The books were kept in the linen cupboard. A collection of novels grouped together near the towels and bedsheets. It seemed an unusual place for this bunch of treasured books, most in excellent condition. The woman with the books in the linen cupboard lived alone. But she couldn’t bring herself to place her books in the open.
For years, she had endured the abuse of a partner who did not want her to read. When she was reading books, lost in her worlds of fiction, she was educating herself. And her partner did not like it. His violent outbursts followed. So she hid the books in the linen cupboard, where he never looked.
And now, in this new home free of her partner’s abuse, the woman still could not place those books in the open.
This story does not sound unusual to workers involved in domestic and family violence. It’s another reminder of how abusive behaviour scars its victims.
“She was so scarred by what happened that she wasn’t comfortable looking at the books so she continued to put them away,” Centacare’s Angela Short said.
“This type of reaction is not uncommon. It comes from the control that the abusers want to have over their victims.
“They think they have to be in control to get what they want.”
Each week, Centacare assists hundreds of victims of domestic violence across the Brisbane Archdiocese. And they’re not from the same types of home. They’re from the Sunshine Coast, the Gold Coast and from Brisbane’s outer suburbs. They’re from regional areas and they’re from inner-city suburbs packed with unit blocks. They’re old and they’re young. They include the 80-year-old man who has turned to abuse to cope with the early-onset dementia slowly killing his loving wife of more than five decades.
There is the 25-year-old, refusing to even let his wife use a phone. And the 40-something executive who makes his wife account for every drop of petrol she uses in the car. It’s easier to control these women if you forbid them to travel anywhere without permission.
To a lesser extent, they include women who have abusive patterns also. They are statistically outnumbered by the male aggressors as being abusive and violent to women, but they exist among the scores of couples who confront the state’s domestic violence courts every week.
The players are familiar to Centacare’s frontline practitioners. They have seen them in the counselling rooms, where barely believable stories of domestic and family violence are told. It’s here that victims often sit when they take their first steps towards help. The social workers talk about the courage it takes for these victims to come forward, knowing that their partners would react violently should they find out.
The counselling rooms are as kind and welcoming as the practitioners. There are scented candles and lamps. There are paintings that calm the abuse victims. And there are the supportive quotes for the darkest of times: “Dear You, it’s going to be OK”.
Some of the victims are experiencing abuse for the first time. Others have endured it for years.
“A lot of the stories have familiarities,” Ms Short said.
“But they also have their differences which make each situation unique.”
And some stories are just plain terrifying. The coroners’ reports into deaths by domestic and family violence make for the most distressing reading.
Among those is the story of Noelene Beutel, murdered by a partner who put her body in the boot of her car. He torched her body in bushland on the Sunshine Coast. The couple had a daughter who was nearing her second birthday when Ms Beutel was murdered. The coroner’s report described a complex web of issues and revealed a communication breakdown made worse by legal issues around privacy.
Ms Beutel’s doctor knew about the violence that was destroying Ms Beutel. But he was also treating her partner. The coroner’s report suggested changes to enable better interaction between officials trying to help victims in the most desperate stages of their abuse. The coroners’ reports are necessary but chilling reading for Centacare’s frontline workers.
“I still get goosebumps from reading some of the reports,” Centacare’s Brigitte McLennan said.
“But we’re using them to ensure we are well practised with markers that point to violence and serious danger for victims.”
These workers are being assisted by a growing social awareness of domestic and family violence.
The increased conversation, led by survivors such as Rosie Batty and fuelled by reports such as the Queensland Government’s Not Now, Not Ever, has created a momentum. The conversation is helping victims step forward for the first time. Dame Quentin Bryce, who led the taskforce that produced the Not Now, Not Ever report last year, revealed that she had been contacted by people “I have known all my life who I would never had thought have been victims of domestic violence”.
The practitioners dealing with the victims and their children are buoyed by the changes. But they’re also warning that the momentum can’t be stalled or the positive progress will amount to little. Practitioners continue to discuss the challenges of the court system, into which exhausted victims take a significant risk as they respond to their violent partners.
The Not Now, Not Ever report outlined the complexities of the system layered over the family problems.
“I left that night with [no money] in my personal bank account,” a woman told the State Government taskforce.
“Within an hour my ex-husband had changed the online password to our joint bank account, leaving me with no access to any money.
“It was only about a week later that he served me with family court proceedings wherein he proposed to become my son’s primary carer and severely limit my contact with him.
“As he had taken all of our money he was able to instruct solicitors and brief a barrister for this, while I was in no position to do so.”
The frontline workers in the battle against domestic and family violence have seen so many of those stories. They have a remarkable ability to quickly break down a story of abuse, pinpointing the reasons behind it and providing genuine comfort for the victims.
Another victim told the taskforce: “My children spent their formative years as innocent victims in a war zone. I have to live with this guilt. I was unable to protect them on my own. Not unwilling. Unable. I needed help.”
That help is now fortified by the growing public awareness, system co-ordination and legislative support. And the workplaces offering domestic and family violence leave.