Far from a private matter
Police stress that nothing changes until domestic violence victims decide they have had enough and make the offender accountable, writes Neil Ratley.
"I believed I could help him change, I could help him have a better life than where he came from. I loved him. So I just put up with it."
For Nikki (not her real name), those were the reasons she stayed in an abusive relationship for two years. It took almost getting beaten to death to get her out.
"It's easy to say go get help but sometimes trying to seek help is something that is going to get you a hiding. If you get caught, you are going to get bashed," she says down the telephone, a long way from Southland and from the destructive and potentially deadly relationship she was in.
Nikki is not alone.
Figures from police and Women's Refuge New Zealand show one in three New Zealand women experience psychological or physical abuse from their partners in their lifetime.
Police are called to about 200 domestic violence situations a day - that's one every seven minutes on average.
Of the 6000 protection order applications received each year, women made 90 per cent. Last year, there were nearly 90,000 family violence investigations by police, an estimated 20 per cent of the total number of all violent incidents.
In an office on the top floor of the Invercargill police station, family violence co-ordinator Detective Sergeant Ian McCambridge admits dealing with domestic violence is a challenge.
Crimes committed in the open or in the public domain have witnesses but family or domestic violence is behind closed doors, he says.
''On average, women are victims of domestic violence 18 times before they report it.''
But unless the offender is held to account, the same behaviour will continue, he says.
"Nothing changes until the victims decide they have had enough and make the offender accountable."
There are several reasons women choose to stay, McCambridge says.
The very real fear of getting abused if caught leaving or telling someone. Worrying where money will come from, concern about losing the kids, a loss of face in the extended family and community and admitting there is a failure in the relationship can all loom large.
Police are tackling the problem and strides have been made during recent years but there is still a long way to go to bring domestic violence out from behind the curtain of the home and into the consciousness of the public. Domestic violence is a crime and not a private matter.
Police have dedicated more resources to the problem that authorities describe as endemic in New Zealand. A team has been established in Invercargill to focus on domestic violence and the small unit is kept busy.
In Southland, police statistics show officers attended more than three domestic violence incidents a day. In 2012-13 there were 1124 domestic violence incidents and in 2011-12 there were 1344.
Most cases were in Invercargill but domestic violence is prevalent throughout the district. Police were called to incidents in Halfmoon Bay, Tapanui, Riversdale and Te Anau.
DDomestic violence almost always involves repeat victimisation, with attacks becoming more frequent and severe over time.
If police and other authorities can identify and stop the victimisation as soon as it starts, it follows that the number of incidents of abuse would come down, McCambridge explains.
Part of the challenge in his job is to co- ordinate prevention-first practices.
"If someone comes to the notice of police, we visit the family or the home and see what led to the incident and see what we can do," he says.
With early intervention, potential recidivist offenders can be directed to seek help. Often this can be through drug and alcohol programmes or help in finding a job.
Safety plans around the house are also an option and protective orders to remove the threat of abuse can be issued.
But the best way to confront domestic abuse is by holding the offender accountable, McCambridge says.
"If abuse goes unreported, the violence can escalate from pushing and shoving to much more severe actions and outcomes including dreadful beatings and death."
Fifty-two per cent of New Zealand homicides are domestic abuse related.
His observation mirrors what happened to Nikki during the two years she was in a violent relationship.
"In the beginning it was mainly when alcohol was involved. Drinking led to irrational behaviour, thinking stuff is happening when it's not and eventually a hiding. After a while he just got used to doing it, then it became normal.
"There was a lot of mental abuse that led to physical abuse, intimidation, control and jealousy. The physical abuse is just the end to the whole situation. Physical abuse was a weapon he used to back up the mental abuse as well. That's how I felt.
"I know it wasn't right and I was putting myself in harm's way. I am not dumb. But I still felt there was a chance he could stop or I could change him. I think that's the thinking behind some battered women's decisions to stay. Thinking the person can change, that they have potential, that you can give them a better life. In the end I couldn't change him and I was almost killed."
An emotional Nikki says she didn't end up walking out of the relationship but was carried out. She was left bloodied and broken after being assaulted with a belt, kicked and punched in the face multiple times. At least her partner called someone to help her, she recalls.
"He called up one of his friends to come pick me up and I got taken to the hospital.
"It's easy to say go get help but sometimes trying to seek help is something that is going to get you a hiding. If you get caught, you are going to get bashed. You have to time it right, plan things really strategically."
McCambridge, who worked with Nikki to get her in a safe environment, says police and other agencies are working hard to make sure domestic violence isn't kept locked away behind closed doors and that victims feel confident enough to come forward.
"It amazes me how many people are in unhappy relationships," he reflects. "If they are brave enough to take the first step, there are other options."
Police figures show the number of domestic violence cases investigated has risen during the past three years. A statistic the organisation says shows more people felt confidence in reporting domestic violence incidents.
However, agencies dealing with domestic violence have expressed concern about trends they are seeing in police practice towards not charging offenders and a greater reliance on the victim being the evidence provider.
Agencies say there were fewer prosecutions than in previous years and more diversions for serious domestic violence offences.
In the year to June 30, 2013, 89,947 family violence investigations were carried out. Of those 39,716 investigations resulted in one or more charges being laid. The agencies say they are concerned that despite levels of family violence remaining steady in their experience, police statistics say offences are falling.
TThe Invercargill Women's Refuge coordinator, Cathy Robertson, says the centre is as busy as it has ever been. "Years ago we were able to set our calendar for the busy periods. But it's not like that anymore, it's busy all the time."
Robertson says it may be the result of more victims of domestic violence coming forward. "In recent years we've found more victims speaking out," she says.
"People that have put up with it for years are finally asking for help. Through friends, other agencies or police."
After years of working with abused women, Robertson believes the message that it's not the victims fault is starting to get out there. "It needs to get out," she stresses. Many clients at the shelter had blamed themselves and there needed to be a change in the collective consciousness of all New Zealanders to put the blame squarely on the offender.
However, it still remains a huge challenge for women to leave an abuser. Usually confidence and self-esteem are so low it can make leaving appear too hard and too big to contemplate, Robertson says.
Domestic violence is not only physical. It can be sexual, emotional or psychological.
Robertson says a lot of people don't believe it is domestic violence if there are no bruises but the put- downs, mind games and other forms of psychological abuse often leave longer lasting scars.
"Many women I've dealt with have had broken bodies and bruises and they all say the same thing. 'Broken bones heal, the bruises disappear but the emotional and psychological damage takes a long time to go away.' "
New Zealand authorities and agencies may still be swimming against an unrelenting tide of domestic violence but sometimes the tide appears to shift. "I've been around for a while," Robertson admits.
"There are a lot of younger women coming in. I remember when some of these young women were sitting on their mothers' lap in here. They are speaking out earlier in their relationships and they've said I don't want to be in a relationship or living in the fear my mother did or we did as kids. That's really good. They have recognised that and they getting out earlier and asking for help. That is the message: it is OK to ask for help."
Nikki is far away from the relationship that almost killed her. The bruises and broken bones have healed but she is still living with the unseen scars of domestic violence.
"I'm dealing with the mental stuff that happened. I'm trying to break out of a mindset of being controlled. A lot of my confidence was taken away from me. I'm trying to rebuild that and see the brighter side of things. I'm trying to get out from under the black cloud I was under."
Call 111 in an emergency or contact your nearest police station.
Victim Support groups are located throughout the country - look in the White pages of your phone book.
Why doesn't she leave?
Here are 10 common reasons women choose to stay:
1. Leaving can be the most dangerous time
2. Lack of money
3. Nowhere to go
4. Fear of losing your children
5. A belief in family values
6. Not being believed
7. I still love him
8. Social isolation
9. Not wanting to be judged by others
10. Isn't being abused normal?
BY THE NUMBERS
Family Violence reports in Southland area:
Bluff 26 31
Gore 160 116
Halfmoon Bay 1 0
Invercargill 893 727
Lumsden 15 11
Mataura 48 58
Ohai 39 7
Otautau 15 19
Riversdale 9 5
Riverton 26 40
Tapanui 21 11
Te Anau 10 8
Tuatapere 13 15
Winton 36 47
Wyndham 32 29
The Southland Times