Sentencing considerations - breaches of protection orders

Cautionary note: some people may find reading these victim experiences distressing or traumatising.

These de-identified victim experiences summarise the content of interviews undertaken with people who have experienced domestic and family violence and legal system engagement. The interviewees’ names and some minor details of their narratives have been changed to protect their identities. In many cases the names have been selected by the interviewees.

The key words align with the contents covered in the National Domestic and Family Violence Bench Book.

  • Anna and Nathan met one another at high school, however neither completed year 12. During their five-year relationship, they lived together for periods, on and off, and had a child who was aged two when they separated. Anna has experienced physical and mental health problems since early adolescence, which, as an adult, have prevented her from gaining a qualification or employment. She is on a disability pension and, as the primary carer of the child, receives parenting and public housing support. When younger, Anna took party drugs to cope with her anxiety and depression, but feels now that she has grown out of the habit. Nathan’s drug taking and dealing and associated criminal activity have dominated his life for many years, and on one occasion resulted in a serious conviction for which he served a sentence of probation. Anna describes Nathan as extremely aggressive—and more so when taking drugs or alcohol—and possibly having a mental illness, though she believes undiagnosed. The child has been diagnosed with various behavioural disorders, which are now managed with medication and ongoing medical treatment. There are Family Court parenting orders in place granting Anna residence and allowing Nathan weekly contact, however Nathan rarely sees or telephones the child.

    From early on in the relationship, Nathan would regularly (and wrongly) accuse Anna of cheating on him, he would often check on her whereabouts and who she was spending time with, and constantly monitored her money while refusing to make any contribution himself to rent and other joint expenses. On a few occasions when Nathan got drunk and felt that Anna was giving him attitude, he would put his hands around her throat strangling her in front of others. Anna became pregnant when Nathan was on probation, and child protection was alerted to Nathan’s physical and emotional violence towards her. On a visit during her pregnancy, a child protection officer told her the child would be taken away from her if she stayed with Nathan. Anna wasn’t overly concerned because she had good family support around her and, with the help of a local youth service, was attending parenting and ante-natal classes and getting set up at home.

    Nathan’s physical violence did however escalate during and after the pregnancy. Nathan wielded a knife at Anna causing her to barricade herself in a locked room. While the baby slept, he strangled and beat her so badly that she blacked out and, with help from a family member, was taken by ambulance to the hospital and treated for multiple fractures, and facial and scalp wounds. Two months later, he yanked her arm forcefully, resulting in a serious elbow injury and lengthy recovery. Nathan was often drunk or stoned during these violent rampages, and would always flee the scene leaving Anna to fend for herself. On one occasion, Nathan assaulted Anna while they were walking with their child to the local shops. He took off with the child, leaving Anna on the street with severe cuts and bruising and torn clothes. Police were alerted and successfully applied to the court for a two-year protection order on Anna’s behalf, with the child named as a protected party.

    On the expiration of the first order, police obtained a further identical order, which is due to expire in the coming months. Anna has spoken to a local domestic violence support worker who is encouraging her to seek a five-year order. Anna reports feeling both frustrated and terrified because, despite having these orders and being on the police high-alert list, Nathan has repeatedly and flagrantly breached the orders, and continues to do so regularly, by stalking Anna and the child, ringing and letting her know where she has been and with whom, and threatening physical harm and death. Nathan has ready access to guns and knives and, on one occasion when he was facing the possibility of a jail term for another offence, threatened to shoot Anna’s mother and Anna herself if Anna tried to disappear with the child. Anna has returned to police, repeatedly, to make statements attesting to Nathan’s breaches, and at times, has had to appear at the hearing, self-represented (due to no access to Legal Aid), accompanied by a local domestic violence support worker, and intimidated by the prospect of Nathan being in the courtroom. Nathan would frequently seek and obtain adjournments for the breach hearings; and whilst he was often found guilty of breach, he has never received other than a fine as penalty. Following each hearing, Anna expected that the police would contact her to advise the outcome, but she found that she had to constantly ring and ask. She was only ever told about the fines, and can’t say whether convictions were recorded, or whether Nathan has ever been charged with stalking, assault or any other offence related to his domestic and family violence towards her and the child.

    Anna believes that Nathan continues to be involved with criminal activities and that he is known to police. Although Nathan doesn’t physically approach Anna, he continues to monitor her and the child through his family and friends. Anna feels constantly unsafe and under threat, and won’t venture out of the house without people who can protect her and the child. Anna regularly changes her appearance and telephone number, and has recently changed the locks on her house. The police have cautioned her to lock herself in. Still young, Anna is desperate to establish a normal and happy life; however she feels trapped and damaged by Nathan’s ongoing domestic and family violence, and by what she perceives to be the failure of the justice system to recognise the seriousness of Nathan’s crimes and to punish him appropriately, and to protect her and the child adequately.

    Nathan has only ever paid a negligible amount of child support; ultimately, his violence resulted in Anna having to obtain an exemption from claiming. Despite having contact orders, Nathan has always flouted the conditions, or not bothered to see or speak with the child at all. Anna would like to have the orders varied to disallow contact on the basis of Nathan’s serious and ongoing violence, however she expects to be criticised by the court for seeking to prevent a relationship between Nathan and the child; and yet has had the experience of being told by child protection that if she remains with Nathan, the child will be removed from her.

    Having tried and failed, time and again, over five years to secure proper protection from Nathan, at this stage, Anna can’t see what else she can do to improve her situation. She doesn’t have the financial resources to engage a private lawyer, and her health is so compromised that her prospects of future employment are limited. She is also very concerned about the daily and long-term impacts of the violence and fear on the child.

  • Carol and Rod were both born overseas, sharing a country of origin where they met and lived together for some years before marrying and immigrating to Australia. English is their first language. They have two children who are now adults. Carol and Rod separated after twenty- five years; however they remain married to one another. Carol completed high school and obtained an industry qualification. She now works part-time. Rod is university educated, has a professional qualification and works in highly-remunerated employment. Throughout the relationship Rod worked overseas at remote locations for extended periods, returning home periodically. Rod continues to work in this manner, however Carol believes that he now returns only occasionally as he is concerned about being charged for multiple breaches of the protection order she has against him. Rod sends Carol his pay slips to show her how much money he is earning; he never paid child support. Carol believes that Rod has been mentally unwell for many years, though he’s never sought help or a diagnosis. Carol believes Rod has not accepted that the marriage is over even after 12 years of separation; he continues to wear his wedding ring, and tells her and others that they’re still together.

    Carol describes their long relationship as turbulent and dysfunctional and recognises that Rod’s controlling behaviours began in the early years and escalated after they arrived in Australia with their infant first child. When the couple were still living overseas and Carol was pregnant, Rod sought to isolate Carol from her close family and support network by insisting on buying property some distance away from the town where her many family members resided. When Carol needed to buy business wear that was often expensive Rod would monitor her spending. On the advice of a friend, Carol carried a red texta pen so she could mark the tags as sale price before bringing them home for Rod to scrutinise. Carol opened a separate bank account of her own for her earnings and made sure the statements weren’t posted to their address; Rod insisted however that her earnings be exhausted first on groceries and household expenses before he made a contribution. Once in Australia, as well as his financially controlling and socially isolating behaviours, Rod became physically violent towards Carol, often punching and at times strangling her over many years. Rod would not allow the children to eat meals with him and Carol; he told them he wanted their mother to himself. Rod also often told the children Carol was mad, and when the children were adults he announced to them and other of Carol’s family members that she was dying. At one stage during a separation Rod tried to have Carol declared an unfit mother alleging alcoholism and mental illness; he subpoenaed her medical records, however was unable to substantiate his claims. Carol tried to leave the relationship on four occasions before their final separation. She returned each time because she found it too difficult to care for the children properly, she did not have adequate financial resources of her own, and Rod would regularly turn up at the homes of friends or family where she was staying and try to claim her back.

    One evening Rod’s behaviour became so terrifying to Carol that she believed he would kill her. Rod had pinned their older child up against the wall; Carol retaliated telling him never to touch the children. For years, Carol had put up with Rod’s violence and abuse for fear that resistance would only exacerbate his behaviour; but she would not tolerate the children being harmed. Rod’s response was to force Carol into a chair, strangle her and hold two knives to her throat. The following day Carol’s neighbour told her that they thought an animal was being tortured in the garden. Somehow Carol managed to call the police; they attended quickly and, witnessing the marks on Carol’s neck and Rod’s state, took the matter seriously. As the police were arriving at the house, Rod took his shirt off and started drinking spirits from a bottle, though he’d not drunk previously that night. He tried to push past the police to get at Carol, and when stopped he smashed the glasses on the kitchen bench. The police handcuffed Rod and detained him elsewhere for the night while an officer remained and took a statement from Carol. She was extremely concerned that if the police took action against Rod, he would return the next day and kill her. The police persisted telling Carol that they must proceed and get a protection order on her behalf against Rod to ensure her safety. The matter was set down to be dealt with at the Magistrates Court the following afternoon, however Rod failed to appear and a warrant was issued for his arrest. The hearing proceeded and a final two-year protection order was made by the court prohibiting Rod from any form of contact with Carol and allowing Rod only supervised visits with the children. Carol found the court experience intimidating and unfamiliar: Rod was represented by a private lawyer; she was required to be in the courtroom with Rod at close proximity and no screens or other protections were offered. On a positive note the court’s domestic violence service arranged for her to sit in a separate waiting room before the hearing.

    On the day the first protection order was granted, Rod withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars from various joint accounts and a line of credit never previously used, and sent the money to overseas bank accounts Carol had no knowledge of. Carol does not recall signing any documentation for the joint line of credit and was astonished and distraught that the bank would allow it to be drawn down without her authorisation. Rod had on many occasions promised to financially cripple Carol.

    Following the protection order—which Carol says marked their final separation—the children lived with Carol, and saw their father occasionally under supervision by family members or friends. Rod did not seek parenting orders from the Family Court to secure this arrangement or to increase his contact time. Eventually, family and friends told Carol that they could no longer supervise Rod’s visits with the children because he did not spend the time with the children; rather he used it as an opportunity to question them about Carol.

    Since separation Rod’s abuse of Carol has been constant and menacing, and continues after 12 years. Being out of the country is no bar to Rod’s capacity to abuse Carol. When overseas Rod rings or texts or emails Carol at least twice daily, and often more frequently. These communications are chaotic, disturbing and intimidating: they include taunts and insults; appeals to Carol to return to the marriage with pledges such as I love you, I’m worried about you, and I miss you; and goading with questions such as: Have I tipped you over the edge yet? Why are you making me having to kill you? He has sent pictures of dead children. He also sends Carol postcards, flowers, gifts and grocery deliveries. When in Australia, Rod has slept in the garden of the property where Carol lives (and owns jointly with Rod); he has broken into the property, stalked Carol and her friends in the local area, and twice followed her on overseas trips. On one occasion, knowing he was following her, Carol drove home quickly and locked herself in the house. Rod tried every door and window to gain access. While she sat behind the front door so that Rod couldn’t see her, Carol called the police in whispered tones, again so as not to alert him to her presence; the police later told Carol that they did not give the call priority because they expected that if she were genuinely fearful she would be screaming.

    Carol has been forced to seek multiple protection orders over the years, and still requires an order even though she questions how effective they are given Rod’s serial and flagrant breaches. Due to Rod’s regular periods overseas and generally elusive behaviour, service of orders has been recurrently problematic, sometimes taking weeks for service to be effected. Carol has had to apply for substituted service. Rod has also prolonged and thwarted court proceedings by having his lawyer regularly seek adjournments on work grounds. Carol has been vigilant in recording Rod’s breaches and regularly reporting them to the police; however she feels that she may be regarded as an annoyance by some police officers. Rod has nevertheless been charged and convicted on five occasions for breaches of protection orders. Each time he has received a fine, which Carol believes has no deterrent effect due to Rod’s significant income, and the fine amount has reduced over time despite Rod’s reoffending. At no stage has Rod ever been charged with stalking or strangulation offences nor have police ever discussed these possibilities with Carol, though they have mentioned to her that they believe a term of imprisonment is appropriate for a future breach conviction. Carol believes that imprisonment would make a difference to Rod’s behaviour especially if he was also required to undertake a perpetrator intervention program as she feels that this is the best opportunity for his mental ill health to be addressed.

    Carol has done her best to stay healthy and positive despite the history of abuse she continues to experience. She believes Rod is becoming more dangerous and the fear that Rod will one day kill her remains real and front of her mind. She avoids social media because she’s very concerned that it would be another means by which Rod could track her. She has also given up on developing any intimate relationship as she knows that Rod would attempt to follow and intimidate her and any partner.

    Carol’s financial resources are limited, she earns a modest income, and has no assets of significant value other than the house property she resides in and owns jointly with Rod. Carol has for decades serviced the original debt on the property; she feels she can manage this with her earnings. Rod further mortgaged the property some years ago, and continues to service that liability. Carol’s preference is to divorce Rod but this would require a property settlement. Carol knows this process will precipitate the sale of the house property and the equity will largely be exhausted in paying debts accrued by Rod and yet held in their joint names.

    Carol has had a long engagement with court processes mostly as a self-represented party attempting to seek protection against Rod’s violence and abuse. Her confidence has grown over the years, but she remains concerned that she is unable to secure the legal protection from Rod’s abuse that she needs. On one occasion she received advice from legal aid for a breach hearing against Rod; but she has always appeared in protection order matters on her own. She believes that police have mostly taken her complaints seriously, though at times she has felt that she’s an annoyance due to her frequent reporting of breaches, or that she’s been disbelieved, for example looking to exploit the process to achieve a favourable financial outcome for herself. Carol also feels that the Magistrates she has appeared before have rarely read or fully understood the material setting out the history of the violence and abuse, and that the penalties for breaches of protection orders are inconsistent, inadequate and Magistrate specific. Carol’s concerns and fears continue unabated.

  • Fiona and Tony were married and lived together for 25 years. Fiona was an early teenager when they met; Tony a number of years older. Fiona had not finished high school when she became pregnant with their first child. They now have two adult children: both of whom are employed and live independently; for some time after the separation one of the children lived with Tony and was estranged from Fiona. Tony has a criminal history relating to property crime. Tony was previously employed in a trade, and operated a related business using equipment jointly owned with Fiona. The business ceased operation some years ago, and Tony hasn’t worked since. Tony has been a regular illicit drug user since a teenager. On leaving school, and when the children were young, Fiona acquired vocational qualifications and was employed in a well-respected, though modestly remunerated position, which she held throughout the relationship and continues in now.

    From the start of the relationship, Tony was violent and abusive towards Fiona. He would accuse Fiona of showing interest in other boys, and struck and verbally abused her as punishment. Fiona recalls over many years being routinely smacked across the nose and face, punched in the stomach, and pushed into walls; and having her hair pulled and fingers bent back. Today, Fiona has a crooked nose and fingers. Tony would repeatedly tell Fiona that: she was a “fat, ugly, dumb slut”; she should cover herself up because fat people should never be seen in public; she was no good and would never do any better than him; and he needed to take drugs to cope with her. If she didn’t rub his back in bed, she was forced to sleep elsewhere. Sex occurred when Tony demanded it, and would often follow time spent in the outdoor shed where Tony watched pornography and bestiality videos alone. Fiona describes their sexual relations as non-consensual; she complied with Tony’s demands to avoid the prospect of anything worse. For a long time, Fiona never alerted family, friends, or police to the habitual violence she was subjected to during the relationship. She dressed so as to cover her bruises (and because she had been made to feel so ashamed of her body); and when that wasn’t possible, she gave another explanation for her injuries. She made sure that her outward demeanour did not betray her suffering; however she believes that a couple of people close to her probably knew or suspected.

    Fiona says that, while the violence and abuse were a constant, it was Tony’s relentless control of her—and attempts to control her—that characterised his behaviour towards her throughout the relationship, and during and after separation, to the present. If his clothes weren’t folded or his lunch wasn’t made, he would refuse to go to work, and Fiona would be made to call his workplace and explain his absence. If he was driving the car and had an accident or got a speeding ticket, it was Fiona’s fault. If Fiona went out with friends, he would ring her repeatedly demanding to know where she was and when she’d be home. At times, he would make her come home and do a job around the house that he refused to do. At night, he would turn up the volume on the stereo so she couldn’t sleep. Tony made no effort to help with child rearing, cooking, washing, cleaning, or mowing, and took no interest in the children’s sporting or other activities. Fiona took care of all of these things while being employed full time. Tony was jealous of Fiona’s good relationship with her work colleagues, and installed equipment in her car to record her conversations with a colleague she drove to and from work. He threatened to come to Fiona’s workplace and tell people what she was ‘really like’; he never did. On her birthday once, Tony deflated her car tyres.

    In the early years, Tony would contribute a weekly amount to the mortgage repayments and household expenses, however over time he stopped these payments, and Fiona took on all joint financial responsibilities funding them from her wage. She never went on a holiday. When Tony stopped working, Fiona never knew what he did or where he went. She would come home from work and often find him in bed, and then he would leave the house late at night, refusing to tell her where he was going, saying he needed to get money, notwithstanding that she regularly gave him money. When their business ceased operation, Tony sold the equipment and other assets and took the money without accounting to Fiona; she believes that her share was in the order of tens of thousands of dollars. Their marital property was damaged and they received an insurance payout. Tony spent the funds without reference to Fiona, and the damage was never repaired.

    While they were together, Fiona believed she had no choice other than to acquiesce to Tony’s behaviour and demands, or risk further and more serious violence and abuse. She felt it was better to ‘cop it’ and get on with things than have situations deteriorate. The children were frequently exposed to Tony’s treatment of Fiona; she feels it became somewhat normal for them, especially for her older child who often shielded the younger one.

    One evening Fiona found she could no longer tolerate the violence and abuse. Tony had locked her out of the house, and she was forced to sleep at the neighbour’s house. Neighbours were supportive of her, but knew little of her circumstances because she had not disclosed. One of the neighbour’s family members, who she considers a friend, told her that she had to do something to address the situation. Fiona felt this was a turning point for her, giving her the strength and resolve to act. Fiona applied for a protection order, however after assurances from Tony that he had changed, she agreed to withdraw it. His behaviour immediately escalated; they separated, and continued living under the one roof. During this time, Tony would not allow her to lock her bedroom door, and she discovered that he’d set up hidden cameras in the bedroom that he monitored via equipment secretly installed underneath the house. Fiona successfully reapplied for an order, including a condition excluding him from the home. Her lawyer advised her to start keeping a record of Tony’s behaviour, which she has diligently maintained since.

    Initially Fiona obtained a temporary protection order (including the exclusion condition) against Tony, which was served on him, and he was aware of the conditions. In response both Tony and their adult child who lived with him at that stage brought applications for protection orders against Fiona based on, what Fiona describes as, gross, disgusting and untruthful claims; both applications were dismissed by the court.

    Tony was charged and bailed on charges relating to breaking and entering the marital property, and stealing items. Fiona believes that the adult child was complicit. These charges did not go ahead.

    Police advised Fiona that the final hearing of her protection order application had to be deferred so that other criminal allegations against Tony could be finalised. Those allegations related to Tony stalking Fiona based on his parking and waiting in the car near her workplace and home (neighbours and work colleagues are witnesses); following her on the roads; sending her repeated offensive texts; and tracking her on a dating website using false personas.

    In the interim Fiona reported to police multiple breaches by Tony of the temporary protection order, some of which involved the behaviour already described, others involved Tony coming onto the marital property and stealing further items, and humiliating and denigrating Fiona on Facebook.

    The police ultimately charged Tony with stalking. He pleaded guilty and in sentencing him the court ordered that Tony be placed on a five year restraining order. A final protection order was also made for two years.

    The marital property was sold, subject to Family Court orders. Fiona moved out of the property some time ago as she was too terrified to continue living there; it is in an isolated location. Fiona has a new partner with whom she now lives. They have installed a security system on their property, and whenever she is alone, she stays inside and locks the doors. She doesn’t believe Tony is aware of the property’s location. She is constantly vigilant about changing the routes she takes to work and the shops, and she avoids going to places she knows Tony frequents. She knows that Tony watches her and the new partner when they are in town together. In the past, Tony threatened to cut the brake lines on her car, burn the house down, kill her and leave her body in a barrel. She suspects that Tony had previously accessed her car and installed a GPS; she is having it investigated. Fiona believes that her fears are well justified; she is also scared for her new partner’s safety.

    Fiona engaged a lawyer for the protection order and property matters. The legal fees have been very costly, and continue to accrue while these matters remain unresolved. Tony’s vexatious cross applications and deliberate delays in agreeing to property arrangements significantly increased Fiona’s legal fees. Despite Fiona’s disproportionate contributions and the violence and abuse she has experienced, Fiona and Tony were each entitled to 50% of the proceeds of sale of the marital property. Fiona’s share was almost entirely consumed by legal fees. Following the property orders, the Federal Circuit Court Magistrate had allowed Tony to enter the property and remove the items he was entitled to; he took the opportunity to steal other items as well. When Fiona lodged a complaint with police, they told her it was a civil matter, and they couldn’t assist. While Fiona believes that her lawyer is a good person and supportive of her case, she feels that he could have fought harder in seeking the legal redress and protection she needed as a result of Tony’s prolonged violence and abuse.

    Fiona has often felt frustrated by her involvement with police. She describes their responses as variable: at times, alert, supportive and effective; other times, uninterested, even irritated by her repeated complaints. On one occasion when Fiona had reported a breach, they told her it would be 24 hours before officers could attend the property. She suspects that she doesn’t fit the usual victim stereotype of feeble, frightened, and crying, and that police and magistrates may have regarded her differently as a consequence. Fiona has dealt with multiple police officers at a number of different police stations. She feels that with complicated matters like hers, victims/complainants should be assigned a single responsible officer who coordinates the police responses, rather than having to recount the facts and circumstances over and again. On one occasion a well-intentioned officer told Fiona she should move interstate and start a new life. Fiona feels adamant that she should not have to be the one who disrupts her life, work and relationships and is further punished for Tony’s violence and abuse.

  • Jennifer and Frank are in their sixties and were in a relationship for five years. They have both been married previously and have adult children. Jennifer has always worked in various skilled positions, and entered retirement well self-funded, with superannuation savings and an unencumbered house property. Frank did not complete high school, however Jennifer believes he is highly intelligent with good commercial sense, and runs a seemingly successful business. Their relationship progressed quickly, and before long Frank had moved into Jennifer’s house. Frank had told Jennifer that he was divorced, but she learned much later, after having contact with his first wife with whom she became friends, that Frank had lied about this. Frank ran his business in a rural town a few hours’ drive from where Jennifer had been living for many years. Given the uncertain economic climate, Frank convinced Jennifer that it would be prudent to move to the town and keep a better eye on the business. Jennifer believed Frank was envisaging a 12-month plan, which she embraced as a welcome change from city life. With Frank’s strong encouragement, Jennifer bought an acreage property on the outskirts of the town, funded by a mortgage using the equity in her house, with Jennifer and Frank as joint borrowers.

    While Jennifer very much enjoys the rural setting and lifestyle, she describes signing the contract on the property as ‘signing her death warrant’. Having moved in—along with Jennifer’s two much-loved, blind and aging dogs—Frank became immediately violent. Jennifer is a confident and capable person, and thought Frank respected her for this; and yet if Frank didn’t get his own way, he began damaging the flooring and woodwork, breaking things, and throwing objects across the house, including coffee cups past Jennifer’s head, into the wall. One winter evening, having urged Jennifer to have a shower upstairs, Frank propped the pool gate open allowing one of her dogs to wander in and fall into the pool, leaving it to drown. At Jennifer’s inconsolable distress, Frank said aggressively ‘he’s dead, fucking get over it’. Jennifer believes that Frank resented her self-confidence, and relished trying to ‘bring her to her knees’. When they bought identical smartphones, their accounts were synchronised inadvertently, and Jennifer became aware that Frank was having relationships with other women, as she was able to read the incoming and outgoing text messages. Frank quickly arranged for the accounts to be desynchronised. The situation was intolerable to Jennifer, and she felt she had to bring an end to the relationship; with the help of her family, she managed to get Frank to move out of the house.

    Frank’s intimidation and abuse of Jennifer escalated on separation. Jennifer was forced to make the total monthly mortgage repayments on the property as Frank refused to contribute. Her retirement income could not sustain this substantial outlay; and soon she had no choice but to sell her city property, and apply the funds to discharge the mortgage, taxes and other outstanding expenses. Jennifer is unable to sell the acreage property due to a depressed real estate market, and even if she could, she would not have sufficient funds to buy where she had lived previously. She feels trapped and vulnerable in a small town where Frank also lives and runs his business. And yet she felt that in order to function in that environment she must adopt a cordial attitude to Frank, or life would be unbearable. Frank is a tall, extremely heavy man, with an aggressive demeanour. Initially after separating, Frank would come around to the house and offer to help with the pool and other jobs; however the situation would often deteriorate quickly and, if Jennifer didn’t accede to his various demands, Frank would yell profanities at her, and take the pool equipment or the car, returning them only when he decided Jennifer was behaving properly. Frank then began stalking Jennifer by coming to the house at night, peering into and rapping on windows, and going through the garbage bins and letterbox. Jennifer became increasingly fearful of Frank’s behaviour, and called the police on a number of occasions.

    For the most part, Jennifer feels the police were approachable enough, but ineffective in advising her of her rights or available protections; one officer referred to an incident as ‘just a domestic’. This was the case until one day Frank arrived at the house demanding that he and Jennifer resume living together; he threw a coffee cup over the balcony, and when Jennifer tried to close the automated swing door as he was storming out of the garage, he stopped the door in its tracks, buckled and broke it, and told her, ‘I’ll get you, you fucking bitch’. That night, once police were alerted, they took charge of the matter, and obtained a temporary protection order on Jennifer’s behalf and charged Frank with intimidation and criminal damage to property. Jennifer recalls feeling dumbfounded by their heavy-handed turnaround, and terrified of how Frank would react, most particularly towards her, given the comprehensive and damning statement she had provided the police. She also didn’t realise she would end up in court.

    Jennifer felt frustrated and diminished by the court process. She was cross examined by Frank’s lawyer for a lengthy period, and subjected to attacks on her character and behaviour. The prosecutor did not interview Jennifer prior to the hearing, and therefore had little or no understanding of the facts and context of the matter, most importantly the history of Frank’s domestic and family violence towards Jennifer. Frank behaved inappropriately in the courtroom, and the (visiting) Magistrate threatened his removal from the court room. He also gave inconsistent evidence, which on the criminal damage charge wasn’t believed, and ultimately he was fined, and a conviction recorded. He was acquitted of the intimidation charge as the Magistrate found there was a lack of evidence. Jennifer believes that had she been given an opportunity to provide a full account of the facts and context to the prosecutor, this would have been conveyed to the Magistrate. When she walked out of the courthouse, Frank yelled abuse at Jennifer and told her he was going to get her. Frank has recently successfully appealed the conviction, and successfully contested the issue of a final protection order.

    Frank has never paid for the damage to the garage door, and while the Magistrate said the civil matter could be dealt with at a courthouse located in another town, the legal, travel and associated costs would have been prohibitive to Jennifer. She was also unable to claim on insurance without bearing a disproportionate penalty. There is some prospect of Jennifer claiming victim compensation; however she has not felt strong enough to begin this process.

    Jennifer believes that she has done all she can to secure her home with cameras, lights and locks, and yet she feels profoundly unsafe. He has continued to intimidate her from the neighbours’ fence line and from the street and elsewhere in the small town. Frank has also ingratiated himself to some of her children and their partners undermining her own relationship with them in his efforts to hurt and distress her emotionally. Despite having obtained the order on her behalf in the first instance, the police have now told her there is nothing more they can do for her. At this stage, Jennifer fears for her life and future, and can see no legal recourse for her protection. She has also discovered that Frank has had similarly violent relationships with other women in the past and also that Frank has told neighbours that Jennifer is mad and unbalanced.

  • Melissa and Ben were in a relationship for 17 years and had five children together, aged from toddler to early teens at separation. Melissa identifies as Indigenous. She has post-secondary qualifications and has been employed in a professional role for many years, apart from when the children were very young. Ben has always earned a high income from his trade job when not serving jail sentences for various convictions. Their combined income enabled, for the most part, comfortable material living circumstances. Melissa describes Ben as having been both generous and irresponsible with money. Their relationship was characterised by Ben’s regular absences for work; and a number of periods of separation due to Ben’s violence towards Melissa or his imprisonment as a consequence.

    Early in the relationship, when they were living together, Ben began calling Melissa offensive and demeaning names, hitting and spitting on her, and forcing her to have unwanted sex; during some of these occasions, he would also be using illicit drugs. After three months, Melissa moved out and lived with family, returning briefly one evening with a (non-intimate) male friend who Ben assaulted. Ben was charged with and convicted of assault, and the police obtained a protection order on Melissa’s behalf. Over many years Melissa had a number of protection orders.

    Having spent a considerable period away from Ben, Melissa reinitiated contact as she wanted to have a child. Ben’s violence towards Melissa escalated during her first pregnancy, as did his drug use. He would hit Melissa in the head, try to strangle her, and threaten her with knives. While Melissa knew these were breaches of the protection order, she was too afraid to contact police as Ben would smash the phone and hold his hand over her mouth when she screamed.

    Melissa left Ben again after the birth of their first child. When the child was three weeks old, Ben came to Melissa’s residence, took the child out of her arms, and bashed her badly. A witness alerted police and Ben was charged with and convicted of assault. On another occasion, when Melissa and the child were not home, Ben broke into the residence and viciously damaged and wrecked her furniture and appliances, and sliced her mattress. He also kicked in the door of her friend’s house and smashed household items. Ben went to jail for these offences, and Melissa moved elsewhere with the child.

    Melissa was a single mother, working part-time and studying, and didn’t see Ben for two years. During his jail term, Ben wrote to Melissa threatening to ‘get her’ on his release. Melissa took the letter to police, and believes that Ben’s jail term was extended as a result, however she is not sure whether it was treated as a breach or parole matter; the police didn’t advise her.

    When Ben was out of jail, Melissa contacted him to ask if he wanted to see the child; she also wanted a second child. She says she’d felt lonely and longing for love, and Ben responded positively and warmly. However, soon after they resumed living together, and Melissa became pregnant, Ben’s sexual violence started again. There were times when Melissa ran up the street naked and hid at a neighbour’s house to escape Ben’s force. He also continued the abusive name-calling, and told Melissa he hoped she got cancer and her body was maimed.

    After the birth of their second child, the child safety services were briefly interested in the family’s welfare. Melissa believes it was likely the police who alerted them to Ben’s violence. Aware of the risk of the children being removed by child safety, Melissa stopped reporting the violence and abuse, notwithstanding its increasing severity and danger. Ben had once pushed her down the stairs while still pregnant and she’d sustained extensive blood loss from her injuries. On another occasion, he raped her while menstruating; and police arrived after being alerted by a neighbour. Police took a statement from Melissa and questioned her as to why she was still living with Ben. They expressed irritation that they’d been through this multiple times before with her, yet offered her no referral to support services. Melissa was shocked and distressed when she learned that child safety had visited the school and daycare to question her children without first speaking with her.

    This pattern of violent and abusive behaviour—and police and child safety responses—continued for years. When Melissa was pregnant with their fifth child, Ben came home in the early hours of one morning, in the aftermath of an intense drug bender, and began sexually assaulting Melissa. She physically attacked him, terrified of how he would react, fled the house carrying her own injuries. A family member returned to take care of the children and call the police. Melissa made a statement to police, and advised child safety of the incident. She and the children went to stay temporarily with a family member before returning to the home where Ben had stayed on. Child safety visited on a number of occasions, but never suggested the children would be removed. Melissa felt that they were more interested in hygiene than safety, and because she kept an immaculately clean and tidy house, they didn’t appear concerned. The police did not charge Ben with breach of the protection order.

    After the birth of their fifth child, Melissa left hospital early so that Ben could depart for his regular work stint away. On her return home, Ben spat in her face. Melissa says this was the point at which she snapped. She decided she would no longer tolerate Ben’s behaviour, and rang the police. Ben left the house for an extended period, during which Melissa understands he got into trouble with his job and the law.

    Ben continued working and contributing to the mortgage and family living expenses. Melissa was on leave from work following the birth of their fifth child. Given their combined incomes, she had never been on welfare benefits; however she became increasingly concerned about the violence and volatility in the family and applied for Centrelink assistance to protect herself and the children. She was also worried about how the children had been affected by their long-term exposure to Ben’s violence and abuse, and sought counselling from a local service, which she found very supportive and helpful.

    Ben returned after nearly twelve months. Melissa believed it was an attempt to reconcile, which she briefly and regrettably allowed. She was also aware that Ben was due to go to jail again, and could appreciate that he wanted to see the children. Melissa has Family Court residence orders for the first child, and no orders in relation to the remaining children. They have never lived with Ben other than when he and Melissa were residing together, and Ben never sought contact during his many absences from the family. Melissa is now considering the merits of seeking orders for her other four children.

    Melissa believes the periods of separation imposed by Ben’s terms of imprisonment and working away from home probably gave her the time she needed to recover from the acute impacts of Ben’s violence and abuse, and to get on and work and care for the children. However, these circumstances also prolonged the violence and abuse over 17 years. Melissa says it is unlikely that Ben would reform if required to undertake behaviour change courses as part of his sentencing.

    Reflecting on her involvement with the court system, Melissa believes that domestic and family violence isn’t treated with the seriousness it deserves, that perpetrators can avoid service or attendance and matters have to be constantly adjourned, and that penalties are often fines or ‘a slap on wrist’. Ben would taunt her that ‘DV was just a piece of paper’, and recklessly breached his protection orders on countless occasions. As to police and child safety, Melissa feels she received very little constructive support, and at times felt that she and the children were treated as a burden and frustration to these systems.