A survivor’s experience: fighting a fractured system

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A survivor’s story, as told to SHAY LEDINGHAM

Let me be clear.

Nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed for women this year. If anything the situation has gone backwards, because it looks like we’re doing something, when we are doing nothing.

The overflowing conversation and debate that’s happening within the media, across the pages of the newspapers and the glossy magazines, all speak with the kind of rhetoric that

Many women remain unsupported, and feel as if no-one is able to hold their hand.  Source: Shay Ledingham
Many women remain unsupported, and feel as if no-one is able to hold their hand.
Source: Shay Ledingham

says “We know what is happening, and help is on the way”.

I’m here to tell you that nothing has changed, and in my experience, the system is far more insidious than many people would imagine.

For more than twenty years I have been trying to disentangle myself from a living nightmare. Currently, the only way I can do this is to become further ensnared in a system that has no sympathy for you, no support for you, and where you have no rights.

I have exhausted myself simply trying to negotiate the constant dead-end alley ways and bureaucratic labyrinths, battling against a structure that is still re-victimising those who seek help, channelling further emotional, financial and psychological abuse from perpetrators.

There have been small, fluttering moments. Particularly when I first secured a DVO. That’s been the easy part of all of this, and none of it has been easy.

I have heard from other women.

Their stories, and their experiences within the system, have been no different from mine.

It is completely sobering, but it must be said.

Nothing has changed and things have gone backwards.

I’m here to tell you that nothing has changed, and in my experience, the system is far more insidious than many people would imagine.

I.

We meet, as people so often do, at a party.

I’ll later realise the conversations we have that night are not true. He is nothing like how he says he is.

It takes a long while for all of this to come to light, though.

We end up in this relationship.

II.

I find out I’m pregnant.

I manage the birth independently and afterwards I continue to work, living in my home and raising my first child who is growing up beautifully.

Then he starts turning up and the concerns start creeping in. He starts asking about seeing his child.

“We’ll probably have to sort out sharing arrangements.”

One night, very late in the evening, he arrives at my door with an unstoppered wine bottle and mouth to match. I have a toddler and a career to deal with in the morning, and so I turn down his invitation. He becomes angry. Really angry. He yells and screams and swears.

But he does leave.

Later on, the situation is explained away as act of passion.

The coaxing continues.

“Let’s get married.”

I am still rife with uncertainty, so we go to pre-marriage counselling. Normally sessions are held once a week, across a period of six weeks. We attend for almost three months, and towards the end we were seeing the counsellor multiple times within the same week.

During this time, he becomes increasingly aggravated over my reluctance and hesitations, and because I can’t rightly articulate why I don’t want to marry him, the counsellor becomes frustrated. I’m seen as being difficult.

Everyone says to me: Why won’t you marry him? He looks quite nice. He earns good money. I reply with the same inexpressible doubts. I also try to explain things away. Women are conditioned to do this. We take responsibility for everything.

In the end, and this is something I will never forget, the counsellor actually places their head on the desk in defeat.

“Why don’t you just go and get married, and if it doesn’t work out, you can go and get

Domestic violence survivors endure multiple accounts of abuse before reaching out for help. Source: Shay Ledingham
Domestic violence survivors endure multiple accounts of abuse before reaching out for help.
Source: Shay Ledingham

divorced, just like everybody else.”

Talk about trusting your instincts.

III.

Immediately after the marriage we move to a different state.

He arranges everything, renting a very large house, along a very long road, right in the middle of nowhere. I stand out the front, toddler on my hips, staring into the distance. I’ve got to get out of here.

He starts to control financial matters early on, claiming that I waste what is given to me, and that it will be up to him to provide for the family, even though I bring more to this situation than him.

Soon I become pregnant for a second time, and having my own reasons to carry through, I give birth again.

We move to another location, this time to a house we build, but that’s the only difference. I’m still miles away from any accessible services or help.

Then, one night, it happens.

He thrashes me, throwing and hitting me with some things, and hurling the rest of my belongings and the things I valued off the veranda. Even in that fit of rage, the things which mattered to him remained safely inside.

On that night, five police officers wrestle my enraged husband on the front lawn.

A female police officer comes over to me and covers my eyes.

“Don’t look,” she says.

“They might have to shoot him.”

They might have to shoot him, in an attempt to gain control of the situation. In the end, they don’t.
These five officers give evidence when I seek a DVO in the very same year, describing an uncontrollable, extremely violent situation that almost required the use of firearms.

The Magistrate defers their decision. I will be notified in due course.

I return home after the hearing.

He comes home an hour after me.

He is allowed to live in the very same residence, share the very same roof, while the decision to grant a DVO is made.

Weeks pass by, and the psychological abuse starts to take its toll, with taunting and sneering at my ineptitude to secure an order.

“If you couldn’t get one after that, you’re never going to get one on me.”

During this time, a small relief through the voice of a young policewoman was there for me. She keeps my sanity, calling on a regular basis to ask if I am alright, and I would say yes.

“We’ve failed you,” she says.

“You’re never going to contact us again, I can see that.”

Apparently there is a system change-over. A re-ordering of files because of the size and scope of cases being dealt with. Things are lost. I only find this out in the years to come.

To this day, I still don’t know if that DVO was ever granted or not.

Nobody has ever gotten back to me.

IV.

The years trail on and I am trying to keep the peace, trying to keep things calm, and steady, and under control.

As a family, we take a trip, travelling interstate for a beach holiday.

One afternoon I’m down on the shore with the children, trying to encourage one of them to put their shoes on to walk up to dinner.

He wanders down from wherever he’s been. I suspect, strongly, that he has been drinking.

Children are fractious, I try to explain, and it’s been a long day at the beach for all of us. Surely, once we start to cross the bindi-covered field, the decision to cover the feet will be changed.

Apparently this isn’t good enough.

He hits me so hard, the sheer force of his hand ends up fracturing my skull. I fall to the ground and take another beating.

He must stop, leave, deciding to run from what he’s done.

I gather the children together, get into the car, and drive to the police station where I am immediately hospitalised. My whole face is swollen and completely unrecognisable. The officers gather the forensic and medical evidence, and they arrange a DVO on my behalf.

The survivor described the point of getting a DVO as a moment  of "fluttering butterflies". Source: Shay Ledingham
The survivor described the point of getting a DVO as a moment of “fluttering butterflies”.
Source: Shay Ledingham

They also track down my husband.

Everything is streamlined, dealt with and executed easily.

Before I leave, they tell me I must register this document when I get back home, that way if anything else happens, I have a chance.

V.

When you are with an abusive partner, and you must leave the house for an uncertain (but decidedly long) period of time, and you have children who absolutely cannot be left behind, you need to have a good story, so you don’t raise suspicion.

Because when you register a DVO, you have to go in person.

Naturally, opportunities that offer you such a situation don’t arise every often, if at all. But one day, a chance does come along so I take it. I leg it. I grab the kids and go.

I have to get to the court district, children in tow, and I have no exact idea of where I’m going and how I might find my way to the right person.

All I know is I have to get it registered and then I have to get home.

I’m really worried he’ll know.

But I do it, and I get away with it by a hare’s whisker.

There is one other thing that happens as a result of this.

Child safety turn up to my workplace.

They give me an absurdly theorist lecture about domestic violence, then tell me if there’s any more trouble, they’ll be forced to take the children.

The consequence of this visit is pretty straightforward, I think.

I really can’t contact the police ever again.

VI.

Again, I go back into peacekeeper mode.

Then, one quiet autumn evening the children ask to watch a movie, and I agree. It’s a bit of fun for us, and after a night of heavy drinking, he has fallen asleep on the couch.

We play the movie and almost reach the credits when he wakes up.

He does not want the movie on.

“But it’s only got about five or ten minutes left to run.”

That was a stupid thing for me to say.

He picks up a wine bottle and throws it at the back of my head. I start to try and escape while protecting the children and getting us out the backdoor all at once, and he keeps raining me with furniture and anything else he grabs.

Then he is hitting me, hitting me, hitting me and I tell my eldest to run.

I reach for the phone to call for help, but he rips it out of the wall, treading all over me in the process.

By now I am close to unconsciousness, thinking only about the safety of my children.

Then for some reason, he stops. Who knows why he leaves, or where he went, but luckily he goes away.

Suddenly I am being dragged across the room and out the door. It’s my eldest, who has already contacted the police. Then there’s whispering.

“Just be really quiet.

“Whatever you do Mum, don’t make a noise.

“I know you’re in a lot of pain, but you mustn’t make any noise.

“He won’t find us, we’re just going to lay here.

There are multiple obstacles that women often have to face, and fight, within the system. Source: Shay Ledingham
There are multiple obstacles that women often have to face, and fight, within the system.
Source: Shay Ledingham

“I’m turning my phone off so we can’t get a call, and so there’s no way we can be seen by a light.”

An arm curls around me.

The next thing I know is the sound and sight of sirens.  

VII.

I set out to receive a temporary DVO, which is thankfully followed by a court appearance in the month afterwards to cement the order.

Compiling my initiating application and writing my affidavits turns my kitchen table into a small law library and office space, with paper stacked everywhere and drafted documents marked and remarked, as I try to find my way through the maze.

In the beginning, I rang everyone I could think of when I knew I had to go to court for my initiating application. I knew I wouldn’t be able to receive legal help, but all I wanted was someone who might come along and sit with me. Someone to hold my hand w

Home spaces can turn into legal battlegrounds. Source: Shay Ledingham
Home spaces can turn into legal battlegrounds.
Source: Shay Ledingham

hile I stand alone, against him and his legal team.

But I can’t get anyone, because nobody is funded to do that.

The first day is court is nerve wracking to say the least.

Once I arrive, I am thrown into absolute pandemonium and I’m not entirely sure where I should be going or who I need to see.

While I’m listening out for my name, my case, anything, I run into him in the crowd.

I am not in any way prepared for this, but luckily the swell of harried bodies is so thick there’s nowhere for me to fall over, so I stay upright.

Then I’m in court, on my own, because I have a family to support on my own and this battle to fight and I can’t afford much else.

I spend what money I have on food, utilities, education and medical. I’m managing ongoing affects from the physical injuries I’ve sustained. I’ve got PTSD, depression, anxiety from a result of what I’ve been through. It’s complete financial, emotional and temporal ruin.

I step into the courtroom and take my place.

Then the judge turns to the other party and asks them what they would like. Here I am, uncertain and hoping and praying not to come across as difficult or impolite or breaking any courtroom procedures, but I have to keep interjecting. I have to state my case.

I’m worried about how I’m looking, how I’m acting, while I stand here trying not to be intimidated by my partner and his team.

However, the decision is made for a DVO to be put in place. There are conditions—such as my tracking (not his) via an electronic device (which actually isn’t available in the courts and I would have to drive over an hour away to get one), and he must make an appointment to attend an alcohol abuse and behavioural management program before he leaves court.

However, after securing a DVO, there is an ongoing battle that often remains silent.  Source: Shay Ledingham
However, after securing a DVO, there is an ongoing battle that often remains silent.
Source: Shay Ledingham

There is evidence from a longitudinal study that’s happened in the EU, and they’ve found the correlation between alcohol abuse and domestic violence is huge. There is a massive problem.

But I don’t think he ever attends, and to my knowledge so far, nothing has been followed-through with or checked upon.

Another missed chance for intervention.

Reconciliation over property settlement is another process we must go through. It turns out to be another way for the system to re-traumatise with time expenditures and pressures turning into financial abuse all over again.

The order in place will last for two years. It has been recommended to me to get an extension on that DVO, because a two year window is not a large enough time frame to extract myself from this entire situation.

VIII.

One day, while organising documentation arranged as part of the order, I come across something. It’s an opportunity, but for this, I need some form of legal advice.

I start Googling my options, pulling up legislative acts and double-checking definitions, before ringing a hotline to find out what to do next.

I come across a website that lists two phone lines. I try the first.

When I get through, I ask a very specific question in regards to my circumstance. She can’t immediately answer me, and has to ask her supervisor. She puts me on hold, comes back and relays some information which doesn’t seem right to me. I ask for clarification and I am placed on hold again. This goes on a few more times before I move on.

Trying the second number proves to be just as frustrating, and after a lot of effort on my behalf the responder tells me I will be placed on a register for a call back from one of their solicitors. This sounds promising.

“They will call you three times, and if you miss the call, you’re out of the system,” says the voice at the other end.

This seems a little more concerning. I ask whether or not they will call from a private number, they say their system only uses private numbers. I have a DVO, why would I answer a private number? I query this, and ask if there’s a good reason as to why I can’t have a contact number instead.

“We’ll contact you.”

I miss the first call and while a voicemail is left, there is no indication about when they will call back. No timeframe at all. So I’m supposed to sit here, waiting for them to call, and hope it is them and not someone else when I answer? Okay.

The second call is also missed. It was in the evening and I was cooking dinner for a family. This time though, they leave instruction as to when they will call, giving an exact time.

That time comes and goes. I wait, and then almost three hours late, the phone rings.

“I tried to contact you.”

I’m upset, but I have to remember to be gracious. I am getting something for free.

The voice on the other end starts by telling me we have 15 minutes for this call. I’m not sure how I’m meant to relay everything but I try my best, covering the most important background information and finally asking the ultimate question about my situation.

He tells me what I’m after isn’t, in fact, what I want, because I’ve misinterpreted the circumstances. I’m very certain I haven’t, and even though it turns out in the end that I’m right, that doesn’t come out during this call as we argued over the phone.

Eventually I relent, asking for their advice. I’m directed to the original website I used to contact the hotline, and instructed to download a particular form. Even though I ask what the document is, and what it will help me do,

IX.

I’m not willing to give up yet, so I make contact with another legal centre, and try and arrange an appointment.

There is only one available, and it’s in the evening, so I’ll be away from my children.

As I’m arranging the appointment, I’m told I’ll have a time limit of 20 minutes. How am I going to use this time to my best advantage? I choose to write out everything as best as I can.

I arrive for the appointment, I hand over my documents, and thrust a red pen into their hands.

“Go for it,” I say.

“You’ve got 20 minutes.”

Women desperately need greater legal support. Source: Shay Ledingham
Women desperately need greater legal support.
Source: Shay Ledingham

They’re impressed with my effort, but it still takes some arguing and flattery to get what I want translated into legalese. 

It’s proof of the further support women need in facing the absolute quagmire that is domestic violence extraction through the legal system.

X.

This is what women are up against. I’m a highly educated, experienced woman. How do you think the average woman would hold up? How would someone from a socially disadvantaged background negotiate any of this?

All the psychological, all the emotional, all the physical abuse became financial and legal abuse, and the courts enabled the whole thing.

Domestic violence victims deserve to be able to get on with our lives and they are enabling the bullying through the process. We deserve to have priority listing in the courts.

It is powerful. It is really powerful. I will be bankrupt before I get any of this resolved.

And yet we’re out there in the media every single day saying ‘Things are changed. You’re right. You’re safe’. The system responds in really different way.

When I reflect on my experience, I’ve had some wonderful help and support. But I haven’t had any substantial help from a single government agency or NGO that has been funded to provide domestic violence services from start to finish.

I haven’t seen any evidence of that. None at all.

Isn’t that a disgrace.