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While reports of ‘coward’ punches grab the headlines, a far more insidious crime is lurking in our suburbs. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The hidden shame of domestic violence and a failing system

The cab driver’s taking me to a secret location, though he doesn’t know it. Instead of the address, I give him a nearby intersection. Before we arrive he asks me what I do and I make the mistake of telling him.

“What are you working on now?”

“Family violence.”

“You mean the fights in homes?”

Yep.

Cruelty and control

Paul was in prison when the Royal Humane Society awarded him for bravery. In 2009, during the Black Saturday infernos, he was a volunteer firefighter with Victoria’s Country Fire Authority. He drove the truck containing the men who pulled an elderly lady and her animals from their burning home in Marysville. A year later, Paul was sentenced to five-and-half years’ prison for assault. He served three and his bravery award was rescinded.

His ex-partner, Jeannie Blackburn, calls him The Eye Thief. Two years before Marysville, he beat her so badly he destroyed the optic nerve in her left eye. “I didn’t lose my eye,” she tells me, “Paul stole it.” In an earlier beating, while she was pregnant, Jeannie was punched so severely she miscarried their child. 

Jeannie left Paul two months after she lost her sight, and in those eight weeks he alternated between sympathy and cruelty, at times cooing regret and at others haranguing her for breaking crockery – she was still adjusting to having one eye, and placing cups on table edges that weren’t there. It was the waning end of a long pattern of strategic sympathy punctuated by control. Half blind and childless, she was still asked to bake chocolate cakes so Paul could take them to work for the boys. 

The boys. They were always there. When Jeannie called one of them after the injury – to finally and emphatically reveal Paul’s thuggery – the friend expressed shock and fear. But the shock and fear didn’t last. When Paul came to the house weeks later to remove his belongings, he brought two of the boys along. One of them was the friend Jeannie had spoken to. It was another act of intimidation, she felt, and she never heard from Paul’s mates again. 

She suspected the boys had long known about the abuse, and their partners, too. “I made Paul a batch of scones once and they didn’t meet his standards and so I copped it. Big time. His mate’s wife, many months later, said to me: ‘The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach – make him a good batch of scones.’ Whether she knew about the first hiding, I don’t know. I think she did.”

On the front line

I’m in the back seat of a police car with members of the Brimbank Family Violence Unit. We leave Keilor Downs station and drive through some of the most depressed suburbs in Melbourne’s west: Sunshine, St Albans, Deer Park. In the weeks preceding my ride, newspaper headlines were captured by the death of Daniel Christie, allegedly punched by Shaun McNeil in Sydney’s notorious Kings Cross. Before Christie it was Thomas Kelly, fatally knocked to the pavement. The headlines didn’t hold back: “Licence to maim”, “Coward attack every two days”, “I’m sick of the cowards”. 

It is true that 90 men have been killed since 2000 in one-punch attacks, but it is also true that as many women have been killed at the hands of their partner or ex-partner in the past two years. While non-domestic assaults have trended downwards in Kings Cross over the past five years, family violence reports are increasing dramatically all over the country. In Victoria, reported incidents have risen from 40,000 a year to 60,000 in just two reporting periods. It’s driving crime statistics.  

Before I head out I’m briefed by Sergeant Scott Wakefield who heads the unit. Originally conceived as a response team to alleviate pressure from regular officers, it now targets recidivists and runs a 48 Hour program for victims. The idea is simple: the team visits everyone who has lodged a family incident with police in the previous two days. Officers check on victims and provide a referral kit for counselling and legal services. Before each visit, they consult a sheet containing details of the offence and an assessment of the offender. A checklist of risk factors, including the presence of drugs, weapons, intervention orders and threats to kill, are ticked and assigned a number. A score above 16 denotes high risk. Our fourth visit that night involves a score of 31. 

I sit behind Constable Amy Morel and First Constable James Townsend. They’re young, open and athletic. Morel is a former hairdresser and personal assistant, Townsend used to drum in prog-rock band Eve’s Protégé. 

Our first visit is to the home of a woman whose partner threatened to kill her last night in front of her son. A warrant was issued for his arrest, but he had fled the scene before police arrived and, a day later, is still wanted. 

We drive to another suburb, markedly poorer than the first – fences are covered in graffiti, the fronts of homes grimy, the gardens overgrown. A family violence safety notice has been issued at this next house; the abusive offender is not to come within 200 metres of it. 

At a third house, a woman appreciatively receives the two officers. She’s been assaulted by her partner, and, despite an intervention order being issued, the “old mate” has been following her. “She didn’t want to call triple-0,” Townsend tells me. “She didn’t think it was serious enough. I told her it was. She seemed happy with that.” 

Two weeks previously, a siege ended violently on the front lawn of our fourth house. A son, well known to police and a self-professed hard man, had held a knife to his mum’s throat after she refused to give him money. The Critical Incident Response Team freed the mother and then used capsicum spray on the offender after he refused to drop his knife. It wasn’t effective. As he approached police with his weapon, he was felled by bean-bag rounds.

Stories of hate and perversion keep coming from the radio. A man bashed his female housemate last night, and has now threatened to return tonight to “finish her off”; a 61-year-old woman has been beaten and sexually assaulted; a woman has found a man crouching in her bedroom; there’s another domestic bashing. “Never a dull moment,” Morel says ironically. There are three more “48 visits” to go. 

Underfunded and frustrated

I meet Jeannie Blackburn in the conference room of the secret location – the Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service – and we’re joined by CEO Annette Gillespie. There is a box of tissues sitting in the middle of the table, and on the walls hang framed photos of exceptional women – Rebecca West, Miles Franklin, Lady Gladys Nicholls. At the back of the room are shelves stacked with bedding. 

Jeannie is petite, bespectacled and middle-aged. She radiates a blend of strength and vulnerability, and speaks in alternating phases of pique and solemnity. Her sightless eye is still there, but darker, as if a slight shadow has been permanently cast on the left side of her face. 

“You still love the person, you just don’t like what they’re doing to you. For every bad time, there’s 10 good. He made me minimise the extent of it. And I minimised it, too. I covered it up. I put make-up on, made excuses to my family for not seeing them.

“I didn’t want to admit it to my family because I was embarrassed and ashamed. His mates weren’t going to believe me, even the ones who saw the bruises. They turned a blind eye. His family turned a blind eye.” 

Annette listens attentively, and when Jeannie finishes she adds: “The cultural training girls receive sets them up to be vulnerable and victimised as adults. For example, an abuser can flatter women and women can read that as love. It grooms the woman for being isolated. These are tactics. A woman can feel both isolated and loved at the very same time. The public don’t understand all of the things that contribute to a woman being abused, things that happened before she was even born.” 

Jeannie nods. “There’s a woman in the local supermarket and every time I go through checkout to buy cigarettes she puts the ‘closed’ sign up. ‘You sent Paul to jail,’ she says. And I say, ‘No I didn’t, he sent himself to jail. And you’re refusing to serve me?’ I don’t get it.” 

Both women are frustrated by the treatment of family violence, and what they consider to be double standards in the wake of NSW’s mandatory sentencing for “coward punches”. 

“A kick in the head is a kick in the head,” Jeannie says. “Why is it worse because it happens in the street?”

“A stranger attacking someone walking down the street is relatable,” Annette says. “But with domestic violence there’s still a strong urge to blame women. There’s less empathy for her experience, because we think she must have done something to cause it.”

In a state where police recorded 60,000 family violence incidents and 29 domestic homicides in the previous year alone, and in which crisis shelters are crowded, underfunded and unavailable on weekends, the crisis service has work to do. Last financial year, operators  fielded 35,000 calls to the hotline from the scarred and suicidal. 

There are just six phones. “We could triple our capacity and it still wouldn’t be enough,” a staff member tells me. This is the place, these few square feet of bare office space, where the abstraction of the statistics becomes awesome. The phones don’t stop ringing – to get through can mean waiting up to 40 minutes. I sit and watch, moved by the modesty of the operation compared with the overwhelming demand. 

The six women are calm and knowledgeable. They speak slowly and authoritatively. I sit quietly, scribbling down parts of the multiple conversations happening around me. 

 “You understand that you can’t tell your family where you’re going?”

“Do you have any objection to a country area?”

“She attempted suicide yesterday …”

“The only hotel available …”

“She’s 20 years old.”

“She’s at high risk.”

All of this was recorded in the first five minutes I sat there. The room runs 24/7.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 22, 2014 as "Hidden shame". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.

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