Hearth of darkness

The killing of Julie Ramage put family violence on the public radar. Two years after her husband was sentenced to 11 years’ jail, Karen Kissane asks whether anything has changed.
SHE looks to be a strong young woman, with a confident walk.
But as she sits in Melbourne’s Magistrates Court she leans her face into her hand, her shoulders bent, closed in on herself.
When it comes time for her to give evidence, her voice is steady and deep, but in the silences while the magistrate considers, she draws shaky breaths.
Her former partner has threatened and assaulted her many times, she says, including once trying to strangle her.”
He has told me he’s going to get me, he’s going to kill me. I am watching my back all the time.”
She says pleadingly, “I can’t live like that!” Her former partner already had many breaches of intervention orders to his credit, so the magistrate does not hesitate to extend her order. Out of the witness box and back in her seat, the young woman weeps with relief as it is written out. Asked if she has any questions, she says: “So the next time I find cigarette butts on my balcony, I should ring the police instead of cleaning them up?” Magistrate Anne Goldsbrough answers: “Family violence is about power and control and making people feel frightened.”
She suggests the young woman get legal advice about applying for victim compensation, perhaps to pay for the locks on her home to be changed, or for counselling. She arranges for her to talk to a support worker about a safety plan, and suggests she contact her local police station’s family violence liaison officer.
As the supervising magistrate for family violence and family law for Victoria’s magistrates court system, Goldsbrough provides one-stop shopping for troubled families.
She tries to tread lightly among the powerful emotions and painful experiences that parade through her courtroom daily. Usually she does not read aloud the accusations written on the court forms in front of her. “There can be allegations of rapes, of a husband bashing his wife’s head against the fridge in front of the children, knives drawn, doors broken down.
That doesn’t need to be read out, once adopted in evidence.
This process is hard enough for people as it is.”
The issue that used to be swept under the carpet has hit the headlines of late, with claims of family violence now whizzing around the celebrity circuit.
Heather Mills, the estranged wife of Paul McCartney, says that he beat her and once stabbed her with a broken glass. Closer to home, Michelle Downes, a former wife of late racing-car driver Peter Brock, recently claimed that their marriage was marked by frequent beatings – and that they began on their honeymoon.
And next week it will be the second anniversary of the sentencing of Jamie Ramage, the Balwyn businessman who strangled his wife Julie on the familyroom floor. The case put family violence on the public radar in a new way, as a phenomenon that is not confined to an underclass but that also plays out behind neo-georgian facades in leafy suburbs.
Has anything changed since then?
Public awareness is higher; the United Nations organisation Unifem expects to sell up to 400,000 white ribbons for this year’s Men Say No to Violence Against Women campaign. The campaign began on Saturday with White Ribbon Day and will run for 16 days, finishing on December 10.
But, at first glance, police figures suggest the problem in Victoria is worse. Last year the number of assaults reported in homes was 11,259, a 29 per cent rise on the year before.
(The overall number of family violence reports was 29,162, an increase of 5 per cent). There was also a 72 per cent rise in intervention orders sought by police over family incidents (to 4523). Family violence incidents in which police laid charges rose 73 per cent (to 5185).
The Government and the Victorian Community Council Against Violence say the surge is not due to an explosion of violence in families but to a code of practice for police that was introduced in 2004. It is based on two principles: that offenders must be held accountable, and family members kept safe.
This has given more victims the confidence to complain, and given police the ability to intervene more effectively, says Candy Broad, who was last year appointed by Premier Steve Bracks to coordinate a whole of government approach to family violence.
She says there were political risks attached to beefing up the response: “It’s a doubleedged sword. Once you put the spotlight on it, reporting goes up, and then you’re asked, ‘So what are you doing about it?’ But it is important to put those increased reports into the context of a very large level of under-reporting. It’s estimated that only about 20 per cent is reported.”
The new code allows police to apply for an intervention order on a victim’s behalf, and police now initiate 50 per cent of intervention orders statewide.
Broad says: “This is in recognition of the fact that the women are frequently conflicted.
They just want the violence to stop and for the family to stay together.”
Police also have new powers to remove an offender from the family home and hold him in custody while they seek an intervention order. Women’s advocates had long criticised the injustice of a system that left some women and children no choice but to leave the home while the offender remained.
Women who were surveyed consistently said that they did not want to have to go to refuges with their children. So the Government’s commitment last year to an extra $35.1 million across several departments also included money for basic emergency accommodation for men forced to leave the family home.
Other measures include the trial of family-violence magistrates courts in Heidelberg and Ballarat – which can order men to attend counselling – and special family violence lists at Melbourne, Sunshine/ Werribee and Frankston courts.
A “common assessment tool” has been developed; a standard questionnaire that helps people such as police, doctors and teachers to make a call on whether individuals in a family are at risk.
There are still problems. At a recent luncheon organised to raise awareness of family violence, Julie Ramage’s family lawyer, Caroline Counsel, told Police Commissioner Christine Nixon that there are still failings in the force. Nixon acknowledged that change takes time.
After the luncheon, Counsel said she had a client whose former partner breached an intervention order to stay 100 metres away from her, coming “so close that there was not even a centimetre between his fist and her eye. He gave her a black eye.”
When the woman went to police, still wearing her bruises, she was discouraged from pursuing her complaint.
Counsel says: “They said to her, ‘Do you realise this will tie up your life for three months, and your life will not be your own?
You don’t really want to do it. He won’t do it again.’ And my client said to me, ‘Well, why did I bother with the intervention order?’” Others point to gaps in after-hours help and in longterm psychological support for women and children who have been traumatised. Researcher Debbie Kirkwood wrote a recent report called “Mind the Gap” that found that too often women trying to flee have nowhere to go because incidents are most likely to happen at night or on weekends, when normal refuges are not open to newcomers.
Sister Angela Reed is the coordinator of Mercy Care, one of only two after-hours emergency refuges in Melbourne. It runs on donations and volunteers.”
Women who come to us, less than 2 per cent return home,” she says. “Women who go to motels, 50 per cent return home.
That in itself is an argument that (putting women in motels after hours) is not an adequate response.”
Broad says that a crisis line is available to give advice to victims 24 hours, seven days.
Magistrate Goldsbrough often finds that both the woman and the man can be confused about what constitutes crossing the line. “Some defendants still assert that it’s a ‘family or private matter’ when brought to the court. There are women who don’t consider that threatening to kill the family pets if she leaves, or destroying property each time she tries to separate, can be considered family violence. There are mothers whose faces are pushed into cars at children’s contact time, who are spat on, threatened, and called highly offensive names in front of the children. And he will say, ‘But I didn’t touch the children!’ You explain to him that violence in front of the children is violence to them.”
In 2003-04, police recorded 25,577 children as “present” at family violence incidents in Victoria. In 1525 cases, it was the child who was the direct target.”
We now understand that if family violence occurs in the presence or the hearing of a child, it actually changes the way the child sees its safety,” Goldsbrough tells a father who has just been ordered not to be aggressive when visiting the home of his former wife and child. She suggests that he contact the Men’s Referral Service to help change his behaviour: “You can feel angry, but you can’t act angry,” she tells him. “Will you phone?” He shrugs his shoulders. “I don’t know.”
Karen Kissane is the author of Silent Death: The Killing of Julie Ramage.
· www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/cas
· www.unifem.org.au

First published in The Age.