It's time to talk about family violence

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Content warning: This article discusses family violence

By now, in Australia, we’ve all read and seen the statistics about family violence. We’ve heard the names Hannah Baxter, and Tara Costigan. We’ve seen the outrage on social media, and the lack of action by anybody in parliament.

Woman looking out car window (Getty images/Danielle Kiemel)

We’ve hoped for change, and justice for those who have lost their lives to such senseless acts. Every week there seems to be a new article floating up about a woman being murdered.

While family violence and intimate partner violence are spoken about in Australia, there isn’t much general knowledge when it comes to the court process and what happens next.

As a survivor of family violence, I think it’s time to talk about it.

Here’s what happened to me: I was attacked by someone I loved and trusted; whom I knew firsthand had a history of physically hurting others. I just never thought it would happen to me. I called 000. The responder stayed on the phone with me the entire time, awkwardly telling me to ‘just breathe. Yep, just… breathe again, okay?’ as I hyperventilated, locked in my childhood bedroom closet. He liaised with me and the police as they drove over to the house and immediately arrested my attacker.

I was shell shocked and dazed when the constable crouched down beside me in the front lawn and asked me if I wanted to press charges. I hesitated. He said, ‘what if he does this again? To another girl?’ Shame crept inside of me at the knowledge that he had done this to other girls, and other people, and I had always sat by. So, I nodded. The constable asked if he could record me for a statement, which they’d play in court, and immediately my face had been one of pure panic. The constable pushed me, gently, ‘It’s just so it’s fresh in your mind now. I ask you questions about what happened. Take your time — it’s easier to do it now, then try and remember in court, months later’. This both soothed, and didn’t soothe me, but I agreed to film a statement.

 

'There was something so heavy and blunt about the entire process, as if emotions weren’t allowed in a court of law.'

 

I had no idea what any of it meant or what was going to happen.

Things didn’t slow down, or wait for me to catch up. A couple days later, the same constable called me and said DVCS (Domestic Violence Crisis Centre) would be in contact with me, to assist with housing and support if I needed. He also mentioned, offhandedly, that the police would be filing a family violence order on my behalf. There was so much information given that I ended up just mumbling a response. A few days later, DVCS called me, and provided even more information. It overwhelmed me, and I ended up saying nothing in response. They said they’d check in on me later. For the next few months, sporadically, the constable and DVCS would call me to check up on me, but it was so overwhelming that I found myself feeling strangely alienated from the entire process.

A few months passed, and I got served a subpoena. Half a year later, I attended criminal court.

Recently, I sat down and spoke to a friend of mine, who has been working as a paralegal in one of Canberra’s frontline community legal sectors for a couple of years. She said she used to see about five to six family violence cases a day. The majority, she noted, were usually women coming in to place an order against a male for intimate partner (or ex-partner) violence, however, gay relationships were also common. Now, with the term family violence being used as a general umbrella phrase for any sort of abuse (physical, financial, emotional), there’s been an uptick of elder abuse that she’s seen, too.

From her point of view and legal experience, there’s numerous different ways family violence cases can go: going to criminal court, she implied, is the difficult route. That’s where a case needs to be proven beyond reasonable doubt. ‘Nobody wants it to go to an actual courtroom,’ she told me, confidently, with a shake of her head. ‘Most family violence cases end up being dealt with in a shuttle mediation, where both parties attend court in separate rooms. A mediator goes between both parties to try and reach an agreement. Criminal proceedings commence when a person is being charged, but that’s also when there needs to be a higher, and clearer level of evidence. This can be hard to show in a family violence case, because a lot of it happens behind closed doors and doesn’t leave much concise evidence to be presented.’

I understand what she tells me all too well. I still remember just how awful it had been to attend criminal court. Afterwards, my eldest brother, best friend and I all sat in the car together, driving home in silence. There was something so heavy and blunt about the entire process, as if emotions weren’t allowed in a court of law.

My friend tells me when you call the police to your house for a family violence case, they are pro-prosecution. This is due to how common it is for survivors of family violence to backtrack or relent from going to court. In my case, my perpetrator already had a record, and similar offences listed against him.

Being told this by her, though, had me recalling how the police urged me to make a video statement. My friend recognised this as a common thing the police do: ‘They want you to do a video statement because that can be used in court, in case you later recant, or try and back out of the whole case. That way the police can try and still prosecute something against the perpetrator.’

As my friend goes through the entire process of family violence cases, I found myself feeling baffled. I had already felt out of the loop by the process as a whole when I had been the one living it, but now with her information, I felt even further alienated. My friend told me that that feeling isn’t uncommon. Sometimes, the police simply don’t communicate as to what’s happening, and what the legal proceeding will be. They don’t always explain that there are all these bits and pieces in the middle, like going to criminal court, possible shuttle mediations, and filing different orders. Family violence orders are sometimes the easier route. I wish I had known and understood them better. I wish somebody had told me what she did, and explained it in a way that wasn’t terrifying and overwhelming.

 

'You don’t have to stay. It’s hard, but once you leave, it’s like breathing the freshest breath of air in the world.'

 

Family violence orders are not as longwinded as they may sound. If you come in and need an immediate order placed for your safety, you get something called an ‘interim order’. This is when there are recent and clear signs of family violence. That same day, you go before a deputy registrar in a closed court, where you’re questioned over the forms you filled out, noting the incident/s that occurred, and the conditions you want set out for your protection order. However, if you try reporting something that happened over a month ago, and nothing has happened to you since, you’re not very likely to receive an interim order. Whether you get the interim order or not, a few weeks later both parties attend to their assigned, separate courtrooms for the aforementioned shuttle mediation.

Shuttle mediation needs to reach an agreed settlement from both sides, however. If you don’t, or can’t, reach a mutual agreement at the meditation, a couple months later you return to try for a final hearing. This is no longer a matter between two parties, but when the magistrate and the court come in, and they decide for both parties as to what the family violence order will include.

So, what if somebody doesn’t respect the order placed on them? It turns out, this doesn’t happen as frequently as I thought it would. My friend said she’d seen a few innocent slip ups, where there’d been a misunderstanding of what the order contains. But if somebody does purposefully breach an order, you can report it to the police. She’s quick to add, ‘whether something constitutes as a breach is at the discretion of the police, though’.

However, if you know somebody isn’t going to respect a family violence order, then that’s where your safety becomes the most important thing. If you’re at risk, then the best thing for you is to find a way to leave, safely. Call a support service or visit their website, and start safety planning. Try and reach out, and build a support network. There are people who will help, and are dedicated to help, because sadly, there’s only so much that can be done from a legal point of view.

You don’t have to stay. It’s hard, but once you leave, it’s like breathing the freshest breath of air in the world. It’s no longer walking on eggshells around someone. It’s no more being awoken during the night by unpredictable behaviour. It becomes your life again, just like it became my life again. And I intend to live it, for every person out there who carries the fear I used to, for every person who managed to leave — and those who didn’t.

We deserve a happy ending.

 

 

Geeta SharmaGeetanjali, or Geeta, Sharma is a 23-year-old cis woman who was born and raised in Canberra, Australia. Ever since a young age, she's been writing. It started by rewriting Buffy The Vampire Slayer scripts, into writing some admittedly embarrassing fan fiction, into finishing a Bachelor of Writing over at the University of Canberra. Writing has and always will be her one true love. 

If you or someone you know is experiencing family or domestic violence please contact 1800RESPECT or a service based in your state or territory.

Main image: Woman looking out car window (Getty images/Danielle Kiemel)

Topic tags: Geetanjali Sharma, family violence, Australia

 

 

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Existing comments

“Peace I leave you; my peace I give you.” Peace is a pearl of great price. Those who are gifted it should beware a familiarity which breeds a forgetfulness that it is there.
roy chen yee | 11 March 2020


Thank you for sharing so openly and poignantly, wishing you every success and joy. Family violence needs to be recognised and acknowledged fully throughout our society and communities before we see its cessation. The churches have a role to play, as do sporting clubs, our places of learning, our cultural and subcultural cliques, etc. It starts with this kind of courage.
Barry Gittins | 12 March 2020


Thanks for having the courage to tell your story, which was beautifully told, Geeta. Keep writing.
Ed Campion | 12 March 2020


Geeta you are very courageous to share this story so widely. A few years ago - as a union OH&S officer - I was assisting a social worker who was helping a woman and her children on a remote town escape from a violent partner. The plan was that when the abusive partner was out for a short time, the social worker with the support of local police would escort the victim and her children to the nearest public transport to make their escape. Timing was of the essence. As it turned out, the police failed to arrive. Fortunately though, the woman and her children were able to make good their escape. It is good to know that in your case the police were more reliable and sympathetic. It is plainly obvious that we need more police to protect those who need to escape and provide many more safe and secure havens for victims of domestic violence (DV). And more needs to be done to prevent DV from occurring in the first place. Our federal government could be doing a lot more to protect citizens, but spends tax payer dollars in other areas eg huge tax rebates for the wealthy, US wars, lavish cash handouts, Captain Cook memorials etc. etc. It is surely time to put the welfare of the victims of DV before the greeds of a small minority.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 12 March 2020


Thank you for your bravery in sharing y our experience and knowledge. This is an article we all should read. The article is not only informative, it is very well written. Keep up the good work. I will be interested in reading anything you write in the future. Take care.
Margaret McDonald | 12 March 2020


Great illustrations, Geeta, Sanskrit for "song". Legal protection against domestic violence has been greatly reduced in post-Soviet Russia, part of the recrudescence of the Orthodox Church's power in that unhappy land. In Tsarist times, the Church published DOMOSTROI, a manual of male domination. This included chapters on disciplining wives: the strict limitation of their expressed ideas; the maximum recommended physical chastisement - a sad necessity at times, not to be shirked by the Christian Head of Household; the appropriate cane, strap or whip to use. Nearly a century ago, the naughty atheist Bolsheviks made all this a crime. After Yeltsin's repudiation of the USSR, culminating in practising prayerful Putin's neoTsarism, all that Commo excess, like free medical care and female equality, has been laid to rest.
james marchment | 12 March 2020


What an excellent and helpful article which I know would have taken much courage to decide to write. I hope it gives courage to others who may be experiencing family violence, that they too can breathe the freshest of air again too.
Carol | 12 March 2020


‘Try and reach out, and build a support network. There are people who will help, and are dedicated to help, because sadly, there’s only so much that can be done from a legal point of view.’ How true. I’d add - make the most of the informal communities you already belong to. We all need them, but sometimes we don’t realise how essential community is until there’s a crisis. The bureaucracy can never completely replace it. The police and the courts did what they could for Geeta, but in the end it was her brother and her friend who were there for her all the way.
Joan Seymour | 12 March 2020


we teach violence and therefore we must end violence
maryellen flynn | 13 March 2020


Geeta, As a guy happily married 35+ years , I just wonder what makes these guys tick? I can't for even a millisecond imagine putting a hand against my wife.They obviously have an issue and we as a society need to address the issue not put it out of sight, out of mind. I agree, you are very brave. Good luck with your life.
Gavin O'Brien | 17 March 2020


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