15 Mar My Family Violence Motion Speech
On 3 March 2021, my family violence motion passed unanimously in the Victorian Parliament, confirming that companion animals will be redefined as ‘family members’ under the Family Violence Protection Act 2008.
This motion came after mounting evidence that companion animals are being used as a tool for coercive control and preventing women experiencing family violence from leaving unsafe situations.
The motion calls for a new system which would see ownership of pets being removed from perpetrators, defaulting to the victim survivors of family violence.
The parliament also supported more funding for pet-friendly crisis accommodation, one-off government payments to help remove animals from violent homes, and greater scope to family violence leave provisions, which would allow women to access family violence leave to help their animals.
Here is my Parliamentary speech:
Before I commence my speech on this very important topic, I want to note that I am speaking about family and domestic violence. These are important stories to tell but I acknowledge that some examples will be confronting to people listening. I extend my deepest condolences to anyone affected.
Everyone has a right to be safe, well and healthy. Your home and the company of your family and friends should be the safest place in the world to you. Yet, it is in our homes that we have a Family and Domestic Violence crisis.
The figures are astounding. Nearly all perpetrators of family and domestic violence are male. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1 in 6 women has experienced physical or sexual violence before the age of 15. After that age, the same percentage has experienced physical or sexual violence by a partner or ex-partner. Every week, on average, a woman is killed by her partner or ex-partner. Further, Family and Domestic Violence is a major cause of women and children becoming homeless.
Women and children are not the only victims in violent homes. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, sixty-two percent of Australian households include non-human animals; that’s 3 in every 5 homes. So, family animals frequently experience family and domestic violence. Animals may be the direct target of violence, they may be injured when they intervene to protect others or they may be used as leverage or to threaten women and children. Far too many victim survivors have heard variations of ‘I will kick the dog, I will kill the cat, if you don’t do what I want.’
For women experiencing Family or Domestic Violence, family animals are a significant source of comfort, kindness and compassion; sometimes they are the only source. Children tell stories and secrets to family animals. Animals are their friends; akin to siblings. When animals are hurt or killed as victims of Domestic Violence, the impacts on women and children are life-long. Approximately 60% of domestic violence victim survivors stay in abusive situations because they don’t want to leave their pet behind.
When Jenna finally did escape, she had to leave Gypsy behind, because no crisis accommodation could house them together. Jenna’s story is sadly not unique.
Violence begets violence. People who partake in violent activities are more likely to behave violently. People who are violent towards animals are more likely to be violent towards people. There is a link between animal abuse, and other forms of violence, in particular Child Abuse, Elder Abuse and Domestic Violence. Children who live in violent homes are more likely to abuse animals because it’s what they see and what they learn, and so the violent cycle continues. To have a lasting impact on tackling the family and domestic violence crisis we must research the underlying causes and find solutions. Rather than asking “Why did she stay?” we must ask “Why did he do it?”. The answer is, there is never an excuse for violence – but as a society we must explore, understand and address what causes men to act violently towards women, children and animals.
Since becoming elected in 2018, my office regularly receives calls from women who want to escape a violent home but are too scared to leave because it puts their companion animals at further risk. The problem is often that animals are registered or microchipped in the man’s name – meaning that in law they are his property and he can reclaim them. But our companion animals are not shoes or bags. They are individuals who are direct and indirect victims of family and domestic violence themselves.
Being an Animal Justice Party member meant I could help them, right? Wrong.
As my team and I looked into it, we realised that there was no way in our current legal framework to keep humans and nonhumans together in these situations. The laws, systems and policies surrounding animals in violent homes need to include and protect animals.
In her 2019 book about family and domestic violence, titled “See what you made me do”, author and researcher Jess Hill wrote “Harming friends or family would risk police involvement; it’s less risky to hurt or kill the family pet”.
At the moment the only provision for animals is in one section of the Family Violence Protection Act, which recognises that injuring or killing an animal or threatening the same, is recognised as family violence, but the law stops there. It just doesn’t go far enough.
Our current laws don’t offer companion animals any meaningful protections when it comes to family violence. This is the problem when animals who we recognise as living individuals in society are still considered property in the law.
That’s why today, I am calling for the government to amend Victoria’s laws to:
- Recognise that companion animals are individuals who are directly affected by family violence and deserve protection
- Ensure that the interests of companion animals in family violence situations are a priority and decisions regarding their care and protection are made accordingly
- Ensure risk management frameworks respond to the needs of animals as well as women and children.
A key part of this motion is the transfer of guardianship. Let’s talk about that in practice.
The Act essentially serves humans alone. In the family setting, where people and companion animals share emotionally-meaningful relationships, we need to consider animals differently and not simply return them to their “owner”. Similar to amendments we brought to the Guardianship Act, we are seeking provisions to be made for the care of companion animals directly – acknowledging their intrinsic worth, and not merely their instrumental worth.
If my motion passes, companion animals will be given into the care of a victim-survivor or other appropriate person as independently appointed. This change will allow companion animals to be considered as vulnerable individuals or affected dependents and decisions made accordingly. The animals who we share our homes and lives with deserve to be cared for in a nuanced way, just as we would a vulnerable human.
Here’s another story about why this is just so important. Recently a constituent made contact with our Geelong office from the streets of Melbourne. With her was a family of five – three small children and 2 german shepherds. After several years, she had finally fled from her perpetrator, losing many family animals along the way. The perpetrator would regularly acquire dogs that he would then beat, strangle, taunt, and eventually kill. Each time he was violent to the dogs it was an attempt to gain control. Hill describes this in her book as ‘a pattern of entrapment’. Kate’s exit from this horrific situation only marked the beginning of her struggle.
Kate drifted in and out of homelessness, struggling to secure long term housing. At the time we spoke she was homeless for the fourth time – with a three day wait before pet friendly accommodation was even an option.
She hesitated to report breaches to her intervention order because she knew it would mean leaving her animal family members behind. Rarely will emergency housing provide shelter to companion animals when women are fleeing a violent home. A staggering 48% of women just like Kate aren’t reporting every incident of violence, most because they fear further abuse to themselves and their family. Something must change and I am bringing this motion to trigger that change.
The Family Violence Protection Act 2008 recognises that non-violence is a fundamental social value that must be promoted, that family violence is unacceptable and the impacts are far-reaching. However it fails to recognise animals as victims. It also fails to account for the key roles that family animals play fundamentally because they are deeply meaningful to the humans in the home and therefore used to threaten, intimidate and coerce vulnerable humans.
I want to thank the Minister for Women in the other place, the Attorney General in this place and their incredible staff for listening to the problem, and I hope, working with us on a solution.
By passing this motion today, we will be taking an important first step towards protecting animals in violent homes as well as removing a barrier that makes it difficult to leave. We should pass this motion for Jenna and for Kate, and the countless other women, children and animals who are experiencing the same threats, coercion, violence and trauma right now, as I speak here in parliament.
There are many differing views in this place. But I believe this motion is one that will unite us and receive wide support across the chamber. Thank you.