In recent years, the growing number of femicides in Austria has sparked a new discussion on domestic violence. One in five women will become a victim of sexual or physical abuse, which makes Austria one of the EU countries with the highest rate of domestic violence.
To explore the reasons for this troubling trend — along with ways to prevent domestic violence, and steps one can take after becoming a victim — I interviewed Anna Rechbach, who has been a social worker in Austria for over 17 years. As this is a very sensitive topic, the interview mainly focused on prevention and help for the victims, and trying to get rid of stigma surrounding the topic.
Question: Before we begin talking about domestic violence, can you tell me about your career in social work?
Anna Rechbach: I have been a social worker since 2002, and I have worked in different sectors. Now I am working for the district commission, that is an administrative agency, and I am responsible for social matters — mainly for adults, but also for children and youth aid.
Q: As a social worker – what are the demographics of the clients you work with?
AR: I work with people from all different ages, so from zero until death. This includes work with a wide spectrum of all different kinds of people.
Q: What is the reason most of these people need your help?
AR: Very different reasons. From financial problems, so not being able to pay bills like electricity. Oftentimes troubles with parenting in the sector of youth aid. Schools or kindergartens or neighbours often contact us when they suspect a threat for children, and we also offer consulting services when it comes to domestic violence or abuse.
Q: On the topic of domestic violence – according to the numbers published by the Austrian Women Shelters (Österreichische Frauenhäuser), every fifth woman in Austria becomes a victim of physical or sexual violence. Austria is therefore one of the EU countries with the most victims of domestic violence. Can you see an explanation for why so many women in Austria are victims of violence?
AR: Why the number is higher in Austria than in other European countries is difficult to determine. It probably has a lot to do with the general position of women in Austria. Oftentimes women are responsible for bringing their kids up, oftentimes still financially dependent on the husband. Even though that is getting better, there are still a lot of people living in these conservative constellations.
Q: In case one becomes a victim of domestic violence, where can you seek out for help in Austria?
AR: You can contact us, so the district commission – the children and youth aid. And first of all, of course, the police. We as an institution would also refer to the police or to the Protection against Violence Centre (Gewaltschutzzentrum) in Austria. There are hotlines for women and additionally 15 Women Shelters, where woman affected by domestic violence can go to. We would also advise Women to go there.
Q: So, the first step would be to call the police?
AR: Yes. We as social workers would give the affected woman information and try to determine which measures are necessary. Sometimes it is enough to provide information, sometimes it is necessary that we have to examine the situation closer, and go to their homes and see what else we can do. It is very different from case to case.
Q: After having called the police, what are the juristic possibilities for an affected person?
AR: That is also very different from case to case. First of all, the police can impose an expulsion order of the person who committed violent actions towards someone at home. That means that even though the person might not be living there or be registered in the house, the police can expel the person for six months. That would be an immediate measure to ensure the affected person’s safety. For further punishment, the victim would have to press charges – what kind of charges that is can be worked out together with the police or the Protection Against Violence Centre. As for the district commission, pressing charges would only fall into our responsibility if there is a child involved and there is a case of a hostile environment or a parent being unfit to look after the child after being affected by domestic violence.
Q: Are most cases of domestic violence reported by the victims themselves?
AR: I do not know the exact numbers, but from my experience, the affected person will oftentimes call the police themselves. And as soon as a child is affected as well, we as social services would get the information from the police, as they are obligated to contact us.
Q: How will the children in these cases be handled?
AR: It can happen that children will be put into foster families, but that happens quite rarely – only in very severe cases, where the affected person cannot provide protection. Then it is necessary to relocate the child, at least until protection can be provided again. We would first see if there are any relatives or friends that could take the child in, though. Oftentimes, the parent affected by domestic violence could still take care of the child, so we would not just relocate it unless there is a severe reason for that.
Q: How will a person who has gone through domestic violence get help, psychologically speaking?
AR: There are possibilities of seeking psychological help at the Protection Against Violence Centre, but I do not know what their concrete offers are. But generally speaking, psychological help can be organized and provided.
Q: What are the difficulties of proving domestic violence in trial?
AR: Generally speaking it is quite difficult to prove, unless you have documented your bruises or the police walked in while the act of violence was happening.
Q: Regarding expulsion from home – you said that it was an immediate measure that can be taken. Is the sole accusation without direct evidence enough to take that measure?
AR: In general, no. But that is handled very differently, depending on the officers that are called to the crime scene. There must be some kind of evidence. Oftentimes, police would arrive at the crime scene during an argument of the people affected, and then they can assess the situation. If one part is very aggressive, it can be enough evidence to get an expulsion. Otherwise only an accusation without evidence will often not be enough, although there are cases.
Q: Would you say that there is a specific demographic of people who are more likely to become violent?
AR: Probably yes. Of course, there is no generalization to be made, but spontaneously I would say the more discontent, the more uneducated one is, with substance abuse, or other addictions that make a life generally more difficult, encourage a propensity to violence. But it, of course, happens in very wealthy and well-educated families as well. I mostly have to work with people that are in some way socially less fortunate. That being work, education, income or living conditions.
Q: How can domestic violence be prevented from happening?
AR: You will probably have to start sensitizing children in kindergarten already. Conflict behavior needs to be taught in school. There needs to be lots of information and a sensitization for every age. That would be necessary.
Q: Concerning the people not directly affected by it, how can people be sensitized for how to react as soon as you suspect someone is being physically abused?
AR: I think that people in the environment of an affected person are oftentimes reserved when it comes to asking if something is going on, or accusing someone of physical abuse, which is understandable for private individuals. Because you do not want to wrongly accuse someone. So it is often handled with great caution. In comparison to institutions such as schools, hospitals are obligated to report it if they suspect a child is being physically abused. A good measure here would be to give out more information as to what happens to the children — for example, that social services would not immediately take the child away from its parents just based on an accusation. It would be good if everyone would have a basic understanding of the possibilities one has when affected by domestic violence.
Q: What happens if you go to a Women’s Shelter?
AR: Women’s shelters are for women in emergency situations. First of all, it is for women who have had sexual or physical violence directed at them and their children. The whole process functions very quickly and is at first also very unbureaucratic. Which means that women can immediately move in there with their children, often for a couple of months, but the stay can be extended for a year. At the Women’s Shelter they will also get support in making plans for the future. Some would eventually go back to their old homes, for others a new apartment would be organized. All in all, a Women’s Shelter can provide support that ranges from psychological to bureaucratic help.
Q: As for the Protection Against Violence Centers, what are their responsibilities?
AR: The Protection Against Violence Centers would be contacted by the police. There are social workers, lawyers, psychotherapists that would immediately work with the victim, within 12-24 hours after the police had been called, and give the affected person information on how to proceed and what her/his possibilities are. They can help with building a case for court for a preliminary injunction or a restraining order, and oftentimes accompany the victim to court hearings. That can take a long time in which the centers stay in contact with the person affected to ensure their wellbeing and safety.