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Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson on Aboriginal women and children, family violence and trauma

Centre for Rural and Regional Law and Justice seminar

Professor Judy Atkinson Biography

Emeritus Professor Judy Atkinson is a Jiman – Aboriginal Australian (from Central west Queensland) / Bundjalung (Northern New South Wales) woman, who also has Anglo-Celtic, and German heritage. She holds a BA from the University of Canberra, and a PhD from Queensland University of Technology. She is also a graduate of the Harvard University course, Program for Refugee Trauma – Global Mental Health Trauma and Recovery.

Her primary academic and research focus has been in the area of violence, with its relational trauma, and healing or recovery for Indigenous, and indeed all peoples. She co-authored the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women’s Task Force on Violence Report, for the Queensland government. Her book, Trauma Trails – Recreating Songlines: The transgenerational effects of Trauma in Indigenous Australia, provides context to the life stories of people who have moved/been moved from their country in a process that has created trauma trails, and the changes that can occur in the lives of people as they make connections with each other, and share their stories of healing.

In 2006, while Head of the College of Indigenous Australian Peoples at Southern Cross University, she won the Carrick Neville Bonner Award for her curriculum development and innovative teaching practice. In 2011 she was awarded the Fritz Redlich Memorial award for Human Rights and Mental Health from the Harvard University Program for Refugee Trauma. She is a member of the Harvard Global Mental Health Scientific Research Alliance. She presently serves on Australian Institute of Health and Welfare Scientific Advisory Committee on Closing the Gap Research, and on the Board of Directors of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Healing Foundation and sits on both the Education and Training Advisory committee, and the Research Advisory Committee; and is a Patron of the We Al-li Trust.

She retired at the end of 2010, so she could focus on writing, supporting healing work in Aboriginal communities in Australia, and volunteering her services to Australia’s close neighbours, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea, while working with communities in educational – healing work, what she calls Educaring. In future years she hopes to support research opportunities for emerging Indigenous researchers, while mentoring and supporting researchers and research in Australia, Timor Leste, and Papua New Guinea providing support to the development of an evidence base on education-as-healing in community change processes, while responding to historical, social and cultural trauma, and promoting healing or recovery through educaring.  She is in Melbourne to provide training for Berry Street and is on her way home from participating in Humanity United’s Healing and Reconciliation retreat in Sausalito, California as an invited guest.  Following this she was a guest speaker at Harvard University.

Background stories and statistics

  • Aboriginal people make up 28 per cent of the national adult prison population despite only representing 2 per cent of the general adult population. (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2013)
  • While incarceration rates are increasing, they remain relatively stable for non-Indigenous Australians

Rates of incarceration per 100,000 per state

  • The percentage of young women in juvenile detention in NSW who reported that they had experiences of being abused or neglected has been 81 per cent (NSW Health, 2009).
  • The percentage of young men in juvenile detention in NSW who reported that they had experiences of being abused or neglected has been 57 per cent (NSW Health, 2009).
  • The percentage of female parents who killed their child or children in a domestic violence context and also reported being a victim of violence and abuse during their own childhood has been reported as 59 per cent  (NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team Annual Report, 2015, p.18).
  • The percentage of male parents who killed their child or children in a domestic violence context and also reported being a victim of violence and abuse during their own childhood  has been reported as 56 per cent (NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team Annual Report 2015, p.18).
  • The percentage of women in Victorian prisons who have been victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse has been reported to be 87 per cent (Johnson, 2004).  This figure is supported by the latest Ombudsman’s report on Victorian Prisons (2015). 
  • By far the most common charge/offence for both men and women is an act intended to cause injury.  The stories of women in this program and anecdotal evidence from people working in the field, reveals that most of this violence is lateral, e.g. within families and communities. This is not an uncommon occurrence where there has been a history of colonisation.


In Europe it has been noted that ‘the prison experience frequently compounds… psychological distress by failing to address the underlying trauma and the particular mental health needs of female prisoners' (Moloney & Moller, 2009, p431).   B.J. van den Bergh, et al. (2010) recommend that prison programming should specifically address mental illness, in particular traumatic stress disorders for all female prisoners. The need for access to programs that address violence and its attendant trauma has been identified and called for in Australia over a number of years by authors such as Sisters Inside (2004), Cox et al (2009), Atkinson (2002), Carnes (2014), the Victorian Ombudsman (2015) and the Centre for Innovative Justice (2015).  The need for programs to be culturally appropriate is particularly important for Aboriginal women for whom a history of trauma can be complex, multiple, historical and intergenerational. 

Integrational violence and trauma link to offending

Intergenerational trauma leads to subsequent generations experiencing vicarious traumatisation through the collective memory in addition to any current or previous direct trauma.  This occurs in the storytelling and oral traditions of the community and families as traumatic events become embedded in the social memories of the population and they are passed from one generation to the next (Sotero, 2006).

Danieli (1998: 3) outlines how intergenerational trauma was first considered in the 1960s in relation to survivors of the Nazi holocaust. Brave Heart (2003; 7) defines such trauma as 'cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, over the lifespan and across generations, emanating from massive group trauma experiences. The historical trauma response (HTR) is the constellation of features in reaction to this trauma.'  Brave Heart and DeBruyn (1998: 56) say that 'high rates of suicide, homicide, accidental deaths, domestic violence, child abuse and alcoholism, as well as other social problems…are primarily the product of a legacy of chronic trauma and unresolved grief across generations.'

In more recent times the consideration of ongoing and intergenerational trauma has been contemplated by a number of authors around the globe in the context of colonisation. They have included, in North America, Brave Heart & DeBruyn (1998), in New Zealand McGibbon & Etowa (2009) and in Australia Raphael, Swan and Martinek (1998), Atkinson (2002), Atkinson, Nelson & Atkinson (2010)  and Walls & Whitbeck (2012). In Australia, Cox et al (2010) go so far as to say that, without healing there can be no access to justice for Aboriginal people.

Identifying a trauma to prison pipeline

In Australia there has, until now, been limited data or research that considers the specific link between intergenerational violence and prison – the ‘intergenerational violence to prison pipeline’. 

The need to understand the link between incarceration and a history of intergenerational violence was first clearly raised, in the context of Aboriginal incarceration, by Carlie Atkinson (2008, p. 248) who notes that:

The over-representation of Aboriginal men in the criminal justice system, particularly for crimes of violence, is one of the most significant issues facing contemporary Australian society. Understanding the nature of Aboriginal men’s violent behaviour by locating it within the historical and personal context of cultural destruction, grief, loss and trauma is an important process for developing intervention strategies and programs that address their specific needs

This research did not extend to consideration of intergenerational violence and women who are incarcerated. Evidence of mapping of stories/histories of violence in the lives of Aboriginal offenders is not easily found with the only instances found by the evaluator in the Australian context being that of Atkinson (2002) and Atkinson (2008).  No instances of programs in prisons that address violent/traumatic histories in the context of perpetrator’s lives have been found in Australia.  To the best of our knowledge, this is the first program of its kind in Australia for women.  Healing of intergenerational violence as a way to move forward is also highlighted by Carnes (2014) who recommends training in understanding of and healing of intergenerational violence and its attendant trauma via culturally developed practices as an important part in breaking cycles of disadvantage, violence and incarceration.

A pipeline, not a victim/perpetrator binary

Though the link between being a victim and a perpetrator of violence is now widely acknowledged, there remains a tendency to speak in binary terms of an individual being either a victim or an offender.

The link between violence/trauma and the justice system is a process occurring in a context; a context of intergenerational violence and trauma. It is not a victim/perpetrator binary.  As van der Kolk (2007) reminds us in the North American context, however, 'people with childhood histories of trauma make up almost our entire criminal justice population.'  Similarly, in an Australian context Stubbs and Tolmie (2008) report that ‘Aboriginal women in custody…[are] victims of violent offences long before they are "offenders" themselves’. 

It is likely that the majority of women who have used violence are also victims of family violence. Though figures range from 65 per cent to 92 per cent, all note that women’s violence usually occurs in the context of violence committed against them by male partners, including 75 per cent noting that they used violence to defend themselves (Swan et al, 2008; Robertson and Murarchver, year).  Additionally, we have known for some time that a significant proportion of women incarcerated for homicide will have committed this in the context of defending themselves and their children against sustained abuse (Victorian Law Reform Commission, 2004).

A history of abuse

The need to consider the impact of intergenerational violence and trauma as an influence on family violence is raised most recently in the Centre for Innovative Justice’s submission to the Family Violence Royal commission (May, 2015).  The submission highlights that there is a link between a history of trauma and acts of violence which is likely to be intergenerational, as the following excerpts (Centre for Innovative Justice, 2015) illustrate:

  • Nationally the impact of family violence on female offenders has been statistically acknowledged for decades.  An Australian Institute of Criminology study by Johnson (2004) found that 87 per cent of incarcerated women were victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse either in their childhood (63 per cent) or adulthood (78 per cent). A survey from Sisters Inside (1994) of women in the Brisbane Women’s Correctional Centre in mid-1993 similarly found that 85 per cent identified as survivors of abuse.  Further increasing the complexity, ‘in light of their experiences of trauma, social isolation and histories of violence, [women offenders] might find themselves in conflict situations and having [protection orders] made against them, such that they might be both alleged perpetrators and victims of domestic violence’ (Sisters Inside, 2004).
  • Sometimes this can be the consequence of long term trauma and disadvantage caused by exposure to family and other forms of violence. George and Harris (2014) report, for example that, for some victims, experiences of violence can become normalised, not only as behaviour with which they are inflicted, but as a way to resolve conflict.

Breaking the pipeline feedback loop

Any link between intergenerational violence and women who have been incarcerated has implications for program development, practitioners and staff as well as service delivery models.

While it may seem incongruous to think of the justice system and healing, van der Kolk (2007) reminds us that, in a North American context, 'people with childhood histories of trauma make up almost our entire criminal justice population.'  It is essential for educational programs pre- and post release from prison to be developed that takes this into account.

Many women offenders revolve in and out of prison on short sentences, with a significant proportion also on remand. Carnes (2011) points out that being on remand precludes prisoners from accessing most rehabilitation or treatment services that would otherwise be available.  Prisoners formally sentenced to short periods of incarceration are also precluded on a practical basis from accessing these services (Carnes, 2011, 2014).  This means that the underlying issues that are part of the picture of incarceration remain unaddressed and therefore likely to continue and remain entrenched.

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