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The Ugly Truth: Domestic Violence in Canberra

Martina Taliano

Just weeks ago, Canberra mum Tara Costigan was allegedly murdered in an axe attack by her ex-partner.

An axe.

It’s terrible.

It’s shocking.

What’s even worse is that since the start of 2015, 17 Australian women have died at the hands of someone who had once declared to always love and care for them.

Destroy the Joint commenced the campaign ‘Counting Dead Women’ in response to the Budget cuts, specifically the cuts to Community Legal Centres and Support agencies that will directly affect the women who are trying to escape domestic violence. Counting Dead Women recorded the deaths of 81 women, victims of domestic violence, in 2014. That is more than one woman a week.

It’s not looking better for 2015 with two women killed for the eight weeks of the year so far.

One thing the Canberra community does really well is come together in hard times. Already over $75,000 has been raised for Tara Costigan’s children — Rhiley (aged 11), Drew (aged 9) and Ayla who is just 2 weeks old now. I applaud the community for being so generous.

However, it would be so much better if Rhily, Drew and Ayla still had their mother to care for them.

Last financial year, Executive Director of Canberra Domestic Violence Crisis Service (DVCS) Mirjana Wilson, and her staff received 14,791 crisis calls. Almost 1,000 more calls than the year before.

In the days since Tara’s death DVCS has received even more calls for help and advice.

Before anyone dares to judge a woman who lives in a violent relationship, I beg you to stop. Domestic Violence doesn’t only happen to the poor, the uneducated, the jobless, the addicted, the unattractive, the overweight or the meek woman.

It can happen to anyone.

It happened to me.

I didn’t see it happening, and although that’s what you expect a victim would say, it’s completely true.

On the surface we had a good life. We had a beautiful house we had built together, two nice cars, two well paid jobs and great friends around us. I felt like I was well on my way to the ‘perfect family’. At first it was snide remarks about my weight; when I said the comments were hurtful I was told, “well, it’s better that I tell you rather than other people talking behind your back”.

When I mentioned wanting to go back to uni I was told that I was being selfish and asked “why isn’t this enough for you? Why can’t you be happy with the way things are?”. Being accused of cheating and sneaking around was par for the course, despite him knowing my every move; my phone messages and emails being checked regularly. I excused all of these things, telling myself that he loved me, that he just wanted me to himself, telling myself he was concerned for my health if he commented on my weight or food choices, excusing that he had been cheated on before and once he knew he could trust me it would be better. Even when he started pushing me when he was angry I put it down to him being passionate and overly emotional, and when he apologised profusely, I forgave him.

I had an excuse for it all.

Until the afternoon he grabbed my head and slammed it repeatedly into the wall. I don’t remember how many times my head hit the brick wall but I do remember him dropping me onto the floor and walking away. And like a total cliché he yelled at me “See what you made me do, you make me so angry that I can’t control myself!”. Again he had made it my fault; that I deserved what I got.

I was stunned, and not only by the blows to my head. I was educated, financially well off, employed…I had everything…so how had I ended up slumped on the floor holding my head? Things like that didn’t happen to ‘people like me’; surely it only happened to other people?

For me, this act of violence was enough to scare me into action; he had access to guns and I was terrified of the uncontrollable monster he was becoming more and more.

I was done.

I rang my family and told them everything. I moved house and got a lawyer to work out the sale of the house. It was one of the hardest times of my life. How could the person that said he loved me, that had built a life with me, that said he wanted to marry me…how could he say all those things and then act in such an adverse and opposite way? The apologies kept coming for months along with tears and sobbing, threats to commit suicide as ‘life wasn’t worth living without me’. When that didn’t work he got angry and started threatening my life…and that was when I took out a Domestic Violence Order and moved homes (again) and workplaces so he couldn’t easily find me.

Our friends were shocked. Some didn’t believe me, and that was truly hurtful. But many more friends supported me and offered me any help they could. Some said they had seen the signs but hadn’t wanted to say anything. Or they thought it wasn’t their business to say step in.

Every time I hear of a woman being killed by her partner, or ex-partner, I think “that could have been me’.

If I didn’t have the people in my life that gave me everything I needed at that time I probably would have returned to the relationship.

I won’t lie to you, I thought about it.

Amongst all the tears I was reminded of the man who had won me over, the soft and gentle man that he had been before and had promised he would be again. It was heartwrenchingly painful. But all the promises and tears couldn’t take back the damage he had done to me, physically or emotionally.

Years on I am a passionate advocate for Domestic Violence services. I work at Inanna Inc., one of the organisations in Canberra that assist women escaping domestic violence. I was very lucky in that my family and my workplace were incredibly supportive to assist me in leaving the relationship and removing myself from the danger. It was one of the hardest times of my life and I could not have got through it without the support I had.

I am proud to work with inspirational women and men who provide support to women who may not have the kind of support I was lucky enough to have at that time in my life.

There are so many women out there that don’t have the help that I had.

To anyone who may be thinking that things aren’t right in their relationship, this is my message to you:

There is absolutely no reason good enough to remain in an abusive relationship. There are people who want to help. There are services whose job it is to make sure you can be safe. Whether you just need to talk to someone and get some advice, or you need a few hours away to gather your thoughts or if you have decided that you need to leave and need help to do that – PLEASE call them. You deserve to feel safe.

If telling my story can help just one women to reach out for help, then exposing myself in this way is worth it.

If you would like more information or to just chat with someone about your relationship concerns Community Services ACT has a number of services available any time of the day or night. And while domestic violence is certainly a gender issue, I think it is important to note that women are not the only victims. Men do also experience domestic violence and there are services available to both men and women.

Services like…

…just to name a few.

Let’s learn from Tara’s tragic death. Reach out to your friends and family members if you have a concern. Talk about the effect of domestic violence when you are at work, when you are at the gym or catching the bus.

Let’s take domestic violence out of the home and put it out in the open to prevent any more children losing their mothers, siblings losing their sisters and parents losing their daughters.

If you would like to contribute to the fundraising efforts for Tara’s children, you can donate here.

You’re invited to Fox and Bow’s Special Benefit for Tara Costigan

When: From 4.30pm Saturday 14 March
Where: Fox and Bow Cafe, Farrer Shops — Farrer Place, Farrer
How much: $20
Includes: Outdoor music and food, BYO wine.
Tickets: Visit Fox and Bow’s Facebook page

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock.

  • Emma Grey

    This is such a courageous article, Martina. Thank you for sharing your story in the hope of helping others. You are a big-hearted person, and one of several of my intelligent, successful, beautiful friends who have found themselves in abusive relationships, and expressed how hard it can be to leave. I’m so glad that you did. xxx

    You’re right, too, that it’s not only women who are harmed in this way. Another point (which my friend reminded me about recently) is that many people in same-sex relationships are also victims of domestic violence, and can be reluctant to seek help when much of the media dialogue is written about violence by men against women. It’s so important that all people in violent situations feel supported, regardless of the gender of the perpetrator.

    Thank you for the work you do now to support people escaping violent situations.

    • Ms Jennifer

      Unfortunately the current government has cut a lot of funding to the services that would normally help people escaping domestic violence. At a time when the country has seen a reported rise in domestic violence related deaths it is just shameful.

  • BlondieInk

    Thank you so much for sharing you story Martina, I hope more people can find courage a strength from your experience to do seek help.

  • anne

    Thank you for sharing your story I saw myself in some of the things you said I had 10 years of emotional abuse and for years I was in denial that it wasn’t abuse it wasn’t violence because it wasn’t physical it got physical pushing shoving slaps throwing things I have two children to him which made it so much harder it some ways it should be easier if there is kids but it doesn’t I just had a lot of guilt that I put on myself guilt from him blame from him you are right dv doesn’t discrimate rich poor it doesn’t stop it it still happens.

  • Karen

    Thank you for sharing your story, Martina.

    It takes courage to tell people around you at the time, it takes courage to share your story publicly and it takes extraordinary courage to leave the abusive relationship. Thank goodness you had the courage to do all those things.

    For those people currently in an abusive relationship, if you are staying because you believe your abuser will change, in my opinion, it is unlikely they will change while still in the relationship. In fact, it is more likely it will get worse. By leaving, you will not only be helping yourself, but you may also be giving your abuser the shake-up they need to take a look at themselves and consider changing. You are giving them the opportunity to help themselves. They may not take that opportunity, of course, but at least you are (hopefully) less likely to be on the receiving end of their abuse and they can’t falsely blame you if their behaviour continues. Only they are responsible for their behaviour.

  • Lena

    “Before anyone dares to judge a woman who lives in a violent relationship, I beg you to stop. Domestic Violence doesn’t only happen to the poor, the uneducated, the jobless, the addicted, the unattractive, the overweight or the meek woman. It can happen to anyone.” Does that mean we need to pay attention to the beautiful, slim, educated and wealthy women? No judgement here, of course! Or otherwise, let’s make a massive judgement about women before we talk about the horrors some less deserving of such horror also face! I’m confused about this statement. Yes, domestic violence can happen to anyone, many women fall into the categories you’ve suggested as not the only categories and those you suggest are those less likely to be abused. It’s not real – all women are prey because it has nothing to do with women it is about the predisposition of the abuser. Anyone can be abused because anyone can be conned by a perpetrator. Let’s remove the descriptions of women please! There are enough reasons men give for perpetrating violence, women don’t need to get on board to agree with them.

    Thanks for your story – it is really helpful in the public discourse and I’m sure many will benefit from it. I am an overweight woman so perhaps I’m clearly in the group who society believes experience it and earn it due to our deficits. That has most certainly been my experience. It can happen to anyone, even thin people. Perhaps this message will be finally heard now it is understood that educated, wealthy, thin people go through this horror too. I too am educated but that didn’t help me in the courts that cost me a fortune, maybe because I’m carrying extra weight 😉

  • Kristy Hancock

    The premise behind your story is great, however I worried that you are adding to the victim blaming by saying-

    There is absolutely no reason good enough to remain in an abusive relationship. There are people who want to help. There are services whose job it is to make sure you can be safe.

    Whether it was intended, in saying that, it suggests that they are at fault by staying in the relationship despite the services available to help them. As you would know DV is a nasty beast that changes not only who you are but the way you think.

    If we ever want to change DV we need to stop placing the responsibility of leaving on the women and have stronger deterrents for the perpetrators, im sure if a DVO came with an ankle bracelet that tracked their whereabouts or an automatic jail term, they would be deterred.

    • Jay

      I totally agree. The sad thing is, in some cases there simply is NOT the services available to help. I left my first husband and even though I spoke to every service in existence, no one could prevent from happening what I knew would happen when leaving. The family court said his years of beating me were irrelevant, his drug use was irrelevant, and his severe mental illnesses were irrelevant. And those were just the things I knew about. And he did exactly what I feared he would do if I left him – get shared custody and abuse our daughter instead of me. And no one – not the family court, not DOCS, not the police, not a single person – would step in and do anything about it. While I dealt with being told if I didn’t hand her over, I’d be arrested for custodial interference and that the family court would give him even more time with her to punish me.

      Where were all these wonderful services then? For some women, there are no services who can help. I stayed for years because if I stayed he would only beat me and I knew if I left, with the disgusting state of the family court, he’d get shared custody and beat our daughter instead – and I got sick of hearing “you don’t know that will happen”. Well it had happened to many other women and children I knew, and it IS what happened to my daughter and I.

      I didn’t stay because DV changed who I was. I stayed because my child was safer with me there to protect her, than having us leave and the family court giving him unsupervised access to her. The day that changed (the day he did attack her), I kicked him out, no hesitation. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough for the family court or DOCS to step in and protect her from him, and while the police did charge him, it was only with “violating a DVO” and all he got was a tiny fine which led him to coming back several weeks later, beating the living daylights out of me, causing me to miscarry our unborn baby and that time the police didn’t even charge him – not even for violating the DVO which had been changed to him not being allowed near my home by then.

      Sadly some women don’t leave because the horrific truth is that they (or their children) are actually safer with their abuser than if they leave. If they stay, they get beaten – if they leave, either their children get beaten instead or they or their children end up murdered brutally.

      Until society makes it safe for women to leave without it costing women or their children their lives, many women will continue to stay. Not because DV has broken their spirit – but because they value they value their lives and the lives of their children.

  • Jay

    I admire your passion, I really do. And I do agree that many people stay in abusive relationships for really bad reasons. Whether they think the abuser will change, or they blame themselves for the abuse, or they think they can’t live without a partner and won’t find someone else, etc. None of these are the victim’s fault. But ultimately, all of these reasons can be overcome.

    But not everyone is in that position to say “There is absolutely no reason good enough to remain in an abusive relationship. There are people who want to help. There are services whose job it is to make sure you can be safe.” is so very wrong. Look at the stats… when is a woman most likely to be killed by a violent partner? AFTER she leaves. And when is a child is most likely to be murdered and by whom? when a violent father is given shared custody after the mother leaves. Far too many women stay because they know they or their children will be killed if they leave. Or if they aren’t murdered, then their children will be forced into shared custody by a family court that says domestic violence is irrelevant to custody matters and refuses to investigate when the children report they are being abused during access visits. The family court says it’s up to DOCS to investigate, DOCS says it’s up to the family court, and even when it’s urgent, the police just say it’s a family court and child protection matter and won’t go to the poor child being abused.

    This is why some women stay. Because they’d rather spend until their kids turn 18 being beaten than leave and have their children beaten instead. That’s why I stayed for years. And when I did leave? exactly what I said would happen. The court gave him shared custody and he beat our daughter instead and no one would help – not the police, not DOCS, not the family court, not any of these so called services for DV victims. I was threatened if I didn’t hand her over for access visits, I’d be arrested for kidnapping and he would be given more time with her to punish me. The only other “option” would have been to go on the run and since both my daughter and I have health problems, going on the run was not medically an option. It’s also no way for a child to live.

    And that’s the choices women face – stay and be beaten, or leave and either their child is beaten instead, or have to go on the run, be labelled a kidnapper and not being able to access education for their child, or medical care or any of the basic government services we take for granted, constantly facing the fear or arrest.

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