Victim Support is concerned that New Zealanders are not getting the help they need because they are unaware that they are victims of family violence.
The Ministry of Justice’s “Patterns of Victimisation by Family Members and Help-seeking by Victims” report released today found that most adult victims of controlling behaviours by family members don’t seek help unless they are also victims of offending by family members.
Adults who experienced controlling behaviours by intimate partners only were less likely to seek help than those who experienced both controlling behaviours and offences by intimate partners - 37% compared to 79% respectively.
“The legal definition of family violence is that is can be physical, sexual, or psychological abuse and includes a pattern of coercive or controlling behaviour. Family violence is not limited to physical assault,” said Victim Support spokesperson Dr Petrina Hargrave.
Controlling behaviours in the study included a partner blocking the victim’s contact with family/friends, keeping track of the victim’s whereabouts, and preventing the victim from undertaking paid work they wanted to do.
Dr Hargrave said that during the Covid pandemic controlling behaviours may include forcing victims to wash their hands excessively, faking Covid symptoms to scare them, restricting the victim’s use of technology, or denying them a home office space.
“Among the reasons people don’t seek help for controlling behaviours is that they think it’s normal or not serious enough,” she said. “This is not a normal or acceptable way to treat someone in a relationship and therefore it is serious enough to seek help for.
“Being in a controlling relationship erodes your self-esteem and the perpetrator may manipulate you to believe you’re overreacting, you’re the one with the problem, or that you deserve it.”
Dr Hargrave said there was strong evidence that the frequency and severity of family violence may escalate over time.
“Serious family violence rarely comes out of nowhere. Many victims report that physical assaults started with controlling behaviour or psychological abuse.”
Other barriers to seeking help included shame and fear of not being believed.
“Sadly, people often don’t seek help until things have escalated and neighbours have called police. But we can help people stay safe well before they reach that point, even if they want to stay in the relationship and don’t want to report the abuse.”
The report also showed that offending by a family member was almost as common as offending by an intimate partner (37% vs 43%).
“Family violence isn’t just a problem between partners but also between siblings, parents and children, cousins, flatmates or any other family or domestic relationship.”
For example, she said research showed mothers often experienced abuse at the hands of their teen for some time before they sought help and were afraid to report the offending.
Dr Hargrave said it was also no surprise that the report found male family violence victims were less likely to seek help than females.
“The majority of family violence victims are females, but we support males who are victims too in both heterosexual and same-sex relationships who often have to overcome stigma to seeking help.”
Victim Support aimed to empower family violence victims by providing emotional support, information and advice; developing safety plans; and helping with protection orders.
“Just sharing it with someone else who can be trusted is an empowering first step. Many of our victims tell us they wished they had reached out long ago.”