Domestic violence factsCheryl is like any other 19 year old student at the University of Queensland.

But her former life is an account of the living hell many children in Australia are currently enduring. For the first few years of her life Jack was a good step father.

They lived in Harvey Bay, Jack’s family owned a restaurant, he was a hard worker and every day he would pick a word from the thesaurus for his step daughter.

Soon a 3 year old Cheryl was using the word inquisitive in context. But when the family started struggling financially he began helping his friends to sell drugs, which eventually gravitated into producing it on the property and using it. This deteriorated his mental state and reflected badly on the family.

“There is one instance which sticks out in my mind starkly. I would’ve been about nine, my parents were having an argument and I watched my mum pull the stereo off the shelf, dad flipped out and punched her in the face,” Cheryl said. “It was like being an invisible person, watching him pick her up and throw her on the bed. She spat out something and she was curled up in a ball, hyperventilating. When I looked on the bed, I saw three teeth and blood everywhere,” Cheryl added.

In the case of domestic violence the police are always the first point of contact and it is their duty to respond every time.

Queensland police chief superintendent, Debbie Platz, says that police officers are given a six month training course to deal with domestic and family violence cases from the time they are recruited.

“If I get a complaint that an officer did not respond appropriately, we initiate an internal investigation on the officer and he is required to undergo training to avoid any such future occurrences,” she added.

But on the other hand Cheryl thinks the police are hesitant to attend domestic violence cases because they consider it as a private issue which has to be resolved behind closed doors. And in many cases, since they have to break up verbal feuds which result in a lot of paperwork, they are lazy.

“When I was 13, my parents split and my mother contacted the police asking for an escort because she wanted to get our belongings from the house. But they said that it was a domestic issue and the police had no part in it,” Cheryl recalled.

“That day when Jack got back home, he absolutely lost his mind. I called the police whilst he was attacking her and the police said that it’s not their issue. Jack pulled out his gun and held it to her head and I told the police this, as he was doing it. It took three hours before they even turned up. If that had been any other circumstances and I wasn’t there, my mother would’ve been dead.”

After a domestic violence case is reported the police can charge a perpetrator with a criminal offence or issue a temporary protection order to protect the victim until a final protection order is issued by the court. Domestic violence orders are intended to protect the victim from further incidents and the perpetrator can be charged with a criminal offence only if they breach an order.

But if there are any differences between a parenting order and a domestic violence order, the parenting order overrides the domestic violence order.

In Cheryl’s case this was a serious problem since the 16 year old had to meet a psychologist to prove that her step father previously abused her and that it was not her responsibility to make sure that her father does not abuse her or her siblings but he was granted joint custody anyway.

Dr. Molly Dragiewicz, a criminologist and an associate professor at the Queensland University, says that there is a lot of pressure on mothers to leave abusive partners to protect their children. But there are substantial barriers in doing so safely.

“One of these is the growing emphasis on imposing joint custody or maximizing contact with both parents post-divorce, regardless of family members’ wishes,” Dr. Dragiewicz said.

“The ideology of maximum contact is referred to as a friendly parent approach. The parent who is most likely to support contact with the other parent is designed as the friendly and superior parent. This has resulted in children being forced into ongoing contact or physical residence with their abuser in the very cases where joint custody is likely to be harmful or dangerous,” she said.

“Despite all of the research that shows domestic violence and child abuse are quite common, and are often the reason for divorce. Mothers are sometimes accused of gatekeeping or alienation when they assert a desire to limit contact with an abuser. Once allegations of alienation or gatekeeping are raised, reports of violence and abuse are often ignored or worse.

“Mothers who insist on protecting themselves or their children from abusers by resisting contact may lose custody to the abuser as a punishment for being an unfriendly parent.”

Angela Lynch, a community legal education lawyer at the Women’s legal service, advises women to contact them for any problems regarding parenting issues.

“The Women’s Legal service would argue that more priority and decision making needs to be given to parenting issues in domestic violence cases and the inconsistency in the police responses,” Ms. Lynch said.

After Cheryl’s mother left Jack, she and the kids moved in with Michael who was her high school sweetheart. Cheryl thinks that one of the reasons her mother rekindled her love with the commander in arms of a bikie gang was because he terrified her ex-husband, Jack.

If Jack was more abusive to the mother than the kids, Michael was the opposite. He was an angel around her mother but whenever she left, it was a living hell for the kids.

Initially he was a very nice person who took the kids on his motorbike and got Cheryl her first job.

But as time went by, he transformed into a sexually and psychologically abusive beast.

Michael liked a prostitute named Cheryl so he would dress Cheryl like her. Michael would decide who she spoke to, what she did, what music she listened to and what movies she watched. He took the locks off the doors in the house so if she was showering he would walk in, start laughing and then make inappropriate comments about her body.

“We lived in the bush, the temperatures at night got really cold. My five year old brother used to wet his bed. The worst thing Michael would do was, he would beat the absolute crap out of my brother when my mum wasn’t home and he would make him stand out in the cold naked till sunrise, for wetting the bed.”

Since Michael was home all the time and their mother worked full time, the kids didn’t tell her anything because they were terrified of him. But after two years of torture Cheryl’s mother found out herself.

As a consequence of this constant abuse from her parents, children at school and her boyfriends, Cheryl developed mental issues which led to self-harm and two suicide attempts.

“The reason I attempted suicide was because I felt that I was solely responsible for my family. I was the eldest kid and so my siblings were relying on me and I knew my mother was relying on me,” she said.

“Imagine all the things that are worrying you, this massive cyclone inside your head. As soon as I physically hurt myself, everything would stop and it would be quiet, almost like a way to calm my thoughts down. And a way to say, I’m hurting because I have a physical injury,” she said.

According to Michelle Dang, a community educator at Brisbane rape and incest survivors support group, when kids are put into a situation where there is a lot of trauma and a lot of stress, some act out and some internalize their stress. Particularly for young women, expression of their anger is not acceptable so they harm themselves to relieve some stress.

“It is our responsibility to educate them about the long term effects and the danger they are putting themselves in. We also highly emphasize community education to raise awareness about healthy and unhealthy relationships,” Ms. Dang said.

“Society constantly admonishes people in abusive relationships as weak, which is the last thing they are. The community has stereotyped a victim as a delicate woman who is weak and in need of protection. Abused people are possibly some of the strongest people I know. Because if you can make it through that, you can make it through anything,” she explained.

Today, Cheryl is a black belt in Taekwondo and a practicing Buddhist. Her family has moved far away from their abusers and although they are still battling with some issues, their life is no longer a living hell. But the surge in the number of domestic violence cases in Queensland is alarming.

The names of the victim and her abusers have been changed to protect her from any further incidents.