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Whatever your thoughts on the Heard/Depp defamation trial, one thing is sure: it was an unedifying circus. Despite parallels domestic violence victims may have drawn, the similarities in the world of mere mortals are remote. That’s not to diminish the shame, humiliation and hurt suffered by anyone. Rather, a celebrity case, by comparison, is a performance, however shabby.

Domestic violence victims in Australia invariably battle soul-destroying prejudice, inaction and bureaucratic bungles before they even have their day in court.

How their cases can be any more beleaguered than they are is alarming. Who or what is to blame? At the forefront, Australian police officers get a bad rap, but unarguably there are the good, the bad and the incompetent. What percentage each constitutes is unclear as the dynamics fluctuate, but resources dedicated to domestic violence have almost doubled in the past five years in line with increased demand. There are at least 140,000 annual calls to NSW Police for help in domestic and family violence incidents. It’s unfortunate that the system is hampered by often lacklustre law enforcement officers — those whom victim-survivors rely upon.

The quality, or lack thereof, of police training in this area is a hot-button issue and at the heart lies some damning expert and victim evidence.

Official evidence shows poor monitoring is limiting the ability of NSW Police to assess whether the force is up to par in managing domestic violence, or even understanding whether it has the required skills and knowledge at all. The focus is on activity counts rather than service quality or outcomes, the NSW audit office says.

At the receiving end, already traumatised and vulnerable victims can be retraumatised, or triggered, and disempowered through protracted, onerous police and judicial processes. It’s no wonder many women — aware of this — prefer not to report to police.

As one survivor, still fearing for her life several years after a vicious assault by her former boyfriend, found, systemic problems in connected services stem from the first responders — the police.

An educated woman, Linda — using a pseudonym for protection — had fallen for a beguiling man with impressive qualifications. In an all-too-familiar story, she was “love-bombed”, overwhelmed and flattered in the early stages of the relationship. Straight out of an abuser’s playbook, his seductive promises laced with lies and deceptions quickly descended into gaslighting and coercive controlling behaviour, designed to gradually reduce a woman’s capacity for autonomy. Recognised as a form of abuse, the NSW government is expected to criminalise coercive control following a parliamentary inquiry.

Linda’s journey — from the assault resulting in a lacerated lip and a shoulder tear, through a hazard-strewn path to seek justice — is unresolved.

Though her abuser was arrested and charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm and malicious damage to property, carrying a maximum penalty of seven years’ jail, he was granted bail and avoided conviction by exploiting loopholes and deftly outwitting police.

The way some officers ride roughshod over domestic violence regulations, don’t take victims seriously and side with perpetrators are frequent criticisms. How victims typically emerge retraumatised from Kafkaesque processes is another Linda attributes to institutionalised dithering, inept, callow or simply “bad” cops. Moreover, studies have found that at least 40 per cent of families of officers have experienced domestic violence which can include harassment, stalking or homicide.

It was a lack of coordination between police and the legal system and collaboration with medical providers that aided and abetted Linda’s abuser until he fled the country without a conviction. Before that, he was served with a two-year apprehended domestic violence order (ADVO), which he breached by stalking her and constantly walking past Linda’s house. Police did not act.

In one of a raft of police missteps, they failed to raise in court the charge of malicious damage to property, or even survey the damage. One officer told Linda “they forgot”. In fact, Linda says they never visited her home for any information and she learnt her rights from volunteer domestic violence organisations.

From the start, details of the assault were skewed towards the perpetrator’s version of events, evident in the police facts sheet — a summary by the victim and offender for court — which Linda says was recorded by an inexperienced officer who believed the perpetrator because he had impressive credentials.

Though police had told Linda they would arrest her abuser immediately, he was not arrested until the following day when police noted he could try to gain entry to Linda’s home and continue being aggressive. Fearing for her safety, the moment of arrest was of utmost importance.

“It was poorly communicated that he had been arrested: I was not told where or when. I heard conflicting reports.” Nevertheless, police said they believed there would be a criminal conviction.

“It is risible. He gave a false address — a criminal offence — for bail and police didn’t check. The very term, facts sheet, is an oxymoron. I was astounded to read not a single fact; it was all his lies. I was reading his statement. I couldn’t see anything of myself in it. It was meant to be a version of what had happened that evening (of the assault). There was no truth there. I don’t know what had happened to my version of events.”

By the finish, the perpetrator’s lawyer had successfully argued, with the help of a paid psychiatrist’s report, for a get-out-of-jail card on mental health grounds, thus avoiding a criminal conviction. Specialists know the use of Section 32 of the Mental Health Act is a common diversion among abusers but it does not absolve them of their crime.  

Over months, court proceedings had twice been adjourned because police had not prepared representations — or relevant case information — allowing time for the accused to hatch his non-custodial plan.

“I still do not know to this day how they (police) went about following due process. At no point did the police contact me or explain their process.

“Throughout the different systems there’s poor or no training and nothing is coordinated. It’s an existential crisis. There are no rights as a victim,” says Linda.

Police omissions and erroneous evidence exacerbated her ordeal and her PTSD. It was a struggle obtaining her own police and legal information — without a fee — despite the fact she was entitled to it free of charge.

On the night of the assault police recorded Linda’s audio-visual statement, known as a domestic violence evidence-in-chief (DVEC). The DVEC allows audio-visual evidence in court to reduce a victim’s trauma by preventing the victim from facing the accused. Yet an officer insisted Linda attend court.

“I didn’t want to go, I was within my legal rights where you don’t have to be present.”

In the end, she feels police patronised, insulted and maltreated her in the days following the assault. “We are let down by systems and people. One can bang on about lack of training and resources but what about basic compassion? You are treated like a sub-human, you are discarded and ignored yet this crime happened to you. So you are in this surreal situation of being a third party to the assault.”

The case, including medical fees, has cost her more than $30,000. She has received no compensation from her abuser and her aim is to sue him in a civil case. But despite the overwhelming evidence against him, Linda holds little hope of success, knowing he has no cash or assets.

In what may be a piecemeal measure, the Labor government is ploughing $3 billion into women’s and children’s safety and $77 million into consent and respectful relationships education in schools. It will also spend $157 million for more community workers to support women in crisis and has pledged to fix the way the justice system often exposes victims of assault to more trauma.

But how to address the core of the problem? Should police who join the force, not so much to chase domestic violence abusers as robbers, be mandated to meet specialised standards in this area? Just as other industries prescribe routine upskilling to remain relevant, why not police officers? As it stands, NSW Police can upskill but its domestic violence fundamentals course is voluntary.

Perhaps most promising is a charity offshoot and new law firm, Brigid Justice, run by lawyer and domestic violence survivor, Anni Gethin. Advocating for systemic change, it provides legal advice to women who have suffered abuse in a so-called justice gap for those who can’t access legal aid and can’t afford full-priced lawyers. 

In tandem, it is championing the Brigid Notice. Taking its name from Irish mythology, Brigid is a warrior goddess of women, representing protective care. The notice will warn new girlfriends or partners of an abuser’s history. Police do not provide this information unless it’s on the public record.

“Obviously the abuser is not going to tell her and it’s unlikely she will heed warnings from a former abused partner. But if she’s got information saying AVOs were taken out against him she’s going to think twice,” says Gethin.

A social problem of vast proportions — particularly for Aboriginal women — it’s clear domestic violence education, training, evaluation and follow-ups are key to addressing at least some of the problems, including a lack of coordination and collaboration between police, social workers, the courts and medical providers.

At the grassroots level, law reform enforcing greater financial responsibility on the perpetrator for the physical and psychiatric damage they inflict on partners would appear to be a no-brainer. Many perpetrators have kicked partners and children out of their homes, leaving them penniless. Many have left victims unable to work or function.

The case for smarter systems, greater competency and training, and less collusion between service providers has never been more vital.

Deborah Cassrels was The Australian’s first Bali-based correspondent and has written extensively on refugees, politics, terrorism, crime and social justice. She was nominated for a Walkley Award in 2016 for her work on terrorism in Indonesia. Her first book, a memoir about her journalism in Indonesia, titled “Gods and Demons”, was published in 2020.

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