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Hitting Home: The hard truth about Australia's domestic violence crime wave.

By Sarah Ferguson.

It’s hard to imagine in Australia today there is a need for refuges, places where women and children live protected by sensor alarms and security cameras. But forty years after the first refuge opened in Sydney’s inner-west, the need is as urgent as ever, writes Sarah Ferguson.

Why don’t they leave? It’s the wrong question to ask about domestic violence. But I asked it at the beginning of the ABC’s series on domestic violence, “Hitting Home“.

I wanted all of us to hear the resounding answers from people who live in these toxic relationships and the police, lawyers doctors and community workers who see the consequences.

sarah ferguson Hitting home
ABC films for new documentary Hitting Home. Hitting Home: ABC’s Sarah Ferguson follows New South Wales police as they attend a domestic violence incident. (Image: ABC)

In hospitals and police stations and the safe rooms of courts, in houses and refuge bedrooms late at night, I got the answer to that question many times over. Perpetrators of domestic violence seek to control their partners, often beginning with small seemingly banal steps, until the victim’s sense of themselves is lost. One woman with a safe room built into her house to protect her from her violent ex-husband told me it was like living in a cult. And on top of that they feel shame and embarrassment for the predicament they are in.

We began the series in a prison and a refuge. We started in prison to catch the beginning of a 10 week program aimed at preventing violent men from re-offending: day 1 and 10 offenders considered at high risk of returning to jail. They were resistant, unwilling to accept responsibility and inclined to blame their partners. (One of the most violent men in the group came up to me in the tea break and told me he had watched my last series, the Killing Season, or some of it anyway. He wasn’t that impressed.) That day we were waiting for news from the refuge, one of the young women there, Jessica* was due to have a baby and I wanted to get there before the baby was born.

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It’s hard to imagine in Australia today there is a need for refuges, places where women and children live protected by sensor alarms and security cameras. Forty years after the first refuge for so called “battered wives” opened in Sydney’s inner-west, the need for emergency shelter is as strong as ever.

This is her first attempt to leave. She thinks it’s her only attempt because she’s worried he’s going to kill her.

I moved in to the refuge on a cold June morning. Because of the risks faced by some of the families living there, I can’t reveal its location. As I dumped my camp bed and sleeping bag (there aren’t any spare beds so I was sleeping in the office) staff were working on a plan to bring in a woman escaping her abusive husband.

“This is her first attempt to leave,” says caseworker, Diane McLaren. “She thinks it’s her only attempt because she’s worried he’s going to kill her.”

The young woman’s husband had tried to run her over with his car before she finally managed to escape with their daughter. The staff went to collect her, not knowing what situation they would face when they met her. When they brought her back to the refuge later that night, her fear was palpable. She thought her husband was tracking her phone signal. It has happened before.

“We caught them before they got here,” refuge manager Mandy Greaney explains, “but we have found tracking devices on cars.”

I met all of the women living in the refuge over the next few days. I heard stories of women being stalked on social media and via GPS on mobile phones, email accounts being hacked and access to money being withheld.

I also heard stories of physical violence, carried out by intimate partners, often in front of their children. Many of the women said they preferred the physical violence to the mental abuse.

The days had a normal routine, kids off to school, shopping, homework, dinner and from time to time we would clean out rooms and prepare for a new family arriving. One woman told me she said a prayer every morning when she woke, seeing the slats of the bunk bed above her, where her daughter slept, realising they were safe.

A few days after I arrived, I was in a car driving to hospital in the middle of the night with Jessica. She was having contractions, swearing in the front seat. I went to see the baby moments after he was born and when he came home to the refuge. It’s hard to think of a more poignant scene than a mother returning to a refuge with a two-day-old baby.

“It may not sound like a good thing but considering the options, it certainly was. We are lucky to be here,” She told me.

I was humbled by the courage of the women who felt they no longer want to be defined by their experience of domestic violence and were ready to share their stories. And all had the same motivation, to use their suffering to help others. All of them said to get out at the very first sign of abuse, no second chances.

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Women from every walk of life and every demographic talked about control – of their clothes, their appearance, who they saw.

One of Australia’s leading experts on domestic and family violence is Inspector Sean McDermott:

Domestic violence can be dressed up, you can use fancy words, but it comes down to one thing. Control. The need for the offender to control the victim. And that need for control comes from their own inadequacy.

What I also discovered during the course of filming the series, was how dangerous it is to break the control, how dangerous separation can be. The majority of the women murdered this year in Australia, were killed by ex-partners.

The NSW Coroner, Michael Barnes spoke to me about this phenomenon.

Separation, in fact, can be the most dangerous time, because it seems to be based on a need for the perpetrator to control his intimate partner. That can go quite quickly from controlling, jealous behaviour to fatal violence.

For many of the women I met in the refuge, they had already made that first step. A very dangerous first step. But at least for now, they are safe.

As we moved between the refuge and the hospitals and the courts and the prison over six months, the stories of women dying violent deaths continued to fill the news.

The series is finished and the death toll for women this year from domestic violence has reached nearly 70, This week the Prime Minister said we need to talk frankly about domestic violence, to stamp it out as a crime and to build up a culture that rejects not just violence against women but disrespect. It is no longer taboo. The solution for the victims I met and the thousands of others they represent lies with all of us.

*The name has been changed for safety.

Sarah Ferguson is an award-winning investigative journalist with the ABC.

Episode 2 of Hitting Home with Sarah Ferguson airs tonight at 8.30pm on ABC, and special episode of Q&A hosted by Julia Baird will immediately follow. You can watch episode 1 of Hitting Home on ABC iview.

This article was originally publish on ABC’s The Drum. It has been republished here with full permission.

 ABC-NEWS-LOGO-140x55© 2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. Read the ABC Disclaimer here. 
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