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The scandal behind locked doors

Forget street gangs, drive-by shootings, drug cartels, hitmen and bikies, the greatest threat to individual safety is from someone you know.

Thirty-one women have died due to family violence in Australia this year and that figure will soon be out of date.

(Yes men are victims too but let’s just stick with the main game. It is women and children who are at the greatest risk.)

On July 14, police found the body of Elaine Pandilovski at her Mill Park home. Two days later, as her estranged husband Zoran Pandilovski appeared in court charged with her murder, police were called to an incident in Gladstone Park.

They arrived at John Coutts Reserve to find Gabriel Messo stabbing his mother Lilla repeatedly in the face. They shot him dead.

For every one of these tragedies that make the headlines there are thousands of cases that don’t.

Tullamarine mother Lilla Messo, 54.

Tullamarine mother Lilla Messo, 54. Credit:Facebook

It is the epidemic no one really understands. This is a society that has been trying to move towards less gender bias and a country with one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

And yet police deal with a family violence victim every six minutes and more than 50 per cent of police time is devoted to this plague.

We are being told, advised and urged to stay at home to protect our health. But what if our homes aren’t safe havens? What if they are our own private prisons?

Since April police have run Operation Ribbon – to check on the welfare of families who have been identified as at risk.

The figures make grim reading. Police have dealt with 9000 affected family members and 3700 potential offenders.

They have laid 4000 charges, remanded 455 people in custody, bailed 205 and charged a further 175 on summons.

“Tragically, that is business as usual,” says McWhirter.

During the first lockdown police did not see the anticipated dramatic spike in reported family violence, although the figure started to rise toward the period’s end.

The key word here is “reported”. The logical conclusion is many of the victims, effectively locked in their homes, were in no position to report anything.

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“In lockdown there is a greater capacity to engage in controlling and coercive behaviour and victims have less opportunity to report,” says McWhirter. “In isolation, victims can be made to feel worthless.”

Victims who may have confided in friends are now in no position to reach out. Controlling partners who would at least leave the house for a myriad of reasons are a full-time presence.

Computers and mobile phones can be controlled inside the home, leaving some in suburban servitude.

Traditionally police would attend a call and make an on-the-spot assessment then fill out a family violence assessment report (known as an L17 after the form number). This relied on attending police – some who would see a minor spat while others saw something more sinister.

And so police in conjunction with Swinburne University developed a 39-question checklist designed to provide risk indicators. These include previous threats, histories of violence, recent or planned separation, threats to harm pets, recent pregnancy or birth and children exposed to harm.

It is, of course, not foolproof. “You can never predict human behaviour. No risk assessment will work perfectly,” says McWhirter.

A score above four means the case is sent to detectives at the Family Violence Unit. There are 31 such units around the state, staffed by over 200 detectives.

Some of the cases they deal with are horror movie stuff. Offenders stalking victims for years, women tortured in homes, tracking devices hidden in cars, spyware loaded onto computers and men using night vision goggles to spy on ex-partners.

I spent a little time out at the Croydon unit a year or so ago and some of their cases would have ended in murder without police intervention.

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One victim was stalked for 11 years – it only abated when her tormentor was in jail or psychiatric hospital.

It reads like a Hitchcock script: A relationship breaks down and when she starts dating, her ex-partner breaks into her house and sends her photos. Later he takes photos inside her new boyfriend’s home. When she visits a friend he sends photos standing outside with a gun.

Police find he has hacked her computer and created a false identity to talk to her through a dating site.

The FVUs save lives, there is no question, but it is the cases that don’t reach government agencies that are the greatest concern. You can’t fix what you can’t see.

“The real worry for us is what we don’t know.” says McWhirter.

In a three-month pandemic survey, the Australian Institute of Criminology found 11.6 per cent of women who responded experienced emotionally abusive, harassing or controlling behaviour and nearly five per cent “experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former cohabiting partner”.

It also stated: “The majority of women experiencing violence and abuse within their relationships do not engage with police or government or non-government agencies – particularly while they remain in a relationship with their abuser.”

We have all seen the terrible murder stories of victims whose circumstances were well known to police. But Dean McWhirter says in up to 70 per cent of family violence homicides the victim was not known to police.

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This supports the view that most victims are too frightened or powerless to seek help. The terrible truth is it is when victims try to break the cycle and escape that they are at their most vulnerable.

So why are we finding so many cases now? The police view is while it remains an under-reported crime, more people are coming forward than ever before.

A few generations ago when we were supposedly a white-bread, peaceful society of Sunday roasts, dad driving the Holden and stay-at-home mums, the violence was always there behind closed suburban doors.

Back then divorce was a rarity and single-parent homes an oddity. There was a family in our neighbourhood – mum at home, dad on the tools and the kids at the local school. It was only years later I found she lived her life in quiet desperation with a violent husband she hated, preferring the hell she knew to the street she didn’t.

Her final victory was to outlive him.

Logic suggests the lockdown – with increased stress from unemployment, the lack of the safety valve to remove yourself from a volatile situation, increased alcohol consumption and limited opportunities to seek external help – will lead to an increase in family violence.

When the lockdown ends and victims try to take back their lives, they will be at increased risk.

McWhirter says there will be a disturbing number of children subjected to family violence for the first time, both directly and as observers: “We are concerned about the children who are subjected to this and the downstream effect in three, five or seven years.”

Royal commissions and coronial inquests have exposed fatal flaws in the system where victims’ calls for help have been ignored, offenders have repeatedly breached court orders or the emergency response has come too late.

Hundreds of millions have been spent to address many issues. All police, from recruits to superintendents, have been retrained and a family violence education centre has been set up at the police academy and victim-centred sites established to help. Safe Steps is a 24-hour crisis service that can provide physical help, advice and emergency accommodation.

But now many victims can’t make that discreet call. How do you escape a home when you have only one of four reasons to leave the house? Even routine visits to the doctor – often the first step for a victim to seek help – have been replaced with tele-consultations.

Some police say authorities have to adapt and create a visible pandemic presence. They want police booths in shopping centres and information hubs on combating family violence in supermarkets.

During the lockdown it is easy to become physically and emotionally isolated. We don’t talk to as many people, don’t see workmates and withdraw into ourselves.

Maybe it is the non-victims of family violence who need to step up. Maybe we need to understand this is not an issue for them but for us. It is ingrained in us not to meddle in other’s lives but sometimes we need to intervene. Why would we run to stop a bashing in a street yet routinely ignore violence over the back fence?

It is Dean McWhirter’s message to us all. “We encourage third-party reporting. It is OK to report on someone’s behalf if it is safe for you and safe for them.

“If you are concerned keep in contact with the people you know including family members, friends and work colleagues.”

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