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Hear Me Out – Seeking Help for Domestic Violence

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By Di Simpson 

Somehow in our thinking and talking about domestic violence, we’ve created a stereotype that only fits a certain kind of circumstance. We seem to revert to a mental checklist of what domestic violence looks like and what it doesn’t; of who “qualifies” as a victim and who doesn’t fit with our expectations. We’ve lost sight of the fact that no two situations are the same and all experiences are different.

We talk about the “war on terror” and find and stream billions to fight a nameless but real foe. In the meantime, women literally die each week in this country through murderous acts of domestic violence. And while we know a great deal about why and how domestic violence happens, it goes on. Tragically, another woman was allegedly murdered by her partner in Sydney on the weekend.

The Women’s Centre for Health Matters (WCHM) published a report on 6 April 2016, providing insight into women’s experiences in seeking help for domestic violence in the ACT. The research conducted by Angela Carnovale has reiterated just how much work is still required to prevent domestic violence and improve safety for women and children in both the ACT and by analogy, across Australia.

The terrible statistics provided on page 9 of the report confirm the urgent need to do more to prevent and respond to domestic violence:

  • In Australia, a woman dies at the hands of a current or former partner almost every week;
  • One woman in three has experienced physical violence since the age of 15;
  • One woman in five has experienced sexual violence;
  • One woman in four has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner;
  • Women in Australia are three times more likely than men to experience violence from a partner;
  • Economic abuse is widespread but often not recognised as domestic violence, including by those who are experiencing it.

In this report, 17 women shared their stories of seeking assistance in the ACT after experiencing domestic violence. Detailed on page 5 of the report, three key themes were apparent:

  • A spectrum of violence needs a spectrum of responses;
  • Responses need to ensure that victims feel protected, not punished, and that perpetrators are held to account;
  • Help-seeking journeys change over time, so too do women’s needs.

While many of the women who participated in the study spoke very highly of the support they received (including from the DVCS, Women’s Legal Centre, CRCS, the Legal Aid Office, Inanna and Beryl Women’s refuges), there were others who spoke with despair and bewilderment of the failures: the bureaucratic burdens imposed upon them, especially when urgent housing and financial support was needed; dealing with some  providing services, who didn’t understand the complex elements and impacts of domestic violence. It is particularly disturbing that women continue to report that there remained a pervasive and persistent view that domestic violence was only taken “seriously” if physical violence had occurred.

As a family lawyer who regularly works with and appears for women who have experienced domestic violence, it was disheartening to read the accounts of women being let down by those operating in the court systems, who appear not to understand the nuances of domestic violence.

On page 25 of the report, Dimity shares her experiences that reaffirm the dangerous assumptions and stereotypes our culture relies upon in regards to domestic violence.

“…The police talked to us separately. You know, we weren’t drunk, there was no blood, the house was tidy because I’d cleaned it, they looked in on the two girls and saw that they were there in their room, he’s out there watching TV, all looking very calm. And I think that’s where I have the first problem, in that they see such horrible things… I think it didn’t look serious to them…

So the cops, they said that no crime had been committed and that they don’t have to make him leave…And when I asked about my property, they said it was either my safety or my property. So I feel that he was wrongly advised by the police that no crime had been committed and that he didn’t have to leave my house. I thought well what, I needed a black eye and a split lip and smashed glass all through my house for them to take him away? I found I wasn’t being heard, I wasn’t being validated, I was being totally disrespected. Just because I didn’t have bruises all over my face, just because I’m a well-spoken woman doesn’t mean I don’t need your support. I don’t think they saw it as serious, therefore things weren’t followed through as well they should have [been].”

Every serving police officer should read Dimity’s story.  For too many, I expect, there will be moments of recognition.

Dimity also speaks of her experience in seeking a domestic violence order in the ACT Magistrates Court, where she went into court without the assistance of the DVCS or the specialist Legal Aid advisors. That shouldn’t have mattered, but it appears it did:

 “[This] made me go to the Magistrate to get an interim DVO… So I went to the Magistrate’s Court, fully advised by DVCS, but I did not [connect up with them at the court and ended up facing the Magistrate alone]…They call me in and I don’t know what I’m doing but I’ve written the thing saying that we need help. I’d written things like we are behaving very ugly towards each other, because I can’t say I haven’t been responding to him. And so the Magistrate was really nasty, she said things like: “The court’s not here to manage your relationship”.

So I did do a live-in DVO—I don’t know if that’s what made her really angry, but she was really not very pleasant, to the point where I got to the first set of doors exiting the courtroom and burst into tears and said to the woman there: “Have I done something wrong? Is she taking my kids off me? Am I going to be fined? Was that contempt of court?” I just didn’t know what had happened. She basically said I’d wasted the court’s time, how dare I use the court to manage my relationship.”

We all understand that the court’s resources are stretched, but Magistrates dealing with domestic violence matters need specialist understanding of the complex issues at play in domestic violence stories. I am saddened that a woman seeking help leaves that court room, without being properly heard, without the right questions being asked of her, feeling like she has done the wrong thing – and most tellingly, fearful that she will lose her children.

There are a number of people in the community who are calling for specialist family violence courts to deal with all issues relating to the protection of victims and their children. Sadly but realistically, the cost burden of implementing that system, with all the good will in the world, is likely to see the idea languish. So where does that leave us? Strengthening the quality and frequency of  training to those within the courts and providing frank feedback about how the courts (and key personnel) deal with those who have experienced domestic violence, is essential. In the ACT, asking the key Court personnel to read this Report would be a good start.

On pages 31 and 32 of the report, Anne speaks of her experience in the Family Law Courts. Anne had been assaulted many times by her former partner and he eventually assaulted their son.  He was convicted of that assault and was on probation for 12 months. There were 13 separate domestic violence incidents involving police attendance. Anne would not agree to support the children spending time with their father and she reports that her legal aid was cut as a consequence.

As a result, Anne continued in the Family Law Courts without a lawyer.

“Going through the Family Court system is horrendous… Having to sit in the courthouse, with him right there, was terrifying. This is a man who’s nearly killed me; twice in the same year, once in front of my son… And I ended up self-representing—because my lawyer at Legal Aid said to me, “we’re cutting your funding because you will not agree to access”. And I’m thinking to myself that in my job if I did that I would lose it because I’m putting a minor at risk.”  

“I’m having to deal with my abuser in court, and then I’m having to drive to his house to drop my child off and be forced to relive the situations repeatedly every fortnight, or whatever his schedule was. He took my son in lieu of a court date, so I had him for breaching the court orders, I had him for taking my child in breach of court orders, but the police did a welfare check and left my son there and we picked him up again at 7 o’clock and nothing happened.

[It] got to the point where my son, something happened at his father’s house, and he refused to go, he refused point blank. He turned eleven two days later, and his father wanted to see him for his birthday and my son refused. That was the end of his visits. My son threatened to jump off the balcony and kill himself.

I just constantly felt that the Family Court really wasn’t listening at all. I know there are cases where people make things up and stuff like that, I get it. But when you’ve got legitimate cases, forcing people into situations, it caused a massive problem… I couldn’t protect my kids, and the courts weren’t helping me protect my kids. I had DVOs that weren’t enforced and he openly admitted that he had breached it and he was on probation for the assault on my son, and the police did nothing. So, it can be extremely frustrating when you think things would be followed through, but they’re not.”

Funding crises for legal aid offices around Australia means that aid is a precious and limited resource. Funding decisions are routinely made in individual cases where an assessment of the “merit” of the case occurs.  It is hard to reconcile however, how Anne’s opposition to her former partner spending time with her child in the circumstances she describes, could be a basis for the termination of her grant of aid. Lawyers working in family law have an obligation to ensure their client’s stories are presented cogently and clearly to the Courts, ensuring the evidence is available to support the orders sought – and in some instances, including that there be no contact between the child and the perpetrator of violence.

A number of important recommendations are made in the report –

  1. That current service delivery reforms, such as the Better Services reform, integrate the model of assistance for those experiencing domestic violence (delineated by specific support at pre-separation, during separation and post-separation) put forward by the women in this research.
  2. That the ACT Government commit to implementing a dedicated domestic violence funding stream that is separate to funding for homelessness and other social issues. This stream should maintain current specialist domestic violence responses and further enable it to meet increased demand.
  3. That the ACT Government invest in practical and flexible medium to long-term support for women leaving domestic violence that is tailored to their specific needs.
  4. That evaluation of the effectiveness of ACT’s responses to domestic violence includes both outcome measures and feedback from victims to ensure ongoing improvement of policy and practice.
  5. That the ACT Government invest in evidence-based specialist responses for men who use violence, with a focus on early intervention and prevention programs, and improvement in the consistency of criminal justice responses.
  6. That the ACT Government invest in building the capacity of and training non- domestic violence services to ensure that they have a shared understanding about domestic violence and the confidence to speak about domestic violence with their clients, offer information and provide referrals.
  7. That the ACT Government commit to funding local community domestic violence awareness raising initiatives.

If implemented, these recommendations have the potential to influence community attitudes to domestic violence and ensure that all services are integrated and responsive to domestic violence in its many guises. Perhaps more importantly, they will also help to reduce the incidences of domestic violence.

Every person interested in what we can do in the ACT, to prevent domestic violence and improve safety for women and children should read this report. From the stories shared, it is clear that there is still much work to be done. This must remain a priority as statistics are going the wrong way. The Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) received 21,361 calls for help in 2015, up from 16,270 the year before. Whether or not this is a result of encouraging people to speak up and seek help is absolutely irrelevant.

The numbers are there and won’t change until we do more. Last year in our community, two women were murdered by their former partners and one woman was allegedly murdered by her then partner. In the ACT, we have a real opportunity to shape and model best practice responses to domestic violence. What is stopping us from leading the way?

Di Simpson is a partner of DDCS Lawyers, a Canberra based law firm specialising in all aspects of Family Law, Wills, Estates and Business Succession. We pride ourselves as being advocates for a range of social issues and are committed to encouraging the legal profession to be more than just lawyers. If you or someone you know are experiencing domestic violence, please contact The Domestic Violence Crisis Service on (02) 6280 0900. If you need legal assistance, please contact the DDCS team on (02) 6212 7600 or at mail@ddcs.dev.hostify.com.au.