Confronting family violence, Canberra Times, 1 July
In the house where Emma* grew up, family violence was a regular part of life. Her father was abusive to Emma’s mother, and to the children. Emma told me that the smell of Dettol still evokes fear, as it reminds her of her mother’s injuries. Eventually, the harm that Emma’s mother sustained during her life would contribute to her early death at age 69.
When she grew up, Emma was determined not to suffer what her own mother had endured. But over the coming decades, she would find herself in two abusive relationships. In each case, she told me, there were some people – like the police officers to whom she reported the violence – who were supportive.
But then there were others who didn’t seem to understand her situation. One person suggested that perhaps it was just a ‘relationship problem’, and she needed to work harder to resolve it. Others questioned whether she had reported the violence from the very first blow, and suggested that she was a bad mother to her children if she had not sought an apprehended violence order immediately.
Money was an issue. In the hope of minimising conflict, she chose to tell Centrelink that she was getting child support payments directly, but then didn’t ask for any money. This meant that she lost much of her income support payments, and had to rely on food hampers from local charities. Emma moved from her home into a caravan park, and found herself re-living the poverty she had experienced as a child.
The legal processes made the problems harder. Even while proceedings were on foot against one of her former partners, Emma was required by a court to coordinate shared custody. This sometimes meant meeting up with a man she was trying to stay away from. In an ideal situation, these visits would have been supervised in a safe space – but resource constraints don’t always make this possible.
Amidst all the organisations she reached out to, Emma spoke most highly of the Women’s Legal Centre – who found her a lawyer, and helped her keep her job as a public servant. They did more than provide advice for her court hearings; they also kept her going through the darkest hours.
For too long, policymakers have been reluctant to do enough about family violence. Victims and perpetrators alike have felt too ashamed to ask for help, while those who should know better have too often pretended that violence in the home is a ‘private’ matter which doesn’t require the law to intervene.
Thankfully, this is starting to change. Current Australian of the Year Rosie Batty is criss-crossing the country, telling her story and working to shape laws while changing attitudes. Rosie should never have had to take on this kind of national prominence. Had he not been killed by his father, her son Luke would have turned 13 a few weeks ago. But she has forced our nation to confront family violence, and inspired us to do more.
Part of the response to family violence must be to provide adequate resources to our community legal centres. And yet the Abbott Government has cut about $6 million in funding from these frontline services, making it harder for them to help women fleeing dangerous family situations.
Here in the ACT, the Women’s Legal Centre and our other community centres will see their funding fall off a cliff in 2017 with hundreds of thousands of dollars being stripped from their budgets. Over half of the clients the Women’s Legal Centre sees have been affected by family violence, so these cutbacks will directly affect people who have been traumatised.
As family lawyer Juliette Ford points out, cuts like these represent a false economy. Reducing funding on the presumption that people can represent themselves in court will only cause further delays in our legal system.
Stories like Emma’s remind us that we need to work towards a world that is free of family violence. Her strength through adversity is extraordinary, and it highlights that the rest of us need to be just as strong in standing up for services that support women like her. Eliminating family violence means not remaining silent – if we experience it, if we see it, and if anything threatens the vital supports people rely on to put a stop to it.
* Not her real name.
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