real life

"I could hear my neighbours. I heard bangs. And sickening crashes. And screaming."

Warning: This post discusses domestic violence and may be triggering for some readers.

Twenty-six. That’s how many Australian women have been killed by a current or former partner during the last 20 weeks. Many were in their own homes with neighbours mere meters away.

Whether those neighbours suspected or overheard anything is not certain.  But what is clear is that every day, there will be ordinary Australians who overhear alarming sounds coming from our neighbour’s homes, and when this happens, tragically, all too many of us will freeze.

I should know. Because despite being an anti-domestic violence advocate, I recently found myself listening to an explosive and violent argument that was occurring in a neighbour’s home, and my first instinct was to freeze.

Nina Funnell, a fierce anti-domestic violence advocate.

Moments earlier I had wandered out on to my back veranda to investigate yelling sounds I could hear coming from inside a neighbour’s home. A male voice was screaming threats at full volume at a woman, calling her “a bitch”, “a f–king useless c-nt”, and telling her that he resented their children (I hadn’t realised they had any).

Then I heard bangs. And sickening crashes. And screaming.

And again I stood there frozen: panicked, overwhelmed, and utterly immobile.

In the next moment my fiancé rushed out from the garage, and his presence was enough to break my stupor and propel me in to action. I told him I was calling the police. He told me I was doing the right thing.  I told him that I was scared. He told me that he had my back.

So I picked up the phone and called. Within minutes a police car pulled up outside the house.

These are some of the most effective anti-domestic violence campaigns. Which ones do you think were the most effective? (Post continues after gallery.)

I should have felt relief.  But as I watched the police moving towards their front door, an entirely different set of fears was triggered within me: what if the offender finds out it was me who called? What if he turns his aggression on me after the police leave?

And so, being the impressive, adult-sized human that I am, I did the only thing I could think of: I dived behind the couch and hid, utterly terrified that I might be seen.

By the following day my anxiety had dissipated and a new emotion had taken hold. I was seething.

Seething that this scumbag had terrorised his female partner. Seething that in doing so, he had also terrified the neighbourhood. And seething that he had reduced me to hiding behind a couch in my own damn house like a frightened animal.

But most of all I was seething because I now also realised that there are children living in that home.

Now, weeks on from that moment, I’ve realised something else.

All of these women have been killed in domestic violence incidents this year.

I realised that I wasn’t the only neighbour who froze. There were other neighbours also out investigating the noise, and they were also frozen. Not in apathy, but in shock and disgust.

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Indeed when bystanders delay (or fail) to take action, it’s not automatically because they are lacking in concern or compassion. Nor should we always interpret bystander inaction as support for the perpetrator or indifference to domestic violence.

On the contrary, I suspect that most people in our community are shocked and appalled by those kinds of noises. And while there are some dinosaurs who still believe that what happens in an intimate relationship is no-one else’s business, I would hazard that there are far more people who genuinely want domestic violence to end, but feel anxious, uncertain, or outright afraid when circumstances obligate them to take intervening action.

According to Karen Willis, Executive Officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, there are a wide range of reasons why bystanders may fail to act, or delay taking swift action. Bystanders might be scared of their own safety, or doubt their own judgement. They might blame the victim for the violence, or believe that the onus is on the victim to report the offender. They might not recognise that domestic violence includes non-physical forms of violence. They might worry about falsely accusing someone or wasting police resources. They might have a lack of faith in the police system or be an abuser themselves. But for a huge number of people, they might simply be in shock.

We will not forget the women who have been killed by domestic violence this year. We will not forget you. (Post continues after gallery.)

“Either they haven’t come across domestic violence before, so they think ‘Oh my god what do I do?’, or they have experienced domestic violence and their own fear comes plummeting back in” says Willis.

“People are often shocked and are a bit frozen and don’t know what to do. And because episodes can be explosive, they don’t necessarily go on for very long, so [the bystander] thinks ‘oh it’s stopped now. I don’t have to do anything’.”

In fact, according to Willis, bystanders often make the mistake of “thinking ‘oh I’ll wait to see if it gets worse’, and then because the episode ends, they then decide not to report.”

So what should we do if we hear concerning noises coming from a neighbour’s home?

According to Willis, if you suspect any form of violence in a neighbour’s home you should avoid putting yourself at physical risk by confronting the offender.  “But keeping yourself safe does not mean keeping quiet.”

“Call the police on 000, or you can also call CrimeStoppers on 1800 333 000” says Willis. If you are worried about your safety or your neighbourhood relationships, you can ask to remain anonymous, or ask that your name and details are not shared with the home you are calling about. (The police will honour and respect this request.)

“You can use your phone to video or audio record what you are seeing or hearing.” And remember, domestic violence is not just physical abuse: it also involves verbal abuse, emotional abuse, social abuse, psychological intimidation, threats and so on. So you don’t need to ‘wait’ for it to escalate to physical violence.

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Must watch: A 2015 ad for the super bowl: When it is hard to talk, it is up to us to listen. (Post continues after video.)

“Also if you do have any concerns, write down the date, time, and what you saw or heard” says Willis, because if the matter does go to court, these records can be used as evidence to help the victim.

But never ever fear that you are wasting the police’s time, or breaking the school-yard code that says you don’t ‘dob’ to authorities. Why? Because, as Willis says, “I would rather stick my nose in 20 times by mistake than have another child dead”.

“The police say over and over again that they would rather come out and not find it, than come out and find it,” says Willis.

And if you really are concerned that you might be getting it wrong, then you can still call the police and report a noise disturbance and ask that they do a welfare check just to make sure everything is OK. This doesn’t mean you are accusing anyone of anything, but in the event that there is violence going on, it will mean that action has been taken.

And at the end of the day, you know what? If the police ever turned up to my place because someone had made a wrongful report (let’s imagine the TV was playing a show with a violent scene), I might feel a tad embarrassed in front of the police (and I would probably ask them to reassure the caller that it was just the TV), but both my partner and I would far prefer that minor inconvenience, than to live in a community where people turned a blind eye to actual abuse. In fact if anything, I would try to take comfort in the knowledge that I live in the type of neighbourhood where people keep an eye out for the wellbeing of others, and I would feel more confident that actual victims of abuse are being supported by neighbours and the police.

You can make the call.

“So if you have any doubts at all, just call 000” urges Willis. “You can also call us (1800 RESPECT) and have a chat to our counsellors who are there to support anyone witnessing, concerned about, or impacted by domestic violence,” says Willis.

But please don’t make the mistake of thinking ‘I’ll give it an hour and see if they are still fighting and then do something about it’’. Instead, Willis’s advice is to “put yourself in the place of the person who is being yelled at. Would you think it’s OK or would you be scared out of your brain?” It’s a simple test that could literally save lives: if you wouldn’t consider it acceptable if someone addressed you like that, then call.

Twenty-six lives have been lost this year. And we cannot afford to be silent on this issue for a second longer. So please, if you suspect anything or hear anything that concerns you, pick up the phone. You don’t have to give your name. You don’t even have to be certain. But your call could make all the difference.

If this post brings up any issues or concerns please call 1800 RESPECT to speak to a counsellor. If you are in an emergency or suspect someone else is, please call 000.  CrimeStoppers can also be reached at 1800 333 000.

What would you do if you heard domestic violence or abuse? Have you had to call the police?

Do you want to read more on this topic?

The domestic violence no one talks about.

Domestic violence: Aboriginal women are 38 times more likely to be hospitalised.

We’re not tackling domestic violence education in the classroom. But we need to be.

One young mother says it is time to reform domestic violence law.