'When I escaped my abusive husband, police recommended a two-year AVO. A judge refused.'

Content warning: this article discusses domestic violence. 

Kelly* was at a party when she met Steve*. He was charming, fun, an “absolute dream”. It was a whirlwind romance. But everything felt perfect. 

As their relationship rapidly progressed, things began to change. Small "bumps" that, at the time, seemed inconsequential compared to all the wonderful things Steve offered her. 

He didn’t like her friends, and preferred controlling the finances, despite having significant debt. He insisted Kelly didn’t need her own car. Despite her senior position, he’d call and text constantly while she was at work just to "check in".   

"It sounds big now, but it felt tiny at the time. I felt so stupid because a lot of the time he was still good - it was just these moments, where he'd explode, or have me doubting myself, that would have me crying myself to sleep at night."

Watch: It's not love, it's coercive control. Article continues after the video.

Video via NSW Government.

Over time, Steve became increasingly possessive, but with his behaviour actively endorsed by his family and friends, and Kelly spending less time with her own friends, she accepted the changes in her partner as a normal progression. 

"They were the mirrors of the world I saw around me, because my own friendships had taken a hit very early."

The slow burn of coercive control. 

On Kelly's 31st birthday, and within a year of them meeting, Steve proposed. It was a lavish proposal, and despite some niggling doubts, Kelly said 'yes'."

"I thought, to do that he must really love me. We could fix the other things that weren't quite right. Relationships take work. He loves me. He knew I wanted kids and was promising me all of that in our future. What more could I want?"

The following year, Kelly was married, and firmly entrenched in an abusive marriage, underpinned by coercive control. Only she didn’t know it yet. 

"He never hit me. And after all, if I wasn't so dramatic, emotional, annoying, stupid etc, he would never have to say or do X, Y or Z. It was my fault. And I believed it."

After Kelly fell pregnant, Steve's controlling behaviour escalated. 

Steve began physically threatening Kelly, though he didn’t hit her. He installed cameras throughout the house, and security systems that gave him access to everyone who came and went.

"If friends came over, he knew. If I went out when I said I was going to be home, he knew. Whatever I did, he knew.

"He also installed an app on my phone, although I didn't know it at the time. He'd call, or have his brother call, asking where I was, what I was doing, who I was with. If I went out late, or wasn't home on time, the whole family would be involved with asking me why, screaming at me, until eventually - he became my place of safety in all that madness. It became so distorted."

She had no access to her own money; money Steve rapidly spent, forcing Kelly back to work when her baby was less than a year old. 

"But everyone said their relationship was hard, and the first year of having a young child is the hardest - so I didn't know if mine was different. I just didn't understand what had happened to the man I met, who was so different to the man I was now with."

A rapid escalation of abuse. 

Desperately wanting to make things better, Kelly decided to have another baby. Only things didn't get better. 

"His physical threats became greater. One day he came home with guns, and threatened both me and the kids with using them. I knew they were always there, something he could use - if he chose to. 

"I remember being out in a crowded space, surrounded by people, and being terrified of him. I realised at that time I didn't feel safe. But I still didn't know what that feeling was, or what was wrong with my relationship."

After their second baby was born, the physical threats escalated, along with increasing sexual and emotional abuse. After one particularly devastating verbal attack, Kelly joined a Facebook group, and for the first time, shared her experience. 

"After yet another 'conversation' where he told me I was crazy and stupid, I asked a Facebook group about if this really was normal. I didn't understand what was happening, and why his version of events was always so different to mine. The replies taught me that domestic violence is not something that exclusively happens in (lower social demographics). And I started to see my relationship in a new light."

Shortly after, Steve physically threatened their eldest daughter, "smacking her around the face then placing his hands around her neck, and holding her down to 'teach her a lesson'."

"I was trying to pull him off, and I couldn't do anything. I couldn't stop him. I realised I had to go," says Kelly. 

Following the advice on the Facebook group, she planned her escape, then went to the police to report what had happened.

Police determined an Apprehended Violence Order was required and told Kelly they’d arrange it. By the next day, an interim AVO was in place, preventing her husband from coming near her home or her children’s school and daycare. 

Her husband chose to contest the AVO, meaning Sarah would face two court battles - one to fight for the AVO, and the other to fight for custody of her children, who she felt were unsafe in the unsupervised care of their father. 

"Every bit of research says if someone puts their hands around your throat there is a likely possibility that they’ll do it again," she says. 

Using the system to further abuse. 

The interim order was supposed to keep Steve away from Kelly. To give her safety, space, and peace of mind. 

Instead, she felt anything but. Steve would wait next to the school, only to leave before she could take the photo evidence required for him to be charged with breaching the order. He'd turn up near their daughter's soccer game. He'd use his knowledge of their routine to his advantage. He also used his family to torment her. 

"Constant calls to me, turning up on my doorstep, turning up at my workplace, calling my friends, and when everyone refused to answer, they’d contact police and make accusations around my mental health."

Through access to bank statements, Kelly was able to identify transactions Steve had made in her neighbourhood, which she supplied as evidence of her husband’s breach. But she was told police simply didn’t have the resources to investigate such 'minor' potential breaches. 

"If called them when I saw him, it would still take a minimum of two hours for police to come to my house. So I changed the locks, I had security doors put in, and safety measures in place."

But while the AVO wasn’t perfect, Kelly says, it "was better than nothing".

"I wish I still had it now."

'No longer at risk.'

Despite police believing the AVO should be in place for at least two years, Steve contested it, meaning Kelly had to face her abuser in court.

Kelly sat on the stand for more than two hours, while her husband’s barrister aggressively questioned her in front of him, his new partner and his family, who kept their eyes firmly on her. 

"He was there watching me the entire time that I was on the stand, but when it was his turn to speak, for under five minutes, I was not permitted to be there. 

"The judge came to the conclusion that even if there had been domestic violence previously, since I was no longer in a relationship with him, there were no longer any risks."

Kelly walked out of the courtroom with no protection, and a tip from the police officer to "try to get another one if he harasses or hurts you or the kids."

"What is the point of that? He’s breached it many times, and no one cares. There’s been harassment from his family, no one cares. He’s already hurt the kids, no one cares. He’s openly said things that directly contradict many of the statements that he put forward in the AVO hearing, and no one cares."

It’s been two years since Kelly left her abusive husband, and she still feels unsafe. She continues to fight for her children, as Steve fights to have unsupervised access, and 50/50 custody. 

"I'm in the family court system, trying to manage this awful process with a man who is more intent on my destruction than ever. You're told to keep your children safe, and leave if they're violent — then when you do, the system doesn't protect you, and you have to send your children back in to a threatening situation, alone. It’s sickening," Kelly says.

"All I can do is fight, and do my best, and then it’s just accepting that there is so much out of my control. And unfortunately the system rewards the person that fights dirtier. There is no way I’d be going through this if it wasn’t to protect my kids. Reading about all of these women who have passed away it just hits really different when you are experiencing it."

Are AVOs/DVOs effective?

Time and time again, women lose their lives at the hands of men who were already the subject of an AVO or DVO. 

In many cases, these orders have been breached, but those breaches were deemed 'minor' or 'low level'.

"I struggle with the concept of a minor breach," says leading violence against women scholar, Professor Kate Fitz-Gibbon, from Monash University’s Faculty of Business and Economics.

"While I understand that we must have a scale of response to different forms of breaches, we also need to appreciate that any and every breach of an intervention order is a red flag that the victim-survivor is at risk of violence escalation and, even death."

Victim-survivors and those working within the system have long since lamented the failure of the intervention order system to enhance safety, Professor Fitz-Gibbon says. 

"It is well and truly time to examine all facets of the intervention order system, including responses to breaches. 

"We need to listen to victim-survivors to understand from their experience how intervention orders have failed to meaningfully enhance their safety."

Kelly believes perpetrators are enabled and supported by a system that fundamentally does not care about women. 

"Women’s lives are clearly worthless, because if protecting women and children was really the aim, there would need to be so much more done to take AVOs seriously, to take breaches seriously and to take threats against women seriously," she says.

Despite their limitations, Kelly says she’d prefer to have one in place, although she says the process to obtain one is both traumatic and challenging. 

"There’s this perception that an AVO is easy to get, and women do it for revenge. That couldn't be less true. It’s a soul-destroying process, it’s laying yourself bare and praying at the end of it that you get a measure of legal protection - no one wants to go through that."

According to Sexual Violence and DVF prevention advocate and Chair of NSWA Sexual Violence Working Group, Angela Lynch, obtaining protection requires more than simply telling the court there was DFV, 

"Courts require evidence to make appropriate orders," Lynch says. 

"You will need to provide a detailed explanation of the violence in your court application, including dates, incidents and impacts of the violence on you and the children, and why you need protection from ongoing violence, harassment and intimidation," she says. 

Keeping copies of any abusive material, doctors visits, communication with others about the abuse and any other evidence is important. This can be a difficult process, especially for victims of coercive control, where so much of the abuse is invisible to the outside world. 

"(Going to court) can be confronting and frightening, and facing your ex partner who may also be in attendance. Try to speak to a domestic violence counsellor about safety planning before and after any court events," says Lynch.

While protection orders do offer a level of protection—acting both as a deterrent and as an 'alert' if police are called out to subsequent incidents—Lynch says perpetrators often 'test the limits'. 

"Perpetrators can test out the limits of response by engaging in small ways to see what the system’s response will be," she says. 

"Police should take all breaches seriously, especially where there is a history of coercive control, and the breaching forms part of a pattern of abuse."

Lynch encourages victim-survivors to report all breaches, regardless of how small, and keep a record for yourself as well. 

For the first time, Kelly says she is living independently and confidently, despite the ongoing post-separation systems abuse she continues to endure at the hands of her ex-husband. 

"I have my own bank account. I have autonomy over my friends. Where I go. What I do. Ironically, I now have cameras at my home - because of my safety," she says. 

"The new government-funded financial support is great, but doesn't begin to address the many layers of issues within the system, the police, etc. So much happened even when we had an AVO which nobody cared about - and seeing the constant stories about women and children being attacked, and losing their life - I can entirely understand how that happens. It's like we're screaming and nobody cares. 

"Until the men who run the system decide to take a stand - I don't know how this will change, and how many more women will have to live and die through these experience. I feel passionately about supporting women to know more, and to avoid the experience I've had. Because it really can happen to anyone."

*names have been changed.

If this has raised any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.

Mamamia is a charity partner of RizeUp Australia, a national organisation that helps women, children and families move on after the devastation of domestic and family violence. Their mission is to deliver life-changing and practical support to these families when they need it most. If you would like to support their mission you can donate here.

Feature image: Getty.