Police have responded to over 200 domestic violence incidents this year.
Police have responded to over 200 domestic violence incidents this year.

‘Not just a man hitting his wife’: cop shares DV experience

TEN weeks into Dalby police sergeant Anne Johnston's new role as the Domestic and Family Violence coordinator and she was dealing with a man who barricaded himself in a garage with 14 firearms.

Sergeant Johnston and her team stayed on site for 17 and a half hours while a negotiator coaxed the perpetrator out.

The siege was ignited by an argument over a phone bill.

Sergeant Johnston oversees 51 out 60 police districts in the southwest, reviewing every single domestic violence incident to ensure police have taken correct actions when it comes to treatment of the victims, perpetrators and children.

She also travels to schools to deliver talks on what domestic violence is, and what constitutes an abusive relationship.

She has seen the most harrowing cases, and unfortunately, it seems that domestic violence statistics will only get worse before they get better.

Defining an abusive relationship

SERGEANT Johnston said it's important to know that domestic violence is not strictly physical.

It can manifest in emotional, psychological, and financial abuse.

"In many cases victims of DV don't understand that they're being a victim of domestic violence," Sergeant Johnston said.

"Domestic violence is more than just being hit by your partner. It's emotional abuse, it's financial abuse, it's psychological abuse - it covers the way kids treat their elderly parents, it covers relationships between boyfriends, girlfriends, same sex relationships.

"So many don't understand what it is and what help is available to them and the fact that they don't have to stay in that relationship, but if they choose to, we can give them that support."

Abusive relationships don't necessarily begin that way.

Most abusive relationships are a slow burn.

"When you first start a relationship with somebody like that, they are wonderful," she said.

"They will treat you like a prince or a princess. They're so good to be around, they make you feel really good, and they're so good for you. They're so pleased to be with you.

"Very slowly, very insidiously, it starts to change until you no longer have any self confidence, you've been separated from your friends, you've been separated from your family, they've driven a wedge into everything. You have no confidence in yourself."

The manipulation then becomes more intense.

"One of their things is when there's children involved, they say 'I'll make sure you don't get the kids' or 'you'll never see your children again'," she said.

"'If you leave, who's going to pay the bills? You can't leave, you've got no friends. Your family hate you'.

"They drive that wedge in so slowly and so cleverly. I'd like to say that it doesn't happen very often, but unfortunately it does, particularly when there's kids involved.

"In those relationships, it might be that nobody has ever hit anyone or ever been physically abusive in any shape, way, or form. It's all emotional abuse, and the scars run deep. They run way deeper sometimes than that punch.

"The emotional scars don't heal easily, and they don't show. So no one knows what you're going through."

Why it happens

"IT'S her fault, she made me do it."

"Dinner wasn't ready on time."

"It was her fault."

"She made me do it."

"She's crazy."

"I had to defend myself."

"She's off her medication."

"She made me do it."

Like the very first major domestic violence call out Sergeant Johnston experienced, where a phone bill was the catalyst for the outburst, the excuses the police hear for why people abuse their partners are never ending.

There are also a never ending list of reasons as to why domestic violence happens.

Sergeant Johnston said if men and women are brought up witnessing their parents be abusive towards each other, they are likely to repeat the pattern.

That, and a combination of a narcissistic personality trait or disorder, is where it starts.

"We appear to be in a whole demographic of people who just don't accept responsibility for their own behaviour," she said.

"And what's the answer to that? I don't know."

It's a lack of responsibility that allows for reoffending to occur, and that's where it becomes generational.

"They aren't interested in fixing the behaviour because as far as they're concerned they're perfectly fine," Sergeant Johnston said.

"It's always the other person's fault. And in the case of the victims, they grew up in a household where one of their parents was a victim so they accept that this is what a relationship is.

"It's what they've learnt. It's an in-built thing and until we can educate kids at a primary school level about health relationships we're really not going to make a big dent.

"We cannot arrest our way out of this. We try but sending a person to jail is not fixing the behaviour, it's simply stopping it in the short term."

The first step to recognising you're in an abusive relationship is recognising what an abusive relationship is.

"Like most normal relationships you always have arguments," Sergeant Johnston.

"You're two human beings, you both have a personality, there'll be times you clash. It's only when one person has power and control over another person and uses that to abuse them, to control them - then you have domestic violence.

"A normal verbal argument is a verbal argument. A verbal argument when you start abusing them and calling them names and threatening to injure pets and things like that, then it becomes domestic violence."

DV in the southwest

EIGHTY per cent of what police in the southwest see is physical violence, but Sergeant Johnston said it's often more than that.

Police see physical violence because a lot of people don't understand that emotional abuse is classed as domestic violence, and it doesn't get reported as often.

"There is also some emotional abuse underpinning the violence in most cases," she said.

"It's more than one. For service providers such as DV Connect, and Lifeline, they would see a lot more emotional and psychological abuse."

Financial abuse is becoming more common, and comes in the form of adults abusing their parents when they're in an informal care situation or have power of attorney over their parents.

"Those are particularly difficult for police because no parent or grandparent ever wants to make a complaint against their beloved son, daughter, grandchild - they don't understand that it's abuse," Sergeant Johnston said.

"They know that they're unhappy, they know that their life is utterly miserable sometimes. But they don't understand that it's abuse, and they're very difficult for us to investigate because no one wants to tell us.

"And they're difficult to prosecute because no one ever wants to come to court. But it's out there and it's only getting worse as the population ages and as it's getting more and more difficult for young people to get ahead in purchasing a home."

In the southwest, Sergeant Johnston said 75 to 80 per cent of domestic violence victims are women, but female perpetrators are out there and use different methods of abuse.

"I do see now a lot more female respondents, most of those are text message, Facebook messenger - those sort of abuse cases with female respondents," she said.

"It is still a gendered issues and the serious ones are when you've got grievous bodily harm or homicides, again, generally male perpetrators but some female perpetrators."

Repeat offending is a reality in the southwest, and an alarming one at that.

"I see a number of people who, as victims, go from one relationship to another where they're abused," Sergeant Johnston said.

"I see perpetrators go from one relationship to another where they commit abuse. I've got people in this district that have had nine and then DVOs places against them with all different partners. They don't learn and they don't care."

Protecting our children

ONE of the more alarming effects of domestic violence is how children who witness abuse develop differently.

Often, children are used as weapons when in an abusive relationship.

"I hear a lot of people say 'we're staying together for the kids'," Sergeant Johnston said.

"Please don't."

Sergeant Johnston said infantso to four years old are most at-risk because their brains are still developing.

"The way their brains develop, they develop into survival mode rather than a learning mode," she said.

"The whole brain development pattern is totally different. They struggle to learn, they have no concentration span.

"All of the synapsis in their brain is tuned to looking for danger, not looking for knowledge. The impacts are profound not just on people being abused at an adult level, but on the little ones."

Part of Sergeant Johnston's role is to visit schools and educate children about healthy relationships. But it is paramount this education starts at the very beginning of their education.

"If they're in a family where their parents are abusing each other, the kids see that as normal behaviour and kids need to understand what a health relationship is," she said.

"Healthy relationships should be taught in school.

"It needs to be taught to very young children. By the time we get to year 11 and 12 it's too late, they've already formed their subconscious about what is and what isn't appropriate."

Are the penalties enough?

DOMESTIC violence orders are a common practice to remedy domestic violence, and are aimed to create a distance or boundaries between the victims and the perpetrators.

"Across the board they actually can be quite effective," Sergeant Johnston said.

"Once a person contravenes once, they'll contravene again. Once they contravene again it becomes an indictable offence and they can get sent to jail."

On the lowest end, most of them order the perpetrators to be of good behaviour around the aggrieved and any children involved.

On the highest, perpetrators can be ordered to have no contact, not post on social media about the aggrieved, not approach any schools, workplaces or homes. They can be ordered to stay between 50 and 100 metres away from the aggrieved, and are placed with a sort of "gag order" where they cannot speak a word of the aggrieved or the incident on social media or online.

But are the penalties enough?

Sergeant Johnston said although DVOs can be effective, the harsher penalties like imprisonment won't be much better.

"Locking them up isn't actually fixing the problem," she said.

"Unless there are educational processes in place across Queensland and Australia, they're not going to learn."

Sergeant Johnston said the end of domestic violence lies with education.

It's not only about seeking assistance for the victims - it's equally if not more important that perpetrators understand their faults and why the gravity of their actions.

"While it's great that we're helping the aggrieved, we're putting a bandaid on something - we're not healing the wound," she said.

"We need to be able to help the people who are perpetrating domestic violence, help them understand what's going wrong, help them get better education, take away the pressures that cause it or educate them about when it's about to go bad.

"There's no point putting bandaids on people's bruises, we need to stop them getting bruised."

That means placing perpetrators of domestic violence in a prison cell is not always the answer.

What we need to do

IT'S the high profile cases that prompt others to report incidents of domestic violence as victims begin to understand the many elements of domestic violence and recognise that they're in that position.

"It's not so much that domestic violence has gotten worse, it's just that people are starting to recognise what it is and they are reporting it, whereas before they didn't," Sergeant Johnston said.

"In the 80s and 90s it was all about husband hitting wife. Now it's more than that."

It's time we make domestic violence everyone's business, Sergeant Johnston believes.

It's about recognising the signs and symptoms, and being there for the victims with the support they require.

"The first thing to do is go and talk to somebody," Sergeant Johnston said.

"It'll help you clarify your thoughts, but choose that person wisely. You don't want someone who is going to tell you what to do, you want somebody who is going to listen and be there to help you and support you."

It takes an insurmountable amount of courage for a victim to leave an abusive relationship.

Sergeant Johnston's advice is to start the conversation - take the first step.

"It takes the average victim of domestic violence eight goes to leave, sometimes longer," she said.

"When it's a long-term relationship where there are kids involved and other family members involved, it's an entrenched relationship and if the domestic violence has gotten worse over time.

"You can always come to the police or we can do a police referral.

"There's always someone out there who will listen, whether it be a friend, family member or service provider, there is always someone who will listen.

"There are answers. Don't put yourself at risk, don't stay because of the kids, don't put the kids at risk."

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, do not hesitate to make contact with a professional or contact one or more of the following:

DV Connect Womensline: 1800 811 811

DV Connect Mensline: 1800 600 636

1800RESPECT: 1800 737 732

Sexual Assault Helpline: 1800 010 120

Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Domestic Violence Action Centre: 4642 1354

Sexual Assault Support Service (Toowoomba): 4616 6950

Queensland Indigenous Family Violence Legal Service: 1800 88 77 00

Dalby Crisis Support Association: 4669 8499

Safe Connections - Lifeline Darling Downs: 1300 991 443.

Domestic Violence Regional Service (South West): 4639 3605

Working Against Abuse Service (Roma, St George and Mitchell Courts): 4622 5230


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