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How digital media is giving abusers more power than ever

Domestic violence has gone digital – with the victim’s every online post, tweet and message monitored by an abuser who never sleeps. So how can we help women escape this virtual hell?

The smartphone is a lifeline, a useful tool or a harmless distraction for most people, but for women in abusive relationships, mobile phones and the internet can be weapons deployed to dominate and humiliate.

The arsenal may not include revenge porn – posting explicit sexual images of an individual online – but abusers use technology to track their victims’ movements, monitor social media accounts and emails, bully them online and exert control, even if they’re not physically within reach.

Many domestic violence perpetrators control their partner and children by linking family phones, tablets and laptops to one cloud account. For most people, this would be convenient, but the technology also means abusers can restrict what their partners download. If used as a means of control, victims can’t even take a photo on their smartphone without their abuser seeing it.

“A lot of this sort of abuse is psychological and abusers sell it as a security thing, but being monitored like this can all be part of the cycle of power and control,” says Rhonda Cox-Nissen, operations and projects manager for Eastern Refuge Society in Auckland.

North Island woman Megan* met her former partner through an internet dating site. The relationship started as a text and phone friendship before he told her he was in a sticky situation and needed a place to crash. Megan felt sorry for him and wanted to help out, so he moved in. “He lied about every detail and tricked me from the beginning.”

He groomed her, with questions about what she liked and needed from a relationship. He made sure he appeared to be what she wanted until she fell for him. Then, overnight, he changed. “I once asked him why he lied. He said I wouldn’t have gotten with him if I knew the truth. It was deliberate.”

Megan, who had two children with him, says he verbally abused her and complete strangers every day. “He would threaten to kill me and the children. Not outright though, but with road rage and threats to smash us into things. He said he didn’t need weapons to kill us.”

Her partner would use her phone constantly, despite having “boxes of phones, chargers and SIM cards” of his own. When he took her phone he would check its messages to make sure Megan wasn’t contacting her family.

“If I had contact, he would question every word.” She learned to keep enough on her mobile not to arouse suspicion, but delete anything that could result in a torrent of verbal abuse.

If Megan was out for more than 20 minutes for a known reason, such as buying takeaways, her partner would text and call her. He maintained this was to check if she was okay, but he would often accuse her of secret meetings.

“Heaven help me if I had accidentally left my phone behind, even to go to the dairy. This happened a couple of times, which resulted in a very long and abusive lecture about being irresponsible.”

He installed a GPS in the family vehicle, so he could track her movements. The car had been his, but she had to use it after selling her own car to buy food.

At the time Megan was home with a young, sick baby and he was working intermittently but refused to cover expenses. Megan says he told her he had Facebook friends

in the police and in gangs.

“He would continue to subtly use this information to say he had connections to hurt people or leave the country undetected.” Megan was always walking on eggshells, not knowing what was real or staged or when it would turn abusive.

He had to approve photos that she wanted to post on Facebook of their children, and he made her cut off some of her friends.

After years of suffering, Megan found the courage to contact the police with a direct message on Facebook, where she told them she was being abused but had no idea how to get out. By then she had a web-based business, so had a ‘legitimate’ reason for being online.

The police asked her partner’s name and aliases and told her to delete the messages. “They got back to me within a short time, asking me to call. I said I couldn’t as he was watching me. They said they had enough information to have him removed regardless of how I wanted it to play out.”

Her partner left the house briefly and so Megan made the call, “almost hysterical”. She and the police made a plan for her to leave the following week, when the children were somewhere safe.

“All weekend I held this information. On the Monday I went public with friends on Facebook when I felt it was safe to do so. The police arrived after 11am on Monday and the rest is history.”

The police issued a Police Safety Order, which meant Megan’s former partner was taken from the property and was forbidden to contact her or their children for five days.

This allowed Megan to get in touch with her parents, who had an inkling of the controlling behaviour, but no idea of the psychological, verbal and sometimes physical abuse Megan and her children were subjected to every day.

“I was and still am petrified of this person and I know what he is capable of. I saw the darkness and had been the target of his control and abuse.”

Megan discovered she was her former partner’s fourth confirmed domestic violence victim over a 20-year period. When they were together she was aware he had children from previous relationships.

When he looked into gaining access to his children again she learned of two protection orders against him and did her own research from there. The third victim got in touch with Megan on Facebook after hearing Megan was leaving the relationship.

Cyber bullying has been part of this man’s abuse since the technology became available. Megan has met some of his other victims and they support each other online and occasionally in person.

It’s now Women’s Refuge policy to ask about smartphone and internet security when counsellors receive a call on its crisis line or advocates meet women in the community. Women are asked if they could have spyware on their phones, which is when software enables a user to obtain information about another’s computer use by transmitting data covertly from their computer or phone.

“Are they being monitored through their phone’s location services and do they have password sharing? People don’t always think of it,” says Cox-Nissen. She says more and more clients are being monitored online by their partners, although they’re not always aware of it.

Ahead of a woman being admitted to a refuge safety house, staff will make a plan with her to turn her phone off or restore factory settings to prevent her location being revealed. This is not just for her own safety, but also the safety of other women and children housed at the refuge.

Not all Women’s Refuge work happens at safe houses. Often staff will work to support women in their own homes for one to two years. It’s not just emergency support, either. “You can ring us up if you’re not sure about your relationship, but it may feel a bit funny and a bit shaky and unsafe,” says Eastern Refuge Society community services manager Milena Knezovich.

The Eastern Refuge Society has clients as young as 16 and as old as 87. The younger women have grown up with social media and may share a lot of Facebook friends with their former partners.

Unfortunately, young women in violent relationships may become targets of their own peers if they try to break free. “Their Facebook or online friends may say ‘Oh, but he’s a really nice guy’ and bully or coerce her online. They don’t have a good understanding of the abuse within the relationship and need to be more vigilant in terms of the kinds of posts they are supporting with their likes and comments.

People pick a side, based on minimal or limited information and, however unintentionally, minimise the violence, creating further risk to the victim,” Knezovich says. Cox-Nissen says this sort of behaviour happens in all socio-economic groups, including “the incredibly wealthy and powerful”.

If a woman seeking help is still in an abusive relationship and her partner is monitoring her movements, Women’s Refuge advocates can meet them as close to their home as possible. “There might be a coffee shop near their supermarket, where they have reason to be, so we will meet them there,” Knezovich says.

It’s not a matter of a victim just simply turning her phone off. “A lot of the time an abuser will call his partner several times a day and she has to answer the phone so he knows what she is up to.”

The most dangerous time is when women first leave their partners. So if a woman receives abusive text messages, why doesn’t she just turn her phone off if she is leaving the relationship? Cox-Nissen and Knezovich say in some cases, when a woman can see the messages her abuser is sending she can identify the cycle.

“If he is in a certain frame of mind he may be more likely to turn up. Women find it difficult to turn off if they are already being hyper-vigilant and anxious. It’s better the devil you know – having a phone and knowing a perpetrator’s state of mind can make a woman feel more in control. If she blocks him, things could escalate further,” says Cox-Nissen.

There are other ways abusers can monitor and locate their victims. Knezovich says one of her clients was located by a former partner when she withdrew money from their joint account.

Even if a perpetrator doesn’t know where his victim is, there are still many ways to humiliate her. Men have posted sex and drug-taking videos online and sent threatening messages when their former partners befriend others on social media.

One of Knezovich’s clients, who is separated from her partner, has been subject to ongoing harassment on four different forms of social media. He has sent incessant text messages, posted on Facebook with emoticons saying how much he misses her and then sent messages threatening her.

“The level of obsession we are seeing is on the increase,” says Cox-Nissen. “It’s covert violence, not the traditional bash and it’s not easily interpreted or understood, unless you live with that threat. It’s a definite safety risk to already-at-risk women.”

While on the surface a perpetrator constantly posting photos of himself and his partner on Facebook may seem harmless, it can be a statement of ownership. “It’s that level of possessiveness – ‘She’s my bae’,” says Cox-Nissen.

“Some men see it as normal and that is scary. As a result of technology, it’s there on display and so we are seeing it more often.”

NetSafe operations manager Lee Chisholm says it is no surprise some men are using technology to carry out domestic violence. “Controlling behaviour within an intimate relationship has been around for a long time. It’s not new behaviour, but new technology is a tool that can be misused,” she says.

“We hear about a lot of ex-partners’ harassment and abuse. Also ex-partners’ new partners,” Chisholm says. Sadly, it’s not unheard of for a new girlfriend to harass her new boyfriend’s ex online.

To make the digital world safer for victims of abuse, The Women’s Refuge and The Warehouse have teamed up to launch an untraceable web portal. This means women in abusive relationships can seek help without the risk of their abuser finding out by clicking the untraceable website logo (a circle with a computer in the middle) at the bottom of the page on www.thewarehouse.co.nz.

What else can be done to protect victims of cyber bullying and domestic violence? The law is a work in progress. Hon Amy Adams, Minister of Justice and Minister of Communications, is overseeing two important pieces of legislation.

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill passed into law June 30 last year. The first part has been brought into effect, making cyber bullying and revenge porn a criminal offence. Adams calls the behaviour “insidious, pervasive and all too common. Revenge porn is more and more prevalent”.

As of June 9 this year, 38 people have been prosecuted under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, and NetSafe will head a new agency to target bullies.

The high-profile non-government organisation will be the first port of call to work with victims and offenders to resolve cyberbullying complaints quickly and efficiently, or if necessary, for referral to the District Court.

The second piece of legislation is around the Domestic Violence Act, which was world-leading when it passed into law in 1995. Since then, successive governments have modified it, but it’s now time for a comprehensive overhaul of family violence legislation, Adams says. Last year, the Ministry of Justice released a discussion document calling for public feedback.

Adams has long had a particular interest in reducing the impact of family violence, but when she was sworn in as Minister of Justice she became aware of the true extent of the horrifying statistics. New Zealand has the highest reported rate of intimate partner violence in the developed world. In 2014, police responded to more than 100,000 family violence incidents.

Family violence has long been an issue in New Zealand, but the minister says the digital world offers “new and insidious ways for (predominantly) men to control their partners and children”.

Abusers will deploy all the tools they can to deplete and destroy a woman’s confidence – it could be threats about immigration status, physical abuse or controlling a woman’s social environment. Cyber abuse is another weapon in the arsenal.

Adams is looking at a whole raft of changes in the overhaul of family violence legislation, including police being able to proactively advise a woman when her new partner has a history of domestic violence convictions.

Giving the police more power to act in response to complaints of coercive control is another area. This is where perpetrators use controlling or intimidating behaviour, including cyber bullying, to undermine their victims and make them fear for their safety. The behaviour may appear minor and trivial in isolation, but it may also be part of a pattern of abuse.

Adams says the problems may be too entrenched to ever go away, but she “can damn well try to improve the system”.

Do law changes go far enough?

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Get help

If you are at risk of family violence: Call 111 in an emergency, or contact the Women’s Refuge 24-hour crisis line: 0800 refuge (0800 733 843).

For more information on how to protect yourself online, contact Netsafe: 0508 netsafe (0508 638 723) or visit www.netsafe.

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