Meet the phone counsellors on the front line of Australia's battle against domestic violence.
"Has he hit you?" the woman asks down the phone.
It's just after 10:00am in an open-plan office in inner-city Brisbane. It's a busy street full of cafes and high-rise apartment complexes but the building is non-descript: there is no signage on the front and the ABC has been asked not to reveal anything about the location. Inside, four wall-mounted television screens display CCTV footage from the front and back doors and the car park.
"So, he has hit you in the past?" the woman says. "There is a [domestic violence order]. Okay..."
On the phone, a staff member from DV Connect — the Queensland-wide crisis counselling and emergency accommodation service for people experiencing domestic violence — tries to ascertain just how much danger the caller on the other end of the line is in.
Demand out of control
By this point in 2015, six women, two unborn babies, one child and one man have died in Queensland as a result of domestic violence.
On this call, one of more than 200 the service will receive over the course of the day, the woman's answers will help determine a threat level. Provided her life is not in immediate danger, the worker will start ticking boxes on a form: 'client fears for own safety'; 'client fears for children's safety'; 'client is pregnant'. What has the client experienced? Threats to kill? Attempted strangulation? Every detail is recorded.
"She was right in the middle of nowhere, so isolated, and she was really, really frightened. The loose plan with her was that she was going to make like she was going shopping [then contact us] ... We never heard back."
Susan Stephenson, telephone counsellor
Today, about a dozen telephone operators are taking calls from across the state. At 10:39am, a screen hanging on a wall shows a total of 33 calls in the queue. By 11:08am, it's 46.
The service overwhelmingly deals with situations in which the victim is female and the perpetrator male.
"We allocate ,000 to ,000 a month for client costs," says Di Mangan, DV Connect's CEO, referring to the amount of money the service spends booking last-minute flights, securing motel rooms and stocking fridges when a woman needs to be removed from her home.
"We spent ,000 in January of 2014. It never went backwards. When we hit October, I gave up. I rang the Department [of Communities] and said: I cannot explain it, but it is beyond our control.
"Now, I am having to tell people who have been trained to take calls out of the queue, I am telling them not to take them if they can't."
The aim isn't to break up relationships. Rehabilitation is possible, Ms Mangan says, and while some men see court-issued domestic violence orders as a "challenge", others do respond to them.
But in the complex zone of intimate partner violence, the physical extraction of the victim is an important part of the process — and of DV Connect's work.
On the front lines of domestic violenceThis is the first article in a three-part series covering the experiences and perspectives of workers on the front line of Australia's fight against domestic violence.
"She was right in the middle of nowhere, so isolated, and she was really, really frightened," Susan Stephenson, one of the telephone counsellors, says of a woman she remembers trying to help.
The client lived with her partner on a remote property. Chartering a flight for her was a possibility; getting her onto the mail plane was another. She was a homicide waiting to happen, Ms Stephenson says, and no effort was too great to get her to safety.
"The loose plan with her was that she was going to make like she was going shopping," she says. The DV Connect team would then wait to hear from her about the next course of action. "We never heard back."
'I am a dead woman talking'
DV Connect helped 'Charley' escape her abusive partner and reach emergency accommodation. This is her story, in her own words.
I met him when I was living overseas. And then we decided to make a serious relationship, so I came [to Australia].
In August, I had him removed for picking up an axe and talking about wanting to decapitate me.
He would talk about acid and how in his country throwing acid in someone's face, for revenge, that's the way to do it. 'My love, I will never shoot you, I will always use a machete, because you're worthy of that.'
Machetes and knives are personal; acid will leave me scarred for life to [the point] where no-one would want to be with me.
I was raped by him, but it's his word [against mine]. I had detectives spend an hour and a half with me telling me all the reasons why filing a statement is not in my best interest. 'Am I ready for a trial? They are going to prosecute me on the stand - do I really want to go through that? Maybe I should get therapy.
It's his word against mine. There were no witnesses. There is no injury. Did I go to the doctor?' Because I was raped with an object. 'Well, why didn't you go?' [I did] eight hours of statements. They questioned him for about 60 minutes and said, 'He agrees to everything that you said. Everything that you said happened. But you consented.'
I attempted suicide. I couldn't handle knowing that I was raped.
When I got out, I had two police officers say to me, 'Why did you do that? He's not worth it.' It had nothing to do with him. It had to do with how completely cut off and hopeless and abandoned I felt.
He was removed at the end of August. I stayed in that home by myself for about six weeks and slept with a knife under my pillow, waiting for him. They said, 'Leave'. I said, 'I have nowhere to go'.
He was posting some horrific things on Facebook. I filed a breach and said, 'You've got to stop him from doing this.' They did question him, twice, at my insistence, and then didn't charge him. He denied that they were about me. They said they believe they are about me but they can't prove it. They were pictures of somebody with a knife behind their back saying, 'You betrayed me.'
He would joke with me and say, 'Give me a report, where were you last night?' if I went out with my girlfriends or something. It was done as a joke. But when I look at it now, it wasn't.
I talk to women who say, 'Oh, the first time a guy hits me, I'm out of there.' Well, it doesn't start that way. What happens is, he throws a tea kettle, or a microwave, across the room and intentionally misses me. So now I know the threat of his control is at any time he could lose it and I could receive the violence.
Spitting was his thing. He would look at me and go ... 'You're a piece of shit'. And I was appalled because I thought, 'How do I tell people this is how the guy I love talks to me?'
They put me in the women's refuge. It was actually through DV Connect. They helped me identify that I was vulnerable, that I was going to get through this, and that they were there for me 24/7.
I don't know what I would do if he showed up at my door. The first thing you do instinctively is you want to call the police. I don't have faith in the police here. My safety plan is not in their hands, it's in my hands.
Nothing will stop him. I'm a dead woman talking. But the alternative is to silence me.
When he says, 'You're a piece of shit' and 'You're lucky that I am with you', and I stay silent because I don't want to physically get hurt, that silence in that moment actually erodes who I am and builds that shame. Which then allows him to feed that shame cycle. So take that same theory: Now I am out of it, if I stay silent, I'm feeding that same shame.
Mark Walters is the coordinator of Mensline, DV Connect's male-oriented phone counselling line that occupies a corner of this office.
Mensline receives about 15 to 20 calls a day — "miniscule" compared to Womensline, Mr Walters says. Instead, the majority of the workers' time is spent on outbound calls to men who have been referred to the service by police or ambulance workers or other members of the community. Of all the men the service deals with, the vast majority have been identified as an aggressor in a family violence situation.
The telephone counsellors do enter into meaningful conversations, Mr Walters says, ones that will motivate the man to take the next step, whatever that is. But one of the skills the workers must develop is how to navigate what Mr Walters calls "victim mode".
"When guys drop into the victim mode, it's almost like a compensatory behaviour: behave badly, make someone else feel awful, because you are feeling like a victim," he says.
"They can acknowledge that their behaviour is bad around the house, but they feel, 'Look, I am justified because of what's going on at work, or what's happened in my past. I am a victim here'."
"Sometimes you can get a real cold sense, a real disengaged, almost like a psychopathic sense from somebody, and they are very strategic in what they are letting you know."
Mark Walters, coordinator of Mensline
Mr Walters says countering that victim stance involves teasing out the fact that, ultimately, everyone is responsible for their actions, regardless of their circumstances.
"You can acknowledge, 'Absolutely mate, it must have been awful growing up in a family like that. But what I've read is there is nothing really that reliably predicts the fact that you come home and you are really crazy with the family. And part of the reason I am saying that is, you can manage yourself at work OK, but when you come home, you just clock off, you go silly'."
At Womensline, the risk assessment that takes place is overt: how much danger are you in right now? At Mensline, that assessment is undertaken in a different way. So, you still home with the family, mate? How does that look? How many kids? What ages are they? Do you drink regularly, mate, every night?
"[It's] all built into the conversation but at the time I am thinking, how risky is this guy," Mr Walters says. "What do we need to feed back here?
"He's really belligerent, he's calling her effing whatever, not using her first name, 'the mother of my children', that sort of thing ... You are doing risk assessments all the time really, and how they are either reacting or responding is informing where you are going with that discussion."
Mr Walters, who has been at Mensline for about nine years, over two stints, used to work with children affected by drugs and alcohol in Kings Cross. He says some of the most unsettling experiences have been phone messages men have left anonymously for the service.
"Sometimes you can get a real cold sense, a real disengaged, almost like a psychopathic sense from somebody, and they are very strategic in what they are letting you know ... they are arms-lengthing you, and then you start to sense their agenda is about belittling services that help women, and [saying] 'what about men?'."
'He's going to kill me'
Telephone etiquette in this office is key.
Counsellors are advised to speak in a conversational way — and, importantly, not to type out the caller's responses to questions unless permission has been sought.
"She is pouring out her heart, and all she can hear is click click click," Ms Mangan says. "What does it say to her? It's sort of like 'get your story out, shut up, I need to get this done'."
Staff also need to know how to carefully extract information. In one instance, Ms Mangan took a call from a woman who said she needed somewhere to go.
"I said to her 'Are you experiencing domestic violence?' and she said 'No'," Ms Mangan remembers. "And I thought, she has rung the DV line, I better ask this question another way. And I said 'Can I ask you why you phoned?' and she said, 'He's going to kill me.'"
It is not just the numbers of calls that are rising, Ms Mangan says, but the depravity of the crimes being committed.
"You ask anyone — even talking to a member of my board who works in the area of child protection, he said they are finding the same thing," she says. "The complexity, the seriousness of the abuse. We are all seeing an increase in the severity of it."
"I said to her 'Are you experiencing domestic violence?' and she said 'No'.
And I thought, she has rung the DV line, I better ask this question another way.
And I said 'Can I ask you why you phoned?' and she said, 'He's going to kill me.'"
Di Mangan, DV Connect chief executive
She says the whole sector, both government and non-government, needs a "shake-up" — and that it should start with a change of attitude.
"The Government has to say, 'We are just not even going to tolerate it. That's our statement, now everything must emanate from that'. We haven't got that."
She says the actions of the perpetrator, "sitting in the armchair in the suburbs", remain difficult to disrupt.
"And we are all running around him — we are taking her out, she is the one getting mental health [support], the cops are saying, 'Listen, mate, [we] don't want to have to do it again'. But no-one is dragging him off in chains. The magistrates are not saying 'Not putting up with this'. At some point we have got to say: domestic violence costs the community .7 billion a year. At what point is the community going to say this is a waste of my taxpayer money? The taxpayer money is paying for the refuges, it's paying for the court time, it's paying for the hospitals, it's paying the funeral expenses when these women are murdered."
On the wall nearby, a large board lists all the women's refuges in Queensland, coded by number. These are the shelters women and their children are evacuated to if it is no longer safe for them to stay in their home.
A DV Connect staffer will attach a red dot to a refuge number when a referral has commenced, letting the other counsellors know which centres have incoming women. The board is updated throughout the day with availability: a bed for one woman here, enough room for a woman and one child there. On the day the ABC visits, most of the 30-odd shelters have "FULL" written in red ink in next to them.
"We are really lucky today," Ms Stephenson says. "It's usually all red."
If you’re in an abusive situation or know someone who is, call 1800 RESPECT. If it's an emergency, call triple-0. You can also call on 13 11 14 or contact the .
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