The one thing that makes domestic violence victims leave
OVER her three decades, Rachel* had become accustomed to being beaten; having her ribs broken and eyes blackened, being shouted at and controlled, and even raped.
But it wasn't until her primary school-aged son started copping it as well that she realised the violence and trauma that was going on under her roof every day and night wasn't just part of normal family life - it was abuse.
Raised in a less-than-stable family and inflicted with an intellectual disability, the southern Sydney woman fell into a cycle of abuse and manipulation.
She would become attracted to men who promised to keep her safe but ended up controlling her. The worst of the men who caused her pain in her life, the father to two of her children, had managed to convince her that she was lucky to have him even though he hurt her.
"There was physical stuff but it was more the mental abuse. The control - that had the worst effect," the now 34-year-old told news.com.au. "It's a lot of trauma. He had financial control and got me to the point where I didn't have anyone else to rely on."
Tracy can't remember how many times she moved during the years she was with this man. He convinced her that they needed to keep jumping states for work so that he could get better jobs and provide for the family, but she later found it was actually because he was on the run from police, and, she believes, determined to separate her from her friends and family.
"Honestly, I had nothing. Because we kept shifting and he didn't let me go to family things, I had no family," she said.
As well as the isolation and control, there was physical abuse.
"I had fractured ribs, bruised eye sockets, all the time. He used to rape me constantly and he used to tell me it was OK for him to do it," she said. "I had nothing else so I relied on him and didn't really have a choice but to stay with him, but then [son] Lachlan* used to cop it as well."
Rachel had left and helplessly returned to Lachlan's father a number of times, but finally, with the help of child protection authorities, she gained the support to get herself and her children to safety, and found out the truth about her partner's criminal past.
It was a good move for the family. It didn't quite break the cycle of falling into abusive relationships, but helped her to recognise when she needed to get out.
"Lachlan used to cop it off my second partner too," she said. "He used to cop it off him all the time, but once, when I was pregnant, he picked him up and pinned him against the wall.
"I said you put my son down now, and he put him down and I locked him out of the house. That was it."
That was it for the relationship, but not for the trauma. It wasn't until Rachel came across the services of Campbelltown-based BaptistCare and its Break Free program for child victims and witnesses of domestic violence that she and Lachlan started to heal.
Although Rachel and Lachlan's story is horrifying, it's something that the program's director Lesley Robson has seen play out time and time again. While 36 per cent of adult women in Australia have experienced violence by a known perpetrator since the age of 15, of those, 22 per cent experienced physical violence during pregnancy by a current partner and 25 per cent have suffered violence while pregnant by a previous partner.
Australian Bureau of Statistics data indicates that, of women who had experienced partner violence and had children in their care, close to two-thirds said the violence had been witnessed by children.
And according to Ms Robson, when mothers who are victims of partner violence leave or seek help, it's almost always to protect their children.
When women and children who have been in abusive families present to her, Ms Robson says her job, and the job of her colleagues, is to work to break the cycle of family violence as much as it is to help the individuals.
"For us workers, the focus is always on the children," she told news.com.au. "What we realise is that if you don't work with the children, you're going to have violence forever more. We must intervene early if we're ever going to break any cycles."
As well as coping with the trauma of either falling victim to or witnessing domestic abuse, Ms Robson says the priority for children is education from a young age, including teaching respectful relationships and keeping their bodies safe.
"We try to normalise their lives as much as possible, and do everything we can to teach them about safety, protective behaviours, identifying who they're safe with, and what a respectful relationship looks like so they can understand what it will mean for them to have a respectful relationship as adults," she said.
And it's not just something kids who have already experienced domestic violence need to learn.
"There is good work being done in high schools, but very little government intervention and education at a preschool and primary age for all children. That's what needs to be done, and it needs to happen at a younger age," she said.
Rachel says this education is something she missed out on growing up.
"I didn't know what was happening to me was wrong. I don't blame anyone for that, but there needs to be more education about domestic violence. There's got to be things taught about control and financial abuse, and recognising it," she said. "I know what it looks like now and I hope that my children can recognise it and that they can also know what a healthy relationship is like, and that's what they can have."
*Names have been changed in this article to protect victims.
BaptistCare hosts its annual fundraiser for women and children experiencing domestic and family violence tonight. To donate to their programs visit hopestreet.org.au
NEW SOUTH WALES DOMESTIC VIOLENCE SERVICES