Children need to be protected from violent perpetrators and so do their mothers. Mothers who are the victims of domestic violence risk losing their children upon reporting the abuse under new zero-tolerance child protection laws, such as those outlined in the 2013 Child Protection Legislation Amendment Bill (Child Protection Amendment Bill (No 33) 2014). With an estimated 80% of all domestic abuse cases going unreported (Vic Health, 2012) such laws will make the direct victims of domestic abuse less inclined to seek help for fear of forced separation from their children. Removing a child from an abused but otherwise loving and capable parent is not in the child’s best interest, nor is it in the best interest of the victim to have them too intimidated and shamed to speak out.
Domestic violence has overtaken paternal mental illness and drug or alcohol addiction as the leading cause of child protection intervention (Butler 2014). The Family Rights Group (2014) states that cuts to domestic abuse and family support services, including strict means-tested welfare reforms, results in further isolation of victims. The inability of a victim to seek sufficient support, in the forms of stable housing and financial aid, increases their dependency on their abuser. Cathy Ashley, the chief executive of the Family Rights Group, states that women who report the crimes committed against them are told by social workers to leave immediately with their children or they (the children) will be taken into care (Butler 2014).
In order to understand the disempowering and dehumanizing demands of such practices, you first must understand the complex issues faced by victims of domestic violence. The zero tolerance laws indicate that even those who experience such cases daily are failing to understand that victims cannot simply pack up and leave. Not only are victims psychologically manipulated by their abusers, and usually dependent upon them through strategic isolation, they are also most at risk of extreme violence once they have left their abuser.
Clementine Ford, journalist for Daily Life, writes:
In June 2013, WA woman Angela Furullo was murdered by her ex-partner, James Bill Payet, at the hairdressing salon where she worked. Her pregnant daughter was injured in the attack. In April 2013, Kara Doyle’s boyfriend shot her in the groin. Doyle had been planning to leave him. She was dumped at a nearby Caltex Station with severe injuries and died in hospital five days later. Her killer, Mehmet Torun, was recently sentenced to eight years in prison with a non-parole period of five years. In February 2014, Victorian woman Kelly Thompson was murdered by her long term partner. Just 19 days before, Thompson had applied for an AVO against Wayne Wood. After murdering Kelly Thompson, Wood killed himself.
These are just a handful of the devastating acts of violence enacted against women and children every week in Australia. Every single one of these women were either in the process of leaving their partners or had already left them. If women are supposed to ‘just leave’ in order to end the cycle of violence, what is it that these women did wrong? The answer is nothing. They did nothing wrong (Ford 2014).
When a social worker tells a victim of family violence to leave immediately with her children, without time to source adequate housing, financial aid or support for safety, they are putting the mother and child/s life in profound danger. Threatening to remove the mother’s children will only add to the psychological trauma of the victim and make her far less likely to report future acts of violence. This advice condemns victims whilst doing nothing to address the real issue.
Domestic violence does impact on children, who, on average, witness 44% of all violence (Vic Health, 2013). Children are often the victims of revenge killings wherein the perpetrator murders his partner’s children to make her suffer further. As discussed above, such incidents usually occur directly after a woman has left her abuser. This illustrates a definite need for intervention but not the intervention that has been proposed.
We ought to be asking ourselves, as domestic violence is as much a crime as assaulting someone in the street (for example, the now famed ‘coward punches’), if child protection services have sufficient evidence and reports to remove children from the home then why can there not be a new legislation introduced where the perpetrator is court ordered to attend men’s behavioural change sessions? Or, why is the perpetrator not formally charged and facing jail time? Why is more not being done to prevent the violence? Why are there cuts to essential support services? Why is more money not being put into women’s refuges? Why have there been such harsh cuts to welfare payments for single parents?
Seventy-eight percent of people in Australia who are homeless due to domestic violence are women (Ford 2014) and it isn’t hard to see why. There seems only three, bleak options available to women experiencing domestic violence; stay with their abuser and not report the crimes against them in order to avoid having their children removed; stay with their abuser and lose their children; or leave, putting their own and their child’s life at risk, and face a life of poverty and, potentially, homelessness.
In a written interview, on the 10th of June 2013, Susan* illustrates what many women must endure when they make the choice to leave.
It got to the point where I had to seriously consider getting an intervention order against him. His behaviour was erratic and irrational. One moment he would be begging for my forgiveness for what he had done, saying he would love me forever, and at the next he would be calling me a ‘dumb slut’ and saying everything was my fault. I was scared of him, for myself and for my daughter. I had been too afraid to go to court for a formal custody agreement, fearing what he might do if I pushed it that far, so we had our own agreement where he would have her 3 nights a week. Every abused woman with children knows the horror stories that are both real and common. We all fear for our children (Susan* 2013, pers.comm., 10 June)
Susan* goes on to explain her reluctance to leave and why making that decision isn’t as simple as one might imagine.
What everyone always wonders, and what you cannot fully understand unless you have experienced such a relationship, is why do women stay? After hearing other women’s stories I know my reasons are common.
I stayed because he made me feel as if I had no power to leave. I stayed because he manipulated me into believing no one else could ever love me or care for me. I stayed because as awful as it was, it was still familiar to me. I stayed because I was financially dependent on him. I stayed because where else would I go? I stayed because he had ingrained in me that I was a ‘dumb bitch and no one would ever put up with you like I do.’ It’s mad but after 3 years of hearing this kind of thing daily, I believed it. I believed it was my fault and that I was pathetic and helpless (Susan 2013, pers.comm., 10 June).
Even after going through the gruelling and dangerous experience of leaving an abuser, women still return, on average, five times before leaving for good (Vic Health, 2012). What this story and the statistics both indicate are how deeply ingrained the manipulation of a victim is. The victim truly believes it is her fault. Even if she has an inkling that something is not quite right, that she couldn’t possibly be so bad, it is beaten out of her with a nonstop stream of psychological and physical abuse. The lesson that can be taken from such stories is summarised perfectly here “It takes a concentrated effort on the part of the entire community to bring an abuser to justice. The burden cannot be placed squarely on women and children who fear retaliation and even death if they seek to escape” (The Patriot Ledger 12 April 2014, “Our Opinion”).
Children are the biggest source of courage for their mothers who face violence, with many victims indicated they found the strength to leave for the sake of their children.
However, what many may choose to focus on and question is why women have children with abusive partners. Those of you who wonder this may be surprised to learn that domestic abuse typically begins during pregnancy.
He appeared infatuated with me and I was flattered that a man would put so much effort, time and travel into dating me. He called me his ‘dream girl’ and told me how all his life he longed to meet that one special girl who was everything he could ever want. He told me I was that girl for him. I felt confident and assured and gorgeous.
After four months of dating, he asked me to move in with him. I was wary of this, and a little anxious that it was moving too fast. Still, I was flattered and agreed that when I finished VCE I would move in with him. He also spoke of wanting to marry me.
He would text me continuously, and if I didn’t reply he would ring.
“Where are you?” he’d ask. “Who are you with?” Again, I couldn’t see this for the possessive behaviour it was. I didn’t know this was the beginning of him controlling me. I was proud that somebody cared that much about me. I didn’t realise I was being conditioned for what was to come.
Six months into our long-distance relationship I discovered I was pregnant. It was perfect, he said, because we already planned on moving in together.
I moved in with him after completing my final year of high school. I was five months pregnant. Living in an unfamiliar city, with no friends or family around, things began to change – (Susan* 2013, pers.comm., 10 June).
Susan’s* story echoes the belief that the abuser feels that they have their victim firmly trapped now that they share a child and it is safe to let their true colours shine. Prior to this the perpetrator is often excessively charming and considerate, and works fast to cement the relationship and create dependence.
I have referred to the mothers this law impacts as ‘the victims’ and the men who hurt them as ‘the perpetrators’ or ‘the abuser’. Imagine if it read instead: Your sister was told by a social worker, after reporting that her husband punched her that if she did not leave immediately her children would be taken away. Your sister comes to you, crying, because she is not prepared yet to leave and she knows what might happen if she does. You are both worried and uncertain, not knowing what your brother-in-law might be capable of if he finds she has left and taken the children.
Think about the women in your life. If you can picture a group of three women you love and care about, statistics show that one of them will be the victim of domestic violence. Now think about the countless women you don’t personally know. Think of the women who pass you in the street, the women who shop at your local grocer. Think of the women you see working behind the counter at your favourite café or store. Look at any group of three friends out enjoying themselves. One of them is likely hiding bruises and masking her fear and pain with a smile. With 85% of all victims of domestic violence being female (Vic Health, 2012), it is not something that only happens to ‘other people’. It is not something that only happens to a meek ‘doormat’. It is not something that only hurts someone ‘too dumb to leave’. It is something that is happening to you or someone you love.
‘Our message to victims must be that domestic violence is not their shame. The blame and shame lies squarely with the perpetrators’ (The Patriot Ledger 12 April 2014, ‘Our Opinion’). Removing children from their mothers when they report cases of family violence sends a clear message; if you report the abuse against you, you will suffer for it; you will be shamed for not leaving, although you have little support and put your life at risk in doing so. What could be more shaming than that?
Once the children are removed from the home the mother has a mere six (for children under twelve months) to twelve (for children over twelve months) months to safely leave her abuser, protect herself from the harassment and stalking that frequently occurs, find adequate and affordable housing and, in many cases, find work, all whilst dealing with the lingering depression, anxiety and PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) that occurs in 60% of domestic violence survivors (Department of Health, 2012). After which, if the mother has not successfully achieved all the above, her children may be adopted.
If children must be removed for their safety and to provide time for their mothers to escape and get settled, it should be done so without the threat of adoption. Shouldn’t child protection services do what they can to keep children with good mothers? These women are not abusive parents, they are being abused. They do not deserve to lose their children on top of what they have already endured just as their children do not deserve to be displaced in such a heinous manner.
Finally, in all the suffering endured by the victims and their children, where do these laws leave the perpetrator? Free to stalk and harass and victim blame further. Picture the scene; a man comes home after a night out drinking to find his wife crying in their child’s empty room.
“It’s your fault!” the victim might scream at him, despite knowing better than to raise her voice against him.
The husband might lunge at her and wrap his hands around her throat until she is an unconscious lump on the floor.
“We lost our children because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut,” he will say as he squats down to look into her vacant face.
“This is your own fucking fault,” his belief in his words will be unshakeable.
Just imagine what he will do to the mother. It would be foolish in the extreme to think an abusive partner wouldn’t punish his victim for reporting him and for their children being removed from the home.
In the event the victim does safely remove herself and her children from her abuser, where does this leave the perpetrator? Free to charm another woman and father more children.
This cycle of abuse will continue to repeat itself again and again and again. It will continue as long as lazy laws are passed that further the suffering of victims and their children, whilst avoiding punishing or removing the perpetrator. The zero tolerance laws should be applied to the perpetrators, not the children or the victims.
*All names of the women interviewed have been changed to protect the speaker’s privacy.
Recognising Domestic Violence:
The verbal abuse: swearing, continual humiliation and verbal attacks that demean intelligence, sexuality or body image.
The psychological abuse: destruction of property, abuse of pets in front of family members, making threats in terms of custody rights of a child, discrediting victims story or threatening to report victim to police.
Emotional abuse: victim blaming, comparing the victim to others to demean, the ‘silent treatment’, emotional blackmail, suicide threats or threats to ‘disappear’.
Financial abuse: the victim having a complete lack of control over money, victim having to ask for anything, denying the victim has any entitlement to joint property and withholding banking passwords and cards.
Physical abuse: strangulation, choking, shaking, eye injuries, punching slapping, kicking, pushing, throwing objects, locking the victim in or out of the house and the assault of children.
Harassment and stalking: following and watching, telephone and online harassment and stalking, hacking accounts, tracking with GPS systems and being intimidating.
If you or anyone you know is the victim of domestic violence you can contact the following services.
1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732): 24 hour, National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.
Lifeline has a national number who can help put you in contact with a crisis service in your State (24 hours):131 114
ASCA (Adults Surviving Child Abuse) A service to adult survivors, their friends and family and the health care professionals who support them. Support line: 1300 657 380
Kids Help Line, telephone counselling for children and young people. Free call: 1800 551 800.
The Family Relationship Advice Line provides information and advice on family relationship issues and parenting arrangements after separation. It can also refer callers to local services that can provide assistance. Call 1800 050 321 between 8 am and 8 pm, Monday to Friday, or 10 am to 4 pm on Saturday (local time), except national public holidays.
Anonymous, 2014, ‘Our Opinion: Don’t turn back the clock on domestic violence’, The Patriot Ledger 12 April. Available from < http://www.patriotledger.com/article/20140412/OPINION/140418737/12366/OPINION>. [2 May 2014].
Butler, P 2014, ‘Children of domestic abuse victims increasingly being taken into care’, The Guardian 15 January. Available from < http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jan/15/children-domestic-violence-parents-care>. [1 May 2014].
Child Protection Amendment Bill (No 33) 2014.
Domestic Violence Statistics. Available from < http://www.domesticviolence.com.au/pages/domestic-violence-statistics.php>. [3 May 2014].
Ford, C 2014, ‘It’s not enough to ask abuse victims to leave’, Daily Life 23 April. Available from < http://www.dailylife.com.au/news-and-views/take-action/its-not-enough-to-ask-abuse-victims-to-leave-20140422-371yq.html>. [1 May 2014].
Intimate Partner Violence. Available from < http://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/Programs-and-Projects/Freedom-from-violence/Intimate-Partner-Violence.aspx>. [26 April 2014].
Kerin, L 2014, ‘Child protection measures too strict for domestic violence women’, ABC News 20 March. Available from < http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-03-20/child-protection-measures-too-strict-for-domestic/5334162>. [1 May 2014].