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Family, domestic and sexual violence is multi-disciplinary in nature, and the various ways in which an incident can occur and be perceived by the parties involved can present difficulties in seeking to define and measure the incidences. Being able to classify an incident as family, domestic or sexual violence therefore presents difficulties.
Incidents of family, domestic and sexual violence are varied in nature and treated differently depending upon the disclosure of the incident. Disclosure may be made to authorities and classified as criminal under state or territory legislation. The incident may be disclosed to health personnel or other support services and, depending on the circumstances and the details of disclosure, the incident may or may not be perceived as family or domestic violence by the victim and/or perpetrator and/or support worker.
Incidents of sexual assault are classified as criminal acts under the offence-based definition. However this can also present problems in attempts to collect and classify reliable information related to a person’s perception of the incident. For example the victim and/or the perpetrator may have difficulty in discerning that the incident was sexual assault and therefore a crime. Individual Perceptions like this can result in unclear or ambiguous recollection which affects the reporting and recording of incidents and results in under-reporting or hidden-reporting. These issues limit attempts to measure sexual assault and conversely perceptions of events can also result in occurrences where the reported incident is not considered to be sexual assault at law, and hence not recorded.
The ongoing nature of family and domestic violence as a pattern of behaviour can also present difficulties in classification and measurement. For example there may be a long history of incidents between the persons involved, incorporating different categories of family and domestic violence. Some of these may or may not be classified as criminal, be detected by the criminal or civil justice system or handled through a service agency.
Despite the ongoing pattern of behaviour and number of prior incidents, a civil or criminal justice system response may also be triggered by a single incident of assault. This one incident may be classified as family or domestic violence, recorded, processed and prosecuted in isolation. As a result the recorded incident may not clearly represent all that has occurred.
Incidences of family and domestic violence can occur in a variety of settings, such as private homes, private dwellings and within communities, often exposing others to violence. Attempts to collect reliable information will be moderated by perceptions of the incident as well as the circumstances of disclosure or recording.
The recording and reporting of family, domestic and sexual violence are affected by levels of:
Notwithstanding issues associated with data collection and recording, there may also be barriers that prevent victims from disclosing the incident and seeking help (Chan 2005). There are many reasons why individuals may find it difficult to seek help when experiencing violence. These include:
Despite the data limitations mentioned above, currently available data does provide valuable estimates that are suitable for use as base indicators to develop a picture of family, domestic and sexual violence. Furthermore, the practice of employing common definitions and collection methods is important to assist the measurement of trends in the prevalence and incidence rates, despite the challenges of the variety of legal and other definitions used by authorities and agencies.
Building a picture of family, domestic and sexual violence in Australia requires the inclusion of information from a number of sources and these sources can vary in quality. Some data sources that are potentially useful are under-utilised and not currently within the public domain. Administrative by-product and survey data are the two main types of data sources that can be utilised.
Administrative by-product data
Administrative data are compiled by various agencies, government and non-government organisations (NGOs) who respond to family, domestic and sexual violence, such as police, criminal and civil courts, child protection authorities, family relationship service programs and specialist homelessness services providers. Statistical information can be extracted from agency records, maintaining confidentiality, and compiled for secondary analytic and measurement purposes.
There are advantages and limitations in using administrative by-product data. The advantage is that data may be readily available and can be collated electronically, meaning that clients are not burdened by further disclosure. However administrative by-product data, by its nature, is limited because it accounts only for those people who have disclosed or reported an incident involving family, domestic or sexual violence, and who may have accessed related services. Also support services and agencies produce administrative by-product data as a by-product to their primary role as service providers.
A further limitation of administrative by-product data is the way in which it can be utilised. Agencies are unlikely to record information relating directly to the separate elements outlined in this publication in relation to an incident, and may use different classifications and categories that are not wholly comparable. For these reasons administrative by-product data needs to be supplemented by additional data sources, such as surveys.
Surveys are a useful means of gathering information not otherwise captured by government agencies and NGOs. Survey respondents may be more likely to disclose incidents of family, domestic or sexual violence in an anonymous forum, including incidents not reported to the police or other agencies. Using standard definitions and questions, surveys are able to measure incidents of family, domestic and sexual violence that may or may not be classified as criminal or civil matters across all jurisdictions, or by all service providers.
Comparability of data becomes an issue when attempting to align victimisation rates for family, domestic and sexual violence obtained from different sources. Survey results can help overcome the difficulties presented by the variations that arise due to the different definitions and thresholds between service providers and the legislative environments in the jurisdictions. Survey information can also augment administrative by-product data by providing additional information about the take-up of services. For example, a victim may have used a service but not disclosed the family, domestic or sexual violence element to the service at the time, or this may not have been recorded by the service.
Surveys do however depend upon self-disclosure, self-reporting and memory of past events, which may not be wholly accurate with the passage of time. Thus the responses may be subject to difficulties of recall, disclosure and coverage. For example survey respondents may not recall the incident at all, or they may fail to classify it as an incident of family and domestic violence. Trauma can affect memory recall and respondents may also be uncomfortable relating an incident that was particularly upsetting or confronting when it happened. Therefore, although no single data source can provide a holistic picture of family, domestic and sexual violence, administrative by-product data and survey data together can provide the best picture available.
Decisions about which data sources should be used to answer specific research questions, policy development and inform decision-making must be made on a case by case basis. Regardless of the source selected it is essential that all data is at a level of quality that ensures information is fit for purpose (footnote 1). This process involves assessment of the quality and characteristics of data available to determine whether it is sufficient to meet the current requirement, as it is possible for data with some limitations to be suitable for a particular purpose but not another. For example, in the case where nationally comparable data are not available for analysis, a state-level alternative may be possible and be sufficient to inform decision-making. To assist in assessing the suitability it is possible to apply evaluative criteria (footnote 2) to the data source and information collected to determine suitability for use.
Data to support the National Plan
The vision of the National Plan is that, ’Australian women and their children live free from violence in safe communities,’ however it is acknowledged that men’s experience of family, domestic and sexual violence is included in the scope of this publication.
Four high-level indicators of change are specified in the National Plan to demonstrate progress and gauge whether outcomes are being achieved. The high-level indicators are:
1. More information about fit for purpose data may be found in the Data Awareness section of A guide for using statistics for evidence based policy, 2010 (ABS cat. no. 1500.00). <Back
2. A free tool is available to assist in assessing data quality on the National Statistical Service website http://www.nss.gov.au/dataquality/. <Back
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