Holding perpetrators to account benefits them, too

We trumpet that violence is “not okay”. But our legal response system regularly dilutes that message by shielding the perpetrator from
real accountability and imposing the burden on his victim
to keep herself safe and silent.

We are good at keeping secrets in this country. We could say that Kiwis are people who like to cover things up – that we care more about reputations than protecting vulnerable people.

Pua Magasiva – a beloved actor and comedian – was also a convicted perpetrator of domestic violence. Now passed in tragic circumstances, this revelation reminds us that yet again, we need to discuss our dirty little secret: domestic violence at our own hands.

Despite his conviction, Mr Magasiva’s name was suppressed by the courts, ostensibly to prevent ‘extreme hardship’ to his victim, children and whānau. And yet, as his wife told a court hearing in September: “If I had … not been silenced, Pua may have gotten the help he needed and I could have a voice.”

By protectingMr Magasiva from the full consequences of his behaviour through name suppression, the justice system wrongly reinforced a message that it’s okay to maintain the secrecy of family violence.When we protect those who use violence, we shield them from taking full responsibility for past behaviours but also their personal responsibility for changing their future behaviours. We undercut their impetus for change by allowing them, at least publicly, to walk in the world as if what had occurred had either not really happened, or had been so trifling as to not warrant public scrutiny.

The burden of silence and shame is carried by the victims
In maintaining a protective silence of perpetrators of violence, we unwittingly increase the risk of ongoing violence towards the victim. The perpetrator knows that while he will have no trouble maintaining the secrecy, he must monitor and keep pressure on his victim to do the same and, in the case of Mr Magasiva, to support his legal efforts to maintain the suppression order.This protection also tacitly sends a message that the reputation, public profile and income-earning potential of the perpetrator are more worthy of protection than the victim herself, and in turn her physical, emotional and financial well-being – and that of her children.

This system relies on victims – on their sense of love and loyalty, their sense of shame and finally on their own finely-tuned tools for self-preservation and safe-space making, which so often are about keeping quiet, silent and not crying out in order to survive. It is not a system that relies on perpetrators to take responsibility and commit to the hard yards of challenging and changing their own behaviours.  

That the suppression order related to a well-known public identity is neither here nor there. We need to accept that those who use violence live among us – they are on our screens, in our communities, living next door to us and are even in our own homes.

Family violence – the big picture
This tragic situation unfortunately typifies the core failings of how we deal with family violence in this country. While we trumpet that it’s “not okay”, through our legal response systems, we then dilute that message by shielding the perpetrator and imposing the burden on his victim to keep herself safe and silent. We talk of safety plans for victims when we should be talking about risk management plans for perpetrators.

While Mr Magasiva’s death is sad for us all and especially for his wife, child and whanāu, it is a direct consequence of a system that continues to send the message that family violence is something that occurs in the shadows, a dirty secret to be kept quiet.

If we are to reduce family violence, we must be prepared to discuss it openly and in an environment where perpetrators receive the clear message that there is no place to hide and victims are reassured that they have nothing they need to hide. By coming out into the cold hard light of day, perpetrators can’t change what they have already done, but they can be held accountable and more importantly, begin the process of holding themselves to account for what they do to change about how they walk in the world going forward.      

When they’re ready do that, family violence specialists are ready to help them, and break this cycle of violence and death in Aotearoa.

Merran Lawler is the Kaiarahi (manager) of the National Network of Family Violence Services in NZ. For more information or to interview Ms Lawler, please contact Paulette Crowley on 027 231 5970 or at kaipapaho@nnsvs.org.nz

This media release was first published on 18 December, 2019