Women who have experienced domestic violence have many fears.
Fear of their abuser. Fear for the safety of their children. Fear for other loved ones, and pets.
There is also fear their stories of abuse and pain will not be believed by professionals and the little control they have in their lives will be lost if they speak out.
Sherry* was one of those people, a mother of three young children who works tirelessly for their happiness and well being.
Sherry’s story highlights the unspoken issues around how the legal system and services related to domestic violence prevention fail victims. How these services often lacked the empathy, compassion and proper support Sherry needed as she emerged from her horrendous situation.
Before telling Sherry’s story, we should point out her name and any identifiable details have been altered in order to ensure the safety and privacy of herself and her children.
Tragically Sherry, like many, felt powerless in her own home as her former husband both physically and emotionally abused her and her children. According to the National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety, 61 per cent of women have had children in their care while experiencing violence, with 62 per cent experiencing violence within their own homes.
As she sought help Sherry often found herself being disregarded by those she sought help from.
Sherry said she remembers one occasion when a reputable professional she sought showed complete apathy towards her pain and criticised her for her emotional state.
“I think the fact that she [the professional] didn’t identify that I came out of such a harmful situation is something that made me feel as if my story wasn’t worth talking about,” she said.
“She was yelling at me because I couldn’t remember things and I can remember walking out halfway through the interview because I just couldn’t take it.
“You would think people like her would realise that people coming out of these situations are in a bad way and the fact that she treated me like I wasn’t even worth her time just really hit me.”
Sherry said her experience with a magistrate was no different. She was advised by the magistrate to seek counselling with her husband, regardless of the evidence she presented.
“I was sitting there with all my evidence of what he’s done and he adjourned the session and told us to seek counselling.
“This magistrate virtually tried to council us to get back together and I remember him say ‘come on guys, you look like a nice couple’,” she said.
“I’ve done years of counseling with this man, but you can’t say that to a magistrate and I found myself time and time again being shut off by these people.”
This pattern repeated for Sherry, as even though there was evidence on her side, she remained voiceless to those who were supposed to help her.
Sherry said her husband’s non-violent demeanour even influenced the authorities who also overlooked her situation due to the front her husband put up to the outside world.
“Even when a police officer came into my house he said ‘this house is beautiful’ and totally disregarded what I said purely because the house was clean,” she said
Police expect houses of domestic violence victims to be dirty and in a bad suburb with nappies on the floor and holes everywhere.”
Startling figures show a woman dies at the hands of a current or former partner almost every week in Australia, with some research suggesting even higher rates. Last year over 80 Australian women died at the hands of their male partner. Australian women are more likely to die in their home at the hands of their male partner than anywhere else.
Sherry said she remembers how violent her former husband was and what he did to herself and her children.
“He had me by the throat at one occasion,” she said.
“He also used to throws things at me and the kids and almost threw a chair at me at one occasion, and I just couldn’t believe that man had the right to see my children, even though he abused us.”
Griffith University Domestic Violence Law lecturer, Patricia Thompson said there is still much to be desired with the family court.
“The family court judges are looking at cases like these with eyes that are very blinkered for a number of different reasons,” she said.
“The family law act is based on our constitution, and our constitution was written in 1903 by men who had no clue that women and children are not property.
Ms Thompson said there is an issue in the family court where there is a lack of properly qualified professionals.
“For a long time, the family court hasn’t had properly specialised experts in domestic violence informing them and educating them,” she said.
“They have psychologists who have no understanding of domestic violence and who then go and ask victims ‘How much time are you going to give the father?’ with no clue that the man is dangerous.”
Sherry said she was even further traumatised by the fact she was blamed for the actions of her former husband by a councilor.
“I went to counselling on and off and went to Relationships Australia where straight away the councilor said to me ‘you’re abusive to him’ and ‘you’re reactive’ and we both looked to each other,” she said.
“I didn’t know what abuse was at that time and I didn’t know why I was being attacked so much.
“It was just all too much for me and I just felt further traumatised by the fact these people just looked at me and thought I was the problem.”
Manager of DVConnect’s Mensline, Mark Walters said women could definitely be traumatised further if seeking help from inadequately trained domestic violence professionals.
“A professional who isn’t properly trained in hearing a woman’s story could be making incorrect evaluations and judgements as they may not be familiar with the dynamics or the robust analysis required for domestic and family violence,” he said.
“Things can be said and insinuated and the woman can be made to feel that her story is not credible, as the professional could only be looking at the presented facts.
“This can shut one more door and one more avenue of help and the woman will most likely go back to her abusive situation.”
24 per cent of women have never sought advice or support for their situation, with an even greater number of women never contacting police.
Sherry said she was intimidated by the language of legal professionals, leaving her voiceless in most conversations.
“The intimidation of these people just made me feel so powerless and it was all too much and too raw for me,” she said.
“We [single mothers] are expected to understand the system and learn all this terminology.”
Executive Officer of Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia, Karen Willis said some women’s stories can be too horrendous to be believed at times.
“Sometimes the stories women tell can be so unbelievable because they’re so horrendous and women can often be shut down and return to their domestic violence environment because of that unbelief,” she said.
“It can be difficult for single mothers to find the right support they need, as their kids are often first on their mind when thinking about how they can get them out of their situation.”
Ms Willis said friends and family can come under the illusion of the victim being in a happy home with a loving partner.
“Perpetrators can go to great lengths in hiding the violence in their homes and present their family as a happy one, and it can be difficult to see that it’s just a front,” she said.
“There’s the question of ‘Why doesn’t the person just leave’ and our response to that is ‘why doesn’t the person just cut it out?’
“We need to look past these ‘fronts’ and help women who are not believed and provide them the support they need for a better life.”
Sherry said she is in a stronger place now and is purely interested in the safety and future of her children.
“I’m in a better place now than what I was a few years ago since that time,” she said.
“Looking back on it now, I never realised how bad it truly was and I’m just glad that after a few times of moving out, I was able to leave and start recovering with my children.”
If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic violence please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline on 1800 787 3224.
In an emergency, please call 000.