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Jo Cavanagh on family violence and Rosie Batty

19 February 2015

Jo Cavanagh

Jo Cavanagh is one of our Australian Financial Review and Westpac 100 Women of Influence for 2014. She has been CEO of the Victorian based social enterprise Family Life for 20 years. One of the organisation's four service centres is in Frankston and is part of the community there. It is the same community from which Australian of the Year Rosie Batty comes.

Rosie’s story - in which her ex-husband murdered her son while on an access visit – exemplifies the extreme end of family violence. Her story touches the heart of the community because, according to Jo, “Rosie cuts through the sort of dismissive statements people make who don't want to engage with what is a very serious issue. Statements like, ‘why don’t women just leave’, fail to understand the complexity and risk.”

As Jo points out, it was Rosie’s kindness toward her ex-husband and son that led to the situation in which he exercised his ultimate choice in what he intended to do. Out of that tragedy Rosie has become a game changer for people experiencing family violence.

Rosie also represents the in congruency of politics. She is the articulate face of family violence, used by many politicians who may want to hitch themselves to the bandwagon, and yet government policy, in which many of them play a part, is defunding the very programs and services that can make a difference and change such outcomes.

Recent Victorian research by Professor Thea Brown, Monash University, around parents who intentionally kill their children establishes that there are common factors surrounding people who choose the path.

Separation and relationship breakdown, where one person wants the relationship and the other doesn’t, play a part, as does mental illness. Themes for men tend to be around revenge. For women, it’s the “I don’t want to live anymore and I need to take the children with me to save them”.

“The call out,” says Jo, reflecting on the themes in the work and the work itself, “is to health professionals and other agencies working in the area. We need to equip them with better tools for connecting the signposts. Communication between agencies, which technology facilitates, is so important. The red flags are there but you do have to ask the questions to know the red flags are there. If those flags begin appearing together and people are communicating with one another around the situation, then there are steps you need to take to ensure the safety of children.”

In 2013, the Gillard government announced it was giving victims of domestic violence the right to request changes to their work hours. Workers caring for victims of domestic violence were also able to request flexible hours.

The idea was to give affected employees time to deal with issues such as court orders or counselling or caring for children, etc. As Ludo McFerran, national director of the Safe at Home, Safe at Work project, noted, leave was often being taken out of sick leave She has also noted that paid domestic violence leave is used sparingly, when accessed.

Domestic violence is defined in most corporates, like Westpac, which offer paid domestic violence leave, as including physical, sexual, emotional or financial abuse.

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