NZ's shame: The regions where family violence is highest

The AM Show 26/11/2019

New figures show the number of investigations into domestic violence are on track to hit the highest levels ever in several parts of the country.

Statistics obtained by Newshub through the Official Information Act show that Counties Manukau, the Central region, Canterbury, Bay of Plenty and Waikato are all on track to record the highest number of family harm investigations.

From January to September this year, 19,049 family harm cases were recorded by police in Counties Manukau, not far off the 21,108 recorded for all last year. In the Central area there were 12,941 cases; 12,817 in Canterbury; 12,634 in Bay of Plenty; and 12,192 in Waikato.

Meanwhile, prosecutions are worryingly low. 

From January to September this year only 8 percent of investigations in Counties Manukau ended in a prosecution.

The Bay of Plenty was a little better, but still just 14 percent. 

When it comes to the murder rate for family members and ex-partners, the number is 21 as of September - that's more than 2 per month, and the highest rate since 2015.

Ruth Money, a victims' advocate, says domestic violence is an "epidemic" in New Zealand. 

"Every five weeks we lose a child," Money told The AM Show on Tuesday morning.

We've got 21 partners murdered to date in New Zealand.

Money says the figures fail to show casualties from the "ripple effect" of family violence, including suicides. 

"No one is counting the total toll of family violence - not family harm, family violence - in New Zealand," she says.

Although the figures are concerning, she believes the higher numbers are also due to more people asking for help. 

Assistant Commissioner Sandra Venables says police deal with more than 100,000 cases of family violence per year - which works out at a call every three minutes.

"What we are seeing is an increase in calls to service, which is exactly what we do want to see," she told The AM Show. 

"If there's sufficient evidence for prosecution we absolutely should be and do prosecute. But like I said it's complex."

Of the 123,823 family harm investigations reported from January to September this year, there were just 12,784 that ended in prosecutions. 

Venables echoed Money's view that more victims are speaking out than in the past.

"We've always had high rates of violence within our families but I think that we're hearing about it more," she said.

"We're finding that both perpetrators and victims are calling us sooner - in some cases before an offense has even occurred."

When asked if that meant if police are becoming more like counsellors than frontline officers, Venables said that's a small price to pay.

"Every police officer across New Zealand wants to prevent harm and however we can do that, and if it means that we have to work differently, to provide that service and keep people safe, that's what we'll do."

But Money says the problem of domestic violence needs to be addressed before the police become involved.

Police do an amazing job. If anything they need more resources in the community.

"Family violence is such a complex beast and there's absolutely no point just going in when there's a violent situation, removing someone for a cool-down period and then sending them back to the home."

She says a variety of pressures are adding to the strain, and that prosecution should only be used as a last resource.

"There are so many welfare pressures, budget pressures, anger management problems. Back in the day if we had a problem we could access free relationship counselling. We can't do that anymore. So there needs to be a social and human-based response, not just a prosecution-based response," she says.

"Until we start doing that and we resource the communities properly it will continue to happen. It's intergenerational - our children are learning really bad, unhealthy behaviours."

Although waiting until police are required may not be the ultimate answer, Venables insists no one should hesitate  to call police if they are fearful of their safety.

"If there are people watching this today and they are in a relationship where they are facing harm or coercion and control, we'd like to hear from them, absolutely, and we'll do everything we can to help them."

The AM Show / Newshub reporter James Fyfe