Funded by the State Library of Western Australia, 16 Days, 16 Stories is a courageous new collection of stories presented in solidarity with survivors of domestic violence, recorded for the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign.

A survivor of violence and a lifelong advocate for women, Amber paints a stark picture of a system for survivors of violence lacking resources, nuance and education. Tackling domestic violence is everyone’s responsibility, and it starts with believing survivors.

Content Warning: Please be advised that the following story contains themes of family and domestic violence that some listeners may find distressing. If you have been impacted by family or domestic violence and are in need of support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service.

Photograph of Amber Williams

[Transcript]

My name is Amber Williams. I’m here to tell my story for the 16 days of activism. I work in a women’s refuge; have for the last 20 years. I have four adult children and a father who lives with me.

I escaped a relationship where my partner was abusive roughly 24 years ago. Left Queensland with the children because children’s services told me over there that if I didn’t, they’d take the children from my care. We went down to South Australia; they flew us down to South Australia, my ex-partner found us, so we came over to Western Australia; to Perth. Stayed in refuges for probably another six months, and eventually moved out into our own accommodation, and I was offered three hours’ gardening work at the refuge where I’d been staying. And it grew from there. I was offered more gardening hours, and the CEO offered to train me as a relief worker. Eventually I became team leader, then manager.

The work that refuge workers do, refuges themselves, are essential, so women have a safe place that they can go to. There’s workers there who can assist them to rebuild their lives and get back into the community.

Most of the clients who come in cannot return to where they’ve come from. It’s not safe for them to do that. That means the children are leaving their schools; the women are leaving the networks that they’ve made in those areas. Often, they can’t even communicate with their families, for various reasons, so they’re on their own apart from that support and those people they have in that refuge and it’s really important; that community.

Later on, they will find their own network. Build their own networks, and they won’t access the refuge quite as much. Probably. But it’s still good for them to know that they can go back there at any given time and talk to someone that they know and trust and receive the help that they need.

I don’t think there is enough support for refuges. I don’t think there’s enough funding, I don’t think there’s enough refuges, for starters. And refuges’ funding is really limited. So that now, they can’t…I wouldn’t have liked to be passed onto someone else. I can’t imagine what our clients feel like nowadays, being passed on to another service and another service. And maybe they’re not able to form relationships in the service they’re referred to. And that service probably has limited funding as well, limited capacity, so they’ll probably only work with them for a short amount of time as well. And in the scheme of things, even if they work with them for 12 months, 12 months is still a short period of time when a woman and children are recovering from abuse.

The impact on children is devastating in a lot of cases. Living in an abusive environment for children means that they learn maladaptive ways to cope with things in life, and this can affect them later on in their lives as well. Often, the relationship between mother and child in the abusive relationship has been undermined by the other parent anyway, and there may not have been, to begin with, a good bonding, between the mother and child. So, you’ll often find the relationships between mother and children aren’t… great.

We don’t have enough time within the system to allow true healing for mothers and children. There isn’t time, there isn’t the capacity, there is not enough children’s counselling services in the area… at all. We lack that. It’s a huge gap.

And… then the children suffer in the long run.

I think we need to educate… first, we need to educate mothers who are coming in. That even though the child – often mothers will say, “They never saw anything; they were always in the bedroom. I always made sure that when he was abusing me I took it outside.” But children know; children can tell. Even if they haven’t been home, they can tell, from the smashed furniture, or the broken things in the house. They can tell from Mum’s demeanour and her injuries. They can tell. And they can hear from the bedroom, often. And if they can hear, they’re experiencing it. They’re witnesses. There’s no such thing as a silent witness. They’ll try to intervene, if they’re there. My older daughter would take the little ones out; she would become a pseudo-adult, so she would parent them and take them outside when I was being abused. Which impacted her massively. She missed out on a large portion of her childhood because she was parenting her siblings.

Children will often not talk about what’s happening to them because they know Mum can’t take any more; they know Mum’s already going through a lot, so they won’t mention it to her. They won’t talk to her about what’s going on with them, because they don’t want to add to her load. But they’re walking around with a dark, grey cloud all of the time, some of these children.

It’s very damaging. And can lead to longer-term, serious mental health issues. And they don’t have a regular –what we’d call a regular childhood. They’re not happy children. They go to school and they’re worried about Mum. Or sometimes there’s school refusal. Not because they don’t want to go to school, but because they’re worried something will happen to Mum. And all of these sort of things that the mothers who say, “Oh, I always made sure that the child was never in the room, wasn’t around,” maybe those sort of things need to be drawn to her attention. That the child is doing this because they’re worried about you. Because they are aware.

There has to be a clear message; a really clear message that violence isn’t ok. It’s no use to say to a child, “You shouldn’t be violent, but here, play this violent game I bought you for Christmas. Don’t be violent, but here, watch this violent movie. It’s ok, it’s just a movie.”

Some women have grown up in an abusive household; their family of origin was abusive, so it’s become a way of life. So, for them, it’s normalised; it’s just everyday. And we need to support them and educate them that no, that isn’t normal, and it’s not ok. It’s physical and emotional abuse and that’s enough for them; they’re not going to take any more. But some –they say on average seven times; a woman leaves before she makes the final break, but it can be many more times. Because it’s a process. Because they’re not just leaving this person; they’re leaving the dream of happily ever after that we get brainwashed with, one person; and they’re leaving the known, and he’s often threatened to kill them if she leaves, or goes to DCP, she’s probably had a number of children; who’s going to want her now, and then there’s the worry of the single mother syndrome… there’s many reasons why women stay, and while they’ll put up with so much abuse.

On the whole, from my experience working with women, there’s a general distrust. There’s a distrust of police doing the right thing. There’s a distrust of the system in general.

From Family Court, all the way through. The justice system lets women and children down hugely.

And… that distrust is warranted at the end of the day when the woman does leave, particularly if they’ve left because of psychological and emotional abuse, and there’s no physical abuse, so there’s no evidence. So, what will happen, is a woman will come into refuge, and she thinks, “I’m not sure if I should be here; there’s other women who need this more than me,” and refuge workers will say, “No, you’ve suffered abuse, this is emotional and psychological abuse that he’s been putting you though, and it’s good that you’ve come in,” and the woman will start to wrap her head around the fact that yes, she has been abused by her partner, but then she’ll go to the courts, and even though the courts are giving lip service to emotional and psychological abuse, it’s still not taken as seriously because there’s no evidence of it. So, the women are getting that mixed message. They start to doubt themselves again. “Maybe I’m stupid; I’ve just gone through this for nothing, I’m not really abused, because the system says I’m not really abused. It’s not serious enough.” That happens a lot. Women learn not to trust the system.

We should all be focusing on domestic violence and educating ourselves and each other about domestic violence. Because if we’re all aware, then we can assist victims of domestic violence, and bring it into the awareness of everybody. But I don’t believe that women should be responsible for men’s abuse. I think men should take responsibility individually and collectively, and need to do it now. One of the main problems with abusive people is that they won’t take responsibility for what they’ve done. They’ll always blame the woman, or they’ll blame someone else.

My partner, when he cut my throat, said, “It’s your own fault; you moved forward when I swung the knife. If you hadn’t have moved forward you wouldn’t have got your throat cut.”

When he got picked up by the police and went to prison for drink driving, twice in one night, it was my fault. “It was your fault, because you didn’t shut the door of the car properly, and when I went ‘round the corner the door flung open and the police got me.”

They don’t take responsibility. And I think one of the main issues with getting them to take responsibility is if they truly take responsibility they have to admit that they’ve done these atrocious things, and it’s not just one atrocious thing; it’s many, many, many atrocious things. We all know that it’s really hard if we’ve done the wrong thing to admit we’ve done the wrong thing, apologise, make amends, and then try not to do that thing again. Because that’s what being sorry is really about.

So, if you’re an abusive person and you’ve got an entire history of doing the wrong thing to numerous people, it takes enormous courage, enormous courage, to take responsibility. And I just don’t think that abusive people can do that. It’s must easier just to say, “Nup, it’s your fault,” and just walk away and leave.

I think it’s been a patriarchal society for as long as society has been, and men don’t like to pass over any power. They like power and control. They’ve had it for many years. Women had to fight to get the vote. It used to be legal to flog your wife with a stick as long as it was no thicker than your thumb. Women couldn’t own property. This isn’t that long ago. And men, in general, cannot let go of that power. They struggle to let go of it. That’s what I think. And it just gets passed down from generation to generation. Because if little Johnny sees Daddy behaving like that, and this is why it’s still happening, he’s more than likely –not guaranteed, 100 per cent –he’s going to behave like that. Because he’s seen who has the power in the family; the power and control. And he doesn’t want to be like Mum, beaten and crying; he wants to be like, the strong person in the family. So, he’s going to role-model off Dad, and that’s really hard to get in there. And stop that from happening. Really hard.

We definitely do need to challenge the belief that someone, when someone we know is going through domestic violence, not to sit back and say, “It’s their problem.” Because its society’s problem. It’s our problem. It’s everybody’s problem. Everybody needs to challenge abusive people.

Copyright © 2019 Amber Williams

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by Amber Williams. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

Production by Rita Saggar and Claudia Mancini. Recording by Terri Bellem.

Photo by Claudia Mancini.

 


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