The scourge we are enabling – domestic and family violence, homelessness and mental health

This morning I read the government is forcing community legal centres to means test their clients, meaning if they earn over a certain amount or have assets over a certain amount, they can no longer get help from the community legal centre. People who owned a home with their abusive partner will be ineligible. People who are abused and their abusive partners have total financial control will not be able to get help. Clients of community legal centres are the ones leaving violent and abusive homes, the ones who are homeless, have lost jobs are the most vulnerable and at-risk in our community and now they can’t get the help they need. I was one of them.

The scourge we are enabling - domestic and family violence, homelessness and mental health

We have 2 women a week dying from family violence. We have police responding to a domestic situation on average every 2 minutes in this country. Most of their shifts are spent dealing with domestically violent situations. And how many more scenarios like this go unreported? I know I rarely said anything to anyone, let alone the police until my life was threatened.

It is already extremely difficult to leave an abusive situation or get help, even more if you are considered middle or upper class, now it will be even harder.

I have personally experienced domestic violence, divorce, homelessness, assault, rape, robbery and other horrific experiences that I desperately hope we as a society work to eliminate. I was extremely fortunate to have supportive family and friends but there were limits and legal fees keep mounting. It is now 2 years since my divorce was made final and over 3 years since I separated from my ex husband but I am still in and out of court over it. It feels like it will never end and it will cost more this year than previous years as well.

In March of 2012 I separated from my now ex husband. We owned a house and a car together. He worked, I blogged and had published a book, but didn’t earn much at this stage. I was dependent on him.

We stayed living under one roof as I could not afford to leave. He worked nights, I stayed out all day so we barely saw each other. I did not realize at this point the level of control or abuse in my relationship. It wasn’t until he nearly stabbed me and I left that I have looked back on our marriage, read over my diaries, conversations with my sisters via Facebook and emails that I have seen how much abuse there was before the worst of it and it started on our wedding night.

In October 2012, he realized we were never getting back together. It was at this point I had gained confidence and my blogs were getting more attention and I had speaking gigs at conferences and things were starting to go well for me.

He took a knife and went to kill himself in the backyard. I intervened, talked him down from that and we came inside. He then begged for another chance, which I refused politely and calmly. He grabbed the knife and swung at me. I broke free and called 000. The police finally came, 3 hours after I called for help. During that time I tried to keep him calm and said whatever I had to in order to keep him from getting angry.

The police took him away for a mental assessment at Nepean hospital then he was released to his mother where he stayed living. Over the coming weeks I found out he stalked me, sat out the front of the house, peered through my windows and caused numerous issues. When I found out we left the home.

Within a week of moving into my new home I was robbed of everything down to my underwear then raped in that home by someone I trusted within a few weeks.

With all of that happening in the space of 8 weeks, I had no mental capacity left to fight him. I sought help from a lawyer and was told I would be eligible for legal aid. I had no money as I was paying half the mortgage and private rent as well as speech therapy and other things for my daughters. I was maxed out. If I hadn’t been insured and gotten money from being robbed I could not have afforded the legal help.

As it turns out, I was not eligible for legal aid. I had an ‘asset’ – the house, which I could not sell and had no access too.

Within the coming months my ex husband breached the AVO, the house sat empty, he lost his job and I was paying the mortgage as well as private rent, on two homes at one point as we left the one I was robbed and raped in. We were couch surfing as it wasn’t safe to live in the home I owned and he knew where we lived and caused issues at the house I was renting.

I could not afford to pay a lawyer, yet because I had an asset I was not eligible for assistance and this is EXACTLY what the government is now doing to everyone in my situation. I found out later there were services no one told me about that could help and I had access to a community lawyer for a brief period through a womens centre in Penrith just before I moved to Canberra.

She helped me draft an agreement, which with a high standing member of the church my ex husband and I attended, we did a mediation session and my now ex husband signed allowing me to move to Canberra and a few other things without the expense of court.

Had I not had access to those few sessions where I was not asked about my income, instead they just helped me, I would still be in Sydney and to be honest, I would have killed myself by now. I was extremely close to suicide right before I got this help and met someone who changed my life and supported me through all this.

Those few free sessions enabled me to move to Canberra, start my life over, volunteer and help organisations, start my own company and give my daughters a stable life and the things they need. Without those few sessions I would have nothing,

And now the government is taking that away from everyone.

I have a private lawyer here in Canberra now. It is not cheap by any means but she is amazing and I do what I have to, work, save, sell stuff to pay the legal fees. I have been saving hard and am grateful I am in a position to do so.

During the time I left my husband I was exhausted, physically, emotionally and financially. I had nowhere to turn. I felt lost and helpless. I ended up homeless as an educated, middle class women. It can happen to anyone and excluding women like me from getting legal help will leave more and more people in abusive situations.

It will mean they are stuck, they will not get what they are entitled to financially, they will lose everything. Many don’t even know anything about the families finances. We will have more ending up homeless and lost, scared and depressed. I would not be surprised if the homeless and suicide rates increase because of this.

And it’s not all about me. I have two daughters now aged 6 and 7. They remember it all. It was in 2012/2013 and they are still struggling with things that happened.

I get asked regularly when we have to move again because we moved around so much. We are in a stable home now, but their experience has been one of moving and hiding.

I have had my 7 year old break down crying because she is scared when she grows up her husband will hit her and hurt her. She remembers and shares so much it scares me.

They have told other kids at school they were homeless and things their dad has done from their own memories. I never go into detail about things they have disclosed to me as I feel that is their life and their experience, their story to tell, not mine, should they ever choose to do so. I am also very careful not to discuss things in front of them.

But they have their memories. It is not just the women in abusive situations decisions like this hurt, it is the children, the whole family and society in general.

This year I will be speaking at the National Homelessness Summit on exactly this issue (among other things). My experience is sadly too common and it is how many families end up destitute, massively in debt and kids who have left abusive homes end up having to see their abusers because legal help is unaffordable.

I am where I am today because of the help I had access to. How can we expect anyone to overcome significant obstacles in their lives if we keep taking away the help they so desperately need?