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Family Violence Support
This article, "One woman's story of family violence - Helena's story" is from Insight, Victorian Council of Social Service, Issue 14.

It features the story of Helena*, a woman who has faced family violence and used WRISC's support services to help overcome it.  The story shows the resilience of such women, and the importance of support being available to help women and their children facing family violence.

My name is Helena*.  I separated from my husband in 2007 as a result of family violence, including emotional, social, financial, sexual and physical abuse.  Many elements of this have continued following our separation and divorce.

This has had immense impacts on my children and myself.  Over the years my ex-husband has abused me verbally and physically, he has punched me, sworn at me, spat on me in front of the children, and threatened and abused me by text message.  I feel there is nothing I can do legally to protect my children and myself from this ongoing abuse.

I first called police for help when my now ex-husband threatened to stab me.  The police officer who handled my case was excellent and acted immediately,  But I had no idea at the time what to do next and was not given any information about services that could help me. 

As my ex-husband admitted he had threatened to kill me, the police proceeded with my case.  However he later retracted that statemant on the basis he was drunk when he gave the admission.  He was also drunk at the time he threatened me with a knife.  The judge was not able to find him guilty, although repeating twice that it did not mean the event was not believed, just that it was unable to be proved.  It was some comfort, yet it left my ex-husband with the belief he could continue to abuse me.

It is often difficult to understand the court process and its orders, when you are suddenly swept into it as a result of family violence.  I have lost count of the number of times I have been in court over the past eight years.  My children's father has breached orders, then taken applications against me to return to court.  On several occasions he has chosen to represent himself and taken me to court.  I have had to attend, had the matter stood down, adjourned and go on for months, only to have it knocked out by the judge on the grounds that it lacked merit.  I am due to appear in court agan soon, as my ex-husband has put in a parenting application, less than a year after our last final orders were made.  Is there a way of implementing a system to ensure a case has merit before putting someone through the stress of a court case?

The process of obtaing an intervention order is also stressful.  My most recent intervention order took six months and several court appearances to be handed down, despite evidence of threatening and abusive text messages sent to me by me ex-husband.

I have found courts provide no separate space for victims and perpetrators, with everyone thrown in together.  Conversations between lawyers and their clients can be overheard, heightening the anxiety of all attending. There is little feeling of safety around or when leaving the court, and often you must walk past or sit near your abuser.  In my case, my ex-husband would often stand in the stairway, which allowed him to cross his arms, stare me down and stand over me each time I needed to go downstairs.  On another occasion, he stood outside the door with his arms crossed waiting for me to leave.  After half an hour of waiting anxiously I asked the security guard to help me get to my car.

Privacy can be further compromised by the attendance of student groups at court, which has occurred on several occasions in my many appearances, and never have I been asked for consent.  The issue of privacy is of more significance in regional areas, where you can easily come into contact with people you know.

More effort is also needed in considering the ability of the parent with care of the children to attend court.  I was ordered on one accasion to appear at 9am in a city court that is a two-hour drive from home.  No consideration was given to how I was to care for my children and attend.

Requirements for children to attend court also need to be handled more sensitively.  My children had to spend an entire day in court childcare to give a one-hour report to the Family Court reporter.  My eldest son demanded I promise never to make him do that again, which I could not do.

There is also little ability to protect your children in the court system when events change that may put them at risk.  You are faced with the dilemma of protecting your children or following court orders.  My children's father refused to return my children on an appointed day, instead sending dozens of abusive and threatening text messages.  I called the police, only to discover there was nothing they could do, it was a matter for the federal police and they were not available to assist me at 6pm on a Sunday evening.  I was left desperate, anxious and unsupported while waiting for the return of my children.  Support is required in these matters, even if police cannot intervene.  It is cruel to leave a woman in this position, not knowing if her children are safe, whether they will be returned to her, or become yet another victim.

More scrutiny should also be in place for financially abusive relationships in property settlements.  And while the Child Support Agency is supportive, they are unable to collect on your behalf when the other parent does not wish to pay if they are self-employed.  This leaves the parent supporting the children in a position where ongoing financial control/abuse is possible.

The impact and the stress placed on my children and myself through the decade of abuse has been immense, and at this point, with another court case coming up, I see no end in sight to the continued control of me through the use of the courts.  I wonder if I have to endure many more years until my youngest child turns 18 for the court cases to stop and for me to be free to move on from the abuse.

Women I know who have children and are in abusive situations who have seen what I have lived through, have told me they are better off staying in the abusive relationship, as at least they have some control over the safety of their children.  I am disturbed by these responses, however given the abuse I have endured since separation, I can understand them.

*Name changed to protect privacy.
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