“If you don’t leave, he’s going to kill you.”
This is the warning Alison Gibson gives to her sister.
Two years, countless court appearances and a murder conviction later, her words hold a chilling truth.
Gibson is a proud Noongar woman, mother of five and survivor of two domestic violence relationships. She spends her every day supporting those escaping family violence.
Her sister Jessica Bairnsfather-Scott was murdered by her then-husband in September 2019. Nearly two years later, he has been found guilty of her murder and sentenced to a minimum of 21 years behind bars.
Frustrated with an apathetic judicial system and crisis-driven services, Gibson started the Justice for Jessica Facebook page to give victims a voice.
“I felt like I had to do something for my sister,” she says. “I’ve seen so many names come and go and it’s largely just accepted that family violence is part of the world.”
She currently works at Empowered Communities in Kununurra, on Miriwong country, as a community development advisor. On the ground, tirelessly quoted statistics about the gross overrepresentation of Aboriginal people in out of home care, violent relationships and the mental health care system translate into real lives.
“Within these last two years, I’ve sat in meetings where child protection [staff members] are considering taking children away,” Gibson says. “I’ve had people on suicide watch. I’ve been to court with family members. I’ve had to go to a hospital thinking we were going to turn life support off for someone on drugs and then support them through rehab.”
Gibson first experienced a violent relationship when she was 19.
“When I was pregnant is when the family violence started. I had another baby 12 months after that. Domestic violence and substance abuse were still happening.”
A report released by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare in 2019 found one in six women have experienced domestic violence by the age of 15.
Aboriginal women and pregnant women are the most at-risk group in the population of suffering family violence.
“When I called up for police assistance, the first thing they asked me was if the perpetrator was Aboriginal. It’s really not relevant.”
Acutely aware of these statistics and their perception by institutions, Gibson was careful to avoid support that might increase the risk of having her children removed.
“When accessing services like police and child protection, it was constantly on my radar that I could not bring attention to myself,” she says.
Fear of having children removed is a sentiment experienced by many Aboriginal people accessing government services, according to Yorgum Healing Services chief executive Laurel Sellers. She says it is important to have a buffer between government departments and their clients.
“Aboriginal people have a history of being managed by government and having our children removed. By working alongside the person and providing them with the tools to become more confident and empowered we provide a safer space,” she says.
Sellers says the most important approach to any healing service is that workers undergo trauma informed training.
“When a lot of our clients go into the department, they get triggered and it’s because the frontline workers aren’t trauma informed.”
Gibson describes witnessing systemic racism when accessing government services for herself and her children.
“I did access protection services at one point for food. I remember being in the waiting room with another woman. We were both Aboriginal women with children but I guess I presented more like the staff behind the counter. I got served much quicker, the body language and conversations were friendlier,” she says.
“I remember looking at that lady and thinking we are both in the exact same position. The difference is that maybe she didn’t have as much support in the community and I could navigate conversations with workers more confidently.”
Today, she uses this lived experience to support women and children escape domestic violence, as well as third space work of translating Aboriginal needs to non-Aboriginal people within the sector.
Despite the unrelenting need for increased support in regional areas such as Kununurra, Gibson says the lack of services is incredibly evident.
“Almost everyone is doing multiple roles in the community,” she says. “Whether that be coaching basketball teams, helping out at a women’s shelter or running community events, everyone is wearing two or three or four hats.”
She says the current crisis-driven services are not sustainable for the long term when you’re fighting for your life.
“The government is the preferred service provider. They can write good reports or have great financial backing that small Aboriginal agencies don’t, but they have just become an industry. They have become wealthy off our poverty”
For her own healing, she says she has leaned on her community. After the death of her sister, she sought support in the women’s Aboriginal group, Yok Djakoorliny, holding walks around the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River).
“I went down there on the Thursday after it happened and the women just stood around me and hugged me and that was it. It was just us, holding each other and crying.”
Gibson’s father, Will Bairnsfather-Scott, describes his daughter’s advocacy as being ingrained into her being.
“She will always be an advocate for domestic violence victims and so will the whole family,” he says.
“But every night before she goes to bed, she’ll still be thinking about it. Because I know I do. Every night I go to bed and think, ‘what could we have done differently to change it and bring Jess back?’”
Despite her own personal trauma, Gibson’s advocacy for family violence victims began immediately after her sisters’ death.
“After an event I spoke at I would fall in a heap and my husband would look after me. I would literally spend days in bed afterwards,” she says.
“There aren’t enough people in our community to help the pain and suffering that people are going through. If I don’t go to these meetings, kids get removed. If I don’t do it, there’s no one else.”
Crisis Care: 1800 199 008
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline: 1800 007 339