Hunter to trial new app to help protect domestic violence victims

APP TEAM: Dr Colin James, Sher Campbell and Associate Professor Lynne McCormack.
APP TEAM: Dr Colin James, Sher Campbell and Associate Professor Lynne McCormack.

A MOBILE phone app designed to protect domestic violence victims by stopping offenders breaching Apprehended Violence Orders is set to be trialed in the Hunter.

The Bernie app was developed for domestic violence perpetrators. It aims to help strengthen positive decision-making to prevent reoffending and was developed by psychology and law researchers from the University of Newcastle and the Australian National University.

With statistics showing about 15 per cent of people charged with domestic violence assault reoffend within one year, and almost half of those before the court process has been finalised, it is hoped the app will act as an early intervention tool by reminding defendants how to comply with court orders, the University of Newcastle said.

The app also has an “emergency button” for accessing immediate behavioural prompts during stressful situations.

Bernie is currently being refined before it is expected to be endorsed by the NSW government. A trial in the Hunter will then commence.

Clinical psychologist and UON Associate Professor Lynne McCormack said the app would be with offenders constantly.

“Bernie is a digital resource that can be in a defendant’s pocket at all times and can help reinforce the practical and legal information given by lawyers – information that is often forgotten due to heightened anxiety in court,” Associate Professor Lynne McCormack said.

“We have designed Bernie to support the information defendants receive at court and to help keep family members safe.

“The behavioural-education information reinforces responsibility for behaviours that negatively impact on others; making healthier and safer choices; and how to seek professional help to begin the process of positive change.”

Associate Professor McCormack said the behavioral prompt button could be pressed when offenders were struggling to manage their emotions.

“The immediate behavioural prompt button, once pressed, provides reminders to manage accelerating emotions, move away from any potentially high-risk situation, and to seek professional assistance,” she said.

Intimate partner violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and ill health in Australian women aged 15-44, the university said. Over a 12-month period, an average of one woman is killed every week by a current or former partner. Domestic violence is also the principle cause of homelessness for women and children and violence against women is estimated to cost the economy $21.7 billion each year.

Bernie’s team includes Associate Professor McCormack; UON law lecturer and member of the Executive of NSW Women Lawyers’ Association, Sher Campbell; and UON Conjoint Dr Colin James, solicitor and senior lecturer from the ANU College of Law, School of Legal Practice at the Australian National University.

The team is seeking financial support and government endorsement to trial the app in Newcastle. Besides the legal and psycho-educational resources, Bernie also provides contact numbers for counselling, legal advice, and financial and housing assistance.

It is the result of the NSW government’s Innovation Launch Program, which provided a $150,000 grant from the NSW Department of Finance, Services and Innovation to develop the mobile phone app. 

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