Forgotten victims of domestic violence in Australia

ON the way from the front door into the kitchen, 48-year-old businesswoman Nina* pulls open the sparkling new oven door. This is where the kitchen knives are stashed for safekeeping.

"Josh* will go into the kitchen to get a knife. I don't know whether the knife's to harm himself or to harm his brother, so I just hide the knives," she explains.

Nina and her four children - Josh, 17, Ethan, 15, Lucy, 13 and Sophia, 11 - have only been living in this state-owned home for a couple of weeks.

After enduring more than 15 years of abuse at the hands of her former husband, Rick,* Nina finally managed to leave.

This is a fresh start and a reason to celebrate - but like so many survivors, Nina knows domestic violence casts a long shadow over her children.

"I don't see them as happy kids," she says. "I used to try to convince myself, 'He's just an arsehole. I'm going to leave him'. But in the meantime, all the damage was happening."

From a young age, Josh had learning difficulties and struggled socially. When they lived as a family, Rick always picked on Josh, calling him "a f****** retard" and a "f****** idiot."

For Nina, the impacts of Rick's abusive behaviour on her eldest son are devastating. On many occasions, she's found Josh ready to harm himself.

"He talks about killing himself all the time," she says. As a mother "you have to de-escalate the situation and try and calm things down."

With her second child, Ethan, his violence is usually directed at others.

"Quite often when we are arguing he will … stand over me, get in my face and scream at me. He has no idea what he's doing is actually intimidation in the identical form of his father," Nina says.

Her 13-year-old daughter has yet another issue - separation anxiety. She won't let Nina out of her sight.

As immovable as Nina's situation sounds, she is steely and full of hope.

"I'm just offering them any help they need, and I'm persistent," she says with a smile. "I owe them every opportunity to heal."

Although each child responds differently, studies show the impacts of childhood exposure to domestic violence can include: depression and anxiety, trauma symptoms, increased aggression and anti-social behaviour, lower social competence and loneliness or peer conflict, low self-esteem, being constantly afraid, having trouble at school, impaired cognitive functioning and increased likelihood of substance abuse.

According to analysis by ANROWS (Australian National Research Organisation for Women's Safety) of the ABS Personal Safety Survey from 2012, more than "half a million women reported their children had seen or heard partner violence" since the age of 15.

Although it's impossible to gauge exactly how many children this accounts for across the country, separate research shows that in Western Australia, Victoria and NSW, "there were a total of 70,951 children reported for concerns involving DFV (domestic family violence) ... between 2010-11 and 2013-14".

'I WAS IN THE YARD HANGING LAUNDRY'

Taking a sip of her coffee, Nina places her cup down with a slow, deliberate movement as she recollects the chilling incident that forced her to leave Rick.

It was a hot day, she tells me. All four children were inside in the airconditioning. The boys were playing computer games and the girls were watching TV. Rick came home from work.

"I was in the yard hanging the laundry. All of a sudden, through the back door, I hear Sophia screaming at the top of her lungs: 'Dad, stop it. Dad, stop it, Dad!'"

Sophia didn't just say it once. She was shouting it repeatedly. In return, Rick was screaming: "Shut the f*** up. All the neighbours will hear."

There was a terror in her daughter's voice that made Nina drop the wet clothes in the dirt and rush indoors. Josh was standing in the family room with the dog lead wrapped twice around his neck, crying inconsolably. Then Ethan said: "Dad tried to strangle him."

Nina wanted to separate her children from Rick as fast as possible. She sent the kids to their rooms. This was the end of line. Her only thought was: "I have to get out."

Three days later Nina was cleaning Josh's room and she found a homemade shiv - a knifelike blade designed to be used as weapon.

Josh told her he had the implement in case "Dad ever hurts me like that again".

"That really did affect me," Nina says. "I thought, 'If my children think they need a knife to protect themselves from their father, then something's really, really wrong'."

Cathy Humphreys, a Professor of Social Work at the University of Melbourne, has been working in the area of children and domestic violence for more than 20 years. She's unequivocal about the effect of domestic violence on children - and who is to blame.

"When men choose to be violent towards their partners, they're also choosing to harm their children," Dr Humphreys says. "That notion that you can be a good father but a bad partner, is an oxymoron."

During our interview, she repeatedly underscores the human rights of the child; Dr Humphreys says we don't do enough to listen to child victims and witnesses of domestic and family violence.

"We tend to be so protective of children that it means that we make them invisible," Dr Humphreys says. "It's an area where we continue to not do enough to hear children's experiences."

Not only must the mother be allowed to leave the violent relationship, she continues, but the child too: "We don't allow children to leave a violent relationship often … I'd like to see much greater use of no-contact orders or indirect contact orders."

A so-called "no-contact order" can be imposed by a court. It forbids a person from approaching or contacting another person - in this case a violent parent with their child.

Dr Humphreys says in cases where the child wasn't directly harmed by the domestic violence perpetrator - but the mother was harmed - the court may well assume, "he's still a safe person with baby."

"Give me break," Dr Humphreys continues. "It's a complete brain fade on the part of our family law system to not see these connections."

Reflecting on her own experiences, Nina agrees we need to listen harder to children.

"It's too confronting to hear what children have to say about being the silent victims of domestic violence because if you did actually listen, every parent that is supposedly staying for the sake of children would have to think twice," she says.

"My message to domestic violence victims who stay just to stay to keep the family unit together is: Don't stay for the kids. Their future is worth more than the damage caused by staying."

When Nina met Rick many years ago, she found herself flattered - and caught up in the romance of it.

"He was attentive, engaging, persistent … I had no time to consider. I was just swept off my feet," she says.

Not long after getting married, Nina got an abusive phone call from Rick. He was blind drunk and shouted down the line: "You don't love me anymore. I f****** hate you. You're a f****** bitch."

Although Nina found the call unsettling, she assumed it was a one-off. In fact, the opposite was the case. Over the years Rick's drinking increased and so did his abusive phone calls and his jealousy.

Fairly rapidly, the financial abuse also began. Under the guise of cutting bank fees, Rick insisted on a joint bank account.

"I always had to ask him for money," Nina recalls. "He paid all the bills, and he managed all the finances. So my pay went straight to him."

If Nina wanted to go for coffee with a friend, she always had to explain why she needed the money and how long she'd be gone.

He'd say things like: "You're a lazy f****** bitch. I'm sick of doing everything around this house."

When Rick went out drinking with his mates, he'd come home intoxicated and boiling with rage. Nina tells me about him shoving her and bending her fingers backwards. She tells me about trying to get away and locking herself inside the kids' wardrobe.

In the last year of their marriage, Nina says, the situation became so bad that she'd frequently take the children and sleep at a friend's house. Then one day when he was stone cold sober, Rick told Nina he'd kill her - and she believed him.

At this stage, Dr Humphreys notes that women who leave violent partners face a very real dangers, including becoming homeless.

"You need a lot of support to be able to leave and to leave safely … so that your life and your children's life is going to be better," she says.

At the time Nina lived with Rick, she "fooled myself" that the kids weren't that badly affected. In hindsight, she knows differently.

Since leaving Rick, Nina has connected her kids with numerous support services; she aims to give them the best possible chance at recovery.

Through the Canberra non-profit Menslink - an organisation that supports young men aged 12-25 - Josh was given a mentor - John.

When Nina speaks about John and Menslink, her voice lifts. Josh and John get together three times a month and speak regularly on the phone.

Nina describes John as young (he's 37), different, outrageous and kind-hearted - just like her eldest son.

"When they're together, Josh is at peace because he's got a friend and no one can touch that," she says.

"I have never seen my son so happy, so engaged and so trusting. His mentor is the complete antithesis of what my son previously knew as masculinity. It has meant that my son gets off technology, goes to the gym, hangs out, eats pizza, laughs and is engaged with life."

*For safety reasons, names and some identifying details have been changed

If you or someone you love is impacted by sexual assault or family violence, call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). In an emergency, call 000.

Ginger Gorman is an award-winning print and radio journalist. Follow her on Twitter @GingerGorman or support her work on Patreon.

News Corp Australia


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