“I was in the bathroom and I was brushing my teeth. I could see in the mirror he was choking her on the bed.”
This is an image 14-year-old Agenilda* cannot erase from her mind. Her father’s abuse appears in her flashbacks and dreams as a relentless reminder of the trauma of her childhood.
Agenilda’s parents separated last year and there is now an intervention order against her father.
But the flashbacks and dreams continue.
“I feel like it won’t go away because it is still there and I feel like I am still living it and going through what I went through,” she says, as she sits on the end of the couch with her hands between her knees.
This long cycle of family violence began more than 12 years ago, when Agenilda’s mother Erin* fell pregnant with identical twins. The abuse worsened as the children grew older, creating a household infected with fear.
“It was hard to sleep. In 2013 my mum was punched in the head. I slept through that and I felt really bad about it so I would always stay up in case something like that would happen again,” Agenilda says.
“If they fought I would always stay up and make sure she was okay.”
When my mum would go away my dad would hit my brothers and I.Agenilda
Agenilda shows a picture she painted on a canvas hanging on the wall of the family home. A hand reaches out from the darkness toward rays of light. A man with holding a bottle of beer drinks in the darkness and a girl with her head in her hands sits below.
“When my mum would go away my dad would hit my brothers and I, and would convince my mum we were all lying. It felt like it was going to go on forever because we weren’t going to get help. I thought mum didn’t believe us because she didn’t want to believe it, because it is kind of hard to believe,” she says.
“I was scared because I wanted it to stop. I felt like she was the only one who could stop it but it didn’t help anything. When we told her she would talk to him about it and then he would get angry at her so it made it worse and we felt like we just shouldn’t tell her.”
In September 2017, Erin separated from her husband and soon after was granted a five-year intervention order against him.
In September this year she returned to court and was granted full custody of the children after fighting against the shared parental responsibility clause that had been entered in the agreement by default.
Agenilda says she feels safer now her father has moved interstate and cannot be in contact, but the emotional manipulation she experienced during her parents’ separation has continued.
“It was hard (during the separation) because I remember there were times when he would sit outside and cry and then I felt bad for him and he would say things to me that would make me feel really bad for him so I wanted him to stay,” she says.
“In that moment I felt bad for him and thought he was changing because he said he would change and always promised to change but he never did. I guess I still believed he would so I wanted him to stay.
In the voicemails he would say he loves me and misses me and it would make me feel bad for him again.Agenilda
“There is an intervention order now so he is not allowed to contact any of us except mum and if he wants to talk to us he has to talk to mum and then talk to us, but he has breached the intervention order and talked to me a few times and got one of my half-sisters to talk to me as well. It is scary because he has left me a few voicemails being emotionally abusive. In the voicemails he would say he loves me and misses me and it would make me feel bad for him again.”
Hundreds of children in Ballarat would relate to Agenilda’s experience of family violence, but welfare agencies and police acknowledge the impact on children is often forgotten.
Watch the music video below on family violence
New Crime Statistics Agency data shows police are called to an average of five family violence-related incidents every day in Ballarat.
The figures reveal in the 12 months to June 30 this year, Ballarat police responded to 1913 family violence incidents.
Of those, an ambulance was needed 77 times to transport a victim to hospital.
The data also shows there were 1597 family violence-related intervention orders applied for in the same 12 months.
Western Division Three Family Violence Investigation Unit officer in charge Tony Coxall told The Courier police in Ballarat were working to up-skill investigators and front line police to better understand how children of all ages were affected by exposure to violence.
“Historically speaking I think children have been the forgotten ones in domestic violence,” he said.
“Children from the womb to 18 years of age are a primary, not secondary, victim for us where there is family violence.
“We are striving for all police to have a better understanding that family violence does impact on kids of all ages, to acknowledge it and record it and put some safety measures in place. We are also trying to work in better with agencies and services to ensure that the right referrals and the right follow-up is made.
“The second part is to give the children involved a voice, to make those inquiries and check on their well-being. There is a careful balance if they are witnesses between hearing their voice and protecting them from the court process.”
Agenilda shares her struggle to have her voice heard. She says children should have a chance to tell their story during the court process.
“If they are going to do court and decide on things like custody, the children should get to have a say in who they want and what they want because their voice is important,” she says.
“People don’t really realise that children are impacted as well. Children should have a voice as well. I feel like children’s stories aren’t really heard as much as the adults are.”
Erin says it is ironic children are not allowed into court for the reason of protection when often the outcomes of the court process do not adequately protect the children involved.
“One of the ironies is the court doesn’t allow children inside, so the children’s voices are heard through a children’s lawyer. But anyone who has had a lawyer speak for them knows that it is not exactly their voice,” she says.
“They are not allowed in the courts to protect the children but then the outcomes don’t protect the children. I think there is an argument for being aware that today’s children are not the same as 100 years ago and they are very sophisticated and knowledgeable and they’re entitled to have more power for want of a better expression. These decisions are made on their behalf without actually hearing from them properly.”
Sharing her story of family violence, Agenilda made a speech to her classmates about her mother as an inspiring woman.
She says her classmates were shocked, as she had not spoken publicly about the abuse she had experienced.
“I feel like not many people know about it because people are afraid to talk about, so I feel like I have at least talked about it with my class,” she says.
“I feel like schools should talk about it more. There are going to be people in schools going through it and it will help them understand it.”
Agenilda finished her speech to her class by sharing her mother’s favourite word: hope.
It is a message Erin often shares with her children when they talk about what they have been through.
“I will say you can’t help what was done. What we went through happened and you can’t change that. But you can be empowered by it rather than weighed down by it.
“Instead of being a victim and feeling heavy because of it, use it for empowerment. So, as I have said to the children, if you decide to go into family law you understand what the space is and even if you are representing the perpetrator try to help them understand and have them negotiate in the best interests of everyone rather than the best interests of the client.
“If you are a police man or woman, if you are dealing in family violence, know the tactics that are played out so you might be able to set someone free. When you are a partner to someone, when you have children, be awesome at it, because you know what the alternative is. You can use your experience to be an awesome human being and fantastic in your job. That is something we do have the power of. That is in our control.”
*not her real name
Federation University Associate Professor Elisa Backer is speaking to victims of family violence as part of her PhD research on how equal shared parental responsibility impacts victims of family violence and their children post-separation. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.