Sean Mooney writes about a reporting system helping victims of domestic violence.
Stacey* and Bill* met and married in their early twenties. They worked hard, bought their own home and had three children. But Bill started to drink heavily and, when drunk, would often verbally abuse Stacey. He'd tell her she was an incompetent mother, then apologise when he'd sobered up. They began arguing about friends, family and, most of all, finances.
One night things came to a head. They were arguing loudly in their home, which was nothing new, but neighbours called the police when they heard the terrified screams of the couple's children. When the police arrived, they found that Stacey had struck her head on a table after being pushed by Bill, and that the children had witnessed the attack. An ambulance took Stacey to hospital, the children were taken into the care of a family member, and Bill was charged with assault. Police also applied for an Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (ADVO) preventing Bill from returning to their home or contacting Stacey, except for the purpose of arranging contact with the children.
In the past, this would probably have been the extent of police involvement, but in many parts of NSW, police now ask women in domestic-violence situations if they would like to complete a consent card, or 'yellow card', for support. In inner Sydney, a signature on this card allows police to pass on a woman's contact information to the Sydney Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service (SWDVCAS), which can then provide information on the court process, if required. SWDVCAS can also put domestic-violence victims in touch with services that provide family-law and other free legal advice, relationship counselling and financial assistance.
Sue-Ellen Hills is a legal assistant at Redfern Legal Centre, which manages SWDVCAS. She says the yellow card is a useful tool in spreading the word that such services are available for people in need. "We are currently working to promote the usefulness of the card to police and the community," she says. "We have been giving education talks to the police about domestic violence, the yellow card and why support services are needed."
SWDVCAS coordinator, solicitor Susan Smith, says the service assists women attending Balmain, Downing Centre, Newtown and Waverley courts for domestic-violence matters. She says her team works with a number of police local-area commands across the four courts to implement the yellow-card project. "Most of them use the yellow card," she says. "Now if police are called to a domestic-violence event, they usually offer the victim a yellow card to sign, which is her consent to have her details passed on to us. Even if police don't take out an ADVO or there were no charges laid against anyone, they might still say to the victim, 'Would you like us to refer you to another service?' So not all yellow cards have a court date."
Many victims of domestic violence do end up in court, and in these cases Smith says SWDVCAS tries to make it clear to them what they can expect. "We explain what might happen procedurally, and what might happen with the police," she says. "We ask her what she would like, whether she needs orders to protect herself, and if so, what sort. It's one way of engaging with a victim of domestic violence and making sure she gets to have her say in the court process."
When Stacey attended court for the first time, she told the SWDVCAS advocate that Bill's family had informed her he was attending counselling. She decided she wanted to remove the orders preventing Bill from making contact with her and from residing at the family house. Police agreed to amend the ADVO to let Bill return home, and Stacey was put in touch with a domestic-violence counselling service and her local family-relationships centre.
Such complicated and emotion-charged decisions are often part and parcel of the court process for a domestic-violence case. Furthermore, as domestic violence is not confined to a particular demographic, issues can vary widely between cases. "We see clients from all walks of life, right across the socio-economic spectrum," says Smith. "You might have a woman with two children in a private school, who doesn't have a lot of knowledge about the family finances. She might be very worried about what's going to happen to the children's schooling or where she'll get money to survive if she leaves the violent relationship."
Money became a major problem in Stacey and Bill's relationship, with Bill cancelling Stacey's credit card and giving her only enough money for food and the children's needs. "Domestic violence can definitely involve an element of controlling finances to use as a way of controlling the situation," says Smith.
The SWDVCAS has helped about 2000 women over the past 12 months, a heavy workload Smith attributes to increased reporting of domestic violence. "I also think the police are a lot better educated in understanding what might be going on when they arrive at an incident," she says. "And I'd say police are now far more willing to be involved in trying to find out what happened."
As for Stacey, SWDVCAS helped her through a court process that saw Bill enter a guilty plea and receive a good-behaviour bond. A new 12-month ADVO prevents Bill from harassing, assaulting, threatening, intimidating or otherwise interfering with Stacey and the children, and forbids him from approaching Stacey and the children within 12 hours of drinking alcohol. Their battle to keep their family together continues, while new conflicts come to the attention of domestic-violence workers across the State each day.
Is the issue of domestic violence being suitably addressed by authorities and the wider community? "I certainly think there have been improvements in policing policy and community awareness," says Smith, "but we probably still have a long way to go. One thing is true: people are less likely these days to think it's a private issue to be worked out between two parties and more likely to understand that domestic violence is a crime."
*Name has been changed
To contact the central Sydney Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service, call 9287 7505 or visit www.rlc.org.au/our-services/domestic-violence.html.
The WDVCAS is a Statewide service that covers more than 100 courts across NSW. WDVCAS contact points within Sydney include: Burwood: 9744 2461; Macarthur: 4640 7333; Macquarie: 8833 0922; North West Sydney: 4587 9997; Northern Sydney: 8425 8707; South West Sydney: 9601 6988; Southern Sydney: 9589 1200; Western Sydney: 4731 5098.
This article was first published in the June 2012 edition of Sydney's Child.