Tackling family harm by prevention first

PHOTO: ISTOCK

It is not often you will see a police officer cry.

But sitting in a small, white-painted meeting room, talking about the cycle of family harm and the passion he has seen his team pour into turning it around, Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Cottam gets misty-eyed and his voice becomes a bit huskier.

Detective Senior Sergeant Greg Cottam and Integrated Safety Response executive manager Leanne McSkimming, part of the team changing the way police approach family violence.

“I haven’t seen a better cause in 27 years in police than this. For myself and my team, everyone joined the police to make a difference, and this is what makes it worthwhile: Working in prevention,” he said.

“I get teared-up talking about it, because that’s the impact this has.”

The problem is nothing new: Over those 27 years, he has seen many bruises caused by family violence.

In the past year alone, his team has dealt with 9125 family harm episodes in Christchurch – and they believe about four times that amount could go unreported.

Each incident becomes part of the family violence cycle, which goes back decades.

The incident. The victim. The perpetrator. The agencies they are referred to, the reports written, the court appearances. The risk of re-offending judged and categorised.

The victims who go back to a relationship, even after the violence. The perpetrators who have been victims themselves. And the children caught in the middle – 4596 Christchurch children in the past year alone.

Detective Senior Sergeant Cottam said most perpetrators he dealt with had been victims in their past. Many children exposed to violence could grow up to continue it, unless something was done, he said.

So how do you change a cycle?

It was almost exactly a year ago, on July 4, the Integrated Safety Response programme was started as a pilot in Christchurch, Selwyn and the Waimakariri districts.

There were three things it aimed to do differently.

In the past year alone, the team has dealt with 9125 family harm episodes in Christchurch – and they believe about four times that amount could go unreported. PHOTO: ISTOCK

The first was helping families experiencing violence with the other needs and problems they were facing – like housing, finding a job, or something as simple as getting a driver’s licence.

That could remove some of the stress the family was under, making it easier for them to focus on addressing the violence and making difficult decisions around it.

It could also build trust, as the families realised the police and agencies working with them were genuinely there to help, he said.

The second was that they worked with the whole family – both victims and perpetrators – to help them change and develop strategies to stop the problems.

The third was bringing all the services and agencies working with families together to work as a team.

Every morning at 10.30, people from each agency involved gather at the police station for a ‘safety assessment’ meeting – they call it SAM – to discuss things that have come up over the past 24 hours.

As well as police, the meetings included Ministry for Vulnerable Children, health, corrections and iwi representatives, while family violence services and several other Government departments were also involved in the network.

For each incident, any future risk to the victims would be discussed, and a lead agency would be assigned to work with the family.

There would usually be about 25 cases to discuss, so the meetings could sometimes take several hours, he said.

With everyone there at the meeting, they could share any information relevant to the case – like truancy records, previous convictions, a lot of previous injuries that might point to a history of violence, or work that an agency had done with the family in the past.

He said people’s privacy was carefully weighed against the ultimate goal: To save lives and prevent serious harm.

“It could be that someone was caught shoplifting food for their family, and that could be relevant. But if it’s not, that won’t be shared,” he said.

“It’s particularly relevant in child abuse cases, because the child doesn’t have a voice.”

Integrated Safety Response executive manager Leanne McSkimming said the help families needed could vary a lot.

While some needed to go to a safe house, others refused to leave or were better off at home, so the goal was then to find ways to keep them safe there, she said.

Some wanted to leave relationships, and others did not. “I’ve seen a lot of our high-risk victims immediately go back to the perpetrator,” she said.

That was often because a couple had children together, or because they saw the things done to them as normal, she said.

One family she had dealt with faced repeated violence, and were classed at high-risk of it happening again.

“But the most stressful thing for them was actually housing, because they were homeless,” she said.

Once they were in a home and that pressure was gone, they were able to focus on preventing the violence, she said.

Ms McSkimming said three in four perpetrators in Christchurch were male, and 88 per cent were European.

She said they were working to encourage people to engage with police, especially in ethnic communities and in cases of elder abuse, which she believed were under-reported.

“The older generation had that attitude of we don’t talk about it, we don’t report it,” she said.

The trial has been funded for three years until June 2019. Ms McSkimming said the ultimate successes would be difficult to measure: Trust built, violence reduced, and the long-term cycle of violence stopped.

She said people they had worked with were more likely to call police themselves after another incident, which she considered a success.

But that could mean the official figures around violence will be increasing, rather than dropping, over the trial.

So to judge whether the trial was successful, they would look at statistics around convictions, serious injuries and deaths from violence, and the outcomes for families involved.

For Detective Senior Sergeant Cottam, it was a personal experience early in his career that convinced him that the idea – working to prevent crime, rather than just respond to it – would work.

He was interviewing a young woman who had been arrested for a string of thefts, burglaries and breaking into cars.

“I sat across from her and said: “What do you want from your life?””

The woman said she didn’t want to be a criminal, and her goal was to get a job and have a family – but she couldn’t afford the training course she wanted to do, he said.

“We spoke to WINZ and got her in the course. To my knowledge, she never offended again,” he said.

He said that was not something that was encouraged within police at the time, as the focus was the frontline policing work.

But the difference he was able to make had stayed with him.

“To do that is personally more satisfying that arresting someone for murder, because it means preventing a whole lot of future crimes and victims. Arresting someone for murder does keep society safe, but it is almost too late,” he said.

Being able to turn someone’s life around was the ultimate aim: The “nirvana”, he said.

“Change one perpetrator, and how many victims do you prevent? If one life is saved, that makes it worthwhile.”

Family violence numbers

•9125 family violence episodes have been recorded in Christchurch in the past year

•3779 of those were violence between partners

•2413 were violence between ex-partners

•1751 were violence between parent and child

•430 were violence between siblings

•4596 Christchurch children have been involved in an episode in the past year

•1574 of those children have been involved in more than one episode

Where to get help

•If it is an emergency and you or someone you know is at risk, phone 111.

•Women’s Refuge: 0800 REFUGE (0800 733 843)

•Victim Support: 0800 842 846

•Family Violence Info Line: 0800 456 450

•Aviva Family Violence Services: 0800 AVIVA NOW (0800 28482 669)

•Stopping Violence Services for Men & Women: 0800 478 778

•Canterbury Men’s Centre: 365 9000 or txt 022 302 4966

•Shakti Ethnic Women’s Support: 0800 117 474

•Age Concern Canterbury: 366 0903

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