LV Family Violence Unit reform

Improvement: Detective Sergeant Paul Ziebell has overseen the reform of the police response to family violence. Photograph: Zaida Glibanovic



FOLLOWING the Royal Commission into family violence, the Latrobe Valley Family Violence Unit has seen colossal reform. The Royal Commission into Family Violence was completed in 2015. The Commission made 227 recommendations to reduce the impact of family violence in communities which the state government has acted on. The role of the Commission was to find ways to: prevent family violence, improve support for victim-survivors and hold perpetrators to account. The Commission included 25 days of public hearings. Community conversations were held with over 800 Victorians, and nearly 1,000 written submissions were received.

Speaking to Detective Sergeant Paul Ziebell from the Latrobe Valley family violence unit, he described a better family violence response.

“Because of the royal commission, we obtained some positions as a result of the (population) growth of the local area,” he said.

“We were allocated a number of members (for family violence). The problem we had was that the geographical area that we obviously work in (across Gippsland), so to make it easier to provide service to the area, we split the area into three locations, with obviously (Morwell) being the major hub of the three locations.”

There are other family violence units across Gippsland as The Baw Baw crew operates out of Warragul on a smaller scale, and there is also the Wonthaggi team that responds to the Bass Coast and South Gippsland area, but Morwell serves as the significant headquarters.

In the past year, according to the Crime Statistics Agency, Victoria police reported 2,559 incidents with 790 charges laid in the Latrobe region. Latrobe City has the highest rate of family violence call outs in Victoria.

Det Sgt Ziebell said the local police had seen much growth in better responding to family violence.

“What (The Royal Commission) did was put guidelines in place for us to do our job better, we did a reasonable job, but I think with the royal commission and what came out of that obviously was the family violence code of practice and our own family violence code of conduct it put guidelines in place for us to do our job even better again.

“We are getting better at it, we still have a way to go to achieving a goal. We are never going to stop family violence, I always say it’s the beast that will always give to us, and the only thing we can do is to up the ante regard to how we manage it.”

The Det Sgt Ziebell said the road to improvement hasn’t been easy as the community battles increased stressors of the last few years, including the closure of Hazelwood power station.

“The other thing we contend with is unemployment, so with the closing of Hazelwood…The problem we had was the closing of Hazelwood and the three years of lockdown with COVID,” he said.

Det Sgt Ziebelle explained that though unemployment does not directly correlate to family violence, it does increase crime rates and was a challenging time to work through.

Interestingly Det Sgt Ziebell said that while family violence incidents happened during Coronavirus induced lockdowns, he said that the Latrobe Valley family violence unit “saw the increase when people started coming out of lockdown…and I think it was probably because people had their liberty and were able to move freely about,” he said.

He explained that: “there’s some sort of discussion around the lockdowns stopping people from obtaining their drugs and alcohol, and that sort of limited the amount of family violence occurrences.”

COVID-19 presented a real challenge to the unit’s response; despite a significant decrease in overall family violence incidents, the process of handling such a sensitive crime in a global health crisis came with its issues.

“To manage it (family violence during lockdown), it was quite difficult for us as a unit to manage because we still had to go out and do our checks with the victims and the respondents…we had to be very mindful how we did our job, but we still knew we had a job to do.”

According to the Royal Commission, police are an essential component of the frontline response to family violence and are frequently the first point of contact for victims. To enhance Victoria Police’s response to family violence, the Royal Commission found there should be a greater emphasis on:

– Risk assessment and management of perpetrator responsibility for intervention order violations;

– Data-recording and data-sharing issues caused by cultural norms and attitudes among some police officers;

Victoria Police have been improving their approach to family violence by following the Royal Commission recommendations this includes:

Rolling out a new evidence-based family violence risk assessment and risk management tool to guide the police response;

Deploying 415 new specialist police roles to investigate family violence incidents, including 277 detectives in 31 Family Violence Investigation Units across the state;

Establishing the Centre of Learning for Family Violence;

Trialling the use of body-worn cameras to collect evidence and victim statements from family violence incidents;

Deploying mobile devices (iPhones and iPads) so that police officers can complete family violence risk assessments at the scene and access relevant criminal history in real-time, and;

Expanding Koori Family Violence Police Protocols state-wide.

So what exactly is family violence?

According to the Family Violence Response Centre, family violence is defined as any threatening, coercive, domineering, or abusive activity between family members, domestic or intimate connections, or previous intimate relationships that produces fear in the individual experiencing the behaviour. Family violence is not a one-time argument; it is a pattern of violent behaviour done by one person against another. Family violence does not only include physical or sexual assault. It can encompass a variety of abusive behaviours, many of which are unhealthy and damaging. Family Violence may be abuse from an intimate partner or casual partner to the abuse of an elder, parent or child.

The Latrobe Valley Family Violence Unit has been the front runner for many regional trials of Victorian Police programs, including the pilot run of the elderly abuse prevention program.

Det Sgt Ziebell explained how the local police protect the community’s most vulnerable.

“We do presentations at retirement homes and some of the clubs, we did one at the Warragul golf club last year, and from that, we’ve now got another two presentations,” he said.

The Latrobe Valley Family Violence Unit works with many other departments and stakeholders to aim for better victim outcomes.

“We work very closely with family and child protection services around the exposure of children who are involved in these family violence disputes,” he added.

Though Victoria Police’s recent reforms have proved beneficial, there is still much to be done. The next goal for the police is to better connect their response with the social sector. With a focus on integrating activities across and between departments and agencies. This includes improved information sharing, closer work with the judicial system, and strengthened referral process to services like the Orange Door network and other support services for victims and, lastly, a continued commitment to the Dhelk Dja Partnership Forum (Forum that addresses issues of Aboriginal family violence).

In other developments, there is the Alexis – Family Violence Response Model (A-FVRM) which is an integrated response between Victoria Police and social services to improve response to recidivist family violence. The Alexis program has already been piloted in metro areas successfully; results have found that from the 111 families in the pilot program, the police found an 85 per cent reduction in recidivism for these clients.

“These programs are already running in the metro, and we are going to be the first one in a rural area to trial it,” said Det Sgt Ziebell.

Det Sgt Ziebell describes a community-orientated response as new developments from the A-FVRM program will be coming to the Latrobe Valley Family violence unit, with two family violence service employee specialists joining the unit to respond to family violence cases immediately. He explained that it would make for the L17 referrals process to The Orange Door network immediate and would offer swift and effective support for victims. This will allow for better safety protections for victims with things like crisis accommodation easier arranged. Det Sgt Ziebell also mentioned that there would also be service respondent worker who deals with the offender if that person is in custody where they can enact programs like men’s behaviour change and child first programs to educate the offender.

Det Sgt Ziebell says he sees a real improvement in managing at-risk families and offenders.

“We pick up on a lot of jobs that are often very historical, so historic family violence that has been going on for a few years, where we have a victim who wants to come and talk about it.”

“A respondent involved in family violence, if it fits within our criteria that will depend on how many incidents or the severity of family violence, that person will be assigned to a detective within this office, and we have a management plan where we manage that person for a period of time,” during this time, police will educate the offender on respectful behaviour and also advise them on the consequences if they should perpetrate again.

Further developments are underway as the Latrobe Valley will see a specialised family violence magistrate’s court. The aim of a specialist court is to: Provide easy access to the court, promote the safety of people affected by violence, increase the accountability of people who have used violence against family members (encouraging them to change their behaviour), and lastly, to increase the protection of children exposed to family violence.