Behind the white picket fence…

NZPA | Fri June 1st, 2018

A police officer shares her personal story of growing up in the eye of a storm of family violence and how that has informed her work as a member of Police.

Family harmIn a white, middle-class home in a suburban part of a big New Zealand city, two sisters endured years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their father.

“Keep your voices down from the neighbours” was a phrase they heard constantly as they stifled their cries and tried to carry on as if everything was all right.

Somehow, it seemed worse that, on the face of it, their childhood was relatively privileged.

Now in her mid-30s, the girl who grew up to be a police officer recalls: “We lived in a nice, modern suburb, received a good education and went to extracurricular activities like sport, music and dance. Both our parents worked and we were well looked after.”

From the outside, they were a typical family, but behind closed doors, she says, the two sisters were exposed to physical, mental and emotional harm and witnessed serious violence towards their mother at the hands of their father.

They were punched, kicked, pinched, choked and had objects thrown at them.

She doesn’t remember the first attack, but her mother has told her it started when she was a toddler who had interrupted her father while he was concentrating on a task.

She does recall many other incidents, including being thrown down the stairs when she was eight, she and her sister being placed on a stovetop element to frighten them and her foot being fractured when it was deliberately stomped on when she was 12.

She sees the old injury daily.

It’s a painful reminder of not only the physical assaults, but also a litany of degrading name-calling, threats and terror-filled rides in the family car, driven recklessly to frighten them.

She reflects now on how far she has come in dealing with the trauma that she unconsciously suppressed for many years, even though the effects of living in “flight or fight” mode for nearly 19 years had already taken a toll.

“I was anxious from a very young age, self-harmed and had no confidence. I was an angry teenager who struggled with food and social interactions.

“My mother didn’t do anything to remove us from the situation. I admit that over the years I have blamed her, but I remind myself that, like so many women, she was trapped, told she wouldn’t cope without him and taunted with having no money.”

Stigma of family violence

There was a lot of stigma attached to family violence, she says. It wasn’t talked about and when she did report it to police, the wider family wouldn’t believe it and turned a blind eye, she recalls.

She did at one stage give evidence in court against her father after her complaint to police was followed up. Bizarrely (and it wouldn’t happen now, she says), her father was representing himself and cross-examined her. “The judge, who saw the situation for what it was, stopped the proceedings.”

Her memory of what happened next is hazy, but the two sisters, who were teenagers at the time, were temporarily taken from the family home by Child, Youth and Family.

The court case was an experience she had all but blotted out and it wasn’t till she stepped into a witness box as a police officer that it returned in a haunting way.

“I couldn’t understand why I felt so fearful. I couldn’t speak loud enough and was constantly being told to raise my voice. Now that I know why that happened, I no longer fear giving evidence or cross-examination.”

Fortunately, she says, she has not experienced family violence since leaving home, but she has learnt about the harm it can cause, not just psychological distress but also physical symptoms, such as recurring illnesses, chronic illness, irritable bowel conditions, depression and anxiety.

Her decision to join Police, a dream she’d had since a young age, was bolstered by a strong sense of right and wrong and “wanting to do the right thing”. As she grew older, she says, she knew she wanted to be a police officer to help victims of child abuse and family harm.

In the early days when she attended so-called “domestics”, she was often left feeling frustrated “if the female party played down what had happened or didn’t want us to arrest her partner, or would later become uncooperative during the court process”.

Later, she encountered child abuse situations that triggered more memories and reactions.

“It doesn’t affect my ability to attend traumatic events, it actually helps. I have an intimate understanding of how family harm and crime can affect people. It makes me a better police officer with empathy and understanding to know how someone may be feeling.

“Just because you’re high functioning and appear outwardly normal doesn’t mean you’re not struggling with confidence issues, anxiety and depression or even post-traumatic stress.”

She knows that the few interactions she had with police as a young person were negative and disappointing.

As a recruit in the days when staff were allowed to check their own details in NIA (the National Intelligence Application), she saw two family violence alerts. “I found an occurrence reported as ‘had an argument with her father’. That seems rather diluted. It made me think about how these alerts cannot be an accurate representation of how frequently family harm situations occur in any household.

“A true reflection of my home would have been hundreds of occurrences, which may indicate what goes unreported and why, as police, we should never use NIA alerts to judge risk or frequency. The first incident reported to police may be the hundredth incident for that family,” she says.

Breaking the cycle

“I had always acknowledged my upbringing before joining Police, but I didn’t fully understand or acknowledge the harm it had done.”

She doesn’t hold resentment towards her father, “but I do resent the situation I grew up in”.

“My father grew up in a violent home and didn’t break the cycle and this would by far be the most important role for us as police to prevent this cycle of abuse.

“Family harm is everywhere. It doesn’t discriminate. As well as the harm it caused me, I have seen it first-hand in others. We have one of the highest rates of family violence in the developed world and one of the highest youth suicide rates. I hope that new initiatives for family harm and new training that police receive will eventually lower those rates.”

Calling it “family harm” makes perfect sense to someone who has lived through it. “Our role as police is to prevent the harm suffered and the potential harm later in life,” she says.

“I’ve chosen to share this story to explain that family harm can happen to anyone, no matter your ethnicity, financial situation or suburb.

“On the rare occasions I have told people about my upbringing, there were raised eyebrows and surprise that I didn’t fit the stereotype… and that stereotyping and unconscious bias needs to go.

“One of my favourite quotes was one used by a district commander at the end of his weekly blog – ‘It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken adults’ – which is exactly what the prevention of family harm is all about.”


A violent country in our own homes

The Government has promised an extra $76 million funding boost over the next four years for the services that deal with the victims and perpetrators of family harm.

Family harm cop at doorWe are a violent country in our own homes, and family harm events are increasing by about 10 per cent each year – a 55 per cent increase since 2009.

Police report that on an average day, officers are attending a family harm incident every four minutes, which translates to about 50 per cent of the workload of frontline police. Last year police responded to 121,733 events. That compares with 20 per cent of frontline police time spent on mental health callouts.

Behind those statistics are even grimmer ones. Police estimate that each year, up to 12 women, 10 men and several children are killed by a family member. Many children are also injured and need hospital treatment.

Statistics from Women’s Refuge indicate that fewer than 20 per cent of family violence incidents are ever reported.

Police has set a target of 10 per cent fewer deaths from family violence and has set up new family harm deployment models that take a more holistic approach to this complex issue, working in partnership with iwi, NGOs and other government agencies.

Every district has family harm teams trained in “daily triage” of events, with follow ups and interventions where necessary.

Police can issue public safety orders (PSOs) if they have reasonable grounds to believe that family harm has happened or may happen. Police do not need the consent of the person at risk to issue the order and there is no right of appeal. A PSO can last up to five days.

The person bound by the order must leave the address while it is in force.

Under the Domestic Violence Act 1995, Protection Orders (POs) can be issued through the Family Court to protect people from violence, keeping a perpetrator away from a family.

PSOs and POs are often broken, which results in more callouts.

The law says that “domestic violence” can be physical, sexual or psychological. It says:

• Nobody has the right to assault another person.

• Nobody is allowed to have sexual contact with another person without permission.

• Nobody has the right to use intimidation, threats or mind games to gain power over another person.


If you need personal help or advice about any issues raised in this story, contact:

  • Women’s Refuge Crisis Line 0800 733 843
  • Confidential Domestic Abuse Helpline 0508 744 633
  • Are You Ok? 0800 456 450

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