The family violence response system – for disability advocates


Warning – The content in this short course maybe distressing or raise issues of concern for some learners. We recognise that family violence is a common experience so if at any time you need support contact 1800 RESPECT.


This short course provides an overview of the family violence response system in Victoria. People with disability in Australia experience family violence at rates much higher than people without disability. It is essential that they have access to mainstream specialised family violence response services. The course covers:

  • What family violence is, 
  • Red flags that indicate family violence for your clients, 
  • What legal options are available, and 
  • Where to go for support and assistance for people with disability. 

The content is based on Advocacy Sector Conversation forum session on Family Violence Response and People with Disability in 2022, hosted by Jen Hargrave  from Women with Disabilities Victoria. 



Did you know?

21% (1.2 million) of adults with disability have experienced intimate partner violence, compared with 13% (1.7 million) without disability.

What is family violence?

“Family violence” includes hitting or pushing, threats to hurt, forcing someone to have sex, name calling or making someone feel worthless. It includes controlling access to money, controlling who someone sees and what someone does. It also includes making someone feel scared or unsafe. Family violence includes abuse in any one of the following areas:

  • Physical
  • Psychological
  • Stalking – including the use of tracking devices
  • Financial
  • Emotional
  • Spiritual

The definition includes intimate partners, ex partners, relatives and the children who normally live with the relevant person. The definition also includes “family like” relationships.  “Family like” relationships are those where the social and emotional ties between the people are like family.  To be like family, the people do not have to live together.  They might have frequent contact or they might be socially regarded as being like family to each other.  The relationship might have forms of dependence or interdependence.

Victoria has a Family Violence Protection Act which protects the rights of all Victorians from family violence. The purpose of the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 (Vic) is to:

  • maximise safety for children and adults who have experienced family violence
  • prevent and reduce family violence to the greatest extent possible
  • promote the accountability of perpetrators of family violence for their actions. 

Disability based family violence

Disability based family violence is family violence that uses a person’s disability against them as a way to initiate, maintain or extend the family violence.  Examples include:

  • over medicating someone so they are not as alert or aware,
  • under medicating someone so that they become increasingly unwell,
  • withholding, breaking or hiding mobility aids,
  • withholding or controlling when services can enter the home or whether they can enter the home at all.

Additionally, people with disability face systemic barriers and ableism when it comes to family violence.

Systemic barriers are barriers in the family violence system that lead to inaccessible services for people with disability. Some examples of systemic barriers in the family violence system might include:

  • A deaf person only able to access a service that can only be accessed by telephone
  • A person with cognitive disability unable to access information about the service because there is no information available in plain or easy English format
  • There is no accessible entry points into buildings for safe spaces for people with physical disability using mobility aids.
  • There is no transport available in a crisis situation for a person who uses an electric wheelchair.

Ableism exists in the family violence system where there are such barriers that exist that do not consider the needs of people with disability because of an unconscious, or sometimes conscious, belief that people with disability do not need to be kept safe and do not need to have happy relationships.

Indicators of family violence.

How do you know if someone you’re working with, someone you know, or a loved one is potentially at risk of being harmed through family violence?  It can be difficult to spot if someone is potentially being affected by family violence; they can become really careful of hiding the effects. They can sometimes feel a sense of guilt, shame and embarrassment of what is happening to them which can make it difficult to spot and to assist them.

Some potential red flags to look for:

  • Evidence of injuries
  • Threats to animals (e.g. to family pets)
  • Access to a weapon
  • Threats to harm
  • Pregnancy and birth (e.g. a perpetrator can feel threatened and seek to re-exert control over their partners)
  • Someone makes a decision to leave a relationship
  • Changes in personality
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Someone who’s making decisions on their behalf
  • Sudden financial issues
Responding to family violence disclosure
  1. Listen – Listen to the person closely, with empathy and without judgement
  2. Inquire – Inquire about their needs and concerns. Assess and respond to their needs and concerns. 
  3. Validate – Show that you understand and believe that person. Assure the person that they are not to blame.
  4. Support – Help them to connect to information, services and support. If possible initiate a referral with them. You can find out about support services that are available in the section below.
  5. Enhance safety – If appropriate, discuss a plan to protect themselves and their children from further harm.

Learn more about responding

1800 Respect website has excellent information on how to respond - Introduction to responding

Support services

It is important as advocates you know where your client can go for support. Below are five of the support services available, click each tab to learn more.

Case Study – Mavis

Let’s look at how family violence law works with a case study.

Mavis recently left her husband George.  There was a history of family violence in their marriage, including psychological abuse and economic abuse.  Following the birth of their child, Sally, the violence escalated and became physical.  Mavis, who you’re working with and advocating for, tells you that her husband, George, threatened to contact child protection if she ever left him. Furthermore, following their separation George has also lost his job.

Look at each questions below, and have a go at answering them yourself before you click for the answers enclosed.

Some of the red flags in this situation include – a recent separation, the escalation of family violence to physical violence, George has lost his job so there’s economic uncertainty, and there are threats to call child protection. 

An immediate response might be contacting the police and taking out an intervention order that protects Mavis and Sally from George.

Mavis needs legal advice about what her options are under family law.  Under family law in parenting matters George does not have rights.  He’s got responsibilities as a parent and it’s Sally, their baby, who has the right to have a meaningful relationship with her parents, provided it’s safe.

Mavis is also worried that George is going to contact child protection and really start a process that removes Sally from Mavis’ care.  Mavis needs legal advice to know how likely this is and also what protective measures Mavis can take so that child protection won’t become involved.

Mavis has no access to finances or money.  She needs legal advice about her entitlements under a property settlement.  If Mavis was to divorce George she would only have 12 months to access the Family Court.  So getting this legal advice early at the time of separation, before a divorce happens, is very important.

Mavis is also a victim of a crime.  George has been physically violent towards her.  She may have eligibility under the victims of crime assistance tribunal.  That’s very important that she lodges that application within two years of that act of violence occurring.

If Mavis didn’t seek legal advice she may not know that she has a right to obtain an intervention order to protect herself and Sally against George.  Without that intervention order there could be a flow on effect where George could attend the childcare and collect Sally because nothing would be preventing him from doing so.

Mavis may not understand that she doesn’t actually have to allow George to see Sally.  In turn, child protection may become involved as they say Mavis is not acting protectively.  She’s not protecting Sally from George.  This is the worst case scenario.

Also Mavis may not know her entitlements to money and items to assist her in recovery through victims of crime and she may also not seek any entitlements under a property settlement.  So she may be financially worse off.

To access the Women’s Legal Service Mavis must be referred by an advocate, because unfortunately clients cannot directly call the Women’s Legal Service to self-refer.  They operate on a worker referral service.

Orange Door – specialised in take service for family violence and child wellbeing.  They are a referral point for all families, children, older people experiencing family violence.

Safe Steps – is a 24hour, seven days a week service statewide and the Orange Door works very closely with Safe Steps.  They’re a crisis support for women and children experiencing family violence.


Support services for people with disability experience family violence is improving, but there may be times where you still need to be advocating that your client does need a face to face outreach session or your client does need longer appointment times, or maybe that risk assessment wasn’t done appropriately and needs to be done again under better, more conductive situations.

Disability advocates don’t have to be so alone in thinking about what they can do for their clients, they are able to have expectations that the family violence service system will be there for them.




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