In May, Dr Anne-Marie Laslett and Professor Angela Taft will participate in our third Bold Thinking Series event, Family violence and alcohol: Where to from here? Tickets for this event are booked out, but you can watch online from 6.30pm on Thursday May 19.
We asked Dr Laslett to talk to us about her research into this important issue.
How big a problem is alcohol in relation to family violence?
Alcohol is a major factor in a substantial proportion of family violence cases. In recent studies, three quarters of Australians reported specific incidents of negative effects from other people’s drinking in the last year. That’s across all walks of life, at home and in the street.
Many of the more serious problems were from people’s closed social networks, often from the household or family members.
Seventeen percent of respondents reported they’d been affected by an intimate partner or another relative in the family. That’s 2.8 million Australians.
In 2011, around 30,000 incidents of alcohol-related family or domestic violence were reported to police in four states. So alcohol was involved in around 35-42% of all domestic violence cases. It’s a major problem
When we talk about family violence and alcohol, are we talking about people with a chronic dependence on alcohol or other types of drinking?
In our surveys – one in 2008 and the follow up in 2011 – we spoke with people affected by others’ drinking. When we asked who was affecting them, the answer was commonly people who drank three times a week, but pretty heavily; more than ten drinks in each heavy-drinking session.
That was the person who caused the most harm – heavy episodic drinkers; what we would know as binge drinkers. That can cause more problems potentially than people who are dependent on alcohol. But some people were also adversely affected by the drinking of people who drank less than this.
How are children negatively affected by drinking?
Alcohol doesn’t cause violence, child abuse or neglect, but it’s a significant factor in how the harms come to be. It makes violence worse: it causes arguments and means people don’t carry out the roles they’re supposed to around the home.
All of these little issues build and can result in substantial tension within families. They can cause separations as well as family violence. There’s a whole range of problems that can occur.
For kids in particular, heavy drinking is not really compatible with parenting. If you think about it, it seems really obvious: you aren’t as coordinated, you aren’t as responsive, you aren’t as available if you’re drinking. You’re not there for your kids. You can’t protect them and supervise them and play with them in the same way if you’re drinking too much.
When anybody drinks, they lose coordination, they’re not as responsive as they might usually be, they say things they wouldn’t normally say. Kids end up being unsupervised or not supervised well. They’re left in unsafe situations. They’re driven by people who are drunk. They can be emotionally affected; they can be yelled at and put down and sworn at.
They can also be physically hurt – both intentionally and unintentionally. In more serious incidents, there’ve been drownings and injuries when responsibility is diffuse in party situations or in the home.
Children can also be affected by siblings. They can be neglected or ignored or put second, and financially disadvantaged. Children are also exposed to the intimate partner violence of people in relationships within the household.
If you look across the lifecycle, foetal alcohol syndrome is a problem prior to children being born. When kids are toddlers, supervision is critical. There may be alcohol-related poisoning if children are able to access alcohol. There’s also modelling effects in the longer run, where children see their parents drinking and it becomes more acceptable.
How much of a factor is Australia’s drinking culture?
We see alcohol in pretty much all aspects of social life in Australia. It’s part of our celebrations, it’s part of times when we’re grieving. It’s there at school events like movie nights. Parents can go home and grab a drink to relax. It’s omnipresent.
Some people think the answer is a Mediterranean drinking culture, where wine is watered down and introduced to kids when they’re younger and they drink it sensibly.
But in Australia, we’ve overlaid that Mediterranean drinking culture with an Anglo-Celtic, heavy drinking, binge drinking culture, which means the drinking might not be as sensible.
Does this drinking culture exist across all age groups?
To be honest, young people are drinking a lot more sensibly than they have in previous generations. We’re not sure if it’s their attitudes, the way they’re spending their leisure time, a reaction against their own parents’ drinking that they see on a daily basis, or what it is. They still drink more heavily than the 55+ age group, but we’re seeing young people generally drinking in much more sensible ways.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens as these young people age, whether they’ll continue to have those drinking patterns. There tends to be waves and troughs of drinking patterns over time anyway, but this does seem to be a sustained increase in abstinence.
Australians sometimes seem suspicious of people who don’t drink. Is it more difficult to abstain from alcohol in that environment?
Young people will often abstain while they’re on their P plates, and if they are playing computer or other games that aren’t compatible with drinking: it diminishes response time.
Is much known about the interplay between alcohol and people’s mental or emotional states?
There are different theories about how alcohol acts. It can increase the severity of the violence and it can act as a trigger for the violence, but there will be other factors involved. Often there can be concurrent mental health issues. Gender is a huge factor, as is power and the way that people are controlled in relationships. Disposition comes into play.
There is disinhibition and expectation of being less controlled when we drink. It becomes about ‘me’ – ‘I can sit and relax’. You can ignore what’s going on around you and feel good, but there are consequences for that. You might not notice you’re going to accidentally bump into somebody else or accidentally spill your drink over somebody. That can flare up, and before you know it, it’s initiated violence.
Some interesting work has been done around women in domestic violence situations who know that when their partner is not drinking, they’re okay. But once their partner starts to drink, he gets more violent and they become afraid. These women know they’ve got to find strategies to protect themselves and their children.
That’s the hint that alcohol has a role. Whether that’s because they’ve become disinhibited or because that’s just the pattern that they’ve got into – it’s never an excuse, but does the perpetrator view it that way? I’m not sure.
A lot of drinking happens in the home. How can excessive drinking and its consequences be addressed here?
We don’t want increased control of individuals in the home. It wouldn’t work. We’re not supervised. We’re free and relaxed and that’s great, but when it becomes a problem, it’s a much more difficult problem to address. I guess that’s why we’re having this conversation.
It’s very cheap to drink at home, and there are no controls there. No responsible service policies occur in family life. Within families, there aren’t many controls apart from those you introduce yourself. So how do we change attitudes?
One thing is to make alcohol more expensive. We’ve found that increasing the price means people drink less, which might have flow-on effects to fewer problems. It’s one intervention that decreases harm across the community and it’s relatively easy.
It’s important to consider that alcohol is a driver of many incidents of harm. It’s a factor in around a third of child protection cases, and around 40% of domestic violence cases. If we can diminish problematic alcohol consumption, we’re going to make the lives of those children and families better.
What do you think will be the impact of the Royal Commission into Family Violence?
My hope for the Royal Commission is that it pays attention to the most serious cases, but also tries to prevent the earlier issues before they become the most serious cases.
If you can intervene early with support and treatment, it doesn’t escalate to the worst situation. If you have single parent pensions while funding maternal and child health care, and positive parenting programs linked to alcohol and drug support services, people can be in a less vulnerable position.
You can also include more restrictive alcohol policies that increase price and perhaps decrease the number of bottle shops, to create a safer environment for everyone.
If you can budget for primary, secondary and tertiary interventions, we’ll have a system that’s better able to prevent more of the worst cases occurring. It will make life and community better for more kids and families.
With the Bold Thinking event Family violence and alcohol: Where to from here? what are you hoping audiences will take away from the conversation?
If people’s attitudes towards drinking can become more moderate, and support changes that increase the likelihood that people drink less, there’ll be fewer problems for children and for families.
Dr Laslett’s fellow speaker in May is Professor Angela Taft who has also written on this important issue. You can read her piece on The Drum, Shining a light on alcohol and violence at home, co-written with Ingrid Wilson.
To see Dr Laslett, Professor Angela Taft, Clementine Ford and Victoria Police Deputy Commissioner Wendy Steendam discuss these issues, live stream the Bold Thinking series event Family Violence and Alcohol: Where to From Here?