Victim survivors who have been criminalised experience high rates of family violence and trauma, and the severity and impacts of this violence and trauma can be significant. The term ‘criminalised women’ is used to encompass women who have been imprisoned, have had contact with police for other matters, and/or who engage in criminalised activities such as illicit drug use or sex work.
Victim survivors whose experiences of family violence intersect with their experiences of being criminalised, including experiences of incarceration, may experience discrimination in the family violence response system. This can increase their risk and impact their access to safety and support.
It is important to remember that criminalised women are not a homogenous group. Women from all backgrounds and contexts can become criminalised. However, due to social inequality and structural discrimination some women are disproportionately criminalised, and for this reason criminalised women can experience some of the highest levels of marginalisation. For example, Aboriginal women are the fastest growing prison population in Australia and are 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous women.[i] It is critical to bring an intersectional approach to your work with criminalised victim survivors that recognises their strengths and resilience in the face of intersecting forms of marginalisation and oppression.
There are some commonly experienced family violence tactics and impacts for victim survivors who have been criminalised:
- As outlined in the MARAM, perpetrators exert coercive control against all victim survivors using a range of behaviours over time, and their effect is cumulative. Coercive control can be exerted through any combination or pattern of the evidence-based risk factors. It is often demonstrated through patterned behaviours of emotional, financial abuse and isolation, stalking (including monitoring of technology), controlling behaviours, to choking/strangulation, sexual and physical violence.[i]
- For victim survivors who have been criminalised, perpetrators can use the victim survivor’s criminalised status as a tool of coercion and control, using structural and institutional features of society to enact systems abuse.[ii] For example, the perpetrator may threaten to report drug use, threaten to report the victim survivor to child protection, seek an intervention order against the victim survivor, allege criminal activity, access criminal records to stalk or control, or reveal criminal convictions to third parties without the person’s consent.
- Bias, misconduct, and inaction from services in responding to criminalised women’s reports of family violence can increase the victim survivor’s risk. This can include being mistakenly seen as the perpetrator (misidentified as the primary aggressor[iii]) or being charged with unrelated offences.
- Isolation or threats from community or family members if the victim survivor reports abuse to police or social services.
- Isolation due to exclusions from services. Services might assess a victim survivor who has been criminalised as an indicator they are at increased risk of enacting harm.[iv] Criminalised women can be refused support based on the assumption that they are too difficult, pose a threat to other clients, or present with a complex range of support needs to which services feel unable to appropriately respond. This can also result in profiling by police and emergency services[v], and high rates of child protection involvement and child removal.
- Fear of retribution from partners, who may themselves be criminalised, have a history of violent behaviour (not family violence) connected to criminal activity or have access to weapons. Perpetrators who are violent men generally engage in more frequent and more severe family violence than perpetrators who do not have a violent past. A history of criminal justice system involvement (for example, amount of time and number of occasions in and out of prison) is linked with family violence risk.[vi]
- Periods of incarceration could compound identified risk factors, including creating barriers to employment and housing, thus increasing financial difficulties and/or increasing dependence on a perpetrator and/or increasing isolation.
- Imminence of violence for victim survivors in prison, either through the perpetrator pursuing violence and harassment from within the prison system, or increased risk on release.[vii]
Service access and engagement barriers for victim survivors who have been criminalised can include:
- Because of real or perceived discrimination, many criminalised women never report family violence or attempt to access family violence services.
- Access to specialist support remains limited and difficult for criminalised women, whether in accessing housing, mental health services, or advocacy. Some criminalised women have very limited accommodation options, which often lead to criminalised women being housed in situations that may expose them to further violence, such as rooming houses.
- Periods of incarceration and imprisonment create major disruption in the lives of victim survivors and their children, creating increased risk, vulnerability and disadvantage in the long term. This can include loss of safe housing, loss of employment and barriers to re-employment, and loss of custody and family connections. It can also compound or create new risks such as mental ill-health, substance dependence or physical ill-health.
- Women in prison have limited access to specialist family violence support, particularly so for those being held in custody on remand.
It is critical that specialist family violence services use an intersectional feminist lens to proactively consider how they respond to women who have been criminalised
To prevent discrimination and support safe and just outcomes for all victim survivors, there are many things for practitioners to consider when supporting a criminalised victim survivor.
- Recognising the strength and resilience demonstrated by the victim survivor, and acknowledge they are the expert of their experience. Talk to the victim survivor about the systemic harm, systemic abuse and systemic collusion they have experienced.
- Using a trauma-informed approach, consider the victim survivor as a whole person and work with them to understand the circumstances, experiences and risks that might be informing their decision making and behaviours. This means identifying the structural inequalities, oppression, and discrimination the victim survivor may be experiencing because of their criminalisation as a risk factor in and of itself. It also means understanding the signs of trauma responses and working with the victim survivor to feel safe, heard, and respected.
- Adopting anti-oppressive practice, challenge social inequality and systemic power imbalances affecting victim survivors. This also requires a commitment to reflective practice at organisational and practitioner levels to examine and disrupt the biases, beliefs and structures that perpetuate systemic power imbalances both externally and within the organisation itself.
- Understand what services and systems are safe/unsafe for the victim survivor, and explore options to create safety that do not rely on police intervention or other statutory agency interventions.
Tools and resources
Under the Family Violence Risk and Management Framework (MARAM) many Victorian workforces have prescribed roles and responsibilities in recognising and responding to people experiencing family violence. The MARAM Practice Guides provide more information and detailed practice guidance. This resource provides supplementary information to prompt further consideration and support your development as a family violence professional.
Flat Out is a state-wide homelessness support and advocacy service for women who have had contact with the criminal justice and prison system in Victoria. They are an independent, not for profit, community-based organisation that is managed by and for women. Flat Out is committed to co-creating safer spaces, fostering support and self-determination for sistergirls, intersex, transgender and gender diverse women.
You can contact Flat Out for more information about their support services, advocacy, training and secondary consultation services.
The tip sheet is accompanied by a poster that you can display in your service. The poster is aimed at criminalised women and seeks to empower them to access the tip sheet and provide it to a service or practitioner they are working with.
[i] Australian Human Rights Commission (2020). Wiyi Yani U Thangani (Women’s Voices): Securing Our Rights, Securing Our Future—Community Guide. Sydney, NSW: Australian Human Rights Commission, page 4.
[i] Family Safety Victoria (2021). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria, page 27.
[ii] Family Safety Victoria (2021). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria, page 57.
[iii] Ulbrick, M. and Jago. M. (2018). Policy Paper 1 “Officer she’s psychotic and I need protection”: Police misidentification of the ‘primary aggressor’ in family violence incidents in Victoria. Melbourne, Vic.: WLSV and Monash University.
[iv] Danielle Tyson, Deborah Kirkwood, Mandy Mckenzie “Family Violence in Domestic Homicides: A Case Study of Women Who Killed Intimate Partners.” 2016 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1077801216647796
[v] Danielle Tyson, Deborah Kirkwood, Mandy Mckenzie “Family Violence in Domestic Homicides: A Case Study of Women Who Killed Intimate Partners..” 2016 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1077801216647796
[vi] Family Safety Victoria (2021). MARAM Practice Guides: Foundation Knowledge Guide. Melbourne, Vic: State of Victoria, page 30.
[vii] State of Victoria, Royal Commission into Family Violence: Summary and recommendations, Parl Paper No 132, Page 37.