Identifying family violence

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It’s important to know the signs of family violence and what your responsibilities are, even if you don’t work in the specialist family violence sector.

Because family violence is prevalent in our community, it is likely you will work with people who are experiencing this type of violence. For example, many victim survivors also access housing and homelessness support.

You don’t need to become an expert in responding to family violence, but you do need to understand the signs and what your responsibilities as a professional are. This may include identifying the signs or indicators of family violence, undertaking a risk assessment and, if appropriate, referring your client to specialist family violence services. Depending on what kind of work you do, you may also have legislated responsibilities in recognising and responding to family violence.

Visit our Assessing and managing risk page for information about roles and responsibilities under the Victorian Government’s Family Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management (MARAM) framework.

Warning signs and indicators

Someone may not be ready to disclose that they’re experiencing violence but they may show signs that indicate something isn’t right. It’s important to take a safe and non-judgemental approach that allows the person who might be experiencing abuse to have choice and control over what they disclose and what to do next.

Signs that someone may be experiencing family violence in an intimate partner relationship include:

  • they are afraid of or anxious to please their partner
  • their partner often orders them about or makes all the decisions
  • they don’t have access to an ATM card or they have a financial allowance
  • they seem anxious, depressed, avoid eye contact or have lost confidence
  • they have physical injuries, often with unlikely explanations
  • they regularly cancel appointments
  • they get constant calls or texts from a current or ex partner

Signs that someone may be experiencing elder abuse:

  • they seem scared, worried or withdrawn – particularly around some people
  • family or friends aren’t allowed to see them
  • they no longer go out socially
  • they have unexplained injuries
  • they have unpaid bills, or changes to a will or title
  • they have poor hygiene or personal care
  • there is an absence of health or medical items such as medication or hearing aids.

Signs that a child is experiencing or exposed to family violence:

  • regression (especially in toddlers)
  • they complain about illness (stomach ache or headache)
  • they have trouble concentrating on tasks 
  • there are high levels of general distress or an inability to self soothe or regulate
  • they have difficulty with friendships
  • they act out (the ‘naughty’ child) or withdraw (the ‘quiet’ child)
  • they show ‘mean’ or violent behaviour toward other children or family members
  • they don’t want to go home
  • they are unable to nap or are experiencing sleep disturbances
  • they are watchful or seem on ‘alert’.

Signs that a young person may be experiencing or exposed to family violence: 

  • they stop seeing friends or have difficulty with friendships
  • they change the way they dress
  • they skip school or start getting lower grades
  • they don’t communicate or they become secretive
  • they have unexplainable bruising
  • they get angry and aggressive at friends and family
  • they put on weight or lose weight
  • they put themselves down
  • they have difficulty concentrating
  • they feel unwell with stomach cramps or headaches
  • they ‘act out’ or withdraw.

It can be hard to recognise signs of family violence in children because they’re similar to the warning signs of other things that aren’t related to family violence, such as bullying at school. Children may show all of these signs, or only a few of them, and the common signs will depend on their age.

For older children, warning signs are more often demonstrated through negative or self-harming behaviours, whereas for young children warning signs are more likely to be generalised.

As a general rule, if a child’s behaviour changes noticeably it can be a flag that something is going on for them – whether it’s family violence or not. A sudden change in behaviour that doesn’t seem developmentally appropriate can be a prompt to ask questions.

When it comes to warning signs in children, they need to be considered within (though not dependent on) the context of any warning signs the mother might be presenting.

Asking someone if they are safe at home

Some people find it hard to ask someone they work with about family violence if they’re not sure what to say or how to say it. A supportive, non-judgemental approach is key. The most important thing you can do is let the person know you are there to support them.

It might be helpful to prepare example questions or phrases, such as:

“I can understand this might be difficult for you to talk about. I am concerned about you and would like to help.”

“You seem to be a bit anxious about responding back to your partner’s texts straight away [or whatever the behaviour is that you’ve observed]. Is everything okay at home?”

“When you said earlier that your partner lashes out at you [or whatever behaviour they’ve described], I’m wondering if you can tell me what that means?”

You might not feel equipped or qualified to provide support if someone discloses that they’re experiencing violence, but you don’t have to be a family violence expert to provide a helpful response. 

If someone tells you they are not safe at home it can be hard to know what to do. Here are some points to keep in mind when responding to a disclosure: 

  • It takes a lot of courage to tell someone about abuse.
  • Listen to them, believe them, and take the abuse seriously.
  • Remember – the violence is not their fault.
  • Thank them for trusting you.
  • Tell them they have choices and offer to help them figure out what to do next.

The four most important things you can do are:

  • Listen without interruption or judgement.
  • Reflect back that the violence is not their fault and it’s never justifiable.
  • Believe and validate their experiences.
  • Provide information that will support the victim survivor to make their own choices (as much as possible) in what happens next.

They might not be ready to take action straight away. They might choose to stay, or they may need more time to make the right plan for them. It’s important to respect their decisions.  

Let them know about specialist family violence services that can offer professional support.

The most important thing you can do is let them know you are there to support them.

You can play an important role in someone’s journey to safety.

If someone is in immediate danger, offer to call triple zero for them. 

They might not be ready to talk

If they are not ready to talk – that’s okay. Tell them you are here for them when they are ready.

Ending an abusive relationship can be a very risky or dangerous time. Worrying about whether a client is safe at home is tough. 

Staying open, available and supportive is key to helping clients on their journey to safety.

Organisational expectations

It’s important to know what your organisation expects of you in terms of recognising and responding to family violence in your work, so you can prepare. For example, in some services the policy is to refer victim survivors to an internal specialist or supervisor.

It’s important that you know ahead of time how to follow the process so you can help the person to feel safe while organisational processes are activated to support the person. If you are clear on what your role and responsibility is under these circumstances, you are more likely to feel calm and confident about how to respond. 

If you work in Victoria, it is important that your role and responsibility for family violence identification, risk assessment and risk management is clearly identified by your organisation in alignment with MARAM and the associated practice guides and resources. Depending on the type of organisation you work for and the kind of work you do, your organisation may be required to have policies and procedures in place that outline what your role is and how you should respond if you suspect a client is experiencing family violence.

Visit Assessing and managing risk for information about the Victorian Government’s MARAM and the Information Sharing Scheme.

How you might respond

Identifying and responding to family violence can be challenging, no matter what your role is. It’s important to make sure you look after yourself after someone discloses violence. This could include debriefing with a manager or seeking other support you might need, such as an employee assistance program (EAP). 

Read more about self care and wellbeing.


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