Real Life

Domestic violence victim: "At some point it becomes okay in some people’s heads"

New Zealand’s family violence stats are among the world’s worst – and women are overwhelmingly the victims. But could proposed law changes begin to address our shameful record?

On the very first day of their honeymoon, Sarah’s* husband snapped.
Suddenly, the once charming, romantic man she had known became a different person: incredibly possessive, jealous and controlling. When they returned to Auckland, where Sarah discovered she was pregnant, the relationship deteriorated into a psychological prison, and then violence.
She was certain she was going to end up dead, either beaten to death or taking her own life under the emotional strain of his abuse.
“As time went on he worked at psychologically messing me up. He made sure that he had worked to the point where I was really feeble and I was already afraid. And then he started with the physical violence,” says Sarah.
The Ugly Numbers
Before she met her former husband, Sarah was an independent single mum of two boys. She paid her own rent, changed her own tyres, had good friends and a close family.
Then before she knew what was happening he stole her life from her, and trapped her in a world he controlled. She wasn’t allowed a bank account, or eftpos card. He moved their life away from her friends and family, isolating her in Australia.
Now, two years divorced, Sarah has bright eyes, dampened behind a glaze. She seems shell-shocked when she speaks of her relationship, frustrated and angry that she let this man steal 10 years of her life.
“Something happened when I clicked into this other world of complete shock. I spent most of the day walking around with my hands on my mouth, saying ‘oh my god’. I couldn’t figure out how to stop this. I had this little daughter, who was a baby, so I couldn’t leave,” she says.
New Zealand consistently rates as among the worst in the developed world for family violence statistics, according to the OECD. From a study looking at the decade from 2000 to 2010 New Zealand had the highest rate of intimate partner violence out of 14 OECD countries, followed by Switzerland, the UK, Canada and Australia.
In 2013 New Zealand had the second highest rate of child homicide in the OECD behind Canada.
The list of horrifying government statistics is long and ugly: about half of all homicides in New Zealand are com-mitted by an offender who is identified as family; on average 12 women and four men are killed by their intimate partner every year; New Zealand Police recorded a family violence investigation on average every five and a half minutes in 2014 (and it’s believed around 76 per cent of family violence incidents are not reported to police).
In 2014, there were 101,981 family violence investigations recorded by police, up 7 per cent from 2013. Police and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) believe the continued rise is partly because more victims feel safe coming forward. But the police and the NGOs have difficulty isolating different social changes as responsible for New Zealand’s domestic violence record.
It is a problem that impacts broadly across society and touches all demographics.
“We have epidemic proportions,” says Jane Drumm, executive director of family violence support network, Shine.
She uses measles to illustrate the scale of our domestic violence problem, saying if everyone who suffered from it came out in red spots all over their face, then you would be seeing this problem everywhere.
The Culture Problem
Women are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic abuse. According to the victims and women’s advocates NEXT spoke to, New Zealand’s ugly reputation for domestic violence is born out of a culture of male privilege that still treats women as subservient possessions of their partner.
Violence against women is entrenched in our culture as an excusable behaviour, one where the victim is often blamed for their treatment. It runs throughout New Zealand society, revealing a broad perception of male superiority, where women are too often blamed for their own victimisation.
Empathy for domestic violence victims is drained by a culture that asks what a woman did to provoke or deserve the attack.
“In Western society we have a long, long history of viewing women as chattels and as possessions and of men holding a superior position. It is a person’s sense of entitlement to have their own way. And using violence or the threat of violence and other controlling behaviour is highly effective,” says Drumm. “It is the positioning of women in our society as not being as entitled to be the same as men.”
The same culture that pays women less for doing the same job, and where only 31 per cent of MPs are female. The same culture where language is layered in gender specific denigration.
"At some point it becomes okay in some people’s heads. And it becomes justifiable because she was a loony, or a bitch, or unfaithful, or crazy" - Kristin Dunne.
Misogyny and media
Last October, in the middle of the Rugby World Cup, sports commentator Tony Veitch made a post on Facebook attacking people who questioned his behaviour towards a former partner.
The story of this relationship is well known: in 2009 Veitch pleaded guilty to reckless disregard causing injury three years earlier. Following the incident his partner was left with a broken back. Veitch was criticised for his statement to the online “haters”, in which he referred to his “hideous relationship” and more recently for failing to apologies directly to his victim in a column run in the Herald on Sunday.
In an online column, TV3 journalist Kanoa Lloyd made a very clear suggestion as to what Veitch should have said: “Tell them you’re sorry. Tell them and keep telling them, even if they say they want you to shut up and get back to talking about rugby. Stop blaming your ‘hideous relationship’ and start owning your hideous actions.”
But more frightening was the support Veitch received from a mostly male online following that attacked those who questioned his past. Women especially were battered with misogynistic com-ments that were often violent and sexual.
Never Okay
Kristin Dunne, the former partner in question, was not surprised by Veitch’s reaction to the online critics. She had been viciously attacked by the public for the things she had apparently done to deserve it.
“I have often thought that, if I had been a victim of a random attack I would never have been attacked by the public for that. But because there are these prevailing attitudes that you must have deserved it in some way, or driven the behaviour, or caused it, the sympathy is non-existent,” says Dunne.
In Dunne’s opinion, the sympathy sits with Veitch. “His supporters allowed him not to change.”
Dunne is no longer married but is in a happy relationship and has a two-year-old son. And she has seen the culture in New Zealand slowly start to change. She was impressed to see so many people critical of Veitch’s commentary about their relationship. Raising her son has made her ask why New Zealand stops questioning violent behaviour when it is between intimate partners.
“I am raising this beautiful man and he is amazing. He gets frustrated and angry and tired sometimes and he hits. And I tell him that’s not okay behaviour.
“At some point we stop feeling that about domestic violence. At some point it becomes okay in some people’s heads. And it becomes justifiable because she was a loony, or a bitch, or unfaithful, or crazy. At some point we come to accept it.”
Living in fear
The most dangerous time for a woman in an abusive relationship is when she tries to leave. There is an assumption that it’s easy for women to leave a bad relationship, and when they do the violence will stop.
Victims and advocate groups told NEXT that if there isn’t support it is often safer and easier for a woman to remain with their abuser in an environment they can manage to some degree. Rather than be constantly looking over their shoulder, living in fear, and waiting, always waiting for a now enraged beast to show up at their window.
That culture of male privilege means they believe they have the right to treat their wife, partner or children as possess-ions under their control. The decision to leave is an attack on his power over her.
“Often that is what happens when women get killed in New Zealand. It is when they have tried to exert their independence and move away. We see time after time after time women who have left who get trapped in their house, they get their houses broken into, they get hassled when they are going to work,” says Drumm, who was a probation officer before she went to Shine. “A lot of people say the fear of never knowing when their former partner is going to find them or is going to break into their house and get them, is just paralysing.”
Hidden power
It took Sarah 10 years to get out of her relationship. She had convinced her husband to move back to New Zealand, where she desperately hoped her family would see what he was doing to her.
But his charisma, good looks and ability to convince her family that Sarah was the one with the problems meant they were always on his side.
“The whole idea was to get my family to understand and they would do something. So I started telling them things. They said, well you must have done something to provoke him, he is the head of the household, you make your bed so you lie in it. All that sort of thing,” she says.
He convinced her family that Sarah needed psychological help. He made her family believe she had turned his daughter against him and colluded with her sons to have him prosecuted.
“The betrayal of my family was massive. For them to stand in court and say I manipulated my children, to stand there and lie. That is his power.”
When Sarah tried to alert people to her situation no one would help her. When she told a doctor what was happening to her she was prescribed antidepressants and sent home. The only reason she was able to get out of the relationship was because she had started talking to Shine.
“When I spoke to the people at Shine on the phone, they were the first people to say this is not normal, you are not provoking him, it is not your fault, you are not crazy, you need to start taking some steps to keep yourself safe. They were the first people to say ‘We hear you’,” she says.
Seeking refuge
The day she got out, her husband had given her a list of “37 things Sarah must change, effective immediately”. The list included demands that she have sex with her husband every day and must smile before and after; that she tell her children from a previous relationship bad things about their father to distance them from him; and she must not invite people to their home without consulting him first.
The last demand was that she gather all her friends and family and in front of them vow to complete every one of his demands. If she didn’t agree, her husband said he was calling the divorce lawyers the next day. He told Sarah she would get $10,000 and he would keep everything, the house, their daughter, and she would have to go.
Distressed, she called her younger sister and asked her to come round. When she arrived, Sarah’s husband demanded she leave. When she refused he assaulted her, and he assaulted Sarah, in front of their 12-year-old daughter.
The two women and Sarah’s daughter trapped themselves in a room and he guarded the door. Sarah’s sister called the police. That was the moment she escaped his abuse.
But even as Sarah left him she suddenly felt very alone.
She had nowhere to go. No money to look after her daughter or herself. Sarah and her daughter lived in a women’s refuge for seven months; her two sons from her previous relationship were adults at this stage. At the refuge she found support for the first time in 10 years. Support with finding income, support with finding counselling, and support when she was in court. She was humbled by the women who cared for her during that time.
An absolute mess
Women are incredibly vulnerable when they leave their partner as they try to fend for themselves. Too often Drumm has seen women fall into poverty after they escape a violent relationship.
“It is really hard to make it by yourself. Finding somewhere to live with children and no money. It is just all too much,” she says.
Nearly three years on from Sarah leaving her husband, her life is slowly getting better. She had struggled to find stable work, but is now beginning to build up clients for her makeup business.
When she speaks about the police, however, her voice starts to crack and she becomes angry.
“That was an absolute mess. The police were shocking.”
She felt her husband charmed the two male officers, the same way he’d done to anyone she had told about his abuse. When she said she wanted to be separated from her husband, the police suggested she go and stay somewhere else.
Despite alleging an assault at the time, the police failed to take a statement and she had to initiate proceedings herself. And when she did make that statement Sarah says her allegations were treated with disdain.
New role, new hope
After laying a complaint with the Independent Police Conduct Authority Sarah received an official apology from the police area commander for the way her case was handled. It acknowledged that the male police officers who attended the call-out did not listen to Sarah or her sister’s accusations of assault by her husband, and then misreported the event as not having a violent aspect.
The apology acknowledges the most desirable option is for victims to remain in the family and Sarah ought to have been told she should stay at home, and her husband find another place to live. The apology also says a statement should have been taken at the time and her treatment at the police station was referred to their manager.
Veteran detective Tusha Penny acknowledges that for too long there was a culture in the police that regarded domestic violence as a chore and a burden on police time. She slams her palm into the table of the small interview room in the Counties Manukau Police Headquarters when she talks about New Zealand’s domestic violence rates.
Penny is the first person appointed to a new role of national prevention manager, working broadly to treat New Zealand’s domestic violence problem. And she has an unlikely friend in her crusade to put victims at the heart of the response to New Zealand’s family violence problem.
Preventive Measures
For nearly 20 years Louise Nicholas famously refused to back down on claims she was gang raped as a teenager by four policemen, that was then covered up. Although the officers were eventually acquitted, Nicholas’s case, and her relentless challenges to the way she was treated by police and the justice system, created a new understanding of victim’s rights. And the damning 2007 commission of inquiry into her case forced police to examine the way they treated victims of sexual and domestic violence.
Nicholas has become a mentor to new police recruits as they go through training college, and she is part of Penny’s steering group to examine the internal culture and workings of police. She is proud that her bravery to speak out about what happened to her has given women permission to do the same, and challenged the culture of male privilege in New Zealand.
“For me doing what I have done, the only reason I did it was because I didn’t want anyone to go through what I did, by stopping the culture that fed these men,” says Nicholas.
Penny’s passion is powerful, her empathy genuinely touching. She has hope, a belief in New Zealanders’ desire to prevent domestic abuse from happening in its communities, despite seeing the worst this country can do.
She is motivated by the women she has seen killed – a mother of six savagely murdered by her jealous husband – and the children she has seen victimised by violence in their home; she once found a 10-year-old boy in a Lower Hutt park, at 2am, because that is where he felt safe.
“We can’t be scared to get involved. Maybe we could have changed the course of events, and maybe we could have kept a mother alive to raise our children. And for the children that sit in the park, we want to make their home safe.”
Time to be brave
Now Penny is seeing a new culture and language in her recruits. New cops arrive at police college believing they want the glamour roles on the Armed Offenders Squad; and they leave wanting to be a child abuse investigator.
She had a 189cm Samoan recruit crying while she lectured his class about domestic violence in New Zealand. He told her she was describing his life, watching his mum and siblings being beaten. That is why he joined the New Zealand Police, to make a difference.
“I think the time is now to do the transformation. If we are bold enough and we are brave enough, then we can absolutely smash this. I really believe that. I really believe New Zealand is on the cusp of change.”
Although Nicholas says she has seen significant change in how New Zealand perceives violence towards women, she still sees a long way to go.
She was disturbed by the treatment of the female MPs in November who were ejected from the House by the speaker when they tried to share their stories of sexual assault. What was a huge opportunity to show women that they can speak out against the violence they suffer and be heard, was instead shut down, the stories of those survivors of violence discarded by parliament.
“Again we have a male, and males, silencing the victims. Those actions of the government, of those people in the house, were mirroring what the offender had done to these women.”
For a better future
But a cross-sector review of New Zealand’s response and legal framework to domestic violence is underway, and some believe the package of changes is the cultural shift the country needs.
Minister of Justice Amy Adams is reviewing the Domestic Violence Act, and the Law Commission is looking at the way family violence cases are handled in the courts. The Ministry of Social Development is examining the inter-generational cost of family and sexual violence. There are 16 different ministers involved in the group.
“It has taken a hell of a long time for this government to acknowledge the impact on individuals, and the impact on this country’s budget, and the impact on this country’s potential future.... of domestic abuse, of adults and children,” says Drumm. “It is a fundamental driver of huge amounts of crime. And causes just massive cost to the health system, and disruptions of kids in their schooling.”
The review of the Domestic Violence Act proposes a set of standalone family violence offences, improving accessibility and effectiveness of protection orders, the potential of mandatory arrests for protection order breaches, and putting victim safety at the heart of legislation.
Changes to the court process could see the role of the police and the legal system reduced, so victims – who are often still in love with the offender – can have the violence stop without destroying a family.
“It feels like in the last few years there has been increasing awareness of the sheer scale and magnitude of the impact of domestic abuse, and the compelling financial and human need to do something about it. And probably the embarrassment about it, for [New Zealand] being first in the world for so many things related to abuse,” says Drumm.
Unhealed scars
The years of emotional and physical abuse left Sarah with severe psychological scars.
Her short-term memory has vanished. She has papers with reminders scattered throughout her small, cosy flat. For two years after she left her husband she developed a terrible stutter. And when she was finally brave enough to stand up to her husband she felt as though she was treated like the offender and her husband the victim by the police and courts.
She starts to cry when she hears about the proposed reform.
For Sarah, whose life was first destroyed by a man who promised to love her, and then by a process supposed to protect her, she believes this could give women the protection and courage to speak out against the violence against them. And that it could start to change New Zealand’s culture of violence.
Words: Simon Day
Where to get help:
If you are experiencing or witnessing domestic violence, please contact one of the following services for information, advice and support. If you are in immediate danger, call the police on 111.
Are you OK - 0800 456450
Shine - 0508 744633
Women's Refuge - 0800 733843