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'He used to take me to heaven and hell, but once the police found out I could break free'

Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Sara did not intend to report her husband's violent behaviour to the police, not even when he threatened her with a knife; but after she did, partly forced by a series of coincidences, she found incredible support and was granted permanent residence under the family violence provisions.

Sara* arrived in Australia from Italy in 2014 on a student visa. She wasn't planning to get into a relationship but then she met a man who seemed extremely kind and caring. 

After a couple of months of dating, he asked her to marry him. They got married that same year, in September. 


Key points

  • Partner visa holders who are victims of domestic violence can be granted permanent residence under the family violence provisions
  • Applicants must provide evidence that they have suffered family violence and they must have left the relationship
  • The Department of Home Affairs has granted permanent visas to 2450 victims of domestic violence under these provisions in the last five years

It was during their honeymoon that Sara saw for the first time "the other side" of this man, but she thought it was an isolated event, that her husband was troubled and that she needed to help him. 

The psychological abuse intensified and it wasn't long before this man was pushing her against furniture, was throwing things at her, and a few times threatened to stop the car and leave her on the highway. 

"He used to take me to heaven and hell continuously," says Sara. 

"At the beginning, I used to reason with him because I didn't understand what was happening. I had never experienced anything like it, but this used to make things worse because then he would start throwing things at me."

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Daria Obymaha/Pexels

But there was also a very loving and sweet side to this man and this was one of the reasons why Sara did not leave. 

'Sweet and caring monster'

"There are still some sides of him that I miss. I loved him deeply and often I miss some aspects of his personality because he was very sweet and caring, but then that same person could turn into a monster". 

Investigative journalist Jess Hill spent four years researching and writing about Australia’s domestic violence crisis in her book See What You Made Me Do, now an upcoming SBS documentary series.

As Hill wrote in her book, "the first stage of domestic abuse is the development of love, trust and intimacy. It is love that first binds the victim to her abuser, and love that makes her forgive and make excuses for him".

Over time, Sara's husband tightened the grip of control also financially and socially.  

"He wanted me to put my wage into his bank account. When I said no he got extremely angry". 

"I used to come from work at 5.10 pm every day he wanted to know: 'Who did you speak with, where have you been, what did you do?". 

Sara lost contact with all her friends over time. 

"Towards the end, I was terrified because anything could set him off," she said.

It was really like walking on eggshells. His outbursts of anger were so sudden, I never knew when he would turn. 

Sara spent many nights walking up and down the garden feeling that her life was in danger, but she never reported any of the abuse to the police. She was too scared that doing so may result in her husband becoming even more dangerous. 

A few times she called the 1800RESPECT helpline and sometimes the counsellors on the line helped her find accommodation for a night or two. 

One day, when she got home, he was holding a knife. 

Sara used to keep an emergency bag under an armchair near the entrance but that day she wasn't able to grab it. 

She called 1800RESPECT so the social workers could help her find emergency accommodation for that night as they had done before but her phone battery was running out. 

She was advised to enter a police station nearby and to wait there so the caseworkers could call her back. 

'Police signage.

She sat there and waited, trying to avoid shedding any light on her situation. After a while, a police officer came out and asked her a few questions. She reluctantly told him her story, trying to hold back the tears. 

"I'm sorry but you can't go back home tonight," the officer told her. 

Eventually, his supervisor came out and they explained to Sara that given the dangerous situation, they had to go with her to a police station, where they could check her husband's criminal record and do a formal report.

Her husband was arrested and placed in a watch house for a day. Police also put in place an Interim Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (ADVO), which was later approved by the court.

'Invaluable' support by police

Sara says the support the police gave her was invaluable. 

"The police booked me into a hotel, and they even came with me to pick up my things from the house when my husband was in the watch house. 

"They booked me in with a domestic violence support group and these caseworkers came to the hotel and explained to me everything about domestic violence, about the typical behaviours of abusers and the cycle of domestic abuse". 

Sara says "a whole world opened up" when she received this information.

"I understood that it was not that my husband had some problems when he was behaving this way," she said.

I understood that I couldn't always have the good person because he was both people: a monster and a good person. 

After a few days in a hotel, she says they gave her the number of another organisation that helped her with accommodation, as from the point onwards she would have been homeless.  

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Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels

Another reason why Sara did not leave earlier was her fear of losing her right to stay in Australia.

"When the police put in place the ADVO I was still waiting for permanent residence. I was on a Temporary Partner Visa and I was supposed to wait until October to get permanent residence". 

But she left the relationship in May. 

Sara says a centre specialised in helping victims of domestic violence put her in touch with a refugee and immigration legal support group and they told her she was entitled to receive a permanent visa, and helped her prepare her application.

She applied for permanent residence in July and she obtained it in September. 

I was so surprised by all the help I've received. They granted me permanent residence, almost to say, 'after what you've been through, it is your right'".

There are family violence provisions in the Migration Regulations which allow temporary Partner visa holders in Australia to be granted permanent residence if their relationship has broken down and they have suffered domestic or family violence perpetrated by the sponsor.

Applicants must provide judicial evidence that they have suffered family violence, such as a court conviction or a court order, a final AVO or in the absence of judicial evidence, reports from a doctor, statutory declarations from psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers. 

"Reporting the violence to the police was key in the process," Sara said. 

Sara encourages all victims of domestic violence to speak up and report the abuse to the police. 

"Even when I was at the police station, I was worried for my husband thinking about what would happen to him. Every day he tried to make me feel incomplete, not enough, while he was always at the centre of the attention. I had disappeared," she said. 

Debora*, who has been a victim of domestic violence for years, and had her life put at risk a few times, agrees. 

She left her abusive partner without ever reporting the violence to the police, but she wishes she did. 

Report the violence to the police immediately, don't justify, because if it's not you reporting it, it could be another woman and someone could be killed. And once the cycle of domestic abuse begins, it only gets worse. 

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Torsten Dettlaff/Pexels

A spokesperson from the Department of Home Affairs said in the last five years, the Department has granted permanent visas to 2475 victims of domestic violence under the family violence provisions.

According to InTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence chief executive Michal Morris, many victims of domestic violence are not aware of the family violence provisions and sometimes they don't know how to apply. 

Sometimes proving to be a victim of domestic violence can be difficult for victims who have not reported the violence to the police, says Michal Morris. 

Looking back, Sara is so thankful that her phone battery was flat that day, as she would have never gone to the police for fear this may put her more at risk. 

As Jess Hill explains in her book See What You Made Me Do "[abusers] don’t just use violence to seize power in the moment or gain the advantage in a fight. Instead, they use particular techniques – isolation, gaslighting, surveillance – to strip the victim of their liberty, and take away their sense of self," she writes. 

"In this abusive environment, minor assaults and humiliations can occur so regularly that they become as unremarkable as breathing."  

Just as it happened to Sara, "gradually the abuser draws his victim further away from the real world and into his version of reality".

"[It’s like] you are Alice in Wonderland [and ] you don’t know what’s really real'," writes Hils quoting a report by Prue Cameron called "Relationship problems and money: women talk about financial abuse". 

"The abuser’s most skilful trick is to make his abuse invisible," writes Hill. 

"What should surprise us about domestic abuse is not that a woman can take a long time to leave, but that she has the mental fortitude to survive".

*This is not her real name. 

SBS’ series on Domestic Violence 'See What You Made Me Do' premieres 8:30pm Wednesday 5 May. Watch on SBS or stream free on SBS On Demand. The three-part series continues weekly on 12 & 19 May, and repeated at 9.30pm Sundays on SBS VICELAND.

If you or another person is in danger, call 000

To talk to someone about family violence or sexual assault: 1800respect.org.au or 1800 737 732

Find services in each state and territory: https://www.1800respect.org.au/services

Lifeline 13 11 14 www.lifeline.org.au 

Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800 kidshelpline.com.au (24/7 counselling service)

Men’s Referral Service 1300 766 491 ntv.org.au (anonymous and confidential telephone counselling for men)

Q Life | 1800 184 527 Provides anonymous and free LGBTI peer support and referral

The National Disability Abuse & Neglect Hotline 1800 880 052 for reporting abuse/neglect of people with disability.

ELDERHelp | 1800 353 374 to know how you can get help, support and referrals. 

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