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Who is the perpetrator?

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

Our women are increasingly mis-identified as perpetrators.

Being mis-identified as a perpetrator of family violence can have devasting effects on a woman – losing access to children, her housing, her employment and creating years of legal battles. In Victoria, up to 58 per cent of women on Community Protection Orders have been misidentified as perpetrators. (Women's Legal Services Victoria, 2018).

It also lets the actual perpetrator continue their abuse.

So why is this happening? It’s complex, but the issues include:

Police respond to single incidents

Family violence is about power and control. One violent incident might be the result of years of controlling behaviour, such as when you can see your friends, how much money you have access too, making light of any abuse, blaming you for the abuse, making you afraid, threatening and/or abusing pets and children.

So, when the police respond to one incident, they have to assess the scene in front of them. Victims might be fighting back, might be afraid to make things worse, might mistrust the police and not want to talk to them. Or victims just can’t physically talk to police in the moment. This can all lead to misidentification.

‘I was flogged to a point where I couldn’t even brush my own hair. Couldn’t … lift my arm up. The female officer … tried to talk to me but because I wouldn’t talk to her … she went and spoke to him. I was sent to the hospital too because of my injuries … But because I didn’t talk, that order went out against me.’ (from Nancarrow et 2020)

Power and control is misunderstood

A perpetrator employs a range of coercive controlling tactics that can be physical or non-physical, are tailored to a specific victim and are responsive to the victim’s behaviour. (Reeves 2021)

We don’t understand this as a community. A recent attitudes towards violence against women study showed only 66% of respondent believed that it is always abuse to control your partner by belittling or making them feel useless. 35% agreed that women exaggerate how unequally they are treated. (NCAS, 2023)

Bogus ideas about ideal victims

A victim of abusive should be timid and afraid right? Not necessarily. Women are brave, strong and courageous and don’t always take abuse passively. They can yell back, fight back, use weapons and become ‘emotional’.

A recent analysis of police narratives of domestic violence incidents involving a female person of interest in New South Wales (Boxall et al., 2020) found that 48 percent of the 153 incidents they reviewed involved that’s called violent resistance – fighting back in some way against the perpetrator. It also found that Aboriginal women were more likely than non-Indigenous women to use violent resistance (57% vs 40%).

If police attend a scene expecting a cowering victim and that’s not what they find, it can be confusing, and led to mis-identification.

Perpetrators use the system to claim they are victims as part of their abuse

Many perpetrators are skilled manipulators and spent years studying how to control their victim. They know the impact of claiming they are the victim, using up court time and threating to call the police on a victim, who might not know their rights.

‘See, I’ve got a current order out now where I’m the perpetrator. And that’s fearful for me because—and it’s his house. All he’s got to do is ring the police and he threatens me all the time with it.’ (Nancarrow et al 2020)

The court system can be disempowering, frustrating and defending yourself isn’t easy. Often, women are left more traumatized from the process.

‘I feel he’ll just get away with everything anyway, so not sure whether there’s much point in going through the court system again and trying to get some justice or not. Cause I just feel like every time you go through that process and you feel like people don’t believe you, it’s really hard.’ (Reeves 2021)

What we are seeing

We work with women through case management of their violence issues, court support and into the justice system.

We have seen a rise in the number of women being incorrectly identified as perpetrators.

Everyone has the right to live free from violence and discrimination. Understand power in relationships, be an ally and support your friends, neighbours and strangers when they disclose abuse.

If you need help, remember we have court support workers who can assist you in court.

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