Survivor says women need not suffer alone

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"I realised this was all about power for him and that every time he told me I wouldn't survive on my own, and I did nothing, I was letting him keep that power." Justin Currie-Smith talks to an abuse survivor.

A survivor of domestic abuse has urged women in volatile relationships to reach out and seek assistance rather than suffering alone, believing they are protecting their children.

Survivor Elle Tristian remained in an abusive relationship for two years over concerns leaving may have harmed her four year-old daughter, but is now urging other women in such relationships to seek help.

“I realised this was all about power for him and that every time he told me I wouldn’t survive on my own, and I did nothing, I was letting him keep that power.

“I was worried just leaving would harm my daughter because I had nowhere to go, I was worried my partner would come up with some story saying I was a bad mother and she would be taken away.”

Social worker Kara Evans, who has worked with families affected by domestic violence in Melbourne’s outer-eastern suburbs, says seeking assistance can be difficult as women can face uncertainty finding accommodation elsewhere.

“We need to understand that before women can leave, they need a place to go.”

Tristian says she contacted welfare agencies to seek accommodation for herself and her daughter, but everywhere had a long waiting list.

This shortage of accommodation is shaping up to be a key election issue, with Labor pledging to provide greater certainty of access to homeless services.

This includes providing $15 million in grants to community organisations and local government to help women like Tristian stay safe. This could include upgrading locks and installing sensors, security lighting, screen doors, CCTV cameras, and alarm systems.

Not to be outdone, the Liberals have made protecting vulnerable women a $100 million priority, promising a $17 million investment in making homes safer with CCTV cameras and other security equipment.

The Greens are addressing the accommodation shortage, with a pledge of $100 million over two years on building crisis accommodation such as shelters and long-term affordable housing. They also promise to restore and increase funding to women-only specialist services, refuges and shelters.

When it came to formulating policy, the three parties were familiar with patterns of abuse that urgently need addressing.

Tristian’s experience is not unusual, says support agencies. In the beginning, she says the abuse was emotional rather than physical, with her partner frequently criticising her appearance or complaining that she was never home and did not spend time with him.

“Eventually I started to believe what he was saying to me.”

When the physical abuse first started, Tristian confronted her partner and he broke down and swore it was a once off. But soon after it happened again and culminated with her being pushed down a staircase, leaving serious scars on her face and arms.

“After that I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want to put [my daughter] through the stress of moving from place to place. I went to the police and reported him but the next day they told me his mother had claimed I went crazy and fell down the stairs.”

Evans says although organisations dedicated to emergency housing are common, they are severely underfunded and stretched in how many people they can help.

“It would be better if victims could stay in their own (homes) and know they are safe.”

Evans believes that more robust reporting systems, including sharing of information between law enforcement agencies to identify offenders early and keep them from reoffending, would help in protecting women wanting to stay in their homes. Such proposals are being mooted in the policies of the Liberals, Labor and the Greens.

The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence also identified ‘Safe at Home’ programs, which focus on making it safe for victims to stay in their homes rather than leaving, as a key part of helping victims of family violence.

“Many submissions to the Commission made the point that the best outcome for women experiencing family violence is that they are supported in staying in their own homes if it is safe to do so,” the report stated.

Tristian says leaving was an incredibly difficult decision and being able to stay in her home would have been preferable, but now knows it was the best decision for her and her daughter.

If you or someone you know is affected by family violence, call 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.