Rosie Batty on why passion must lead to change on family violence
When the prime minister called me last week, the first person I thought about was Luke. As a mother you are always thinking about your child. There are little things you worry about, things like how they are making friends at school or what you will pack for lunch. And there are bigger things, like how you will help them grow up.
When Luke died, all that was taken away. But I didn’t stop worrying for him. No mother does. And so when Tony Abbott called to ask if I would be on an advisory panel for violence against women, I didn’t hesitate in answering. I thought of Luke and I said yes.
I am not a politician. What I have is personal experience. I don’t need to tell you about how Luke was killed; how his father, Greg, menaced and intimidated us; what happened on that cricket pitch a year ago. Since Luke died, I haven’t stopped talking to people about what happened.
As I talked, I found I had never felt the stigma around family violence, or it had quickly fallen away. I refused it. I would not let it control me. This could happen to anyone, and I always knew that. While I use the word victim, because what happens to you can be beyond your power, I never use the word shame. At Luke’s inquest especially, as I prepared for it, I recognised there really wasn’t anything I could have done differently.
Since Luke died, I have heard the stories of others – women who come up to me in the street, who are themselves the victims of family violence. I realised I was so typical of so many of the women going through the system.
I also realised that when you reach out for help, it can be terribly stressful and unsatisfying. That is what I hope to change as I work with the prime minister’s advisory panel.
I won’t profess to being an expert in policy, but policy is what we need. Changing community awareness and being passionate are great things, but the problem also requires nitty-gritty stuff. Those working in family violence and community services have been flogging this for a long time and have not been heard or taken seriously. Here now is an opportunity for that awareness to come together with concrete change.
Family violence is an area where – bizarrely – government organisations don’t necessarily seek the counsel of those who understand what is happening at the coalface – those who know what it is for a woman to be in an abusive relationship, for a woman to worry about the safety of her children, to be fearful of her partner, to be trapped.
As this conversation grows, we will see more women find their voices. We will see more women leaving unhealthy relationships. We need to be certain we have the infrastructure to support these women. We have rounded a corner in terms of awareness, in terms of reducing stigma, but that places huge strain on existing organisations. Services continue to be underresourced and cut back.
To my mind, there are two areas in need of significant review and better practice. They are the courts and police – the first points of contact for women suffering abuse.
The police are no different to most organisations that deal with people. They share with the broader community the same naivety or lack of awareness about different forms of violence. Many do an excellent job. But some of their awareness of the impact of psychological violence, for instance, can be very unsophisticated. This is a huge part of what has to change.
I realised when Luke died that I didn’t know what it was like not to have someone like Greg in my life – someone who was always sabotaging me, who was working out how to get to me. Sometimes I could handle it and sometimes I couldn’t.
It’s very hard for society to understand the power of control and psychological abuse. But police need to understand it, as do the courts. The fact that a victim doesn’t have bruises doesn’t mean the psychological trauma is any less. It took me years after I left Greg before I could rebuild myself. The signs of that need to be recognised and we all have a role there. That awful question – “Why didn’t she leave?” – misunderstands the power and control men can have in these situations.
Police have improved significantly – especially in the past decade. When you meet a compassionate police officer, it makes life very different. But they’re an enormous organisation with a lot of entrenched attitudes, and those attitudes can be out of step with the rest of society. In some areas of policing, that might be fine. Police do an excellent job when it comes to bravery, when it comes to putting their lives on the line. But some of this can become desensitising, and the real trauma a victim of family violence faces may be overlooked. It needs to be about more than ticked boxes. It needs to ensure no woman is allowed to slip through any gaps in the system and the full picture of their experience of violence is understood.
Within policing, much of this is about changing attitudes and education. Police are well aware of this and are making significant advances. In the justice system there can be an unsophisticated understanding of family violence, however, the issues are also structural. Your treatment as a victim in court can vary wildly and is very dependent on the magistrate. What I hope for is a system where everyone is treated equally. And where women are believed. There is so much perpetrator focus – innocent until proven guilty. But we forget the victim, who is doubted until she can prove otherwise.
I remember the awful feeling of going to court for the first time. It is a horrible place to be when you’re not used to it. You can feel very small and out of your depth. It’s traumatic. And the system is terribly overloaded. There are good people trying to do an impossible job. But you go and sit in Frankston Magistrates Court and it’s like a cattle yard.
All the way through, I represented myself in court, because the system is too expensive. One thing we need to consider is a better way of triaging these cases before they get to the courts.
Everyone with an intervention order is initially treated the same. You might have an intervention order for two neighbours disagreeing over an unpainted garden fence and one for a woman who fears her husband might kill her, and it’s the same intervention order muddling through the same process. The system as it stands is just too cumbersome.
Beyond the magistrates courts, we need to look seriously at the family law courts. This is no secret – whether it is the police or lawyers or the media, nobody is happy with how these courts function. They are wrapped in secrecy, skewed very much in my mind to the men’s rights lobby and the rights of fathers. As with all levels of justice, they are expensive to access and difficult to navigate, particularly for women who have recently freed themselves from abusive and often controlling situations.
The principles on which these courts function need to be interrogated. We need to ask questions about how we deal with family violence, questions that are not hidden behind suppression orders or opaque directions.
For example, the fact that someone is a parent does not give them the right to ruin a child’s life and their future. I feel very strongly about that. Alongside family violence we need to have serious conversations about foster care and adoption and how we fund these services.
Of course, there are so many other issues that compete for the prime minister’s attention. Sadly, last week, Prince Philip’s knighthood seemed a bigger issue for the country.
I am not naive about this. But I will also fight. I won’t be satisfied sitting on a panel looking for solutions while money is being siphoned away from frontline services.
I am not the sort of person who will stand beside the prime minister and smile while nothing is done.
I want to use this opportunity to have an important debate. I really appreciate it. But I am not interested in anything that is fickle or tokenistic. We have turned a real corner in how we talk about family violence, but now we need real change rather than Band-Aid solutions.
I went into a building today and the security guard came up to me. He said, “I don’t usually talk to people but I wanted to thank you. My son committed suicide 12 years ago. I want you to know what a difference you’ve made to my wife. Your courage has really been an inspiration to her.”
A lot of people have identified with what happened to me. That is because family violence can happen to anyone. What happened to me – what happened to Luke – could happen to anyone.
I hope that makes some people think about getting help, and about moving out of an unhealthy or violent relationship. I also hope it makes politicians realise that this problem is about all of us.
For help, call the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800 737 732.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 7, 2015 as "Why passion must lead to change". Subscribe here.