Two days in the court of family violence
By Melissa Howard
Everyone here in the waiting area of the family violence court division of the Magistrates Court is playing a game. It’s called Bad Guy or Victim?
Women are curled on chairs, glassy-eyed and stunned, their family and friends dozing beside them, while men pace up and down in righteous indignation, or sit texting furiously.
There are no separate floors for people who have been hurt and those who have done the hurting. I imagine that, sometimes, the lines aren’t so distinct. People who have been abused often become abusive. But while compassion is human, feeling sorry for violent men doesn’t get us anywhere. Many women have learnt that the hard way.
Whatever our divisions, within ourselves and with each other, we’re all united in this: the wait. No-one knows when they will be called to court to for the magistrate to determine if a Family Violence Order needs to be made. We are asked to set aside the whole day. There are no facilities for children and it is explicitly stated that you are not permitted to bring them. But a handful of small children crawl under the chairs or stare, slack-jawed, at iPhone screens.
There is a short sandy-haired man near the stairs with his phone. He is bristling with anger. It emanates from him—his jaw is tense and the muscles on his stocky arms bulge as he clenches and unclenches his fists. His face is crimson. He reminds me of a lover my mother had who once backed me up until my spine was pressed against the kitchen counter, his chest touching mine, his cold blue eyes locked on me, breathing heavily with unrestrained rage.
Perhaps I am projecting. Perhaps because this man looks so similar to a man I do not like I have subconsciously assigned him the same characteristics. But aggression is palpable. An angry person can change the air around them without saying a word or moving their bodies.
The sandy-haired man lowers the phone to his chest as a woman walks up to him, manila folders in her hands. She launches straight in. ‘Do you want her to be able to contact you about the kids? What about your house? Do you want her to access the kids?’
What—hang on. I’m baffled. He’s the protected person?
A social worker will tell me later that abusive men often claim that they are the victims, and will attempt to take family violence orders against their partners or former partners, clogging up an already clogged system.
Across from me, a bearded, leathered bikie with a kind, doughy face is comforting a woman with a jet-black ponytail. She is curled in agony on her chair, her face squashed against the arms like a child. I know that agony.
‘This time,’ the bearded man tells her, ‘This time, he cannot just say sorry and come back. This time is different.’
She doesn’t look so sure.
‘We can help you,’ he continues. ‘What do you need?’
She snorts. ‘A house and a job.’
‘You can stay with mum,’ he says. ‘She’ll get on your tits—you know she can be annoying—but you can stay there.’
She sniffs. ‘Yep.’
I catch his eye. I try to smile but that’s beyond me today. He looks at me warmly. So many pockets of gentleness here. I am starved of gentle touch. The only physicality in my life is the hungry pawing of my baby son at my breast. The smallest act of love from a man to a woman—him brushing her hair back where it is getting stuck in her streaming nose—catches my breath. ‘Before you know what kindness really is,’ wrote Naomi Shihab Nye, ‘you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment like salt in a weakened broth.’
I’m not sure what I am supposed to be doing. No-one has told me. Or perhaps they did and I wasn’t able to hear it. Yesterday the police told me to show up here today for the hearing for the temporary violence order. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘It’s not real violence.’ ‘Sounds like real violence to me,’ said the officer.
My bones hum with anxiety. I slept in snatches last night, lying rigid with fear and anxiety. My body coursed with adrenalin. Every noise was a threat. The unpacked boxes emphasised the emptiness of the house. At 3 am I became convinced he was on the roof. I was grateful for the distraction when my son woke for a breastfeed.
I look around the waiting area. There are perhaps 80 people, in a large circle space around the central stairs.
Is he here yet? My stomach is clenched. Could he do something here? Two days ago, such an idea would have been ridiculous. But the parameters of what is possible have been redefined—once again. I stand and edge up to the counter, looking around, scanning the faces of the crowd.
‘I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing,’ I confess.
The young woman behind the counter is stony-faced and uninterested. She has become hardened, already, by the daily turnover of violence and loss. She doesn’t look at me. ‘Sit down and the police will come and get you when they’re ready,’ she says in a bored voice.
I turn around and—of course—he is right there. I do not know who gets the bigger fright. I flinch and he flinches and I can see him calculating: how far away is he? Is he far enough? The police have placed a temporary order, meaning that he is not allowed with 200 metres of me. But the room isn’t even that big and he is instructed to attend.
The vulnerability in his face makes my heart ache. My sadness sits in my throat, like I have swallowed a heavy river-stone. I thought that love was stronger than demons. I was wrong. And I put all my chips down.
I believe that many women who love an angry man can see the damaged child inside him. I believe that many women see the shame in his eyes when the anger has passed and confuse it with remorse. I suspect that many women see bad behaviour as separate to the man; that it is a possession, an exception, an evil force that has nothing to do with the man they love, a force that he is also a victim of, or see him as two different people. The good one who they love, and the bad one. I believe many women are victims of our own malignant optimism, and of the bargains we make in our head to allow us to continue to hope.
Later I see him across the room, and the vulnerability has gone. Once again I feel my brain trying to put these two pieces together: this is one person, not two. I turn, scurry back to my corner and I wait. I should have brought a banana. Something to calm these jitters.
An elegant woman in her forties, with long lean legs in high, black heels, smooth caramel skin and a jangle of gold jewellery around her bony wrists and ankles, is barking into the phone. ‘I paid for all the furniture!’ she says. ‘I have the receipts to prove it!’
She has an energy younger than her face. Does love and violence make us all teenagers again? ‘To suggest that domestic violence goes on between normal folks’, writes psychologist Shari Schreiber, ‘is lunacy.’
A gruff man in a beige suit approaches her and she hangs up. ‘He’s approached me twice!’ she tells him. Who has? I look around. Which one?
‘Once he said, “Paula says hi!” That’s my daughter! He’s insinuating he’s seen my daughter. And the other time he said, “Can we say goodbye properly?” I don’t want him talking to my family! He’s trying to get them to get me to change my mind. Can you put it on there that he can’t?’
‘They’ll need their own orders,’ he says gruffly.
One of the other men here—a lawyer—is dressed in a way that could only be described as dapper: a blue suit, brown leather lace-up shoes, a pocket handkerchief and yellow diamond socks. His mannerisms are gentle. He radiates calm. I bet he does yoga. How is he here as a lawyer and not as a defendant?
Did his mum—we always blame the mum, don’t we?—cuddle him just enough? Not too much that they are enmeshed, and not too little that they become emotionally starved. At what point do the men appear here as respondents ? Ask any mother who is more sensitive—her son or her daughter—and she will nod, bemusedly, down at her son, his face buried into her tummy.
‘Girls are more emotionally intelligent,’ my friend, Alice, messaged me when I was complaining about my son’s meltdowns. ‘Boys are just more emotional.’
My breasts ache. They are filling with milk. I think of my baby son—a butterball of love and joy—and wonder at what point do these babies devolve into anger? Last month I twice took him to the gym creche. A long-haired, doe-eyed four-year-old was crying, silently, for his mum.
‘That’s enough, Toby,’ said the plump carer, rolling her eyes. ‘You’re okay. Stop crying. You’re okay. You’re a big boy.’ He set his little jaw and swallowed his tears. Already the world is teaching him that anger is okay, but not sadness. You’re okay.
The second time, when I returned, my face red and sweaty, my baby son was sitting on a seat by the door, stifling his tears. His face collapsed with relief when he saw me. ‘See?’ said the carer loudly. ‘You stopped crying, so mummy came back!’
She turned to me. ‘We try to get them to learn that if they cry you won’t be here, but if they stop crying you’ll come back.’
‘Door, mummy, door,’ said my son, frantically, pulling me towards the exit. ‘Car, mummy, car.’
Across from me a mousy girl in her late teens in a tracksuit is talking to her lawyer.
‘My dad is sick, see? He needs me. It’s just us two, see? He’s been sick for years. Diabetes, emphysema, lots of other shit, and I have to be able to see him. He needs me. I need them out of the house, see.’
She is cheery. I guess, for short time, the focus is on her, and I feel a wave of sadness for her. A sick dad—who is taking care of you?
The day limps on, the courts close for lunch—court hours are shorter than a working day—and I pace the streets and force myself to eat one rice-paper roll. Each mouthful is a victory.
When the court is almost closed for the day, the police lawyer comes to get me. I am relieved to be in a small room and to know that, for a few minutes, I will not need to worry about him walking past. She is calm and brisk, with shiny dark hair. She picks up some papers, scans them and adopts a stern expression. She looks me in the eye. ‘Did this happen to you?’
I nod. ‘Yes, it did.’
Her demeanour relaxes. ‘Okay.’ She scans the forms. ‘Two kids?’
‘Big gap, I know.’
‘Oh, it’s okay!’ She puts down the papers and smiles warmly at me.
‘I was so young,’ I say. ‘But sometimes I think I’d like more. Maybe one day, I think I could have more.’
‘Me too!’ she says. ‘Mine are 22 and 24. But I’d like to have more.’
I imagine her as a plucky 20-year-old, bringing up her two kids while training to be a lawyer and I feel a rush of warmth for her, for all single mothers who rise up through the fog of fatigue and the bone-aching sadness to achieve something vital.
She puts down the papers. ‘He has denied everything,’ she says.
My guts go hot and shaky and I think I am going to puke. After everything he calls me a liar? (Later, a kind officer will scoff and tell me, ‘Oh they all do that. Mostly just to make a point.’)
She explains all the terms, how far away he will need to keep from me, my new house. It’s all too much, and I can’t focus and my body is sore, and I start bawling.
‘Do you understand it all?’ she asks. ‘Are you okay with it all?’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘I understand it. But I’m not okay with it all. It’s shit. It’s so shit.’
‘Yeah, ‘ she agrees. ‘It’s shit.’
A knock on the door. She stands up. ‘It’s time to go.’
Then we are moving towards the court room and all that has happened and I’m so sad that I cannot bear it—after it all, it ends like this—and all the adrenalin has gone out of my body.
A year ago, my son was pulled from a slit in my belly, like a wet lamb from a sack, and I thought, I’m here now. Here is life. Here is that happy ending I knew I’d get eventually.
Two social workers from a support agency walk up to me, and the kindness in their eyes undoes me and I’m crying without any ability to hold it in. Then I am in the court—how did I get here?—and I’m sitting behind a partition and I can feel him sitting on the other side, although I cannot see him. Intimate time spent with someone gives you a hyperawareness of where they are in the world. The heart lingers long after the head has cut ties. The bonding to an unhealthy man—as many dead women could attest—is a killer.
The magistrate granted the temporary order. I do not remember walking out of the court room, or how I got the papers, how I got home. Did I catch the train or drive?
Brains are clever. If things are too awful they say fuck this and dissociate. Hearts, on the other hand, are dangerous, for they never give up hope.
A year ago, a friend lost his wife to a brain tumour. ‘When life takes these turns,’ he says, ‘you can forget about choosing the best option. There is no best option any more. Just shit options. Just choose the least shit one. You did that. You chose the least shit option.’
Months later I have to return. The process to protect women legally is a convoluted one.
When I rake my fingers through my hair, wads of it come away and long blonde hairs coat all the furniture. But the order has made it possible for me to hear my phone beep, or a car door slam without doubling up in anxiety, to start to envision a life.
Three times there have been odd errors made—kids assumed to be on the order, breeches not being followed up—due to information being passed around, and filtered through different government and non-government agencies, different police officers from different stations. It’s like an odd game of Chinese Whispers, with everyone I speak to warm and apologetic and frustrated by the messy, entangled system. I am humbled by the kindness everywhere.
We queue outside to get through the metal detectors. The air thick with cigarette smoke, and my friend Kim’s sewing kit is taken by the cheery guard. ‘It’s probably a good thing,’ she quips. ‘I might want to stab him with an embroidery needle if I see him.’
We hike up the stairs. The gentle burn in my legs feels good.
‘Geez, it makes you feel a bit rough, doesn’t it?’ says Kim as we arrive on the floor. She nods at the decor—grey and depressing and devoid of anything warm. ‘I mean, a couple of plants, a picture—fuck, something.’
All the seats are taken so we find a spot around the corner and sit on the floor. This time I am a veteran, not shaking and anxious, but prepared: a friend, a bunch of bananas, a nutella donut and a pen for writing. I eat the donut immediately and get covered in chocolatey goo.
In the loo, I wash my hands. A woman in her early fifties is waiting for a stall. She looks like the mum in Muriel’s Wedding. I can feel the anxiety and deep grief rolling off her. Her eyes are wild, but her body tense. ‘Is this your first time here?’ I ask. I want to hug her.
Her face hardens. ‘And the last,’ she says, setting her chin with determination. I wonder how many years she invested before it was enough. How many scary, dangerous nights she put up with hoping it would bring her one step closer to him getting better. She steps into the stall, and I into mine. We piss.
‘I remember I was so anxious I felt like I might implode,’ I say.
‘Yes!’ she says, from behind the wall. ‘I need a coffee, or something.’
‘This sounds weird,’ I say, ‘But I find that bananas really help.’
‘Of course,’ she says from the stall. ‘The potassium.’
‘Yeah. The potassium.’
I get back to the waiting area before she does. I point her out to Kim. ‘Look at her. I want to cuddle her.’
‘Why is no-one helping her?’ asks my friend.
‘It happens so fast,’ I say. ‘I was here 18 hours later. Your brain hasn’t caught up. I needed that time alone—without the kids!—to have a chance to process it. She may be the same. Or she might be too ashamed to tell anyone.’
‘She’s so old,’ says my friend. ‘You kind of think it’ll just be young scrags.’
‘You don’t expect it to be someone who looks like your mum.’
I fish out my bananas, and break one off and, feeling like an idiot, I walk over and hold it out to her. I’m so worried she’s going to refuse it and I’m going to have to back away carrying my fruit, but she takes it and grips it like a safety rope. She grabs my hand with the other and her grip is vice-like. ‘Thank you,’ she whispers.
She peels and then eats her banana, methodically, watching me the whole time. When she finishes, she folds the skin into a wedge, walks over to the bin and puts it in and on the way back she leans down and I reach up my arms and we hug, hard, and she bursts into tears. Her face is warm and moist and snuffly next to my neck. Now no-one here is alone.
This time we are first up. A different police lawyer comes to us this time. The rooms are all full, she apologises. ‘Do you mind if we talk out here?’
The lawyer is younger than us with a floral dress, wavy light brown hair and an open, trusting face. She is unblemished still. The weight of all of this hasn’t affected her yet. Not yet. But it will.
This time I am prepared for the blow.
‘He is still denying everything,’ she tells us.
Kim snorts. ‘Uh huh. He always did. Remember that time you had to call me because …’ I nod.
The lawyer explains that means despite physical evidence, it is, essentially, my word against his. New legislation rests the burden of proof more heavily on the victim. If I want the full order permanently placed we would need to come back to court. Lawyers would prepare cases, it could take a long time.
I cannot bear it. I have paced myself to make it this far. And it’s near impossible to arrange childcare for the baby for a whole day. I feel that I am keeping my head above water just enough to breathe and to hold the kids’ heads above water.
There is another option, she explains. ‘He has stuck by the conditions of the temporary FVO rigidly,’ says the lawyer. ‘So we think he’s a good contender for an undertaking.’
It’s a voluntary undertaking. Similar to the FVO—the conditions are the same—but it’s not enforceable by the police. If there are breeches, we must return to court. But it’s practically the same thing, right?
Months later my son and I are in the front garden when a police car rolls to a stop, along with my heart. Oh, god. Who is dead?
No-one is dead but two handsome police officers give me a pamphlet with numbers on it. ‘These are people who can help you,’ they say. ‘People who can guide you through the court and police processes.’
My son is thrilled by their car and points at it. ‘Car! Lights! Look! Car!’
‘But we are all done with court now,’ I say confused. ‘But it would have been super helpful then. I didn’t have a clue what was going on!’
Jesus, I can only imagine how hard, how impossible the family violence system is to navigate if English isn’t your first language, or you have mental health issues.
His face crumples with embarrassed, apologetic frustration. ‘It’s silly, I know,’ he says. ‘I’m sorry. They’ve closed our branch and your case came into a different branch, and there is a separate branch that deals with family violence stuff and communication is …’ He trails off, shaking his head.
This same sense pervades many people I come across during this process. An apologetic frustration: I’m so sorry that this is all I can offer you. Subtext: if it were up to me, up to common sense, it’d be better. But the kindness, always the kindness. (But I remember with shame telling a friend who works with young Koori women and her rolling her eyes. ‘Big surprise,’ she scoffed. ‘You’re white! I’ve had clients beaten close to death, and the cops did nothin. Nothin!’)
‘Why did you agree to the undertaking?’ asks the police officer, frowning.
‘It’s kinda the same thing?’ I say. ‘I couldn’t deal with going to court again.’
He shakes his head, frustrated. ‘Who told you that? It’s not the same thing. It’s not!’
But months earlier, in court, I agree and sign the undertaking. He has already signed it.
‘What a moment to share,’ I quip darkly. My throat closes up.
The lawyer’s face crumples with sympathy. She is way too sweet for this place. ‘I had a woman here last week,’ she says. ‘When I told her the date of the hearing she said, “That was going to be our wedding date!”’
We all sigh.
A family lawyer I know once referred to divorce as the field of broken dreams, but it’s not. It’s here, on this floor of the Magistrates Court in the family violence division. No-one holds tighter to dreams then women who love damaged men. The equation goes like this: If I love him enough, he will change and when he’s fixed, we will be fixed and we will be happy. If I hang in for long enough, give enough love, if I put enough coins into the pokie machine, the machine will beep and I will get my payout, my happily ever after.
This floor is the moment you realise you’ve been feeding coins into a broken machine, and you can’t fix anyone but yourself.
As we leave, a bunch of tall, high school students are riding the lifts, pissing everyone off. They crowd into our lift. ‘People are trying to work here,’ snaps one elegant, stern woman as she elbows through their throng and steps out of the lift. They all jeer as the doors close. The lift lurches down.
‘What are you looking for?’ I ask.
‘The interesting cases!’ says a tall Somali teenager. ‘You know—murders and bank robberies and shit.’
‘Try court 1,’ says a woman in a trim black suit, pushing the open button and wheeling out her small suitcase. ‘All the ones on this floor are just sad.’