Addressing domestic and family violence is finally on the national agenda after years of campaigning. On the United Nations’ International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – 25 November 2016 – Australians are urged to take an oath to ‘stand up, speak out and act to prevent men’s violence against women’.
Labor MP Emma Husar’s powerful and personal parliamentary speech yesterday about her experience with domestic violence is still reverberating around the nation, while Malcolm Turnbull called for greater respect for women at a Stand-Up Against Violence breakfast, stating that “the single most important thing each and every one of us can do as parents ... is to make sure that our sons respect their mothers and their sisters.”
And, with at least one in six at Australian women experience physical or sexual violence from a current or former partner, this is certainly an issue demanding urgent, national attention.
Save the Children run three refuges in Queensland where women can stay for months at a time, as well as one crisis centre where women can go for safety while more long-term accommodation is organised. All four take only women and have a specific focus on the needs of children.
The experiences of many women who come through Save the Children’s doors are harrowing, but stories of survival and transformation give hope and show why more safe places are needed for women and children.
“I was sleeping in the car with the kids,” says Taliah.
“I would take the kids, especially my youngest – into public toilets to give him a wash. Still take him to school … go to the laundromat first thing in the morning so we could have clean clothes.”
How someone like Taliah – a loving mother with a good, stable job – ended up living in her car is a familiar story for many women and children experiencing violence in their home. More than half of women who are affected by domestic violence have children in their care.
“It was a very, very volatile situation where it was actually life and death,” remembers Taliah. It’s not easy to bring up the past and she pauses with the emotions that come with these memories.
“The choice of potentially not being alive anymore, or one of my children being severely hurt …”
“I could see my children’s pain and that was the biggest catalyst over the top of losing my life. It was difficult because I was scared, I was petrified.”
A mother of four, Taliah had two children in her care when she left a terrifying relationship. Her youngest son lives with a disability and her other son was 16 years old at the time.
Finding a place to go was not easy. There are only 57 refuges in Queensland but some won’t take older boys. Women must also often choose between a refuge placement far away from their support network – family, friends, work and schools – or no placement at all.
“I did find it very difficult initially to find a refuge that would take a boy over 16. Also, I still wanted to go to work, which meant I would be staying in the local area of the perpetrator,” says Taliah.
Jebb Refuge on the outskirts of Brisbane was where Taliah finally found safety. The refuge provides immediate long-term accommodation for women and children, and offers individual units for families. Taliah spent 14 months in refuge – the time she needed to recover and rebuild.
Everyone has a different story
While it’s important for some, a complete disappearance doesn’t work for everyone – children and mothers often need stability when their family life is in turmoil, and Save the Children works with women to honour their decisions about what is best for their families, including working out safety plans if women feel they need them.
“I had to learn to be back in control of my own life as well, and my family,” says Taliah.
“Save the Children had a lot of flexibility. And with refuges, there needs to be flexibility. Not everybody is the same, their story is not the same.”
“Save the Children respected what I wanted for my family and for me to be in control of my own life, the fact that I still wanted to continue work and for my son to go to the same school...”
Saving your children starts with saving yourself
Another survivor of an abusive relationship, Kristie knows well the struggle of finding your feet again when you make the decision to leave. And, with four children under ten, how complex and difficult that decision to leave can be.
“When I left it was very dramatic … I had to leave my kids behind to start with for a couple of days because he wasn’t going to let me take them,” says Kristie.
“When I did get them back, we just ran. We ran here. And it was the biggest decision I’d ever made.”
“Here” is Garema Refuge. Another Save the Children safe haven in inner-city Brisbane for women and children escaping family violence. Garema is an Aboriginal word meaning “resting place” or “temporary camp”. It is temporary, but it is also restful, and women and children usually stay for months while they regroup and make a plan for the next stage of their lives.
Kristie stayed in Garema with her four children for two months. Slowly, she started to rebuild her life.
“My first day in the refuge was very nerve-wracking because obviously we had a lot going on in our lives and we didn’t know what the future held,” recalls Kristie.
“But everyone was so great here. We were able to just rest a minute – to find out what was going to happen next. We didn’t have to have all the answers.”
Denise is one of the Save the Children Parent-Children Support Workers at Garema, a job she has been doing for 28 years.
“When we pick a woman up … one of the first things I say is, refuge is a place where you can stop and think … without looking over your shoulder all the time,” she explains.
“Because when you are in the situation, you cannot make a decision. Garema is a place where you stop and you think and then you work out what you want to do with your life.”
A focus on children
What is unique about Save the Children refuges is their focus on children, which is just as comprehensive as their focus on mothers. Cherie is a Child Support Worker at Garema refuge and she emphasises the importance of meeting the needs of children through play spaces and one-on-one support. Both Jebb and Garema have large communal play spaces for children and hangout spaces for teenagers.
“The child friendly environment is one of the best, because we have such large play spaces,” explains Cherie. “[Children] are excited to come here, which helps with that loss and transition.”
“Having a children’s worker … allows time with children. Sometimes it takes a week or two weeks for a child to even open up. [Play] is their way of reaching out. If you don’t have that worker, [you’re] not necessarily meeting that need that they’re calling out to you for,” says Cherie.
Kristie saw how a child focus at Garema helped her children transition through this big life change. “They were excited about the playground … it was good for them because they had that relief. There was no tension. We knew we were going to be here and that they were safe,” she says.
“And the children’s playroom was amazing. We spent many hours in there playing the piano. And then Cherie set up a homework club and the kids were always excited to actually do their homework!”
For Cherie, much comes down to rebuilding the relationship between a child and mother and giving some mums who have lost connection with their child a passion for re-connecting and playing with their children.
“They’ve been in survival mode for so long … you see their faces when they are both out here playing and hearing the laughter coming from Mum and kid, and its really emotional for Mums,” says Cherie.
“You see them crying because they’ve not had that connection with their child … we provide a safe space where those connections can be remade.”
Making time to heal
Now, Kristie is out in the world raising her four children on her own. For her, it was the endless cups of tea, chats, and ongoing support at Garema that really helped her find the strength within herself to embark on a new life.
“[The staff] opened a whole lot of doors I didn’t know existed that helped me on my journey to getting my life back together,” says Kristie.
When it came to the logistics of setting up a new house, for example, Kristie says: “Someone is always willing to go with you … the girls would say: “Would you like me to come with you, would you like me to take you there? What do you need help with?”
“The transition out of the refuge was bitter sweet because you feel you are going to be on your own now. But the support didn’t stop when I left here,” she says.
“I know, even now, months down the track, if I’ve got an issue I can call and they are there for me.”
With Kristie’s new life, comes new opportunities, which have helped both her and her children grow.
“I’m actually studying a diploma of nursing. I have had a dream for many years to be a midwife and it was always stunted. I could never do anything in my past life. But once I got free I really advocated for my dreams and by me achieving my dreams my children now dream,” says Kristie.
“You can’t save anybody. You can only save yourself and your children. And saving your children starts with saving yourself.”
Taliah too has moved on with her life. She has a new job and is feeling strong and happy.
“I’ve been away from the refuge for three years now, and my children see strength in their mum. They see that no matter what happens in your life or what boundaries and obstacles, no matter what happens, you can get over them.”
* It is difficult to know exact figures for domestic violence in 2016, as many crimes continue to go unreported. All statistics for this story are taken from ANROWS.
Domestic and family violence can include physical, sexual, emotional and financial violence. All can have deep and damaging effects, and everyone has the right to be safe and free from violence.
If you, or someone you know, are experiencing family violence, call 1800RESPECT Australia-wide.
If you live in Queensland, call DV Connect on 1800 811 811. DV Connect is a 24-hour service that provides crisis support.