Harsh New Laws Punish Victims of Violence

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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)

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Bubbles

My eyes snap open and I moan into my pillow. The room is dark but a gap in the curtains casts a grey light. I stretch my legs out, wincing as pain shoots up my right leg from the knee. I shut my eyes and take inventory of my bruises. I can feel my right shoulder aching. It will probably be the worst. It’s stiff and during the night it had ached. My left thigh is throbbing. I reach my hand under the warm blanket to stroke it. It’s a swollen lump.

It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen.

 Alice stirs in the bed beside me. I roll over to look at her. She is sprawled across the mattress; her head is on my pillow, her feet in his back.

Does he have bruises from that?

 An alarm starts chirping. I roll over to face the window, closing my eyes again.

I am asleep. I am asleep.

 I can hear him getting up, rummaging in his closet next to the bed. I hear a rustling as he pulls his suit out, then the door that adjoins our room to the bathroom slides open and he is gone. I turn my head to look at Alice. She is perfect. Her mouth parted in her sleep, long dark eyelashes sweeping her cheeks. Her plump hands are curled into fists resting near her face. She snores quietly. I can hear the rushing of water from the bathroom, then silence, then dishes clattering in the kitchen. Finally, the front door opens and bangs shut. The echo of the slam rings throughout the house. Alice snorts awake.

“Good morning, bubba.” I say brightly. I scoop her into my arms, kissing her chubby cheeks, and carry her out into the kitchen. The curtains are opened wide and a butter-yellow light pours in through the windows. We have the whole day to ourselves.

I make Alice breakfast. I tidy the kitchen. I do the laundry, taking Alice out to play in her pool whilst I hang out the washing. Sometime after lunch I start preparing dinner. I am careful to not use much capsicum. He hates capsicum, says the flavor overpowers the rest of the food because I always use too much. I glance up at the clock, 4:30 pm stares back at me.

I can hear that door slam again. Bang! And then the silence, his way of

communicating to me. Cautiously I approach the computer and turn it on, the machine whirring as it starts up. One word dominates the screen: password. I type it in, incorrect. His way of communicating to me also, the phones that have been unplugged and the password to the computer reset. I switch off the machine and hurry back to stir the pasta sauce, scared that I even tried.

I keep my own phone close, in my pocket at all times. I am lucky to still have it.

Should I ring again? Should I ring? Should I ring? But, what good would it do? What would I say?

 By five we are sitting around the table, eating the spaghetti. Alice has hers in the high chair. She has thrown her plastic fork aside and is using her hands, scooping handfuls of pasta and shoveling them into her mouth. Pasta sauce stretches from her neck up to her nose. She grins at me, reaching up to run a hand through her hair.

“Oh, Alice.” I sigh as she leaves a trail of sticky noodles. She laughs, picks up her bowl and throws it to the floor.

“All done,” she declares. I haven’t the heart to yell at her.

“Okay, darling.” I say, leaving my own bowl untouched. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

Water slops over the edge of the bath, soaking into the pile of spaghetti-splattered clothing, as Alice kicks her feet in delight. I pluck some spaghetti from her hair as she bends her head. Wet curls cling to her cheeks as she licks the bubbles foaming on the surface.

“No, Alice. Yucky!” I exclaim, widening my eyes in mock-horror. I scoop some of the bubbles up and cover her in them.

“Yucky bubbles,” she whoops. I scoop some more and, holding them in my hands, show her how to clap and send them flying. I could sit here all night scooping bubbles and clapping- listening to Alice giggling. I turn around to check my phone, hidden behind my makeup bag. No messages, no missed calls. I meet my reflections gaze, worry and fear lurking in my expression. I can see my skin blackening already. I look away, unwilling to look directly. If I pretend it’s not there maybe I can pretend it never happened.

It didn’t happen. It didn’t happen.

 “More, more.” Alice whines, reaching a soapy hand out to me.

“Okay! More bubbles.” I force a smile, cringing at my shrill cheer. Thank god she is too young to notice. I hear a door bang shut and footsteps just as my phone rings. The ringing sounds too loud as Alice stops giggling. The screen shows my parents number. I reach for the phone, hesitating as I hear him outside the bathroom door. Alice stands up reaching out to me.

“Mummy?” she trembles. I silence the phone, throwing it beneath a towel, as the door swings open.

“I’m just giving her a bath.” I explain. “She was covered in her dinner, threw it everywhere…It was even in her hair.” I avoid his eyes.

“Where’s your phone?” he asks. I pause, not knowing what to do.

“I haven’t rung anyone,” I answer.

“Where is your phone?” he repeats, stretching out his hand. I reach down and pull it from beneath the towels. He takes it, looking at it thoughtfully.

“Missed a call from your mum, I see.” He says. “Been trying to ring her, huh?” Paralyzed by my own weakness, I choke back tears. Alice begins to cry.

“I have to get Ally ready for bed.” I squeak. I pick her up, wrapping a towel around her, and kiss her on the forehead.

“It’s okay, darling.” I whisper as I brush past him to the safety of Alice’s room.

It’s okay. It’s okay.