The issue of domestic violence has once again made the headlines with the tragic death of Sydney mother-of-three Comrie Cullen, who was found dead in a car park at Taren Point.
Mrs. Cullen was due in court this week to fight another legal battle with her estranged husband.
The pair had split last October after a 15-year marriage and since separating Mrs. Cullen was forced to take out an apprehended violence order against her husband.
Mrs. Cullen's husband Christopher Cullen was found near her body with cuts to his chest and wrists and is now in hospital under police guard.*
This tragic case highlights the fatal risk to women who have left abusive relationships and the dangers that still face them after they have left the home.
CEO of DVNSW (Domestic Violence NSW) Tracy Howe asks the question, 'Another woman is dead - where is the community outrage over this?
This case highlights how the cycle of murder of women at the hands of the men in their lives continues regularly in our communities."
'The perpetrator violates her in the home, at work, at the shops, outside court, in the car park, at a friend place, in her sleep. Anywhere. No 5km perimeter or early lock outs will help women with partners who choose violence."
'People often ask the question of women living in abusive relationships –-why doesn't she just leave?' Well this is why. The risks for women and their children are extremely high whether they stay or go," Tracy explained.
'DVNSW along with our partner services, friends and supporters have a big job ahead of us. We need to communicate to people that there is support available to help women safely leave abusive relationships and services to help them rebuild their lives afterwards."
'We also need to educate people on what they can do if they know someone who needs assistance. Domestic and family violence is a critical social issue that affects women and children from across all backgrounds, and so making sure that friends', families, neighbours, work colleagues etc. know how to help is an essential part of our message."
'DVNSW and our partner services support hundreds of women escape domestic violence situations every year. We want women to know that there is help available and that situations like this can be prevented," Tracy added.
Tracy's Howe's advice for anyone who knows someone in an abusive relationship:
'If a woman has been disclosing to you that she is fearful and a victim of abuse, and then for some reason a turn of events (such as the partner realising your confidential relationship) you are told to mind your own business, you need to hold fast, maintain that connection and don't assume the problem has disappeared."
'There are many places you can get advice and information including:
National 24/7 1800 RESPECT line
Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia offer 24/7 support to people affected by domestic and family violence anywhere in Australia 1800 737 732
The NSW Domestic Violence Line is 1800 65 64 63.
If you are worried about someone, call the Police and ask to speak to the Domestic Violence Liaison Officer, discuss what you know and they should be able to make some kind of risk assessment. Police have an obligation to take action if they believe someone is in danger.
In some situations, this could save a life."
For more information visit http://www.dvnsw.org.au/
Question: Why do you believe there is no community outrage regarding domestic violence deaths?
Tracy Howe: Some people still believe that domestic violence is a private matter or that it's something that should be dealt with between two partners. It's a dangerous myth – domestic violence is power and control being systematically exerted by one person over another in a relationship, in the overwhelming majority of cases by a man over a woman (although we know that it happens in gay and lesbian relationships too). Some would argue that the language we use is very important, even the term 'domestic violence" suggests that it's something that happens at home behind closed doors. In reality, violence against women is a very public, socially unacceptable problem. It's something we see in varying degrees all too commonly – women are subjected to abuse, discrimination and harassment daily and we still find it difficult to make a call on it in publically.
It's easy to be shocked when a young man is bashed in Kings Cross and loses his life and it is tragic, it's preventable, it's easy to attribute the causes to alcohol or drugs. But when we hear in the news about a woman having her throat cut or being thrown from a balcony by her partner we somehow think that maybe there were underlying causes, we make excuses and we fail to name it consistently as a gendered crime which is rooted in sexism and misogyny. Domestic violence is something that occurs and impacts all communities, all socio-economic backgrounds and in every neighbourhood, suburb and region across Australia. It's been hidden behind closed doors for too long and fortunately awareness is beginning to increase.
Question: Often these tragic deaths don't receive media attention; why is this?
Tracy Howe: We live in a society which perpetuates double standards about the way the media report the deaths of women at the hands of their partners. So whilst it's often seen to be 'tragic" and they may mention that there has been 'conflict" in the family court system or that there were 'disputes" it's rare to see women's deaths at the hands of their partners being clearly labelled as 'violence against women".
There should be national outrage at the number of women who die every year at the hands of their abusive partner. Over the last few months we've seen the emergence of the '1 woman a week" campaign run by White Ribbon and the Sydney Morning Herald's 'Shine a light" on domestic violence campaign. These use statistics and people's personal stories to show that tragic death is one outcome of abuse in relationships. These are the stories that are beginning to make front-page news and that is a good thing. We need to build a zero tolerance approach to violence against women, whether it's the physical abuse that sometimes leads to homicide or the more insidious types of power and control that wear down a woman's sense of self esteem and make her question her choices.
Question: What do you think needs to happen to prevent further domestic violence issues?
Tracy Howe: A whole of community approach is key to prevention. Education is the only way we will change people's attitudes. Community leaders, politicians, sporting heroes and parents all have a role to play in the prevention of violence. Until we are all on the same page and are discussing and modelling respectful relationships we can't expect children and young people to understand that violence against women is wrong. We give conflicting messages about what is acceptable behaviour and what is not ok. We allow sexist remarks, racism, homophobia and discrimination to be part of our everyday vernacular in Australia and we fail to make the connection between images in the media and daily life that perpetuate a myth that women and men are not equal. We need a radical shift in culture. Working with men who choose to use violence is an important part of this. There are a number of fantastic programs that work with men and boys to shift that prevailing mindset and the sense of entitlement that some men use an excuse.
Added to this we'd like to see much more open discussion of the dynamics of abuse in relationships and for the range of behaviours that are commonly used by perpetrators of violence to be understood as violence against women. Controlling someone's access to money, threatening them on social media, putting someone down in front of their children, preventing them from spending time with friends – all these types of behaviour are typically seen in an abusive relationship.
Question: Why do women often not leave their partner when they're in an abusive relationship?
Tracy Howe: There are a myriad of reasons why a woman may decide to stay in an abusive relationship. Fear that they won't be able to survive without their abusive partner, lack of financial autonomy, lack of self confidence because they've been told no-one else will believe them. Sometimes women decide that it's safer to stay because he has threatened that he'll kill himself or her and the children. Most people experiencing abuse in their relationship are living in a state of hyper-alertness, managing the rages, the abuse, the cycle of violence and the consequences of each of these stages. Sometimes it can be pressure from community or family to stay together. Sometimes it's because they hope that it's just a phase and things will get better. Sometimes it's because they believe that there are no options.
Perpetrators of violence are often very skilled at persuading their partner that they will change, that it's just a phase or that the violence is a 'reasonable reaction" to something they have said or done. Crucially we need to recognise that many people living in abusive relationships know what is safest for them. We should support and empower them to make choices about their lives rather than prescribing what we think is the best option for them. Giving them choices, validation, listening, helping them to seek support and make decisions about their safety and life are the most powerful messages we can give. The best thing you can do for a friend who is experiencing abuse is to let her know that you are there, that you won't judge her choices and to give her hope.
Question: Can you talk us through the risks to women who have left abusive relationships and the dangers that still face them after they have left the home?
Tracy Howe: We know that women are often at the greatest threat during pregnancy, when there's a new baby, separation, property settlement and other high-risk times such as when they decide to leave the violence. There are a number of recent high profile cases where we've seen that women have been killed just at the point that they've decided to leave or immediately afterwards. Police and court interventions can help and are an important option but may not always be the answer. There are a number of programs throughout Australia that support women to stay in their homes after the perpetrator has been ejected and to help them build their safety – changing locks and installing alarms, improving security, working with children's schools so that a father can't turn up and take the kids. There are horror stories about some of the things that go on in courts – particularly the Family Court in relation to domestic violence. We know that the court process can be doubly traumatising for some women who've experienced violence. There are some great services that work with people who have experienced violence and need support through the court process. We encourage women to seek support regardless of what process they decide is most appropriate. Sometimes just talking to a friend can be the greatest support at a risky time.
Question: How can women protect themselves from these risks?
Tracy Howe: Women usually know what is safest for their families. Safety planning can be really helpful – there are a number of things that women living with violence do, often without realising that they are managing the risk and protecting themselves and their children. Examples of this might include:
Talking to a friend and having a safe word that you can use which indicates the level of danger in a text or phonecall so that someone can intervene if appropriate.
Keeping copies of important documents at a friend's house, spare keys, bank account details etc.
Having an escape bag of spare clothes for yourself and the children stashed somewhere where you can quickly grab it and go.
Having a plan in place to get out of the home quickly and safely.
Making arrangements so that family pets are safe.
Having a spare phone or sim card.
Organising somewhere to go in case of an emergency
Having important phone numbers stored somewhere safe so that you can access them even if you leave with nothing.
Police understand the dynamics of domestic violence, they deal with it multiple times daily and they are trained to work with people who have experienced violence. Domestic violence is a crime in Australia and there are a number of options for women seeking support. If you or anyone you know is in immediate danger you can call the Police.
Question: What advice do you have for someone who is in an abusive relationship and wants to leave their partner?
Tracy Howe: Talk to someone you trust, whether it's a family member, friend, a counsellor, one of the helpline support contacts, a support service, your GP, a community leader. It's that first conversation that can make all the difference.
If you don't want to talk to someone you know or you're worried that no-one will listen or believe you call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). It's a national 24/7 phone line with trained counsellors who work with people experiencing domestic and family violence. They will listen, offer support and you can call as many times as you want – you don't have to be ready to leave the relationship to talk to them. There is no judgement or pressure to do anything that you're not comfortable with.
Make a plan using the advice outlined above and make sure someone knows about your plan.
Question: What advice do you have for family and friends who may suspect someone they care about is in an abusive relationship?
Tracy Howe: First of all, ask. Tell them you're worried about their relationship and ask if they are ok.
Don't judge them, support them, stand strong and don't assume the issue has gone away if they stop talking about it.
Let them know that when they are ready to leave – you will be there to support them. It is critical to always keep the lines of communication open. If it takes them many attempts before they are able to leave, don't judge this.
Ask what they need, it may be simple things like help with picking kids up from school or taking care of the family pet when they decide to leave. Offer to go to support services or the Police with them.
The most important thing you can do is listen to what they have to say and believe them.
Question: What are the signs and symptoms these family members can look for regarding abusive relationships?
Tracy Howe: The signs can vary depending on each situation but there are common signs; a woman might distance herself from family and friends, leave a job and cut herself off from work colleagues. Generally, you can see a real erosion in a woman's self-esteem and confidence, they may seem to lose their independence and sense of self. They may start dressing differently, stop wearing makeup or change their appearance. Someone experiencing abuse may make lots of excuses about absences from social events or they may change the subject when you ask about injuries or you express concern. Sometimes the symptoms are almost invisible – it may be that the violent partner can control them with a simple look or gesture. It can be hard to pick up on these cues. But generally you'll be able to see a shift in self confidence, an adaption in behaviour or excuses being made.
Question: How do you hope to change the communities' response to domestic violence issues?
Tracy Howe: At Domestic Violence NSW our job is to talk to everyone about domestic and family violence and to work with communities, organisations, services and individuals towards achieving our vision: a world where women and children can live in a world free of violence and have equal rights, opportunities and freedom to reach their potential.
This is long term change we are envisaging, it's not something that will happen in a 3-5 year funding or election cycle. We are very aware that we don't have all the answers. Communities are often far better positioned to decide what the most appropriate solutions are locally. Our job is to pull all the pieces of the puzzle together and to keep domestic and family violence high on the agenda of media and government so that local communities can respond quickly to the contributory factors that allow domestic violence to occur unchallenged. We want to work with everyone because everyone has a responsibility in this journey. Survivors, children, refuges, Police, Elders, people who have used violence, allies, youth clubs, religious organisations, farmers, accountants – every part of the community is a part of the puzzle.
Interview by Brooke Hunter