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Impacts of Domestic Violence

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In this episode, Ben and Heather talk to Dr. Doug Andrews, a psychiatrist from Coffs Harbour’s Barringa Hospital, about one of the toughest topics in family law: domestic violence. Dr. Andrews has frequently treated victims of family violence in his practice and has an in depth understanding of the mental health impacts of physical and emotional abuse.

Together these experts discussed the following questions:

  • What constitutes family violence?
  • Why do some people take so long to walk away from violent or abusive relationships?
  • Is separation or divorce the only answer in cases of domestic violence?
  • How does domestic violence or abuse impact on adults and children affected?
  • Do parents falsify domestic violence claims in order to help them gain custody in Court?
  • How do people get help to heal the wounds of family violence?

Links & Resources Mentioned in This Episode

Domestic Violence Line 1 800 65 64 63: NSW statewide crisis counselling and referral service for women or people who identify as female.

1800RESPECT 1 800 737 732: National sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service.  Open 24 hours.

Lifeline 13 11 14: A national number that can put you in touch with a crisis centre in your state.

Men’s Referral Service 1 300 766 491: This service from No to Violence offers assistance, information and counselling to help men who use family violence.

Mensline Australia 1 300 789 978: Supports men and boys who are dealing with family and relationship difficulties. 24/7 telephone and online support an information service for Australian men.

Kids Help Line 1 800 551 800: Free, private and confidential, telephone and online counselling service specifically for young people aged between 5 and 25 in Australia.

Relationships Australia 1 300 364 277: Support groups and counselling on relationships, and for abusive and abused partners.

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Full Episode Transcript

Benjamin Bryant: Welcome to episode six of The Family Matters Podcast. In today’s show, we are going to take on one of the toughest topics in family law, domestic violence. I’m your host, Benjamin Bryant, an accredited family law specialist with Bryant McKinnon. Lawyers. I’m here today with my partner in crime, Heather McKinnon. Hi Heather.

Heather McKinnon: Hi Ben.

Benjamin Bryant: And we were also joined by our special guest, Dr. Doug Andrews, who is very well qualified to talk about today’s sensitive topic. Doug is an adult psychiatrist at Barringa Hospital in Coffs Harbour. He is the founding clinical director of Bindarray Clinic, a private mental health facility within the Barringa Hospital. And he helped establish a PTSD group, psychotherapy program for armed services and emergency services personnel. In his practice he has frequently treated victims of family violence and has an in-depth understanding of the mental health impacts of physical and emotional abuse. He is with us today to educate us about the effects of domestic violence and how to heal the wounds it leaves behind. We are delighted to have someone of Doug’s expertise help us tackle this difficult subject. Welcome to our show Doug, and thank you for being here.

Dr. Doug Andrews: Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.

Benjamin Bryant: All right. We might get started. There is a lot of things that encompass family violence. So we might start off with some definitions and I’ve got definition of family violence as defined in the Family Law Act. Because even though you have exposed to violence in terms of your practice every day in different areas. But for Heather and I it’s squarely to do with the Family Law Act. So under the Act, family violence means violent, threatening or other behaviour by a person that coerces or controls a member of the person’s family or causes the family member to be fearful.

Benjamin Bryant: In your view, Doug, what constitutes family violence and what are the different forms it can take?

Dr. Doug Andrews: Look, I think that’s a good starting point. And, you know, when you think about violence, we all you know, we always think about somebody being hit or assaulted. And I think we actually need to broaden it, even using that definition and thinking about terms of family abuse rather than family violence.  Because some of the things which occur can be very damaging to the people involved and not involve overt violence. And I think that we need to look at that broad definition. So we’re looking at things like coercion, like control, people having their their life micromanaged by somebody. Something we always have to remember is that every relationship starts with hope. Mostly we’re looking at trust, we’re looking at intimacy, we’re looking at love. So we start off on a good ground and then there’s a deterioration and it doesn’t deteriorate immediately into striking or assault. It starts with things like control. Isolating the victim of the violence or the abuse from family and from friends. Threats, intimidation to induce fear, again to control behaviour. And that kind of psychological undermining, that humiliation, arbitrary rules, inconsistent responses, gaslighting, making people mistrust their own view of their own lives, of their own reality. Surveillance and stalking is incredibly destructive and intimidating to people before we arrive at things like physical or sexual assault, which are at the high end in a way, but not always as damaging as some of the other things that occur.

Benjamin Bryant: And I guess it’s family violence has changed shape for what constitutes family violence or acts of violence have changed over the years. One of the biggest ones we see now of course, almost on a daily basis, is image abuse or revenge porn. Which, of course, wasn’t necessarily available so much back in the day.

Heather McKinnon: And I think one of the things that I see, particularly with women who come to visit, is that initial falling in to the world of the abuser and then thinking that’s normal. So things like always getting picked up from work because the abuser doesn’t want any, you know, any chance of the person getting into any sort of social situation. But the biggest one that you see most commonly is that economic control where women will sit with me and talk about how even if they go and do the shopping, the husband will want to see the receipts and they’ll want to tick off every item. it becomes such a pattern that initially the person will say to me, “Oh, we’ve just had this financial management system in place”. And it’s quite revealing to see how that behaviour is normalised over years, where it gets to the point where the person has no economic independence whatsoever. They can’t go and visit their family on the weekend because they don’t have any money for the petrol in the car. But the combined household income might be $100,000 or something. It’s quite pernicious. And it is really interesting how the behaviours are not often identified by the victim as being unusual.

Dr. Doug Andrews: And they are normalised and they often start off in a way which is perceived to be benign. You know, “He’s paying a lot of attention to me”. “He’s protective”. “Yes, he gets jealous, but that’s because he loves me”. “He’s looking after the family finances because he’s concerned about our future”. And these things evolve then into abusive control. You mentioned revenge porn. That’s about humiliation. And it’s also about intimidation. “I have these pictures of you. If you don’t do whatever it is I want you to do that, then I’m going to release them and I’m going to send them to your family, to your workplace, to your school or whoever it is that I can that will damage you the most.”

Benjamin Bryant: And on that, a common misconception is that family violence stops at separation.

Dr. Doug Andrews: I wish.

Benjamin Bryant: It doesn’t, of course. Especially the coercion, the control, like the example that you just gave with the image abuse.

Benjamin Bryant:  So let’s tackle the elephant in the room. When we’re talking about family violence, Doug, why does it so often take so long for people to walk away from violent relationships?

Dr. Doug Andrews:  That’s a really good question. And I think the first thing we have to do is just acknowledge how difficult it is to leave the relationship and that it’s it’s normal to make many, many attempts before you actually successfully extricate yourself from an abusive or violent relationship. Because every time it happens, you feel like a failure. And it happens for lots of reasons. I mean, we’re in a relationship and there’s this hope that somehow the relationship will work out. There is a sense of self blame. You know, I haven’t been a good enough wife or partner. If I had just, you know, make your own list of things you could have just done, then maybe he wouldn’t be so angry with me. They think that they can repair it. They think that they can help. There’s this kind of nurturing that goes on where if I just try hard enough, I can turn him into that lovely person who is so charming in the first weeks or months that we met. By the time that people recognise that they’re in an abusive or violent relationship, their self-esteem is attacked. Their sense of reality is attacked.

Dr. Doug Andrews: They are often very dependent: emotionally, financially. They’re frightened they’re going to risk their children’s well-being. A child should have a father or mother, whoever the perpetrator is. They’re worried about the Family Court and what is going to be said about them and whether they will lose control of that.  And they just get used to it. You mentioned, Heather, that this becomes their reality.

Dr. Doug Andrews: And we also have to remember that many victims of domestic violence grew up in homes of domestic violence. And it’s kind of normal.  “Dad gets drunk and he gets angry at he smacks Mum”. Well, you know, I’m Mum now. This is what happens. And people have that kind of value based thing that, I’m married, I made a vow, I made a promise. If you’re religious, especially so.

Dr. Doug Andrews: They’re also in a situation where I see the more severe end, where they feel like they have been failed. They’ve gone to the emergency department, they’ve talked to their GP, they’ve gone to the police, they’ve had an AVO, and still they’ve got this guy in their house. And they don’t think that anybody can actually help them. So they’re frightened.

Benjamin Bryant: And separation is scary Doug. Is it a case of perhaps better the devil, you know, with some people?

Dr. Doug Andrews: It’s scary and it’s expensive. It’s hard to run a household as a single parent. And if you’ve got young kids, you may not be able to work. The welfare in Australia is not that great. Social services for people in these circumstances aren’t that great. “I have a house now. How am I going to get emergency housing and how long will that take?” So it’s very, very challenging.

Heather McKinnon:  The biggest message we can give people is try and break the pattern.  If you’re there and you’ve got a high level of tolerance for some of these behaviours, because that’s what you experienced in childhood. Please, please imagine what it’s then going to be like in the third generation. That modelling of normality for children is absolutely critical. The kids that hear it and see it are likely to replicate it as adults. And that’s the big message. Make the break, even if it’s been in your family for generations. There are lots of supports around, and today, what we’re showing is there’s a lot of science around how we can help people.

Dr. Doug Andrews: And we have to recognise too that a lot of men and women who have grown up in houses which are abusive, actually don’t become abusers. They actually can be exemplary and vow that “I am never going to raise my children in that kind of way”. And they do that and we should recognise it.

Benjamin Bryant: And Doug, in your opinion, is separation or divorce the only answer to people caught in violent or abusive relationships? If not, what other paths can people try first?

Dr. Doug Andrews:  It’s very easy to become disheartened and even nihilistic about how this goes. I guess, the first thought that comes into my head is that in every circumstance, safety for yourself and for your children is paramount. And if you’re in a situation where you cannot have that, and then you probably do need to get out, whether that’s temporarily or permanently.

Dr. Doug Andrews: Not every abusive action or violent action is the same. Some people are habitually violent. Sometimes this really is a one off thing, an argument that got out of control. Some people do have the ability to change. People can stop drinking alcohol. They can stop drugs. They can get counselling. They can do all sorts of things.

Dr. Doug Andrews: But we shouldn’t be too rosy. If you’re in a situation of repeated violence, where you’re at risk, where your children is at risk, then you have to attend to that before you attend to anything else. Relationship counselling is challenging in these circumstances, and it only works if everybody comes to it with that attitude of I’m going to be honest and I’m going to wear and accept my own responsibility for my own actions. And both partners have to do that. Whenever I get despair is when I see a couple sitting down and they’re both actively blaming one partner. You end up coercively kind of ganging up on one person. They withdraw and nothing happens. Everybody has to come to it with honesty. It’s really difficult. It’s not impossible. Lots of relationships get repaired. I would argue probably that at the extreme end, that’s not the action that I recommend. But in the middle, yes.

Benjamin Bryant:  Under the Family Law Act, the court or the Family Law Act wants parents to be able to try to communicate or mediate before making any application to a court. For those parents. I think it’s absolutely important to know that if you ever do read or are informed that you have to do mediation, that there is an exception, the Family Law Act actually provides an exception, that in allegations of family violence or perhaps even if there is a different level of balancing of bargaining power or something like that, that you’re not actually required to do the mediation.

Benjamin Bryant: And obviously, all cases of family violence are different and people react differently to physical or psychological abuse. But in general terms, what sort of impact does domestic violence have on a partner experiencing violence?

Dr. Doug Andrews: Look, it’s it’s profound. People lose their self-confidence. They lose their self-esteem. They often, through repeated psychological, demeaning, humiliating comments, they start to internalise some of that. It impairs their functioning in the world, in their roles as a parent, as a worker, as a student. All of the things that they do, they tend to do less well. Again, that affects their self-confidence and their self-esteem. We start to see people exhibiting symptoms of depression or anxiety, sleeplessness, those sorts of things. And people who are subject to repeated violence especially, can develop trauma based conditions such as PTSD or complex PTSD. We see that in adults and children.

Benjamin Bryant:  One of the examples you just gave, Doug, was parents ability to work. Heather, you’ve obviously some experience, with almost 40 years of experience in the family law arena, about how domestic violence can impact a person’s ability to remain in the workforce or contribute to the family.

Heather McKinnon:  Certainly Doug and I have had some cases where women’s ability to function would be at the lower range. So it becomes important to understand what function is when we’re looking at property settlements particularly. Because often these women are older and their chance of recovery to a level where they can be economically independent is almost zilch. And so we have to look at then, should they be given more of the amassed capital, particularly things like superannuation, because the damage that’s occurred to them means that they need significant financial support going forward. So they’re in the more extreme areas of the work that we do. But it’s certainly important for people to understand that if you’re in a situation where you really have been brought to your knees in terms of your ability to function in the workforce, that is something that family lawyers have to look at getting expert reports from people like Doug so that we can understand what is their prognosis? Are they are likely to ever be able to reenter the society fully or is the damage so severe that that’s unlikely? So that’s the pointy end that we talk about. But certainly in that recovery phase, if it’s a younger person, there may need to be a look at whether or not they need additional assistance, say, to work part time when they’ve got little ones. Because the last thing we want is someone who’s got a struggle to regain mental health, being overloaded doing full time work. So they’re the sorts of things where the professions overlap.  We need Doug’s profession to help us understand: What’s the time frame? What is this person’s prognosis? Are we going to get them back to functioning in the short term or is it going to be a much longer term?

Dr. Doug Andrews: We also see people who feel it’s unsafe for them to remain in the workplace or even the town that they live, which disrupts their vocational trajectory, even if they were feeling that they could go to work. They lose income, they lose place in the world because of that.

Benjamin Bryant: And Doug, what about the children? How does exposure to a violent or abusive relationship between parents impact on a child’s development?

Dr. Doug Andrews: Well, I think for children, it is profoundly damaging because they’re in the process of developing their personality. They don’t have a solid sense of self, and they haven’t completed their education. So we start to see it damaging them at a fundamental level. They’re prone to the conditions like PTSD, that adults are prone to. They’re prone to getting anxiety and depression and things like that. But they also can develop those personality based pathologies like emotional disregulation, like avoidance, hyper-vigilance, just general fear in the world.

Dr. Doug Andrews: Kids who are traumatised, sometimes traumatise others. Their behaviour becomes difficult in the school. They can become bullies or they’re victimised. They become victims of bullies, because they are seen to be a target, because they’re insecure or they’re anxious or whatever. They tend to do less well with with their education. They tend to form relationships in a less solid manner. So they may have fewer friends. They don’t participate as well in extracurricular activities. So they get very damaged They can feel responsible. It’s their fault that their parents don’t get along. It’s their fault that somebody in the family is yelling or screaming or drinking alcohol or violent. Sometimes they’re told it’s their fault. So we go back to safety first. You have to look to your own safety, but you have to look to your children’s safety first.

Benjamin Bryant: And I know we’ve touched on this topic briefly in previous podcasts. how conflicts, and especially separation can impact on children. And a lot of those things really bring home what you just said then Doug.

Benjamin Bryant: The federal government has recently announced another inquiry into the Family Court system. Pauline Hanson has advocated for the inquiry on the grounds that men are unfairly treated by the Courts. And she has specifically suggested that some women fake domestic violence claims in order to help them in Court. I wonder if you have ever seen this sort of thing being done.

Dr. Doug Andrews: That’s a very challenging question. I. have sometimes, sat in my office and wondered if I had any way of knowing what is true. I’m sure you’ve experienced it as well. The research, as I understand it, doesn’t support that abuse by lying to the Court is that common. Of course it happens. My understanding is that the estranged, non-custodial parent is more likely to be the person lying to the Court, than the person who has custody of the children. Does it happen? I’m sure it does. Have I caught somebody out in it?  I’m not sure that I have. But, have I been deceived? I’m guessing I have. So, yes, it’s a problem, but I think it’s an overstated problem. I think we have to recognise that people find the court system very intimidating and frightening for them. And I think often people go away from the court feeling like they haven’t had the results that they hoped that they would get. And I think that happens even when the Courts are fair.

Heather McKinnon: And I think it’s important to indicate that the angry man, who is the perpetrator, is often very competent in lobbying politicians, in lobbying the Police. They’re the squeaky wheel the politicians are getting in their office every day. So it’s very hard for our federal politicians because as I understand it, one of the most common constituent interviews will be with a disgruntled family law litigant. So the people in Canberra that are looking at this field, every day when they back in their electorates are getting these people in their office saying, “Woe is me, I’m being hardly don’t by”. They’re not seeing the little children or the battered women. They don’t know how to make an appointment with their federal member.

Dr. Doug Andrews:  I think we have to recognise that most of the severe violence: it is women who are the victims, they are very traumatised. It’s very difficult for them to negotiate their way through systems. The men often have more financial resources and aren’t traumatised.

Benjamin Bryant:  Some people, like Pauline Hanson, of course, says it’s a gendered argument, but as we say on a daily basis, Heather nowhere in the Family Law Act does it say mother or father or male or female.

Benjamin Bryant: And you mentioned the research before Doug. I actually took the opportunity just before the podcast to get a few of the stats. So the first one in relation to prevalence is that during the year from 2016 to 2017, 17 adults were hospitalised every day due to an assault by a partner or other family member.

Benjamin Bryant: And this one is striking, one woman is killed every nine days by their current partner. If you reduce it to current partner or former partner, it’s one woman a week. For fathers or men, it’s one man is killed every 29 days by their partner.

Benjamin Bryant: And one in six women in Australia have experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or previous cohabiting partner. And for men, it’s one in 16. And 25% or a quarter of women have experienced emotional abuse from a current or previous partner. And it’s 5 percent for men. So some pretty alarming statistics there.

Dr. Doug Andrews:  Look, I think it says that but violence isn’t necessarily gendered. But clearly, women are very much the victims of this more than men. No violence is acceptable.

Benjamin Bryant: And Doug, how do people go about getting help to heal the wounds after family violence?

Dr. Doug Andrews: Look, that’s difficult. I think that they find it very difficult to trust systems. This is ubiquitous in mental health with people trying to get help multiple times before they succeed in getting very much help. People in medical and emergency services get frustrated because they see people going back to the perpetrator. And I think that’s a failure to understand what’s really going on and how disempowered these people are. It takes a lot of courage to make a change when your circumstances are so difficult and most people fail the first time they try.

Dr. Doug Andrews: But what services exist? Medical services, the police, our emergency department, school counsellors, mental health services, etc, are all points that you can go to to talk about these things and help? We have access line numbers, I gather we’ll give out some of those numbers at the end of the show. There are some specialist services around in Coffs Harbour: Warrina domestic and family violence services, family and community services often get involved, legal services, psychologists, psychiatrists. There’s a lot of people that have some finger in this in a way of helping. And having said that, I don’t think that there’s enough and I believe we do very well. I think we need things like easy access to refuges, emergency housing, responses from the police that are compassionate and empathic and understanding. Not that the police don’t try to do those things. But I think that’s not the experience of many of the people who have to deal with violence in their own homes.

Heather McKinnon: I think it’s important to call out to the presentation sometimes of victims is not calm and their ability to get help from people, who are not necessarily highly trained, is impaired because they are not seen as an attractive personality. If you’re a trauma victim and your scared of the world, you’re like an injured animal. And the problem that we have is, in our culture, it’s my experience that the presentation of the injured animal to some of these services means that they’ve not given the access to help that’s required because they’re not good advocates that their own needs. And we have to be really, really careful that we have no judgment when we’re trying to help people.

Dr. Doug Andrews: That’s a really good point. Remember that most family violence isn’t reported and most of the presentations that we see in emergency medical circumstances are not explicit. They’re not coming in saying my husband beat me up. They’re sometimes denying why their injuries exist, or they’re coming into the emergency department because they’ve self-harmed, attempted suicide, or they’re intoxicated. It can be very difficult to identify those people. Even if the questions are asked. Please visit the emergency department on any Friday night and everybody is flat to the wall, so if you’re not explicit, they may not ask.

Benjamin Bryant: Well, thank you so much, Doug, for your help today. And thanks for being here.

Dr. Doug Andrews: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.

Benjamin Bryant: Thank you to our listeners. We hope you found this podcast helpful. If anything in this podcast has raised concerns for you, then the domestic violence line is available at 1 800 656 463. And it’s a 24 hour confidential telephone and online counselling service for people affected by domestic and family violence. We will also put links to a number of other services in the show notes for this episode.

Benjamin Bryant: Next month, we’re going to dedicate an entire show to your questions. So if you have specific questions about divorce, children’s matters, property settlement, mediation, domestic violence or any aspect of family law then send us your questions via Facebook Messenger or by emailing familymatters@bryantmckinnon.com.au.

Benjamin Bryant: Goodbye for now and we hope to have your ears again next month.