ABC: A new bushfire crisis is emerging as experts brace for an imminent surge in domestic violence

February 24, 2020 |

By Hayley Gleeson

Like thousands of other Victorians, Judy* lost just about everything when, on Black Saturday in February 2009, an out-of-control bushfire tore through Marysville, the pretty Yarra Valley village where she and her then-husband had been living a quiet life.

Save for a couple of buildings, including the local bakery, the whole town was "wiped out", she said. Hundreds of homes, including Judy's, were razed, dozens of residents — her neighbours, colleagues, friends — were killed.

"We lost everything that day," she told ABC News. "The only thing we got out of the house was the dog. Everything else was gone."

But for Judy the crisis was only the beginning of another: within weeks her husband's domestic abuse had escalated sharply, she said, with his angry outbursts and controlling behaviours suddenly more fierce and unpredictable than she'd ever known them to be.

"He didn't physically attack me," she said, "but he'd scream and shout and break things around me. One time, as I huddled inside, he rampaged around the house we were staying in, just screaming and yelling and throwing things.

"There were many other frightening episodes just like it … and they were escalating to the point where I seriously feared for my life. I just thought, because he was so out of control, one of these days he is going to end up killing me."

New surge in domestic violence cases

For years experts have been studying the links between natural disasters and violence, with evidence suggesting events like earthquakes, hurricanes and bushfires can unmask or exacerbate domestic abuse, particularly against women, as a result of factors like trauma, financial hardship, unemployment and drug and alcohol use.

In Australia, research conducted after Black Saturday in 2009 found there had been a reported increase in domestic abuse in bushfire-affected communities, with some women disclosing the crisis had triggered violence including in male partners who'd never before been abusive.

Meanwhile a study by Melbourne University published last month shows women who were living in regions more severely affected by the 2009 fires experienced higher levels of violence than those in less severely affected areas.

Now there are fears the same patterns may be playing out again. Safe Steps, Victoria's 24-hour family violence support service, says it has been fielding calls from women reporting abuse in bushfire-affected regions, while lawyers are bracing for impact, rallying resources, ahead of an anticipated spike in violence in the wake of this summer's devastating fire season.

It comes following reports of an uptick in assaults in NSW, with domestic violence agencies concerned about a lack of crisis accommodation for survivors, particularly in remote areas.

Serina McDuff, the chief executive of the Federation of Community Legal Centres Victoria, said legal centres in the state's fire-ravaged east were "readying for a rise" in family violence matters, with staff already responding to cases where perpetrators had inadvertently come into contact with victims in evacuation hubs, sometimes in breach of intervention orders.

"In areas that were evacuated, whole communities had to come together, and issues have also arisen where people have had to go to each other's houses, even if an intervention order says they shouldn't," Ms McDuff told ABC News.

"From a legal perspective, that is a breach of the intervention order. But it has also been a safety risk in some situations."

Women's Legal Service Victoria is also gearing up for an expected surge in East Gippsland by boosting resources to its Link virtual outreach program, which was established in response to the uptick in family violence after the Black Saturday fires in 2009.

The program provides women in regional communities with legal advice, as well as financial counselling and social work support, via video consultations with frontline partner organisations.

"We know from experience that disasters exacerbate family violence situations and women are often at higher risk during the stressful recovery time following a bushfire," said Elisa Whittaker, who manages the service.

'I hope there is a bushfire tomorrow and I hope you die in it'

That lawyers are on high alert is not surprising given the lessons learnt a decade ago, with some warning the impacts could be felt for years.

"Even though they can see how huge the crisis is, some people think it's all very short-term, that a couple of weeks later it's over and people can just rebuild their lives," said Michael Smith, the chief executive of Eastern Community Legal Centre, which services areas that were badly hit by the 2009 fires.

"In the short term, families might bond and work well together, but after months and years … relationships can become more difficult and people can respond to the stress of it in different ways, and unfortunately sometimes that includes with family violence."

The causes, of course, can be complex. Debra Parkinson, a research fellow with the Monash University Disaster Resilience Initiative who studied the reported increase in domestic violence after Black Saturday, said bushfires can shut down support services and other crucial infrastructure in communities, putting huge pressure on families.

"On a practical level it's things like people having lost their homes, having to live in cramped, temporary accommodation, unemployment, a lack of childcare, roads being closed … disruption to people's routines — all these things can increase tension," Dr Parkinson told ABC News.

"There is also often increased drug and alcohol use by both men and women," she added, which can spark or exacerbate violence.

As part of her research Dr Parkinson and her colleague conducted in-depth interviews with 30 women and 47 workers from local health services, government agencies and recovery authorities in Victorian communities affected by the 2009 fires.

While some women reported a sharp escalation in family violence, several said they had previously been in "settled and happy" relationships and that the fires had triggered new, violent behaviours in their partner.

In many cases the violence seemed to erupt as a direct response to the crisis. One domestic violence helpline worker, for instance, was reportedly still "haunted" by the memory of a call she received the night before Black Saturday, from a woman who had planned to evacuate early.

But after "abusing her", the worker said, "her partner took the keys to the car and said, 'I hope there is a bushfire tomorrow and I hope you die in it.' And then he took the car and left. She had no other plan for getting away."

Men's anger 'more acceptable than tears'

Dr Parkinson also examined how gender norms, particularly stereotypes of masculinity, may have shaped the dynamics of domestic abuse.

Men's feelings of a loss of control or sense of failure to defend and protect their community, for instance, may have triggered complex emotions like inadequacy and shame, which is linked with some men's use of violence.

Other men, she found, seemed to be struggling under the pressure of their own — and the community's — expectations that they, as men, should be able to cope with the trauma, to carry on afterwards unfazed.

One psychologist, she said, told her about a female client who reportedly said "she wanted a man who would protect her in the fires or die attempting to".

"One after another the men gave us stories that amounted to, 'anger was more acceptable than tears,'" she said. "It was alright if they punched a hole in the wall … but if they cried, it would suggest this guy is really not coping.

"One man told us that he was so fractured after the fires that he would go into work at a firefighting organisation and just put on this solid, unhappy face and grunt at people so they wouldn't talk to him. He said that was the only way he could get through the day — he didn't want to cry."

At the same time, Dr Parkinson said, there was also "enormous pressure" from friends, family and police to "deny or forgive" men's violence, which she described as a "silencing of women".

Some survivors, she said, spoke of seeking help from health professionals, only to be accused of overreacting, or not cutting men enough slack given what they'd been through, how "heroic" some had been.

"What really surprised me was even trauma counsellors were doing this," Dr Parkinson said. "One woman said she had been throttled by her husband … he'd dropped her and she broke her kneecap on the tiles. And when she was telling that story to a trauma counsellor, the counsellor said, 'You know, compared to other people, you're doing alright here.'

"It just struck me that this post disaster period had taken us way back to a time when domestic violence was not considered something we needed to take seriously."

'His feelings of control were threatened'

It took Judy years to articulate what was happening in her relationship, she said, to recognise her husband's treatment of her as abuse.

The first sign things had shifted after Black Saturday, she said, was that her husband became emotionally withdrawn.

"I would have thought that when you've been through something so terrifying you'd be glad to be together, but it was the exact opposite," she said.

"He became increasingly angry about what had happened, about the things that had been destroyed, and that anger was turned against me.

"Thinking through it now, the core of abuse is to do with power and control over another person, and when this monster of a bushfire came through, I think his feelings of control were threatened. He had no control, he'd lost all of his possessions, but the one thing he thought he could control was me, and our relationship."

Still, she kept trying to explain away his behaviour, she said, telling herself it was connected to the stress they were under, that things would change.

"Initially there was a feeling that all the other stuff happening was so much bigger — trying to cope with settling into a new place, getting what you needed to live … there were a number of things that drew my focus away from the intensity of what was happening."

But his violence continued escalating, she said, and eventually, a couple of years later, she felt she had exhausted her "capacity" to cope, and left him.

"The thought that you leave and everything suddenly starts to get better? That doesn't really happen. It caused a whole range of additional problems: he was stalking me for a while, and I became very secretive about where I was living. I moved probably six times before I finally settled."

And the financial burden of leaving, she said, was "enormous". "I still had the same job, the same income, but suddenly I had to find rental money, furniture, a washing machine and fridge. I sort of drifted around a bit … because I found it very hard to find affordable accommodation.

"It was irksome, too, because of the thought he was sitting back there in our home, comfortable and with everything he needed around him, and there I was, struggling just to survive."

'It feels different this time'

There are signs, though, that things might be different this time around.

In Gippsland, where just weeks ago massive blazes burned through hundreds of thousands of hectares, bright green shoots on blackened tree trunks are bringing relief and hope to locals as recovery efforts get underway.

It is "understandable" that family violence may not be top of mind right now, given all the other issues people are dealing with, Serina McDuff said.

"But we don't want the issue to get lost. Even if it's not being seen by services just yet, it absolutely will be soon and it will be for a long period of time."

To that end, Debra Parkinson, who's preparing to deliver family violence training to recovery support workers, said she's been encouraged by what she feels is a "shift" in how communities are responding.

Even firefighters, she said, are reporting a greater willingness among men on the frontlines to talk about how traumatised and "thrown" they're feeling.

"Back in 2009, when we first started to say there had been an increase in domestic violence, we were accused of trying to harm vulnerable communities — you know, who were we to be saying things like that, about these men, these heroes in the community? But that's not the case now," she said.

"It feels different this time. People and authorities seem more prepared to accept the fact that we are expecting an increase in family violence, that we need to adjust our expectations of men and women … which is important."

And the sooner survivors can seek help and support for abuse, Judy said, the better. "I wish I'd realised a lot sooner the severity of what I was going through," she said.

"I wish I'd valued who I was as a woman, as a human being, in a relationship that meant a great deal to me. I've spent years rebuilding my life, and I've been able to restore my sense of who I am as a person, but it had been beaten out of me, in a sense.

"Living in fear every day of your life is a terrible place to be, so it's important that women can safely leave and find a place where they can restore who they are."

*The names of survivors have been changed for safety and legal reasons.

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