people who use intimate partner and/or sexual violence in Australia (Hegarty et al. 2022). The Hegarty et al. (2022) study included an online survey of around 560 people (mostly males) who used intimate partner and/or sexual violence against women. Of these participants, 74% had sought support about their behaviour, most often from a friend (45%).

Findings from the study indicate that people who use violence may also experience barriers to seeking support, including feelings of shame (41%) and issues with accessing services (35%). More than one-quarter (26%) of participants indicated the belief that violence is a normal part of a relationship and they didn’t believe they needed to seek support (Hegarty et al. 2022).

What data are available to report on how people respond to FDSV?

Information on how people seek help can assist understanding and improvement of response strategies and provide information on the extent of under-reporting of family and domestic violence incidents in data collected as a by-product of service delivery.

Data from national surveys are available to show some of the actions taken when FDSV occurs, whether people sought support, the sources of support and the reasons for not seeking support.

What do the data tell us?

Data on advice or support (help) sought and received after incidents of FDSV are available from the ABS Personal Safety Survey (PSS). Data for experiences among men are only included where data are sufficiently statistically reliable.

People often do not seek advice or support for FDSV

  • 2 in 5 women

    2 in 5 men

    in 2021–22 who had experienced previous partner violence since the age of 15 did not seek advice or support

    Source: ABS Personal Safety Survey

The 2021–22 PSS showed that around: 

  • 1 in 2 (45%, or 78,100) women who had experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a current partner did not seek advice or support about the violence.
  • 2 in 5 women (37% or 574,000) and 2 in 5 men (39% or 166,000) who had experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a previous partner did not seek advice or support about the violence (ABS 2023a).

The 2021–22 PSS collected detailed data from women about the most recent incident of sexual assault by a male that occurred in the last 10 years. Of the estimated 737,000 women who had experienced sexual assault by a male in the last 10 years, more than 2 in 5 (44%, or 324,000) did not seek advice or support after the most recent incident (ABS 2023b).

Friends or family are the most common source of support

  • Friends or family

    are the most common source of support for those who have experienced partner violence

    Source: ABS Personal Safety Survey

For women and men who did seek support following violence, the most common source of support was a friend or family member. The 2021–22 PSS showed that advice or support from a friend or family member was sought by around:

  • 1 in 3 women (32%, or 56,100) who had experienced violence from a current partner 
  • 1 in 2 women (45%, or 682,000) and 1 in 2 men (51% or 218,000*) who had experienced violence from a previous partner (ABS 2023a).

Note that estimates marked with an asterisk (*) should be used with caution as they have a relative standard error between 25% and 50%.

In the 2021–22 PSS, 45% (331,000) of women who had experienced sexual assault by a male in the last 10 years had sought advice or support from a friend or family member after the most recent incident (ABS 2023b). 

Police were not contacted for most incidents of partner violence or sexual violence

The 2021–22 PSS showed that people were unlikely to contact the police after physical and/or sexual violence from a partner.

The police were never contacted for violence that occurred among about:

  • 8 in 10 women (79% or 136,000) who experienced violence from a current partner 
  • 7 in 10 men (73% or 312,000) who experienced violence from a previous partner
  • 7 in 10 women (68% or 1.0 million) who experienced violence from a previous partner (ABS 2023a).

In the 2021–22 PSS, 92% (or 680,000) of women who had experienced sexual assault by a male in the last 10 years said the police were not contacted about the most recent incident (ABS 2023b).  

Patterns in police reporting – including time between incident and report – are discussed in more detail in Sexual assault reported to police and FDV reported to police.

A study by the Australian Institute of Criminology assessed which characteristics of domestic violence affected whether the violence was reported to the police. It found that women were more likely to report violence than men, and a violent incident was more likely to be reported if it involved severe violence, physical assault (compared with other forms of intimate partner abuse) and/or physical injury. Frequent violence before the incident, and children witnessing the incident, also increased the likelihood of reporting. Presence of a weapon and the offender using alcohol were also linked to higher reporting (Voce and Boxall 2018).

Sexual harassment in the workplace often goes unreported

  • Fewer than 1 in 5

    respondents in 2022 who had been sexually harassed at work lodged a formal report or complaint

    Source: AHRC National survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces

Data from the 2022 Survey on Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces show that over 1 in 3 (36%) people who experienced workplace sexual harassment sought support or advice in relation to the most recent incident. The majority of people did not seek support or advice. More than a quarter of people (27%) who did not seek support or advice did not do so because they thought it wasn’t serious enough.

Fewer than 1 in 5 (18%) people who were sexually harassed lodged a formal report or complaint.

The most common reasons given for not reporting were that:

  • ‘it wasn’t serious’ (42%)
  • ‘it was easier to keep quiet’ (38%)
  • ‘people would think they were over-reacting’ (31%) (AHRC 2022).

Sexual assault and harassment at university often goes unreported

Data are available from the 2021 National Student Safety Survey (NSSS) to report on the experiences of sexual harassment at Australian universities. The NSSS was undertaken online from 6 September 2021 to 3 October 2021 with students from 38 Universities Australia member institutions. The in-scope population for the survey was students studying at Australian universities aged 18 years and over. Around 43,800 students participated in the survey for a completion rate of 11.6%. Due to the low response rate, estimates from the survey may not be representative and should be interpreted with caution (Heywood et al. 2022).

According to the 2021 NSSS, sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or conduct of a sexual nature, in circumstances where a reasonable person would have anticipated the possibility that the person harassed would be offended, humiliated or intimidated.

Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual acts or sexual contact that happened in circumstances where a person was either forced, threatened, pressured, tricked, or no effort was made to check whether there was agreement to the act, including in circumstances where a person was asleep or affected by drugs or alcohol.

The data show that many students who had experienced sexual harassment or assault at university did not seek support or assistance:

  • only 1 in 6 (17%) reported seeking support from within their university for sexual harassment and 1 in 4 (26%) for sexual assault
  • less than two-thirds (62%) reported seeking support from outside the university for sexual harassment and 66% for sexual assault (Heywood et al. 2022).

A large proportion of sexual harassment and assault at university went unreported:

  • 97% of respondents who were sexually harassed did not make a formal report or complaint to their university.
  • 94% of respondents who were sexually assaulted did not make a report or complaint for the incident having most impact (Heywood et al. 2022).

When asked about reasons for non-report, the 3 most common reasons given by both those who were sexually assaulted and those who were sexually harassed were the same: they did not think they needed help, they did not think others would think it was serious enough, or they thought the incident would be too hard to prove. Many students also indicated systemic reasons for their non-report, such as thinking the issue would not be kept confidential, not knowing who to report or complain to, or being worried about the effect of reporting on their studies or career opportunities (Heywood et al. 2022).

People who seek support may not disclose the identity of perpetrators

Data from services can be used to report on people who seek formal support. Data are available from services operating across a range of sectors – such as health services, helplines, housing, police – to report on FDSV, either when the violence is disclosed or detected. However, even when people interact with services, they may be reluctant to disclose information about perpetrators.

Admitted patient care data can be used to show the number of people admitted to hospitals with injuries from assault. While these data show that a high proportion of assault hospitalisations are FDV-related (see Health services for more information), a proportion of perpetrators are not specified.

Analysis of linked data, using the National Integrated Health Services Information Analysis Asset (NIHSI AA) can be used to show patterns in hospital stays among those who had an FDV-related hospital stay, and this information can indicate how identification of perpetrators has changed over time (Box 1).

What services are most helpful?

While there are currently no national data to report on service experiences, findings from qualitative research conducted by Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) are available to look at the expectations of services for people who experience intimate partner and/or sexual violence (Box 2) and ‘what works’ for victim-survivors of sexual violence (Box 3).

People with lived experience also report a wide range of services and therapies that have been most helpful for them.

Which types of services have been most helpful?

'Refuge was the most helpful for me. Being able to physically escape to a safe place really helped my journey. Even though I did go back a few times before finally completely leaving, the initial refuge planted seeds which formed the foundation and grew into confidence to leave. Through refuge, I saw what stability was like, discovered my independence and built on my relationship with my child – all things I couldn’t do while living with a perpetrator of violence.'

Kelly

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

'The legal service I contacted through a telephone line was amazing and really helped me with practical information around the law and my rights in relation to intervention orders and finding a good lawyer.'

Martina

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

Other stories from people with lived experience are reported in Services responding to FDSV.

Activities that support healing and recovery

Healing and recovery can be lifelong, and can involve a range of activities outside formal support systems. Healing and recovery is also unique for each person, and people with lived experience report a range of different approaches.

What has been most helpful in your healing and recovery?

'The most helpful thing for me has been working as an expert with lived experience. Being able to share my story and experience in a professional setting while having the hope of making a difference to other people has been the most rewarding and healing thing I’ve done. It’s built up a confidence I’ve never had before and helped shape my career and life for the better. We are empowered, guided, and encouraged as professionals, which I feel really works on that inner confidence that is often destroyed by perpetrators of family violence.'

Kelly

WEAVERs Expert by Experience

Is it the same for everyone?

Additional barriers to help-seeking for population groups

There are limited national data to understand how actions taken after FDSV vary across population groups. However, research shows that there can be additional barriers to help seeking, which can intersect in different ways for individuals. For example:

  • Children are particularly at risk from adult perpetrators on whom they are dependent, have an emotional attachment to or view as an authority figure. Perpetrators of child sexual abuse can use grooming and other tactics to establish an emotional connection and build trust with the child or young person. Such attachments can make it more difficult for children to disclose violence (Royal Commission 2017).
    For children who are physically dependent on others for intimate personal care, it can be particularly challenging to determine the difference between intimate personal care and sexual abuse (Royal Commission 2017). As noted previously, children may experience specific challenges when disclosing violence or seeking support.
  • People with disability may be more reliant on partners, family members or other carers for assistance and support. Fear that disclosure of abuse will put these relationships at risk and result in the loss of support and assistance can prevent people with disability seeking support (FVRIM 2022).
    Women with physical disabilities may not be able to physically access support services and women with communication difficulties may not be able to convey their story to workers (Breckenridge et al. 2015).
  • People living in regional and remote areas may experience geographical and social isolation from support networks and limited access to services, particularly specialist services and crisis and long-term accommodation (Backhouse and Toivonen 2018). Victim-survivors in small communities may be reluctant to disclose family violence to a person known to them and/or the perpetrator (FVRIM 2022).
  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander (First Nations) women, children and communities may be less likely to disclose violence due to experiences of racism and a fear of losing children through the involvement of the child protection system (FVRIM 2022). For First Nations women in remote communities, concerns about confidentiality within tight family and community networks are heightened and they may need to travel long distances to seek support or rely on phone support (Backhouse and Toivonen 2018). Further discussion about specific barriers to First Nations women seeking support are reported in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
  • Women on a temporary visa may be dependent on a violent partner for residency and may not disclose violence due to the fear they may be deported. Conditions of temporary visas can result in social isolation due to, for example, restrictions to accessing employment, social security, housing and health care. These women, particularly those who speak languages other than English, may also experience challenges with communication and accessing information about their rights in complex matters relating to family violence, family law and immigration (Vaughan et al 2016).
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