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Women with criminal records face stark barriers to reporting domestic violence, advocates warn

Dechlan Brennan -

Criminalised women and girls face significant hurdles in reporting domestic violence when going to the police, often facing stigmatisation and rejection, according to leading abolitionist network.

In the wake of significant protests and demonstrations surrounding violence against women in Australia over the last month, the National Network of Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls (National Network) have argued despite federal and state government goodwill, “when our members seek help to leave their abusive relationships they are further victimised by the state".

Gunditjmara woman Tabitha Lean said a member of the National Network tried to leave her violent relationship this week, going to police in Queensland to report alleged coercive control, strangulation, and emotional and physical violence. 

“As soon as the cops found out our member had a criminal record, they immediately started treating her like the perpetrator and dismissed her request for a protection order,” Ms Lean alleged.

“When our member stated that her record had absolutely nothing to do with this family violence matter, they shamelessly stated that it had everything to do with it.” 

Ms Lean said the police have been advocated by some as a state service that domestic violence victims can trust, however incidents like this were reasons why criminalised women often stayed away from reporting violence to the police. 

An ABC Four Corners investigation in 2022 found at least 315 Indigenous women had been murdered or killed in suspicious circumstances between 2000 and 2022. In one case, a woman was told by police to "stop calling" in the days before she was beaten to death by a former partner.

Ms Lean said people who ask, “why didn’t a woman just leave her abuser,” needed to be reminded of stories like the one this week, and asked where women are meant to go for help “when we are treated like this?”

“We have no choice but to develop our own systems of safety and support,’” she said. 

The National Network said this was “not a unique experience”, arguing it was why members often did not seek the assistance of the police, “and also why many criminalised women remain in violent relationships.”

“We cannot forget that criminalised communities are often subjected to violence in their homes, as well as from the state, the very agencies that are supposed to protect and serve them,” they said in a statement. 

The AIHW estimate that around 90 per of violence against First Nations women, as well as most cases of sexual abuse of First Nations children, are undisclosed. 

Furthermore, in the 12 months up to April 2024, First Nations people aged 15 and over who had experienced physical harm reported the perpetrator was an intimate partner or family member.

At a recent Senate inquiry into missing and murdered women, Queensland's Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander said women are frightened of police, at times being met with “an aggressive and heavy-handed response or alternatively, police inaction, disregard, disbelief and a lack of care.”

“Regrettably, we report that in many situations, First Nations women and children do not consider the police to be a safe point of contact,” the submission said. 

The National Network’s Debbie Kilroy said the police do not ‘protect and serve’ everybody. 

“The criminalised community has very specific and nuanced needs when it comes to family and domestic violence,” Ms Kilroy said.  

A 2022 inquiry into Queensland Police Force (QPS) into responses to domestic and family violence found evidence of an entrenched culture within the QPS of misogyny, sexism, and racism. 

It said that “... racism is a significant problem within the QPS. It manifests in unfair and discriminatory behaviours directed towards First Nations QPS members, Police Liaison Officers, officers from other cultural backgrounds and members of the community.”

The National Network argue more needs to be done to engage with organisations like theirs to discuss the specific needs of the criminalised community.

“To leave us out of the conversation, the policy development, funding allocation and service development, is to further disadvantage one of the most vulnerable communities,” Ms Kilroy said. 

Ms Lean highlighted the contrast in the recent announcement by the QPS of DV safe places in their stations with the response towards one of their criminalised members. 

“We've got to think outside the cage and stop throwing money at policing and start thinking of better alternatives for everyone, not just for the some that are privileged enough to get this sort of support,” she said.

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