Family Matters No. 96 - June 2015

Institute seminars

Building evidence to support the reduction of violence against women and children

Heather Nancarrow

Seminar held at the Institute on 11 September 2014
Summary by Alister Lamont and Lan Wang

Heather Nancarrow is the CEO of the newly established Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety (ANROWS). In this seminar, she discussed the key roles and responsibilities of ANROWS, with a particular focus centred on the role it will have in the 2nd Action Plan (called Moving Ahead) of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-22 (see <tinyurl.com/p4dd9xe> for more information).

The main purpose of ANROWS is to lead national efforts to enhance the evidence base in the areas of domestic violence and sexual assault across research, education and service delivery organisations, to support the National Plan. Developing an evidence base and having that implemented or translated into policy and practice is the main priority. In discussing this, Ms Nancarrow highlighted that the most important aspect of translating research into policy and practice is ensuring that the research is presented in an accessible way.

ANROWS also aims to influence the broader research agenda across related areas, such as homelessness and child protection, so that the intersections of those issues and family and sexual violence are informed by evidence from research.

As such, the organisation focuses on providing authoritative research to a broad audience and does not operate as a lobby or campaign group. While it will still have a strong media presence, its contributions will always be evidence-based.

Ms Nancarrow identified networking between different sectors as a key aspect of ANROWS work. To facilitate this, a networking database has been established, which is similar to a "matchmaking" database where people can find each other, including researchers, policy makers and practitioners who are interested in particular pieces of research and forming teams to apply for grants.

ANROWS also identifies gaps in our knowledge and skills base in specific areas, and supports the development of capacity to fill these gaps. Ms Nancarrow acknowledged that identifying and employing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander to join the staff has been challenging and they are exploring effective ways to do so.

Ms Nancarrow discussed ANROWS' first major task set out under the National Plan - developing a National Research Agenda. She highlighted that the agenda was formed around four strategic research themes: experience and impacts; gender inequality and primary prevention; service responses; and interventions and systems. The National Research Agenda was launched on 16 May 2014 and, as well as informing the development of the ANROWS research program, it also provides a framework for, and guidance on, priority areas of research and research themes for academics, researchers, organisations and governments across Australia.

One project that is underway is a collaboration with VicHealth and Our WATCh that is contributing to the development of a national framework for primary prevention. ANROWS is also undertaking work in developing a better understanding of and best practice in knowledge translation and exchange, and is working with the Centre for Domestic and Family Violence Research in Queensland to produce a paper on the state of best practice in judicial education. The organisation is also working collaboratively with the Closing the Gap Clearinghouse and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal And Torres Strait Islander Studies to learn what works in reducing violence in Indigenous communities.

Other areas of specific focus include supporting children who have been exposed to violence, improving the evidence base on perpetrator interventions, and promoting service integration.

In mid- to late 2014, ANROWS conducted its first round of grants applications, with assessment panels ranking the applications according to their merit and how closely they related to the research priorities identified in the National Research Agenda. Ms Nancarrow was very pleased with the diversity of projects and the engagement, collaboration and enthusiasm of the applicants. Future developments for the organisation include holding a conference in 2016 and contributing to annual roundtables convened by the Australian Government.

Walking the line: Research, advocacy and impact

Professor Kelley Johnson

Seminar held at the Institute on 9 October 2014
Report by Katharine Day and Lan Wang

Professor Johnson is the Director of the Social Policy Research Centre (SPRC) at the University of New South Wales. In this seminar, she examined how the work of applied researchers in the area of families and social policy can lead to positive change in the wellbeing of people. She noted that there are also pressures on researchers that make it difficult to advocate for or further develop the outcomes from the research. Professor Johnson explored the nature of some of these pressures and drew on case studies of research with people with disabilities, in both Australia and overseas, to identify some of the ways in which research can be used to support better outcomes and increased possibilities for social change.

Professor Johnson began by asking a series of questions: Why do we do research? What do we mean by advocacy and impact? What are the different ways in which they are defined? Is this important and if so, why and to whom? What are the dilemmas involved and how do we manage them?

She suggested that researchers make assumptions that everyone is working from a similar set of values. She discussed the dilemmas for researchers in terms of advocacy and the current research environment, with researchers mostly applying for tenders and having to work to deadlines and in particular ways. She noted the difficulty of completing large research projects and finding support for long-term research. Another dilemma is that often the research is inaccessible to many people, and in particular the people who are the focus of the research.

She also mentioned the issues around credibility and objectivity in research where there is an advocacy element or a goal. On this Professor Johnson argued that researchers must advocate on the basis of their research, whether or not they offend the funders, the government, or the research council or whoever has funded the research. Researchers must not be directed by their fear of losing their funding. She believes the bigger danger would be to start to write in ways that researchers know will be acceptable to the people with power so that research becomes "blanded out". The importance of research is not just that it is published but that it is done in ways that make a public debate happen, which can then bring about change.

On this point, researchers are being put under increasing pressure to ensure their research has an effect. Professor Johnson explained that in the UK now the government has decided on a research excellence framework through which all universities have to go. Researchers have to prove that their research has had an effect in the community, and the government has decided on an impact measure of 25%. Measuring research takes it within a policy environment concerned with evidence in terms of measurement. She thinks this can encourage good quantitative research, but stresses the need for good qualitative research as well.

So how do researchers deal with these dilemmas? Professor Johnson used case studies from her own research to show how researchers can manage these dilemmas by taking a different approach. She talked about a particular series of projects she was involved with about sexuality and relationships among people with intellectual disabilities in Ireland. In Ireland there exists a law, the Criminal Law Sexual Offences Act 1992, which states that unless people with an intellectual disability or mental health issues are living totally independently in the community, they are only allowed to have sex with someone to whom they are married. This has made support providers reluctant to support relationships among those under their care, while many of those with intellectual disabilities remain unaware of the law. A group of people with intellectual disabilities were involved in a national study with a university and a service provider organisation that looked at these issues around sexuality and relationships. They shared their own stories about their experiences together and the resulting report talked about what they wanted and how they felt about this law. It was picked up by national radio and the result was that for the first time in Ireland people with intellectual disabilities were consulted by the Law Reform Commission about changing the law and, in June 2014, a Private Members' Bill was put forward to change the law.

Professor Johnson used this example to show that when people's voices are heard strongly through research, they have credibility and they can advocate more powerfully than through written research alone. She concluded by stressing to researchers the equal importance of developing networks with those who have power and with private organisations, as well as linking with individuals and small groups.

Forced adoption: Righting wrongs of a dark past

The Hon. Professor Nahum Mushin

Seminar held at the Institute on 12 November 2014
Report by Alister Lamont and Lan Wang

The Hon. Professor Nahum Mushin is an Adjunct Professor of Law at Monash University. In this seminar, he discussed the process leading up to the National Apology on Forced Adoption by the then Prime Minister Julia Gillard MP on 21 March 2013. Professor Mushin outlined the tasks of the Working Group he chaired in developing the apology and recommending measures to improve services to those affected by forced adoption, and what additional lessons can be learned from past adoption practices.

Professor Mushin gave a brief history of forced adoption practices - which he describes as "a dark past in Australia's history" - and identified why such practices required a national apology. Overall, it is estimated that about a quarter of a million forced adoptions took place from about 1940, with the peak period occurring from the early 1950s to the early 1970s, during which approximately 150,000 such adoptions took place.

Young unmarried pregnant women were encouraged or forced to "give up" their babies for adoption, often without the support of their families or society in general.

The experience of the mothers "giving up" their babies was often harrowing, with many:

  • not being informed of their right to revoke consent;
  • given no independent advice or representation (most mothers were underage); and
  • not being permitted to see their babies after birth (with some being drugged or tied to the bed, or having sheets obscuring baby).

The effects of such practices extend far and wide and have affected so many people, from mothers, children, adopted parents, fathers, other siblings and extended family.

The National Apology Reference Group was established by the then Attorney-General, the Hon. Nicola Roxon MP, in June-July 2012. The primary purpose of the group was to draft the apology, which they delivered to the Attorney-General in December 2012. The group included Prof. Mushin, three Senators, and seven mothers, fathers and adoptees who had been affected by forced adoption (including one member of the House of Representatives). They travelled around Australia to conduct extensive, confidential consultations in every capital city except Darwin.

Professor Mushin highlighted that the key difficulties in drafting the apology were the structure, the language used, and dealing with key sensitivities. The Reference Group asked to whom we are apologising, and for what, as well as considering the issue of offering rather than giving an apology. Drawing on the work of the Law Commission of Canada, they recognised five steps to an apology:

  • acknowledging the wrong;
  • accepting responsibility;
  • expressing sincere regret;
  • assuring that the wrongs will not recur; and
  • providing reparation through concrete measures.

The group was particularly focused on making sure the language used was right. For example, "mother", "father" and "experiences" were preferred over such terms as "birth mother", "biological mother", "relinquishing mother", "biological father" and "stories". Prof. Mushin was also firm that the word "illegal" should be included in the apology (and it was), because if the law had been complied with in all its aspects with regard to consent, providing independent advice and the support of guardians to these underaged people, arguably the adoptions would not have been forced.

It was also decided not to include adoptive parents in the apology because of the difficulties arising from what is often great enmity between mothers and adopting parents. Prof. Mushin said that it is very important to resolve this issue to bring closure to the many people affected by this.

The Forced Adoptions Implementation Working Group has been dealing with the concrete measures proposed in the apology. The Australian Government allocated $11.5 million to a range of services for supporting those affected by forced adoptions. These include mental health services and the harmonisation of records such as birth certificates. The National Archives of Australia has also developed an extensive website resource as part of the Forced Adoptions History Project <forcedadoptions.naa.gov.au>. However, the funding for these measures was only for four years.

Prof. Mushin concluded with a summary of the some of the issues that are still to be debated at length, including the issues of inter-country adoption, the notion of the abolition of adoption altogether, and surrogacy.

Harm reduction and gambling: Building the evidence for policy development

Anna Thomas

Seminar held at the Institute on 24 February 2015
Report by Marissa Dickins and Sophie Vasiliadis

In this seminar, Dr Anna Thomas, Manager and Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Gambling Research Centre <aifs.gov.au/agrc> examined harm reduction interventions in the gambling space.

Dr Thomas outlined Australia's participation in gambling, highlighting the fact that not all gambling is equal. The forms of gambling most associated with harm include electronic gambling machines (EGMs or "pokies") and race betting, with online sports betting becoming a growing area of concern. She pointed out that while the proportion of the population who gamble has reduced, the raw number of people who gamble has remained relatively stable, as has the proportion of income that is spent on gambling.

Dr Thomas explained that the emphasis on problem gamblers has been too narrow, as even a single episode of gambling could cause harm in the form of monetary issues, such as being unable to pay bills. The harms associated with problem gambling, including relationship, health, monetary and legal problems, are extensive and pervasive. Gambling harms also affect those around the gambler, and the secondary harms to family members, friends, and workplaces have received little attention in research, policy and treatment.

Dr Thomas then discussed the findings of two evaluations of regulatory interventions. The first evaluated the effects of the removal of automated teller machines (ATMs) from gaming venues, and the second examined the potential effects of a pre-commitment system

Removal of ATMs from gaming venues

From 1 July 2012, the Victorian government introduced a prohibition on ATMs inside or around Victorian gaming venues. This regulation was supported by considerable evidence that those who experience problems are more likely to access ATMs at gambling venues to fund their gambling, and that both gambling counsellors and those experiencing gambling problems report that easy access to money in venues is an important contributor to gambling issues.

The evaluation found that with ATMs removed, gamblers felt more in control, and that more than 50% of moderate- and high-risk gamblers, and 30% of no- or low-risk gamblers, were supported in managing their gambling-related spend. Some individuals circumvented the intervention by planning ahead (e.g., bringing additional gambling money) or withdrawing money using EFTPOS. While using EFTPOS facilities involved staff interaction and the potential for staff intervention, some gamblers were not dissuaded. This intervention, however, resulted in an average aggregate downturn in revenue of up to 8%, and some reduction in EGM patronage.

The findings of this study show that greater control and reduced potential for harm was experienced by higher risk gamblers through two harm-reduction strategies - moderation of an environmental feature and enhancement of consumer capacity for informed choice.

Pre-commitment system

Pre-commitment requires gaming venue patrons to make decisions about their gambling spend before they begin, and helps them stick to their decisions. There is a significant level of evidence behind pre-commitment systems that shows that gamblers often struggle to keep to their limits and frequently underestimate how much money they have spent. While there are different ways to set up such a system, there are two broad approaches: a "full" system (where gamblers are required to register and use the system to gamble) or a "partial" system (where registration and use of the system is optional).

The review of the evidence into pre-commitment systems indicated that regardless of the approach, pre-commitment is useful for those who use it, including reductions in time and money spent gambling. It was found that the most important factors are simplicity and ease of use.

Pre-commitment was found to operate in two ways to reduce harm: through providing gamblers with an enhanced capacity for informed choice, and by being a way to moderate a risky feature of the gambling environment.

Dr Thomas finished by highlighting the fact that while gambling is an accepted activity within Australia, it is a potentially harmful one. Harm reduction requires continual improvement, and the role of government is to balance consumer and community protection and personal choice. In order to support the role of government, it is essential for policy-relevant research to be conducted to underpin policy development.

Selected audio recordings and transcripts of AIFS seminars are available at <aifs.gov.au/events>.