When Katie left her abusive relationship, she thought she was free. 9 years on, things are worse than before.

This story discusses domestic abuse. 

It took Katie* being locked out of her own home to give her the courage to escape her abusive husband, after years of physical, emotional, social and financial abuse. 

“When he kicked me out, I had no money and nowhere to go, so I had to tell somebody. Opening up to someone was the first step to getting out and getting help,” Katie tells Mamamia. 

“It felt like a terrible thing at the time, but turned out to be a blessing as it was the catalyst for me getting away from him permanently.”

She though she was finally free. Only, she wasn’t.

For the past nine years, Katie’s ex-husband has continued to abuse her from afar, inflicting ongoing torment on her and her children, using Australia’s broken family law system to do it.

When Katie left, her mental health was already fractured, she was financially destitute, and completely isolated.  

“He cleared out all of the bank accounts so I had no access to money. I was mentally pretty broken - having panic attacks daily, anxiety was through the roof, I was terrified and second guessed myself constantly,” says Katie. 

“Physically I was really unwell. I was basically just in survival mode, getting through each day to look after my children.”

Far from feeling free, Katie felt more scared than ever. The abuse was different now, because she wasn’t living in the marital home, but Katie says, things got worse rather than better after she left. 

“Once I left he was angry, and the abuse escalated. It was different because I wasn't living there anymore, so he had to change the way he perpetrated the abuse.”


Some of the abuse was overt, such as constant abusive messages, threatening Katie and her family members, stalking, and defaming her both privately and in public. 

But the worst came through system abuse, an increasing and insidious form of post-separation abuse that involves using legal means to inflict intense trauma on your former spouse. 

“He used the courts by initiating or dragging out court proceedings; applying for Orders against me; repeated unnecessary contact with my solicitor to cost me money; constantly threatening legal action if I don't do what he's telling me to do, withholding the children, false reports to police, complaints to my workplace, threats (overt and covert), ongoing financial abuse; and so forth. 

Within the domestic and family violence sector, this type of behaviour is known as Post Separation Abuse. However to well-meaning friends, family or bystanders in the community, post separation abuse can be mistaken for a high conflict divorce or unresolved differences. 

“Post separation abuse involves a repeated pattern of behaviours, that may change over time to avoid detection, to maintain control over the victim,” explains Melanie Greblo, founder of Banksia Academy, a free virtual program, providing trauma-informed wrap-around support for women survivors of domestic and family violence to achieve long-term financial independence.

“It has devastating consequences for victims’ emotional, physical, mental, economic, social and psychological wellbeing. Abusers don’t have a certain “look” about them, they are everyday people in our communities, it’s so important we build our literacy around what coercive control and post separation abuse can look and feel like - so victims, and importantly, children, get the help they need.”


What is systems abuse?

Perpetrators of domestic violence will often manipulate the legal system and abuse its processes to threaten, intimidate, and harass their former partner after separation. This type of behaviour is known as systems abuse or legal abuse. 

“It is behaviour in which a person intentionally misuses the legal system, by, for example starting court proceedings based on false allegations as a way to intentionally exert control or dominance over the other person or to torment, intimidate or harass the other person,” says Cudmore Legal Family Lawyer, Alina Rylko. 

Other examples of post separation abuse include multiple court applications, multi-system applications through agencies like Centrelink and Child Support, delay tactics, using distressing content in affidavits, and aggressive and intimidating behaviour at court.

“All these tactics can be used to re-assert power and control over a victim after they have left an abusive relationship.

“Attacks on multiple fronts by filing applications without merit and delaying court processes, can also drain a victim’s financial resources by forcing the victim to accumulate court costs. This can lead to bankruptcy for some victims.”

The effects and insidious nature of systems or legal abuse can be catastrophic, enabling the perpetrator to continue their abuse, long after separation. 

“In the face of litigation stress and continued contact with a toxic ex, a victim might be unable to show up to work or struggle continue to care for themselves or their children."


Other types of post separation abuse.

Post separation abuse may be similar to the abuse that was experienced during the relationship, but might begin to take different forms. 

“It can go on for years and perpetrators will often use children in an effort to control the victim,” says Greblo. 

“Coercive control is a big factor in post separation abuse, and as we’re now understanding it is often at the root of all domestic abuse. It involves an unrelenting focus on the victim.

Economic/financial abuse: This type of abuse may include perpetrators controlling money through joint or solo accounts, coercive tactics in property settlements including delays, generating trauma that impacts a victim’s ability or capacity to work.

Violence, Threats, Homicide, Filicide, suicide and threats of suicide: It’s well known that abuse escalates when a victim leaves the relationship, and the results can be dangerous.  “These methods of abuse are common and can result in death,” Greblo says. “Perpetrators can also threaten to kill others or themselves, as a way to maintain control of a victim, or coerce them back into the relationship. 

Stalking, monitoring, isolating: These methods of abuse are designed to keep a victim on high alert. “It instills fear and a deep sense of isolation as the perpetrator puts into effect a campaign to smear a victim’s reputation and relationship with friends, family, community members,” Greblo says. 

Child abuse and/or neglect: Weaponising children is a common method of post separation abuse. “Some perpetrators directly abuse or neglect children in an effort to control and/or punish their victim,” Greblo says. “Poor parenting is another method, where abusers have no interest in developing a bond with the child(ren) and are only interested in using them in their control tactics.”


The ripple effect.

The repercussions of continued abuse on victim-survivors are extensive and far reaching. 

“At the interpersonal level, ongoing abuse wears away at the nervous system, and as it breaks down, many other daily activities and challenges are made all the more difficult,” Greglo says. 

“Victims can experience a loss of hope, their self confidence can bottom out, their self esteem is decimated and their relationships with their children and others can be seriously impacted. 

“The flow on from this can impact their employment status, their capacity to work, their capacity to concentrate and be productive, which all flows out to the huge impact on their financial security and hence housing status. 

“When your nervous system is constantly under attack and you’re living day to day on high alert, often with complex trauma, it impacts everything in your life, your ability to parent and socialise included.”

What needs to change.

Women who have experienced abuse and throughout post separation need dedicated support, says Greblo. 

“We need to understand as a society that domestic abuse, and post separation abuse is everyone’s business. We all need to build our domestic abuse awareness literacy so we can better recognise when someone might be experiencing post separation abuse, how it’s not just a ‘messy divorce’, and learn ways we can respond that are safe, compassionate and centres human lives and wellbeing.”


There is some good news though, says Rylko, with recent improvements to court responses, including safety rooms, security chaperones, and laws to prevent victims from being cross examined by perpetrators.

“Proposed family law reforms also aim to empower the court to stop proceedings instituted without reasonable grounds,” she says. 

“The draft Family Law Amendment Bill 2023 proposes that the court may, by application of a party or on its own initiative, dismiss all or part of proceedings at any stage, if the court is satisfied that the proceedings or a part of the proceeding is frivolous, vexatious or an abuse of process.”

A ‘harmful proceedings order’ prohibiting one party from instituting proceedings against another party without the permission of the court is also proposed in the draft bill.

“These measures clearly empower victims of family violence in the court system.

“A good family lawyer is aware of abuse tactics and will effectively advance and advocate for effective measures to protect you and your children from risk of family violence.”

*Name has 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. 

Feature image: Getty