4529.0 - Defining the Data Challenge for Family, Domestic and Sexual Violence, 2013  
Latest ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 07/02/2013  First Issue
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The scope and method of inquiry can influence how family, domestic and sexual violence is defined by shaping what behaviours and relationships are included or excluded. Different disciplines approach the subject matter from different perspectives and with varying requirements; for example researchers, service providers, legislative frameworks and other disciplines all have their own focus.

The main statistical challenges are to derive information and data elements that:

  • appropriately represent the concepts, terminology, definitions and data items that support user-defined measures of family, domestic and sexual violence;
  • appropriately represent the elements of jurisdictional legislation; and
  • provide a tool for the representation of data as required by users for a variety of needs, such as policy development at all levels of government, research and evaluation, and service planning and delivery.
Once suitable data specifications have been determined, it is necessary to consider the methodological considerations in obtaining information about family, domestic and sexual violence. This includes the measurement issues and limitations encountered in data collection and use.

Measurement issues
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.

Data limitations
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:
  • Under-reporting:
    Many crimes are not reported to police or other authorities, so neither the total number of victims nor the total number of perpetrators are captured in their data.
  • Hidden-reporting:
    This may occur where a victim seeks services, or reports an incident, but does not disclose family, domestic or sexual violence as the reason for the contact.
  • Under-recording:
    This can occur due to process and procedural variations in recording incidents by authorities or services. There is also the possibility that an incident may be classified incorrectly, such as when a victim presents as a general assault victim and a judgement is made by the individual making the record about the nature of the incident.
  • Counting/recording rules:
    In some state and territories family and domestic violence related orders can also cover other types of disputes, which can lead to the number of orders handed down for family and domestic violence perpetrators being overstated.
    • In some states and territories an intervention order may be handed down for family violence and non-family violence related incidents, such as stalking. Conversely other states and territories use apprehended violence orders for domestic and family violence incidents. As a result, counts of intervention orders may overstate the numbers related to family violence incidents.
    • In the health system, treatment for specific injuries may be recorded without recording the cause of the injury, thus not recording the family violence or sexual assault nature of the injury.
Despite these data limitations, societal changes can provide opportunities to improve family, domestic and sexual violence data collection. State and territory legislative changes, an increased focus on family violence training for police, counsellors and other service providers and community awareness may all contribute to the level of reporting of incidents and quality of resulting data.

Barriers to disclosure/reporting
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:
  • fear of retaliation;
  • economic dependence on the perpetrator;
  • children or other family members suffering if the relationship breaks down;
  • shame;
  • fear of not being believed;
  • fear/uncertainty of the criminal justice system;
  • past experiences;
  • cultural beliefs;
  • fear of the perpetrator;
  • lack of access to support networks due to age, cultural or language barriers; and
  • not being able to frame the assault as criminal – the victim may not understand that they are entitled to protection from sexual violence even when in a relationship with the perpetrator.
Perceptions and notions of shared responsibility can also present victims with barriers when it comes to reporting incidences of family, domestic or sexual violence, such as:
  • a perception that the incident is too minor to report to police;
  • a lack of awareness that such action constitutes an offence;
  • a desire to ‘keep it private’ and deal with it themselves;
  • fear of the perpetrator;
  • a sense of ongoing responsibility for the safety of other family members;
  • a lack of awareness about, or lack of availability of, culturally responsive services; and
  • previous experience of asking for help but feeling re-victimised by parts of the service response (such as having to re-tell one’s story to multiple services, or being cross-examined) (Carmody 2009).
Although rates of reporting have increased over the past decade, recent estimates suggest that only a small number of victims reported the most recent incident of domestic violence to police (Carmody 2009). Different collection vehicles such as surveys or administrative by-product data collections using different scopes and definitions, often produce different levels of estimates. At the same time, the methodological issues that affect counts of criminal incidents are compounded by the complexities of constantly evolving definitions of family, domestic and sexual violence, as frameworks become more informed. As is the case with all types of crime a complete qualitative view of family, domestic and sexual violence may never be known.

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.

Data sources
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.

Survey data
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.

Assessing the suitability of data
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. Reduced prevalence of family and domestic violence and sexual assault.
  2. Increased proportion of women who feel safe in their communities.
  3. Reduced deaths related to family and domestic violence and sexual assault.
  4. Reduced proportion of children exposed to their mother’s or carer’s experience of domestic violence.
The National Plan includes measures of progress which are high level indicators of change. Measuring progress against these indicators presents significant challenges as there are currently no nationally consistent datasets to build a robust and reliable evidence base. In the long-term, the National Data Collection and Reporting Framework will create nationally consistent data definitions and collection methods. Defining the Data Challenge is a first step towards establishing national data collection and reporting standards for family, domestic and sexual violence reporting.

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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