Breaking the cycle of violence

Warning: This article contains details about abuse and trauma.

Sheree Lucas Neto is startled by the piercing ring of her phone. Seconds go by as she watches it vibrate closer and closer towards the edge of the coffee table. After some time, she reluctantly picks it up, sighing deeply as she reads the name glaring back at her on the illuminated screen — it’s her sister, wanting to FaceTime her from a family event she had cancelled on earlier that day. Before pressing ‘answer’, she forces a big, reassuring smile on her face. As the call connects, she realises her sister is not alone — other family members are present too. She is hammered with questions from them. “Are you okay?” 

“Oh, yeah, I’ve just got a headache,” she says casually. “And one of the kids is sick.”  

She’s lying. To her family, she looks happy and healthy through the screen. What they don’t see, are foundation bottles and makeup brushes scattered across the floor, as she sits alone in the dimmest area of her house, masking the deep purple bruises dispersed across her skin.

This is just one of many distressing scenarios Neto found herself in while in an abusive relationship with her former partner.

Family, domestic and sexual violence is a pressing issue of global concern. The prevention of violence against women and their children is becoming a priority for our governments, as shown by a recent history of change in institutional policy and practice. On August 9 this year, the Council of Australian Governments endorsed the Fourth Action Plan of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010-2022, agreeing on five national priorities to reduce family, domestic and sexual violence: Primary prevention is key; Support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and their children; Respect, listen and respond to the diverse lived experience and knowledge of women and their children affected by violence; Respond to sexual violence and sexual harassment; and Improve support and service system responses.

Furthermore, the issue is increasingly being reported by the news media. Take the case of Jody Gore, a woman convicted of murdering her abusive partner who was released from prison nearly eight years early. Her history of domestic violence was central in the WA Government’s rare decision to intervene and reduce her 12-year sentence. Or, look at Paul Turner, a man who used his commando training to stab his former partner Sarah Thomas to death inside a Joondalup courthouse in 2016. He was sentenced to life in jail with a 24-year minimum.

According to a journal published in May by BMC Public Health, while the coverage of violence against women in the news media has been extensive, news reports have rarely elevated the voices of survivors, advocates and other experts.

Despite more awareness about family, domestic and sexual violence coming to light, ongoing community education and generational change is required to combat the issue.  

“Love isn’t supposed to hurt. It’s supposed to make you feel safe and at home, so I’m mainly speaking out for my children.” 

Sheree Lucas Neto

According to a report released in June by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 1 in 6 women and 1 in 16 men in Australia have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or previous partner since the age of 15, while 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have experienced emotional abuse. 

Neto says she experienced many forms of abuse while in her former relationship. 

“I was physically abused, sexually abused, financially abused, psychologically abused, socially abused — I was abused in all ways,” she says. 

Source: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Today, 34 and happily married to another partner, Neto can bravely say she is a survivor of domestic violence. But, while the physical scars may have faded, the emotional scars are permanent. She has since been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and requires ongoing treatment with a psychologist.

The AIHW report further highlighted the fact children were one of the more vulnerable groups susceptible to family, domestic and sexual violence, with many having witnessed violence. More than 400,000 women and 90,000 men who had experienced violence from a previous partner said the children in their care had witnessed this violence. 

As a young girl, Neto witnessed her mother in an abusive relationship. She says she never wants her children, or any other child, to fall into the same toxic cycle as she did. 

“I didn’t want them to grow up without a father, but then it took me a while to realise that I was actually abusing them in some sort of way by allowing them to see their Dad like that,” she says. “It has taken me 19 years to talk about it. One of the main reasons is my daughter will be 14, that’s two years younger than when I got into a relationship with her father. In a few years if she starts dating, she could potentially get into the same type of relationship, but also, for my son, he’s also growing up and I want him to know what his Dad did was not acceptable and that’s not how you treat someone you love. Love isn’t supposed to hurt, it’s supposed to make you feel safe and at home, so I’m mainly speaking out for my children.” 

Working as a teacher assistant, Neto’s passion to educate others runs in her blood. She is using her lived experience to become a voice for domestic violence. She has openly shared her story in a podcast segment, ‘Do You Mind If I Ask’, by Perth hit92.9 radio show Heidi, Xavier and Ryan and has participated in panel discussions as an ambassador for Mettle Women Inc., alongside 9 News Perth presenter Tracy Vo. Furthermore, she has started her own website, ‘I am Sheree’ and Facebook group, ‘Teen Table Talk’, where parents and teenagers can ask questions and seek advice about relationships in a safe, non-judgmental environment online. 

Neto says education about family, domestic and sexual violence is key to prevention.

“For a lot of teenage girls, as I was one, you’re just too scared to speak up because you don’t know how your friends are going to react, you don’t know how your parents are going to react,” she says. “I think if we educate girls and boys as to who they can reach out to, or if something doesn’t feel right, that they know it’s wrong. Just so they know more about the good side of relationships, but also the bad side.” 

Individual action is important, but what is being done at the state-level to educate the future generations about family, domestic and sexual violence? Governments have recently renewed efforts to address the issue in schools through respectful relationships education. 

In March, 10 WA schools started training to pilot the WA Respectful Relationships Teaching Support Program, delivered by the Department of Communities in partnership with the Department of Education, White Ribbon Australia and Starick, a not-for-profit organisation working to end family and domestic violence.

Department of Communities Policy and Service Design assistant director general Helen Nys says the program recognises school communities can play a part in promoting healthy and respectful relationships and sending the message violence is never okay. 

“Respectful relationships education aims to support students with the skills to build future relationships characterised by non-violence, equality, mutual respect and consideration and trust,” she says. 

As part of the program, staff from participating schools undergo professional learning, including an eLearning session and two workshops, with a six-month gap between each workshop. 

Starick business manager Troy Kelley says the program is not a cookie cutter model. 

“We leave it open depending on the school circumstances and environment and they can basically develop their own programs,” he says. “In March with the first lot of schools, we did the initial training. As part of that, once they first signed up, they got access to an online portal with some pre-reading and specific videos they could watch, so they got a bit of an understanding around some of the drivers in terms of family and domestic violence. Then we left them for a couple of months and they came back for a phase two of the training, which was around sharing what they’ve actually implemented in their schools.” 

Source: Department of Communities.

Curtin University School of Public Health senior research officer Jacqui Hendriks has been heavily involved in evaluating the program prior to its official roll out. She attended the second workshop in which all 10 schools shared their progress and has been working intensively with some of these schools.   

Hendriks says schools have been encouraged to not make massive changes, but rather come up with one or two strategies at a time. 

“The idea is to really work on those to integrate them or implement them, see how they’re going, refine them if they need to and then make them long term,” she says. “Some of them are just having specific lessons with their students around respectful relationships, others are celebrating White Ribbon Day or other days of significance. Some have done PD days and actual information to their staff, some have started to talk to their parents.” 

But, some schools haven’t been afraid to jump right into the deep end. Dr Hendricks says one of the more dramatic strategies has seen a school work with the police on their campus.    

“The police regularly visit that school and do Brazilian jiu-jitsu classes with some of the kids and they’re always there doing presentations,” she says. “They usually go once a week onto school during lunchtimes so that students can come and speak to them about issues. They’ve worked really hard to improve the relationship between the students and their local police station, which has got real benefits through family and domestic violence, so young people can see that police are a useable resource and they are humans and they are really nice people that are just looking out for them and if they ever get called out to a home, it will be a face they possibly recognise.” 

As with any sensitive issue, family, domestic and sexual violence can be a challenging topic to teach. Troy Kelley says while the program’s response has been positive, there was reluctance from some participants at the start.

“I think once they had gone through the training, they saw the merit in things have got to change,” he says. “You’ve just got to look at the media around the stats of DV, we have to look at doing something differently and starting with the younger generation, I think everyone’s in agreeance with that.”

“We’re doing a good job, but we can be doing a lot better in comparison to other states.”   

Dr Jacqui Hendriks

While it is positive respectful relationships education is included in the national curriculum, not all state and territory governments have been proactive in making it mandatory. In 2016, respectful relationships education became a core component of the Victorian curriculum from foundation to year 12 and is being taught in all government and Catholic schools and many independent schools.

Helen Nys says WA is not implementing the Victorian version of the program.  

“The WA program is voluntary and supports a whole-school approach to respectful relationships to strengthen and promote a school culture of tolerance and respect,” she says.

Parents can request in writing to the principal the withdrawal of their child from activities run as part of the program. Furthermore, the program is currently restricted to public schools.  

Hendriks believes the program should be implemented across all schools in WA. 

“I think we should be putting as much time and resources into this as they do in Victoria,” she says. “This program, I believe cost our government $1 million, Victoria’s committed something like $22 million since 2016 – massive difference. It’s mandatory for every school in Victoria to deliver Respectful Relationships and they’ve actually created learning content that has to be delivered from kindergarten all the way through to year 12 which is massive. We wouldn’t be able to do that in WA because our 11s and 12s don’t have health classes, unless you’re doing it as an ATAR subject, but they have really forced that issue in Victoria, so they have special classes dedicated so this topic can be covered. We’re doing a good job, but we can be doing a lot better in comparison to other states.”     

There have also been concerns regarding the future of the program, following White Ribbon Australia’s recent announcement it has closed its doors and gone into voluntary liquidation.

Notice on White Ribbon Australia’s website explaining it has gone into voluntary liquidation. Source: White Ribbon Australia.

Hendriks says she hopes White Ribbon’s closure doesn’t “derail” the program.

Kelley says the program will continue.

“Starick will now be taking on more of a leading role,” he says. “An information session was recently held for the next lot of 10 schools that have registered for the program. They will undergo their first face-to-face training in February next year.”

Respectful relationships education may have the power to change attitudes and school structures around family, domestic and sexual violence, however, with gaps of the WA Respectful Relationships Teaching Support Program being presented, is it sufficient?  

Nys says an evaluation of the program will be undertaken to ensure it is meeting the needs of schools and to inform implementation.

Kelley says Starick has completed an interim report which has been put through to the Department of Communities.   

“The Department has asked for an external evaluation to be done, so we’re in that process at the moment with Curtin University,” he says. “What we’re really hoping is that as part of the evaluation, we’ll start the program in its entirety.”

As Neto embraces her children before they head to school, she is content with the fact some progress is being made, slowly, but surely, to educate the future generations about family, domestic and sexual violence. While the issue may be confronting, the harsh reality is it will only continue to prevail from silence and ignorance. She hopes the conversation never stops. 

“The less we talk about domestic violence, the more we have to lose,” she says.

Family, domestic and sexual violence support hotlines: 

Respect national hotline: 1800 737 732

Women’s Crisis Line: 1800 811 811

Men’s Referral Service: 1300 766 491

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Relationships Australia: 1300 364 277