Here’s What Experts Want You To Understand About Domestic Violence

"The question should not be why don’t these women just leave, the question should be, why is the perpetrator committing acts of violence."

Hannah Clarke and her children

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On average, one woman is killed in a domestic incident each week in Australia. This year we’re ahead of schedule — at least nine women have so far been murdered in the first eight weeks of the year.

Hannah Clarke wasn’t the last. She was number eight — and despite the anguish and outrage over her murder it didn’t save another unnamed woman in Townsville, a 49-year-old who was allegedly stabbed to death by her brother on Sunday.

Domestic violence is a huge problem in Australia, but one where the victims often face an unparalleled lack of support and lack of understanding.

To find out more Junkee spoke to experts working in the domestic violence field — and to a survivor who’s lived through it.

Why So Many Women Stay Silent

In the first few years of her relationship, Jessie* was happy.

That was before her partner started abusing drugs and alcohol; before he started keeping tabs on her phone, email and bank account. It was before he tried to turn her against her friends and family, before he threatened to kill himself in front of her, before he started a fire in their home, and before he got violent.

“I definitely didn’t reach out for help at the time because I was embarrassed and was hoping the situation would get better,” she said.

“I kept quiet about it for a while, as people usually do.

“I also thought that if I said what was happening to my family or friends, and then the situation did get better, it would be hard for them to accept him back into my life because what he was doing was arguably unforgivable.”

It took around three years before Jessie finally left her violent partner.

That’s not unusual, according to a spokesperson from 1800RESEPCT — a national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling and information referral service.

“Most women on average will attempt to leave an abusive relationship between five and seven times — it is not easy and can be dangerous,” they said.

Why It’s So Hard For Some Women To Leave

“The question should not be why don’t these women just leave, the question should be, why is the perpetrator committing acts of violence,” the 1800RESPECT spokesperson said.

“Domestic violence is about power and control and we know that the most dangerous time for a woman is after leaving a relationship.”

Rebecca O’Connor, the Chief Executive Officer at DVConnect, agrees. DVConnect is a 24/7 crisis helpline for those experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence in Queensland, where Hannah was from.

“(People) need to understand that although it might seem that ‘just leaving’ is the safest option for women and children, this is often not the case at all,” she said.

“Leaving can be the most dangerous time, and staying can be a survival strategy, although it may not widely be acknowledged by outsiders.”

“It’s important to know that there are options and there is support available for when a woman wants to leave an abusive relationship. Safety planning needs to be part of a plan of action.”

Rebecca told Junkee they have received a number of calls in the last few days from women who were inspired to reach out after seeing the news about Hannah, Laianah, Aaliyah and Trey.

For Jessie, it was one particularly violent incident that pushed her to get out.

“It took about three years of this on/off abuse for me to get to that point,” she said.

“(Before that) more than anything I was just brain-dead the whole time. Trying to keep my job, look after my baby, being robbed of sleep. I literally didn’t have time for anything else.

“No matter how much help I had, if I left him (earlier) it would make things harder for me initially. And I didn’t have the capacity to take that on.”

How The Media Can Help And Hurt

Responsible media reporting can encourage women and children to seek help by helping them understand what they are experiencing isn’t normal.

But time and time again, the media falls well short of expectations when it comes to reporting on violence against women.

In Hannah Clarke’s case, many outlets framed the story around the fact her estranged husband was an NRL player; even worse have been comments that the man who doused Hannah and her children in petrol before setting them on fire might have been “driven to it”.

Other notorious examples include perpetrators remembered as “a top bloke“, or the victims referred to as “nagging“.

“Journalists can have an influential role in shaping community attitudes and in the context of domestic violence, can help challenge disrespectful attitudes and representations of women and girls in terms of their role in society, in the workplace, in the home and in an intimate partner relationship,” Rebecca said.

“Focusing on the perpetrators behaviour and not the victims, avoiding ‘character-referencing’ the victim and using language that calls for accountability for their decision to use violence is critical to change the pervasive attitude that their use of violence is somehow justified or deserved.

“Any use of this victim blaming language or portrayal of the person who uses violence as ‘a good bloke’ can reinforce the idea that … (the) violence is her fault and that no one will believe her if she discloses her experience, making it less likely that she will seek support from friends, family or services.”

How To Be There For Someone You Think Needs Help

For a long time, Jessie kept things quiet from her friends and family to avoid adding “fuel to the fire”.

“It was mostly hard to reach out to them because their reactions would be emotional, but not translate well logistically,” she said.

“People had an opinion, but it didn’t change the fact that I needed to not add fuel to the fire at home or it would mean he wouldn’t let me sleep for another night, and I would struggle even more at work the next day.”

Identifying domestic violence isn’t always as easy as spotting a bruise; in the case of emotional, financial and even physical abuse the signs may not be obvious.

Often it’s easier to spot when someone suddenly enters a constant state of alert, develops self-esteem, anxiety and fearfulness, or other changes in behaviour.

“This could be withdrawal, loss of empathy, disengagement, hyper-vigilance, or many others that are a shift in behaviours from what the person usually demonstrates,” Rebecca said.

“In any of these cases, just asking the open question as to whether they are OK and stating you are available if they ever need to talk is what we would recommend you to do.

“If the person knows you are there, supportive, concerned and non-judgemental, they may not disclose to you immediately, but they may identify you to be a safe person they can go to in the future if they need that support.”

Recognise When It’s No Longer Safe To Stay

When things started getting really bad, Jessie and her son began spending some nights on a friend’s couch. But one night she was home, and things got very violent.

“When I called the police finally because things were so bad, the police were surprisingly helpful,” she said.

“They told me it was serious and very alarming, and not just my ex going through a hard time. They were the ones that insisted on an AVO … and thank god they did.”

Jessie also spoke with a DV organisation in her local area who provided her with a list of resources, including free counselling through Victims Services NSW.

“I still use that on a fortnightly basis and it’s been very helpful, especially with explaining things to my son about what he has seen,” she said.

“(Before I left) I wish I knew to use resources more often, because they’re better placed to offer advice and perspective.”

What To Do If You Need To Leave

On average, one woman is killed by a violent partner each week in Australia.

If you do need to leave a violent relationship, there are 24/7 crisis helplines that can give you advice on the safest way to do that. This could include providing emergency transport, emergency accommodation, crisis counselling and advice, and even accommodation for pets.

The best way to start is to put together a safety plan with the help of a friend, family member or support service. This outlines the steps you can take when you start to feel unsafe, and is different for everyone depending on their individual situation.

While support is available through 1800RESPECT, there are hundreds of local services across which can be found by clicking here.

For a statewide service in Queensland contact DVConnect at 1800 811 811.

In NSW contact the Domestic Violence Line in 1800 65 64 63.

In Victoria contact safe steps on 1800 015 188.

In South Australia contact the Women’s Safety Services SA crisis line on 1800 800 098.

In Western Australia contact Anglicare WA on 1300 11 44 46.

In the Northern Territory contact Dawn House Women’s Shelter on (08) 8945 1388.

In Tasmania contact the Family Violence Counselling and Support Service on 1300 135 513.

In the ACT contact the Domestic Violence Crisis Service on 62 800 900.

Their website also has practical tips and resources, including a checklists for safety planning and for packing an escape bag.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au.

*Jessie’s name has been changed to protect her identity