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Sarah Ferguson ends Hitting Home with a call to Australia’s politicians to recommit to treating domestic and family violence as the emergency it is. ABC

Hitting Home: why separation is often the most dangerous time for a victim of domestic violence

In the second part of the ABC’s Hitting Home, presenter Sarah Ferguson continues to examine the high-risk tip of Australia’s domestic and family violence iceberg. She joins perpetrators in a prison-based behaviour change program; she joins some of their ex-partners en route to recovery; and she examines how abuse and control may escalate to fatal violence.

Part two begins in the South Coast Correctional Centre, a high-, medium- and maximum-security prison. Viewers are given an insight into the behaviour change program for domestic violence perpetrators, and into the mindset of some of its participants.

By drawing on interviews with perpetrators and their ex-partners along with physical evidence collected by police and forensic units introduced in part one, the common discrepancy in victim and perpetrator accounts becomes blatantly obvious.

Victims and perpetrators

Victims’ accounts are marked by physical and emotional pain, trauma and fear. Perpetrator accounts reveal a common level of denial, minimisation and victim-blaming attitudes.

In Hitting Home, we get to meet “Logan” and “Christie”. Forensic evidence and witness statements supported the victim’s accounts of fear, trauma and physical injuries suffered when she was forced to go for a drive. During this, she suffered physical, verbal and emotional abuse.

Logan’s accounts remain casual despite serving a 16-month sentence for assault. He alleges his ex-partner was being unreasonable. Had she not tried to escape from the car, he wouldn’t have had to try and hold her back and she wouldn’t have injured herself, Logan says. He shrugs and laughs when he wraps up his account by saying:

What an ordeal. So here I am.

This is a statement that primarily suggests self-pity.

We also get to meet “Steve” and “Elizabeth”. The victim’s account of the incident, along with police video evidence of the aftermath, reveals the level of destruction, injuries, trauma and fear involved for many victims of domestic and partner violence. Steve is serving a 12-month sentence for smashing his ex-partner’s car windows, forcing his way into the property and choking her until she was unconscious.

When she regained consciousness he further tried to prevent her from calling the police. He acknowledges he has “a short fuse” and “needs to work on his temper”. But when asked to describe the incident, he talks about how he put her in a headlock, which “put her to sleep”.

The level of denial and minimisation observed among program participants is not unique to perpetrators of domestic violence. This tends to be a common phenomenon among offenders in general. Denying guilt or responsibility for the offence and downplaying the level of violence used – along with the level of harm inflicted on the victim – allows offenders to justify their actions to themselves as well as others.

Programs like the one portrayed are designed to break the habit of denying and minimising the severity of actions and outcomes. Their ultimate goal is behaviour change.

Participants have to disclose their acts of abuse and “map out” how abusive incidents unfolded. Strategies of minimisation and denial get challenged.

In an ideal outcome, perpetrators take responsibility for their actions and develop non-violent behaviour patterns. But outcomes vary. Some evaluations suggest significant success rates while others demonstrate little success. Outcomes appear to be most promising where programs are integrated into a community response to domestic and family violence.

Victims taking protective measures

Turning its focus back to the victims of domestic and family violence, the documentary illustrates that some victims are best off taking their own protective measures.

“Christie” moved in with her mother and the family installed security cameras around the house and property. “Logan” will be released from prison soon. While he says he will need to come to terms with his ex-partner having moved on, only time will tell whether she can maintain her safety.

“Elizabeth” not only moved homes but towns in order to increase her safety. Moving addresses is often the only option for victims to establish a new life, free from fear and the risk of subsequent victimisation. However, moving to a new location is not always feasible.

Access to housing, employment, schooling and child care, along with having to facilitate the perpetrator’s access to mutual children, can make such transitions very difficult. But remaining in a location known to the perpetrator can place victims of highly controlling ex-partners at ongoing risk.

The risk of fatal violence

Hitting Home illustrates the risk of ongoing post-separation abuse in an in-depth examination of a particular domestic violence-related death from 2013.

The victim had ended the relationship when her partner’s behaviour became increasingly abusive and controlling. He continued to stalk her and abuse her via phone for months before eventually murdering her in her home. Statistics sadly show that this is only one of many tragic and horrific endings to abusive intimate relationships.

Close to two women per week have allegedly been killed by an intimate partner or ex-partner in Australia in 2015. The time of separation is particularly dangerous for many victims.

Perpetrators who experience a loss of control at this point may try to regain it through escalating forms of violence. In some cases this amounts to the killing of the victim and/or her children as the ultimate act of power and control. Ending an abusive relationship therefore does not necessarily end the abuse. For some victims, it can make it worse.

As Ferguson wraps up part two, she calls on politicians to recommit to treating domestic and family violence as the emergency it is. She calls on all of us to take action, speak out, educate our children and commit to ending this crisis for the sake of our next generations.

You can read Silke Meyer’s review of part one of Hitting Home here.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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