At first I really struggled to make meaningful contacts in Australia for my fellowship project. Most of my original contacts fell through. More discouraging were the many rejections I received as privacy and confidentiality restrictions limited my ability to directly observe services with children.
Child trauma. Child abuse. Surely there had to be some service that would let me observe! After conversations with social workers and random strangers on trains and buses, I was given a valuable lead that would shape my approach to my project here in Australia.
Unlike what I have experienced in the United States, I heard stories from different people about how connected child protection and domestic violence was here. After doing more research I discovered that the local domestic violence protection order proceedings were open to the public, so I planned to attend a local court’s domestic violence list day the very next day.
Bright and early on a Tuesday morning, I wandered into a local courthouse. Walking into court was not something unfamiliar to me. After spending more than a year in the domestic violence court system as a counselor and advocate, the Mongtomery County courthouse was like a second home. I would confidently walk into the courthouse in my four inch heels and try to help as many people as possible by working through protection order agreements, talking to lawyers, and offering counseling and support to survivors of domestic violence.
Now, here I was, in a completely different country walking into domestic violence court. Instead of four inch heels and business attire I wore leggings and boots. Instead of entering with confidence, I nervously walked into the courthouse, unsure of how the proceedings were going to go and unsure of what I would learn.
I entered the courtroom and scanned the room. There were neither sheriffs nor any security personnel, the Magistrate was seated on the bench, and the room was completely filled with people. I found a seat in the corner and started to watch the court process.
I learned so much about the structure and nature of the family violence system in urban areas of New South Wales by observing Campbelltown, Camden, and the Downing Centre local courts.
I learned that the protection order process is very much linked to the local police department. There is a law in New South Wales where if there is a charge of domestic violence there must be an accompanied protection order filed by the police on behalf of the victim(s). This results in the majority of protection order cases being led by the police, where the police is the acting party and therefore the police make decisions on how to proceed with the case and what sort of protection the victim needs. The structure of this process raised several interesting debates that I have encountered throughout my work helping DV victims including issues of victim empowerment and state paternalism.
I was also struck by the collaboration of different welfare services throughout the domestic violence legal intervention process. Several different parties provide input for each case: the police who are dealing with the criminal charges against the defendant, the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service (WDVCAS) who are there to advocate on behalf of female victims and also provide services to female defendants, the Duty Solicitor who is an attorney who provides free legal services to assist with more complicated cases that involve numerous other family law matters and cases with female defendants, the defendant’s attorney, department of corrections if the defendant is incarcerated, mental health services, and FaCS (family and community services)-a child protection agency.
Furthermore, the “mandatory” protection order provisions provide protection for not only the victim but also protection for anyone who the original protected person has a domestic relationship with. The mandatory provisions read as follows: (a) the defendant must not assault, molest, harass, threaten, or otherwise interfere with the protected person(s) or a person with whom the protected person(s) has/have a domestic relationship, (b) the defendant must not engage in any other conduct that intimidates the protected person(s) or a person with whom the protected person(s) has/have a domestic relationship, and (c) the defendant must not stalk the protected person(s) or a person with whom the protected person(s) has/have a domestic relationship. I appreciated seeing this as a mandatory provision because this can help prevent the abuser from continuing their abuse and control through intimidation and interference with the victim’s family, friends, and new partner.
Another provision that was new to me protects victims from contact with the alleged abuser if there are problems with alcohol or drugs: “the defendant must not approach the protected person(s) or any such premises or place at which the protected person(s) from time to time reside or work within twelve (12) hours of consuming intoxicating liquor or illicit drugs.”
As I observed a few different hearings, I learned that stalking, harassment, emotional abuse, or intimidation alone can be enough to warrant a protection order. I really appreciated this given my own experience with domestic violence and helping victims of domestic violence. A common theme for both clients that I have worked with in Pennsylvania and clients here in Australia is that emotional violence can be just as bad if not worse than physical violence. With this in mind I therefore do support some form of relief for the aspects of domestic violence that do not include direct physical violence.
After observing court for about an hour, court adjourned for morning tea. As the court room quickly cleared, I nervously walked over to a door that many of the women with purple folders had entered.
The sign “Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service” was taped to the outside of the door.
As I entered this room I approached one of the advocates and explained my fellowship and my project. I was completely unaware that I was about to start an incredible relationship with many of these amazing, hard-working women.
They welcomed me with open arms! On that first day, they showed me around the building, treated me to my first “Chinese-Australian” lunch, talked me through the protection order process and the nature of their services, explained several other services available to help families experiencing family violence, they gave me a pay-as-you-go phone with 20 prepaid minutes, and they invited me to continue to spend as much time with them as I needed.
I have learned so much with them in such a short amount of time! Every day that I spend with them they openly and honestly discuss different cases, their services, problems with different services, limitations that they have encountered, and the difficulty of working with victims of a type of abuse that is incredibly complicated.
I was surprised to learn that the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service, which is a service very similar to the Women’s Center where I volunteered as a counselor and as an advocate, is an organization where the advocates are not volunteers but are actually paid workers. I admire that the Australian government sponsors the WDVCAS and that the workers are employed to do advocacy work. I believe that it sends an important message that the government recognizes that domestic violence is an issue and that the government should help address this issue by providing necessary support services.
I also was happy to learn that there are a variety of different services available to help families through family violence, including: an organization that provides no-interest loans for women leaving domestic violence situations, a service that focuses on improving parenting capacity in order to work toward preventing child protection concerns, a program focused on providing in-home support and safety services for victims choosing to remain at home with their abuser, housing programs, counseling programs, aboriginal specialist programs, support groups, and more.
I enjoy spending my time learning more about the different cultures of family violence, different organization’s reactions to family violence, and the incredible services that the WDVCAS provide.
Within days of observing their work, I have even had the opportunity to directly help by providing emotional support to domestic violence survivors as they wait for hearings in the safe room and as they are in court struggling to remain composed during the hearing.
Even though I have traveled to many different courtrooms and have talked to many different organizations and services since my first day in Campbelltown court, I always look forward to my time with the WDVCAS in the Campbelltown area. I continue to excitedly make the one and a half hour train trip to the small town of Campbelltown at least once a week.
Looking back, I never would have guessed when entering the WDVCAS room that first Tuesday that I would be meeting a new family. It really is the little things about this trip that are the most special to me! Little moments of kindness or gestures that show me how beautiful people are. Even the simplest action can make a difference and I really do appreciate all of the little things that these special people have done for me: A word of encouragement, treating me to lunch, offering to drive me to the train station, bringing me a unique Australian candy, or even taking the time out of their busy days to get to know me and discuss intimate aspects of their work and their lives. The outpouring of support from these women at the WDVCAS has been incredible. As they have accurately stated, they have become my “Campbelltown mothers” and a family away from home. 🙂