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Ending our domestic violence epidemic

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Ending our domestic violence epidemic

One in four Australian women will experience physical or sexual violence by their partner – more than half of these victims have children. May is Domestic and Family Violence Prevention month, a time to campaign for change.

Eleven-year-old Luke Batty was as cute as a button. His wide, blue eyes and sun-kissed, freckled face were not all that different from other boys his age. And yet, it’s his face that has become etched in the minds of millions of Australians.

Three years ago, this young cricket fan, who would “always love’’ his mum, was bludgeoned to death at the hands of his father, Greg Anderson.

Luke had just finished practice at the Tyabb cricket oval in Victoria when his father committed the unthinkable crime. Anderson was shot by police and later died in hospital.

This innocent child, and his mother Rosie, had suffered from years of family violence.

Rosie Batty’s heartbreaking story brought the issue of domestic violence into the public spotlight – something that was well overdue. Since that day, Batty, who was named Australian of the Year in 2015, has continuously campaigned against family violence. She has fought for improved awareness and government funding.

“If Luke hadn’t died in such an extreme way, I’d just be one of those ‘family violence people’ no one listens to,’’ she has said.

“Family violence may happen behind closed doors but it needs to be brought out from these shadows and into broad daylight.’’

According to campaign group White Ribbon Australia, one in four Australian children are exposed to family violence.
An Australian Government Trends and Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice report reveals that young victims of domestic violence have previously been labelled as the ‘silent, forgotten, unintended and invisible’ sufferers. Thankfully, awareness is growing.

Batty’s strength to speak out has opened the door for thousands of mothers including the Sunshine Coast’s own anti-violence campaigner, Robyn Lehmann-Rhodes.

“In my day (1995), there was no support. I had no money. He was going to kill me if I left. I had no backup. No one knew.’’

Lehmann-Rhodes is a crusader. A strongly-spoken woman who looks you square in the eye with confidence. She is living proof that people of all ages, backgrounds and personalities, can suffer at the hands of their partners. She is also proof that there is a way out.

But why did it take 12 years for her to leave her husband?

“I was in denial myself. It’s really difficult to say. I rang [a] women’s helpline twice,’’ Lehmann-Rhodes tells MWP.

“He’d follow me around the property with a shovel in his hand. I felt shame, embarrassment. People say ‘why doesn’t she leave?’. The victim is saying that too. It’s not that easy to leave.

“He told me he’d take the kids off me. He told me he’d kill me if I left. I didn’t go to anyone else because I didn’t want to put them in harm’s way. He was very powerful when I was with him. Once I left, I started to regain my own power. It’s like getting stronger every day.’’

In the end it was the survival and safety of her two children that drove Lehmann-Rhodes to escape. It was 1995, the day before Father’s Day.

“I got in the car and drove. It was for the kids. Every decision I made was for the kids. They were terrified of him.
“The abuse had started pretty much as soon as we were married. He didn’t physically abuse me at first. However, there was the odd pushing around. I honestly thought that was OK.

“We had two children… he would be quite violent and abusive towards them. I would try and distract him from them and cop more myself.

“It got worse and worse. I didn’t know what my favourite food was, my favourite colour, my favourite music. He made every decision for me. I was a shell. I didn’t exist.’’

After finding the strength to leave, the family spent a week living in a women’s shelter. The Domestic and family violence and homelessness 2011–12 to 2013–14 report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) shows that more than one-third of adults and children seeking help from homelessness services did so as a result of domestic and family violence.

Around 520,000 Australians accessed homelessness services in that three-year period with 187,000 of those due to domestic and family violence.

There is no escaping the facts. They are startling and confronting.

Australian police deal with 5000 domestic violence matters on average every week – that’s one every two minutes. So far today, police would have dealt with around 350 cases.

A recent report from the AIHW revealed that nearly 6500 women and girls were hospitalised as a result of assault in Australia during 2013–14. The perpetrator was usually a partner or spouse. Injuries to the head were the most common.

The Queensland Police Service’s Annual Statistical Review 2015/16 shows the number of domestic and family violence applications on the Sunshine Coast increased from 1368 to 1660 in 12 months. Across the April Easter long weekend, the Sunshine Coast Vulnerable Persons Unit reported 56 incidents in the region. It was the worst spate of incidents since the unit opened in September.

Bringing the issue out from behind closed doors is one step in combatting what has been labelled an ‘epidemic’.
In October 2016, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched the Third Action Plan of The National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010–2022.

The plan aims to substantially reduce the violence in Australia by driving generational change in six key areas including changing attitudes and behaviours and offering support.

Family welfare group SunnyKids’ founder and CEO Chris Turner agrees educating the younger generation is one step. This week the Sunshine Coast charity launched the children’s book, The Good Man Project, in hopes it will be the catalyst for change.

The book, written by Sunshine Coast author Angela Bueti, will be distributed into all primary schools across the nation.

Turner says another step is community ownership and overcoming ignorance.

“I think, having worked in this sector for 14 years, we’ve come a very long way. We could not speak about domestic violence in 2003, no one wanted to listen,’’ Turner tells MWP.

“I’d say the turning point was when we got an articulate, educated, attractive victim in Rosie Batty. (She) caught our attention – someone the media, government and community couldn’t ignore.

“What we’ve ended up with is a community that is aware of domestic violence, a community that accepts it exists but a community that still isn’t doing much about it.’’

One of the major reasons for this, Turner says, is that people don’t know what to do or don’t want to get involved.
“We can help people learn what to do. We can help people realise that it could be their loved one. If we don’t intervene today that person could move on to our own child next. The only way to stop this is for us, as a community, to stop saying it’s OK.

“If you think it’s DV, it probably is. If you are worried about it right now, ring the police. If you’re not, ring the support service. They will listen to what you’re worried about and support you to work out what you need to do. Things like, assuming they are not in immediate danger, getting alongside that person and affirming them, encouraging them, letting them know that you are there for them.’’

In late 2015, SunnyKids joined forces with the University of the Sunshine Coast to host a Domestic and Family Violence Symposium. The Make It Stop conference resulted in the drafting of a high-level plan for the region outlining the need for more education and more highly-engaged police.

“We’ve really got that now,’’ Turner says.

“The Highly Vulnerable Person Unit is effective.”

Prior to the existence of the unit, 50 per cent of the referrals police made to support services on behalf of the victims were declined by the victim. There was little follow up. Now, teams continue to work with the victim, which subsequently results in 75 per cent accepting help from support services.

“Thirty per cent of the answer is that. Seventy per cent of the answer is in what happens before,’’ Turner adds.
“That 70 per cent is for us [the community]. You don’t have to go knock on the door… get some assistance. It’s about men confronting other men, women confronting women.

“We used to think it was OK to smoke in restaurants or in aeroplanes. If someone did that now, they’d be asked to leave. That’s what we want. We want domestic violence to be unacceptable.”

For Lehmann-Rhodes the message she has for other victims is this: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and I’m now in control of my life. I am a strong woman, I’m independent, happily married and my children are happy and healthy. They are very respectable and caring adults. There is help out there.”

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Candice's passion for journalism led her to the Sunshine Coast 12 years ago where she has worked across multiple media and communication platforms. An avid traveller (she lists Paris, Venice and Vietnam as her faves), this mum of one loves meeting with people from all walks of life and finds inspiration within their stories. Candice joined the team in 2014 and is MWP's editor.

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