Alcohol’s role in family violence

Violence in the home – sometimes fuelled by alcohol (and/or drugs) – is killing our families and producing a generation of children who know little about growing up in safe and secure homes.

In 2005, the Police recorded 62,470 instances of family violence. Child, Youth and Family Service data suggests that for every Police notification of children being victims of or witnessing family violence, on average two children are in the household and have the potential to be adversely affected. In 2005, 29 murders were related to family violence.

The number of total recorded incidents has doubled from what they were 10 years ago, but that, ironically, might be a positive sign. More cases being reported indicates a lower community tolerance of such crime. The Police also say they have a better system for recording family violence.

However, what is still of concern is that it is estimated only about 18 percent of women who experience domestic violence report it to the Police. The number of cases reported could get much higher before they get lower.

Recent tragic cases of child abuse resulting in the deaths of young children have focused attention on what factors might contribute to family violence. It is unlikely to be a single factor – the risk increases as more factors are added. Certainly, sub-standard housing, low income, lack of social support and a past history of violence can all contribute. The more factors, the greater the likelihood of family violence occurring.

Police say that alcohol is present in about 30 percent of family violence incidents they attend. That does not, however, mean that alcohol is a factor in 30 percent of cases.

What is clear is that alcohol misuse by perpetrators is one of the dynamics involved in some family violence situations. As a “disinhibitor”, alcohol in some cases will, for example, lead from verbal abuse to physical abuse.

The evidence, however, is that alcohol does not of itself bring about violence in the home – the underlying controlling behaviour of violent perpetrators is the danger. In other words, violent people are violent anyway. It is the beliefs and values of the perpetrator that make them feel they can control and abuse their partners and children that is most significant. In cases where alcohol has been removed from a violent family situation (the perpetrator has “dried out”), the violence is likely to continue.

The argument that “alcohol made me do it” is a lame excuse for perpetrators, and should not be used by victims as an excuse for their partners and caregivers.

Violence in the home occurs when an abuser chooses to act violently. Many people who have problems with alcohol are not violent, and many violent people are not heavy drinkers.

Perpetrators’ use of violence to express themselves is a learned behaviour. Alcohol might lower their self-control and they might tend to be more violent when drunk, but alcohol is not the cause of the violent acts. The responsibility is on perpetrators to learn new, safe and nonviolent ways to express themselves and relate to their partners and children.

A recent research paper by the Australasian Centre for Policing Research said: “Characteristics of perpetrators other than their alcohol consumption (in particular their acting out of negative attitudes towards their partners) better predicts violent behaviour than does their level or patterns of alcohol consumption.”

The cost to the country

Apart from the issue of family violence, alcohol abuse has a significant effect on the health and well-being of many New Zealanders. The cost to New Zealand in so many ways is horrendous. We are spending millions of dollars to combat alcohol abuse, to provide health care and support services, and to provide resources for the Police, and the justice and prison systems.

But what cannot be quantified is the cost of broken lives – lives of family members who have tolerated drunkenness and “binge” drinking to the point where it has become “normal” in their family life.

A research report commissioned for the Alcohol Advisory Council (ALAC), The Burden of Death, Disease and Disability due to Alcohol in New Zealand, found that 3.9 percent of all deaths in New Zealand in 2000 could be attributed to alcohol consumption. Other figures showed that:

  • In 2005, New Zealanders aged over 15 years consumed an average of 9.38 litres of alcohol, up 3.2 percent from 2004.
  • Beer accounted for 68.8 percent of alcohol available for consumption in 2005.
  • Spirits and spirit-based drinks (pre-mixed, or alcopops) accounted for 11.7 percent of total alcohol in 2005.
  • One in three teenagers aged 12 to 17 reported in 2003 that they made no attempt to limit their drinking.
  • 48 percent of New Zealanders surveyed in 2003 thought it was OK to get drunk.
  • A quarter of all adults engage in risky drinking on a relatively frequent basis, according to ALAC.

Alcohol and its effects

Alcohol is a depressant that affects concentration and coordination, slowing reaction times and affecting responses to situations, hence the danger when engaging in activities such as driving, working or sport.

While habitual heavy drinkers can cause problems for themselves and others, the Police are finding that the “you and I, Joe Public” are creating some of the biggest problems. People who function normally 99 percent of the time without alcohol are sometimes binge drinking on spirits and “alcopops” that cause a breakdown of normal behaviour.

Uncontrolled, these people – both men and women – are more prone to get into fights with others, cause damage to property and be generally socially obnoxious. They also become less capable of defending themselves and making important decisions about their well-being, leading to common assaults, sexual assaults, rape and even death.

The message for “Joe Public” in staying safe while out drinking is to determine early on (when you are sober) how many drinks you will have so you maintain self-control. Consider the type of drink you are having, taking into account the alcohol content (beer has less alcohol than spirits). Stay in a group (preferably with at least one sober friend), and have a designated sober driver if you intend to drive home.

Drinking has different effects on different people, depending on their weight, sex and metabolism. While the short-term effects, such as lack of coordination, mood changes and nausea are well known, the longterm effects on the body of prolonged and/or excessive drinking can include:

  • loss of feeling in hands and feet, brain damage, loss of memory, hallucinations, confusion;
  • high blood pressure, enlarged heart, irregular pulse;
  • increased risk of infections, including tuberculosis, cirrhosis of the liver, hepatitis, increased cancer risk, bleeding, ulcers and muscle weakness;
  • for men, impotence, shrinking of testicles, sperm damage and lower sperm count;
  • for women, increased gynaecological problems, foetus damage if pregnant, increased risk of breast cancer.