On a mission for peace
A former abuser wants to help other men stop domestic violence
So much has changed in the community response to domestic violence since Devon Cuimara was a perpetrator — like his father and grandfather before him.
Support for victims has improved, police and the courts are better equipped to deal with more cases and in recent years the issue has been dragged doggedly into the open.
But the statistics keep rising and indigenous people are desperately over-represented.
Service providers still struggle for funding and refuges for the abused are often full, including the women’s shelter in Mr Cuimara’s home town of Newman.
Punishments, from police orders to jail terms, usually fail to end the pattern of abuse.
As the national conversation turns towards a generational change in the culture that allows domestic violence, the violence continues behind closed doors.
But something special is happening in Newman, something born of Mr Cuimara’s lived experience and years of research.
The father of five has dedicated himself to reducing indigenous domestic violence through a rehabilitation program for male perpetrators in the Pilbara and Western Desert regions.
His vision, the Aboriginal Men’s Healing Centre, has strong support among police, legal services, domestic violence workers and local government.
It also has the backing of Martu elders who are central to the AMHC concept.
The Shire of East Pilbara is identifying possible locations for the 28-bed centre while the business case and government funding applications are finalised.
A residential program lasting up to 12 months and an outreach service would be available through the courts, corrective services or on a voluntary basis.
Domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse would be tackled in a culturally appropriate environment, with former perpetrators acting as mentors and elders working alongside clinicians.
A focus on life skills and finding meaningful employment would complement hard-line rehabilitation based on the Duluth Model.
Cultural education from the elders would address what Mr Cuimara calls a growing trend of “lorelessness” among younger generations.
There is a rehabilitation program for perpetrators in Perth but it is shorter term and not tailored to the indigenous experience.
The holistic approach of the AMHC and the passion of the man behind it have created a distinct sense of optimism.
The officer-in-charge at Newman police station, Sen. Sgt Larry Miller, told Agenda his counterparts in the Kimberley had already shown interest.
“Even at these early stages the guys in the Kimberley are saying, ‘We need this here,’” he said.
Mr Cuimara’s long-term goal of centres across the country might not be so far-fetched.
There was nothing of the sort when he was a child.
“My desire to do this comes historically from seeing it in my own family and in the Aboriginal community in general,” Mr Cuimara, 50, said.
“It goes back to my father and my grandfather. There were generations when police wouldn’t worry about a complaint from a woman, more or less.
“It was something that was seen and not heard, like we were as children.
“I had to protect my mother, I had to protect my brother, my sister and myself.
“I was more my father’s keeper. You sort of become him in your mother’s eyes.”
He left an abusive home and started abusing his partner, now former partner, until he managed to change his ways 20 years ago.
Attempts to use mainstream rehabilitation services fell flat so he worked through the issues himself.
“That change came through a process of cold turkey,” he said.
“I did my own rehabilitation which was to just stop. I didn’t do any of it. I didn’t smoke, I didn’t use drugs.
“It’s not our way. We weren’t born like that. I learnt it so if I could learn it, I could un-learn it.
“It’s been 20 years since I started on my healing journey.”
Since then, he has watched domestic violence dig its claws even deeper into indigenous families throughout WA.
The Kimberley is the State’s worst region for domestic violence but the rate of reported domestic assault in the Pilbara was 82 per cent higher than in Perth in the last financial year.
In that period, domestic violence complaints received by the Pilbara Community Legal Service more than doubled, perhaps in part because of an increased willingness to report abuse.
The legal centre’s chief executive Nanette Williams said the AMHC was exactly the type of service needed to create sustainable change in the Pilbara.
For the past five years, as Mr Cuimara has fleshed out his vision, reports to police in the region have risen from 587 in 2011-12 to 880 in 2015-16.
The numbers are impersonal
I did my own rehabilitation. Devon Cuimara
but they represent suffering which is dealt with every day by the likes of Sen. Sgt Miller and Maggie, the manager of the Newman women’s shelter.
They have been dealing with it for more than a decade, so their endorsement of the AMHC model holds weight.
Maggie arrived in Newman 13 years ago and started running the shelter.
She has watched children grow up thinking alcohol and abuse are the norm and she does not want to leave without seeing improvement.
Every night she does “whatever it takes” to find a safe place for women and children while the abuser often stays at home.
Most nights the shelter is full so she organises other accommodation.
Mr Cuimara has given her a renewed sense of hope.
“He’s got my full support,” Maggie said. “I do believe they can change and I believe they can change almost overnight with no alcohol.
“I don’t get an admission that isn’t related to alcohol.
“They have to be accountable for their behaviour.”
Police are on the front line of trying to make perpetrators accountable and Sen. Sgt Miller sees a welcome ally in Mr Cuimara.
“It’s (the AMHC plan) sensational otherwise I wouldn’t have supported it,” Sen. Sgt Miller said.
“I was part of the steering committee and I’ve been in it since its inception.
“I met Devon and was immediately struck by his ideas and his passion.”
Sen. Sgt Miller has had input on the security of the centre and the role police could play in the programs.
The main responsibility of police is protecting the abused — a priority he shares with Mr Cuimara.
He admits incarceration is often a stopgap measure.
“A whole lot of resources go into looking after the victim, as it should,” he said.
“Protecting victims of crime is crucial, providing support after the crime is obviously crucial as well. This is the first one I’m aware of where it’s Aboriginal-specific and trying to get to the root cause of it all.”
Addressing the root cause could also help stem the cost of domestic violence in Australia, which is on track to reach $15.6 billion in five years, according to government research.
The veteran policeman is impressed with the cultural focus that underpins the concept.
“They’re going to be hit with some home truths and there will be cultural discussions with the elders which we won’t be privy to,” he said.
“They’ll be devastated if they’re challenged by the elders.”
The elders reached an agreement with Newman liquor vendors in March to restrict the sale of alcohol to Martu and Nyiyaparli people after 5pm.
Police and domestic violence workers have been encouraged by the noticeable effects of a strategy devised at a grassroots level. It has only added to the momentum of the AMHC project.
Martu elder Colin Peterson, 72, from the Kunawarritji community, is one of several leaders committed to getting it off the ground.
He has seen what alcohol and abuse does to families and thinks the healing is important for the Martu people.
“Sometimes man is OK,” he said. “Sometimes man is a problem. They get jealous with their wives, they have too much grog.
“It’s getting worse. Even the kids watching their mother and father when they’re small. “I’ve seen what’s been happening and it’s no good.”
Mr Cuimara has seen it, too, first-hand, and he’s doing everything he can to help other indigenous men and families break the cycle.
“I see an absolute need for it because there’s nothing like it,” he said. “How are things going to change? It’s not going to happen by itself, so we want to make it happen.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, call the women’s helpline on 1800 007 339 or the men’s helpline on 1800 000 599.
Martu elder Colin Peterson, Devon Cuimara and son Djeran Cuimara.
Sen. Sgt Larry Miller supports the new program.
Colin Peterson is committed to helping the program.