Review into stalking and harassment: an Alannah & Madeline Foundation response

in News

The Alannah & Madeline Foundation welcomes the recent announcement of a review into Victoria's legal responses to stalking, harassment and similar conduct, with a focus on the safety and wellbeing of victim survivors.

Children are victimised by stalking in the context of family violence.

Stalking occurs commonly as part of family violence, and many victims of family violence are children.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics found that: 

  • One in eight Australian adults experienced abuse when they were children.
  • One in eight Australian women and one in 10 Australian men recalled witnessing relationship violence towards their mother when they were children.
  • Four in 10 women who experienced violence from a partner had children in their care at the time.

Being exposed to violence puts children at risk of psychological, developmental or behavioural problems which, if not addressed early, can carry over into their adult lives.

However, children’s experiences of family violence are often obscured and their voices unheard. Due to ethical challenges for researchers and the structure of the family violence service system (set up originally with adults as the primary clients), we don’t know enough about the extent and nature of children’s exposure to family violence.

We believe it is important to recognise children as victims, with their own needs and perspectives.

More research is needed into the stalking of children within family violence, but the existing scholarship shows how damaging the experience can be.

Qualitative studies in Denmark and Finland found that while mothers were the primary targets, their children were also harmed: stalked themselves, subjected to threats and violence, and coerced or manipulated into spying and informing on their mothers.

The children showed high rates of trauma and a range of social, emotional and physical harms. The stalking constrained their lives and affected their relationships with their mothers. The researchers stressed that it was important to view children as victimised themselves, needing safe environments and interventions to address their trauma and help them build supportive social relationships.

The near-ubiquitous reach of digital technologies into children’s lives has given rise to new concerns.

Studies by the Office of the eSafety Commissioner and the Women’s Services Network, based on surveys of hundreds of Australian family violence practitioners, found there has been a sharp rise in tech-facilitated abuse involving children, especially stalking.

The Office of the eSafety Commisioner estimated that over a quarter of domestic violence cases now include tech-facilitated abuse of children, with stalking the most common activity. While the main target is usually the child’s mother, the stalking also severely impacts children’s mental health, relationships and daily lives.

When asked how often perpetrators gave children tech devices in order to monitor and abuse their mothers, and how often perpetrators contacted their ex-partners using their children’s social media, two-thirds of family violence practitioners said these things happened ‘often’ or ‘all the time’.

Other common stalking behaviours included:

  • monitoring children’s messages
  • making children share passwords
  • impersonating other people online in order to contact their children
  • using video calls to coerce or manipulate children into revealing information about their mothers’ location and activities.

Lockdowns may have made it worse.

These behaviours may have worsened during COVID-19 lockdowns, with children reliant on digital technologies for education and social connections.

Practitioners called for:

  • better professional support for family violence practitioners about safety planning, risk assessment and support for women and children in relation to tech-facilitated abuse
  • better understanding by police and legal professionals about tech-facilitated abuse, its impacts on children, and how to respond
  • access to free or affordable tech devices for children escaping family violence, to help them avoid using devices paid for and controlled by perpetrator
  • screening tools for professionals which ask explicitly about tech-facilitated abuse
  • protection orders which address tech-facilitated abuse explicitly and comprehensively
  • upskilling police to better support victims of family violence about cyber security
  • dedicated teams in telcos to help clients escaping family violence.

 

 

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