Capturing the stories of migrant victims of family violence

By Eve Gallagher
violence against women

After years of being beaten and belittled by her husband, Adina* obtained a temporary court order barring him from entering their home or committing family violence. Upon arriving home, Adina showed her husband the order and asked him to leave. Enraged, he tore it up and called the police, claiming his wife was crazy.

When the police arrived, they relied on him to interpret for them. Adina speaks two languages fluently, but almost no English. She has no idea what they said to her husband. He told her they had come to take her children away.

It is not entirely clear what happened next, but at some point Adina began to wail loudly in her native language and pull at her hair, and at another point, the police contacted a mental health crisis intervention team. Unable to assess Adina in her home, the team sedated her and took her to a mental health facility, where she was held, against her will, for three days.

The stories police capture, or don’t capture, when they attend family violence incidents can set in motion a chain of events that turns the victim’s life upside down. So much depends on the capacity of police to uncover both versions of events in this one unexpected moment. This poses particular challenges for victims who struggle to tell their stories in English.

Heran* is a family violence support worker at inTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence, a Victorian organisation that assists migrant women. She was with Adina when she obtained the court order. Heran believes the police response was partly the result of a cultural misunderstanding, describing Adina’s behaviour as “a normal response to distress or grief” in her culture. As Heran points out, Adina was detained for three days because it took that long to find an interpreter, not because she needed psychiatric assistance. “As soon as they spoke to her, they let her go.”

Leyla*, who has worked at inTouch for 20 years, says clients are often unaware of the details of the police account of what happened until she translates it for them. “Sometimes the client points out small differences [between the police account and her own], but often it says she was doing something wrong when she wasn’t.” It might say she hit her husband, for example, which either isn’t true, or it is true but she was acting in self-defence.

The husband’s version of events rarely withstands official scrutiny, with something closer to the truth most often prevailing. However, in the weeks and months that follow the police visit to the woman’s home, criminal charges may be brought against her before being dropped or dismissed, or a child protection investigation may be undertaken to determine whether the children are safe in her care. Like Adina, she may be involuntarily detained in a mental health facility.

The stories police capture, or don’t capture, when they attend family violence incidents can set in motion a chain of events that turns the victim’s life upside down.

The Victoria Police Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence covers culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Among the critical issues police must consider is the need for an independent interpreter of the same sex as the victim. However, in an emergency, they may seek assistance from someone else.

Establishing the victim’s trust is also identified as a critical issue. The Code of Practice states that this may be done by explaining that family violence is against the law and that victims can access housing and other assistance. Where the victim is on a temporary protection or spousal visa, the Code of Practice suggests that police explain that reporting family violence should not negatively impact their residency status.

“We try hard to respond to migrant women in a culturally sensitive manner, but it’s not always easy to provide housing or immigration advice when you’re actually at an incident,” says Sergeant Natasha Powles.

Now a specialist family violence adviser, Sergeant Powles recalls what it was like to be a young officer on the beat: “Imagine you’re in the car on your way to a family violence callout and you’re receiving bits of information over the radio as you go – ‘the neighbour can hear a woman screaming’ … ‘she saw a man enter the house an hour ago’ … ‘she doesn’t know if he has a weapon’… You’re trained to first assess the risk to yourself, then your partner and then the public, and you know this is a risky situation because it’s emotionally charged and the perpetrator has the upper hand – he knows where the knives are, you don’t.

“You intend to separate them, but what if he’s highly agitated, maybe drug affected, and you don’t feel it’s safe to leave your partner alone with him? Or she won’t stop screaming and you don’t feel safe on your own with her? And this whole time three little kids are standing in the corner watching.”

Assisting migrant victims of family violence can be even more difficult when a seemingly calm and reasonable husband calls the police saying his wife is crazy. Police responding to the call will be told they’re attending a mental health incident. If they believe the wife poses a serious and imminent risk to herself or someone else, they will detain her.

It’s easy to see why police might err on the side of caution, especially when children are involved. But what if the police at Adina’s house had been trained to consider family violence as a possible cause of her distress? Or what if they had engaged an independent interpreter and had then understood that she had a court order prohibiting her husband from entering their home? Things might have turned out differently.

In the few years since Adina’s experience, Victoria Police has worked on enhancing compliance with the Code of Practice: family violence is now covered in the induction course for trainees; officers up to the rank of superintendent undertake professional development in family violence; and specialist family violence teams provide advice to officers responding to incidents.

But upskilling police is only part of the solution. Sergeant Powles says it is not uncommon for interpreters in the required language to be unavailable. When possible, police will wait for an interpreter to call back, but as Sergeant Powles observes, “How long should we wait? We’re the police. Who else are we not responding to?”

Everyone I spoke to for this story was pinning their hopes on the findings of the Royal Commission into Family Violence. Handed down in March, they include the need for awareness and prevention campaigns in community languages; better government and police guidelines on the use of interpreters; and further training, support and resources for police. For women like Adina, these reforms can’t be implemented quickly enough.