“It would be nice to be free from abuse, but I don’t think I ever will be.”
Ballarat resident Penny, not her real name, says she continues to live in constant fear and anxiety several years after separating from her abusive husband.
She is one of thousands of women across the state who may never truly escape family violence.
Domestic Violence Resource Centre data reveals women face an increased risk of being killed or seriously injured when leaving or separating from an abusive partner.
A researcher in Ballarat is following a new line of inquiry into family violence by focusing on the impact of family violence after separation.
Federation University associate professor Elisa Backer is completing a second PhD on how equal shared parental responsibility impacts victims of family violence and their children post-separation.
Dr Backer says the tie of equal shared parental responsibility can be used to continue control and abuse of women after separation.
“People think once you are separated you are free from the violence, but the Family Law Act keeps that connection,” she said.
Despite much controversy, the federal government amended the Family Law Act 1975 in 2006 to presume equal shared parental responsibility.
The order of equal shared responsibility legally binds the parents to consult and try to come to agreement with each other about decisions affecting the child’s health, schooling, ability to see or communicate with either parent and religion.
The amendment was introduced to encourage more shared and co-operative parenting after separation, but the changes were criticised for the degree of protection it would offer women and child victims of family violence.
Dr Backer explains there is a clause which allows shared parental responsibility to be rebutted in cases of family violence, but it was not being exercised as often as it should be.
“An abusive and controlling person can use equal shared parental responsibility inappropriately,” she said.
“The female never gets proper freedom and there can be consequences for the child’s wellbeing. What is not utilised effectively in court is the opportunity to rebut it and say ‘in this situation, equal shared parental responsibility should not apply’.”
Dr Backer says many victims of family violence she has spoken to for research have not understood their ability to fight ‘the default language’ of equal shared parental responsibility that is getting ‘rolled out’.
She says those who do know the option often get exhausted and give up fighting. For those who don’t go through the legal system, equal shared parental responsibility exists by default.
“I would like to see better awareness of the opportunity in the Family Law Act to rebut equal shared parental responsibility which can be done if there has been an instance of child abuse or family violence,” Ms Becker says.
“That is the real ticket to freedom because otherwise an abusive person can continue control from outside of the home. You have still got that umbilical cord connecting to the abusive person and the children are caught in between.”
Penny says she didn’t realise she was living in domestic violence. Her partner was aggressive – he would punch holes in the wall at home – and they would often fight.
It wasn’t until one night when she was restrained on the bed by the throat that she knew this behaviour was not right. But she was not yet ready to leave.
Looking back, Penny realises the emotional abuse and conditioning to be submissive had been happening since they were teenagers.
“I have been working with the counsellors at Ballarat Community Health since our separation. It has been a process of realising that this behaviour isn’t normal,” she says.
“Since a teenager it was a slow acceptance of just existing in a relationship. I have done a lot of work to realise the conditioning, the control and the loss of being an equal. In the relationship I didn’t know my emotions – his emotions were mine, his needs trumped everyone else’s. I was conditioned to support him and keep the peace.
“I want to change the way society sees domestic violence. It is not always physical abuse. Using control is not okay.”
Since separation, it has been a lengthy, emotionally draining and costly process through court which has left Penny with a jaded view of the legal system.
She has felt harshly judged by both some friends and the legal system.
“Society makes so many comments - ‘oh you’ve got a nasty separation’ - no it is not nasty, he wasn’t okay with me - ‘oh but what did you do?’. There is so much put back on me,” she says.
“At court I really feel that I am being slammed as one of ‘those’ women who manipulate the situation and cry wolf of domestic violence. I am lucky he was charged with assault. But I found the courts very dismissive about abuse.”
Penny and her ex-partner are ordered to follow equal shared parental responsibility with set times for the children to be spent with each parent.
She fought in court against her ex-partner’s push for 50 per cent care time because she believed it was not in the best interests of their children.
“The barrister told me I would have no choice but to give in to overnight time because if I took it further he could get more than I was prepared to offer,” she says.
“My experience is a lot of the lawyers aren’t motivated to find a resolution. They are not motivated to put the children first... There is no incentive for them to settle. The incentive for them is to keep it going because they make more money.
“I would love to see specialised accreditation for lawyers. If they are going to be working in family law and it is identified that one partner is abusive, there should be specific confines they have to work within to resolve with a solution that is the best interests of the children. For me it was more feeling forced they had to spend time with their dad.
“I think because I didn’t report it straight to the police when there was violence straight away, I am looked at as if it is not as significant, that it is an after the fact and ‘she is just using this now’.”
The abusive behaviour is still continuing, most concernedly for Penny in the form of surveillance. When she and the children moved house it took her ex-partner only five days to find their new home.
“It’s like a tug of war with the children,” she says.
“A school concert finished 15 minutes before he was due to return them to me but he made them walk out to sit in the car before they could come back to me. They weren’t even allowed to stop and talk to me as they walked past.”
On one occasion, her ex-partner tried to swerve her car off the road. At another school event he was taking photos of her all night. “I will never put myself in a situation where I am in a private place with him,” Penny says.
“I will never be free.”
DEMAND FOR SUPPORT RISES
Organisations in Ballarat working to provide family violence support say they are struggling to meet the rising demand for services.
Police recorded 1913 incidents of family violence in Ballarat from the period of June 2017 to June 2018.
Ballarat was ranked 14th of all local government areas in Victoria for rates of incidents of family violence reported to police in 2016/17.
WRISC Family Violence Support program manager Sally, who asked for her surname not to be revealed, says an increasing number of people are seeking help.
“Services across the state are stretched and we are the same. We’re inundated.”
Services across the state are stretched and we are the same.Sally, WRISC Family Violence Support
Sally says a whole of system approach is needed in Ballarat to meet demand for services.
“It is trying to get everyone working together around the issue of family violence, from police responses, to court responses, to welfare agencies, to child protection, to schools,” she says. “We really need everybody on board to support these families and keep them safe. We also need to be holding perpetrators to account.”
The royal commission into family violence in 2016 made 227 recommendations to improve the foundations of the current system.
Sally expects it will take some time for many recommendations to be implemented, but many improvements to the sector have already been made.
New laws introduced in June now allow victims of family violence to give recorded statements via police body-cameras.
A new police unit based out of Ballarat has been solely focused on family violence since August.
But intimate partner violence remains the leading cause of death, disability and illness in Victorian women aged 15 to 44.
Sally says the impact on children is often forgotten.
“Children’s development can be interrupted through family violence and ongoing violence post-separation, particularly when the children are being used as weapons against the mother.
“There was a case where the child would go to see his dad and would be encouraged to talk about his mum but also his dad would be quite abusive about his mum and almost brainwash him in some ways. Then when he returned to his mum’s care he would physically assault her almost on behalf of dad.”
PhD researcher Dr Elisa Backer will be speaking at Federation University about family violence on Friday November 23 from 11am to 12pm for White Ribbon Day at Ballarat Technology Park.
She, like Penny and Sally will continue advocating for education to break the cycle, legal change to better support victims and information to help young women and men see the signs.
You can RSVP to the Federation University family violence lecture by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org by November 16.