Sitting at the dining table in a humble Alfredton home, an elderly lady with a warm smile shares her harrowing story of abuse, with a composure and sense of calm that can only come with age and tremendous courage and strength.
For Balllarat resident Mary, not her real name, violence, abuse and neglect has been the most constant part of her life for years not that far off a century.
Growing up as a child she was subject to her mother’s emotional abuse, as a woman she was victim to her husband’s physical abuse, and as a grandmother she has worked to save her grandson from violence and neglect.
Family violence becomes intergenerational if support is not there, when victims are not believed...Mary, family violence victim
Now Mary has resigned to defeat by ‘the system’ – both by the Family Court and societal attitudes.
“Family violence becomes intergenerational if support is not there, when victims are not believed and when mental illness is involved,” she says.
Federation University associate professor Elisa Backer says Mary’s story is one she unfortunately hears too often – a tale of intergenerational family violence where victims are punished for speaking out.
Dr Backer, who is completing a PhD on family violence, brought the impact of family violence on women and children to public attention at a White Ribbon Day lecture in Ballarat on Friday.
Lawyers, victims, social workers, police officers and researchers attended the powerfully emotional and informative session titled The Misperceptions of Abuse.
Dr Backer says intergenerational family violence is created through a discourse of victim blaming, lack of accountability for the perpetrators and the tremendous impact of family violence on children.
The abuse in Mary’s ‘toxic’ family has spanned at least four generations. Her story begins with abuse as a child.
“Although there was a never mark on me, my life was ruined by emotional abuse by my mother who was herself abused too as a child,” she says.
To escape her cruel family, Mary married young. But as soon as their first child was born her husband too became abusive.
“We shouldn’t have had a second child, but I regarded it as normal and also manageable because I could make sure the baby wasn’t around when my husband was – his work kept him out a great deal,” she says.
After 17 years of marriage the couple divorced, a time when their eldest child was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Mary’s husband left home without providing financial support and lived overseas for a couple of years. It was on his return to Australia that the divorce became intensely traumatic for their children.
“He told the children they had to choose between us,” she says.
“Even with the grandchildren, from the time they were born my ex husband and his wife decided they were to be their grandparents and I would be cut off.”
Mary says the toxicity in the family continued when both her sons married women who were also accustomed to abuse.
After they had children, she soon noticed they were being subject to neglect – one grandson Chris (not his real name) told Mary he was ‘terribly hungry’ and his mother had threatened death.
Chris asked his grandmother to adopt him and Mary took the case to Family Court. But after a long and difficult battle with repeated cases, Mary’s access was limited. When she appealed, she was completely cut off.
“The family report writer branded Chris as an attention seeking liar… and said I had no knowledge in child development or I would have known he was making this all up,” Mary says.
“The odds are stacked against the person making the complaint.”
Dr Backer says she has heard countless stories of women who feel the court system is set up to traumatise victims, what can be described as ‘secondary victimisation’.
“Mary’s experience is like many others who are trying to ensure the safety of a child or children,” she says.
“They feel they are not being understood, their fears are not being appreciated and in many cases they are punished by having less time with the child. They are told they are being disruptive or trying to alienate the father.”
Mary says Chris, who is now an adult, is suffering depression, drug use and is unemployed.
“The system which supports abusive parents has brought that about,” she says.
“I regret that I only realised recently I do have the strength and capacity to speak out. I felt I owed it to the community to make it known that the Family Court is not what it seems.
“With the research Dr Backer is doing and small changes, some good will come in the future, but it will be too late for my grandson.”
Mary supports Dr Backer’s call for increased investment for family violence education in schools.
Watch the music video below on family violence
Dr Backer says statistically, there is a need for school children to have greater awareness to break the cycle of intergenerational violence.
“Statistics show 30 per cent of school children have had some exposure to family violence. We should educate primary school and secondary school students about acceptable behaviours toward women and family violence at a level that is appropriate for their age,” she says.
“I think closing ourselves and saying this is an adult’s issue or a women’s issue isn’t helpful.”
Call 1800RESPECT or Lifeline on 13 11 14 for family violence help.