Australia

Legal advice website for domestic violence survivors launches in 23 languages

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The Family Violence Law Help website provides clear advice to those attempting to navigate the court systems.

Content warning: depictions of domestic abuse

Escaping with her two-year-old twin boys, Rachael Natoli left her seven-and-a-half-year abusive relationship in April 2015.

At the hands of her then-husband, she suffered emotional and psychological abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse and financial abuse.

“I moved [to Australia] in December 2007. I had met him on holiday here, in the August [of that year],” Ms Natoli told SBS News.

“I went home [to England], packed up my stuff, handed in my notice, rented out my house, sold my car and moved back out here [to Australia] three months later.”

What she didn’t know, is that the abuse would start almost instantly.

Domestic violence survivor, Rachael Natoli.
Domestic violence survivor, Rachael Natoli.
Lexi Reeves.

“The reality is, I didn’t want to admit failure, I didn’t want to go back to England and admit this relationship that I’d left everything for didn’t work out,” Ms Natoli said.

“A lot of the physical abuse was pushing, some kicking, a lot of physical intimidation and threats as well.

When I was nannying … there were times when my arms were covered in bruises.

There was a time after I had my children that he kicked me so hard I could barely walk for a couple of days.”

Suffering in silence

Reaching out to her only friend in Australia, Ms Natoli’s efforts to find support were short-lived.

“I told her what was going on and within a few months he [her husband] made sure that her and I were no longer in contact.

"Many perpetrators try and isolate their victims [and] he certainly made me feel isolated.”

Alone, scared and vulnerable, Ms Natoli secretly rented an apartment in Bondi.

“One day when I knew he was going to be out, I went home, packed my stuff and left him.

"But like many perpetrators he manipulated me, he wormed his way back in and eventually I went back to him.”

With the relationship continuing to be violent, the final straw came in early 2015.

“I sat down in front of the mirror that evening and I brushed my hair where he had dragged me around the room by my hair earlier that afternoon,” Ms Natoli said.

"My hair fell out in clumps and I just thought 'you’re an educated woman, you don’t need to be in a relationship like this'."

"'You have two beautiful baby boys asleep next door and in order to keep them safe, you need to be safe'.”

Ms Natoli made the decision she had been grappling with for years.

“I rung the police and made a full statement.”

The search for support

Ms Natoli attributes her ability to leave to the support of her caseworker.

“She guided me through every process I needed to go through. She was there on the end of the phone as everything went wrong … fighting in my corner and making sure I didn’t have to keep retelling my story and keep being re-traumatised,” Ms Natoli said.

Often when women leave abusive relationships, [this is] the most dangerous time for them.

Often when women leave abusive relationships, [this is] the most dangerous time for them.

- Rachael Natoli, Domestic violence survivor 

While setting up a new home for herself and her boys, Ms Natoli said her ex-husband’s abuse shifted in form.

“My ex-husband used the system to continue to abuse me, by making false allegations to housing, to Centrelink … my boys were actually put on the family law watch list after we left because we were due to go on holiday to England.”

Website offers legal lifeline

Reflecting on her experience, Ms Natoli views the new Family Violence Law Help website by Legal Aid NSW on behalf of National Legal Aid as an important resource.

“If [victims of domestic and family violence] are worried about where to start legally, they know that they can go to Legal Aid, but as a first point of call they can have a look at this [website] and work out where they would stand legally in certain scenarios,” said Ms Natoli.

“If I had been able to access [this] resource, I would have known … what my legal rights were in terms of allowing him to see the children before we’d gone to family court.

"Or when people would explain things to me, but my head was all over the place at the time – I [would have] had somewhere else to reference back to."

"I just had no idea ... I just lived in fear and went into a total survival mode to get through each day, trying to raise two babies by myself.”

Approximately one quarter of women in Australia have experienced at least one incident of violence by an intimate partner (ABS, 2017).
Approximately one quarter of women in Australia have experienced at least one incident of violence by an intimate partner (ABS, 2017).
Getty

Allowing people to access information tailored to their situation, the website is also embedded with safety features such as a quick exit button and guidance about deleting browsing history.

Alex Davis, a solicitor for the domestic violence unit of Legal Aid NSW, helped create the website.

“At the moment we have a patchwork of different legislation depending on where you live,” she told SBS News.

“It can be really difficult for people who have experienced domestic and family violence to be navigating the different court systems and the different jurisdictions.

It can be really difficult for people who have experienced domestic and family violence to be navigating the different court systems.

- Alex Davis, Legal Aid NSW

So we’ve made a one-stop-shop which has all the information you need … about the law but it also has information about staying safe and getting help Australia-wide.”

Providing clear advice to those attempting to navigate the court systems, the website is also translatable into 23 languages and is embedded with images to help guide users.

“Domestic and family violence doesn’t discriminate, it’s something that cuts across all of society,” Ms Davis said.

“A lot of our clients who we work with are from diverse backgrounds and have English as a second language [so] we know it’s really important that this information is accessible.”

Legal Aid's family law website provides assistance to those experiencing domestic and family violence.
Legal Aid's family law website provides assistance to those experiencing domestic and family violence.
www.familyviolencelaw.gov.au / Frances Cannon

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.

“The most up to date statistic we have is that one in four women ... will experience physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner,” Ms Davis said.

“And that’s not even taking into account non-physical forms of violence.”

National Legal Aid’s family law expert Gabrielle Canny said the statistics of domestic violence are staggering.

“The website has the potential to help many people living in Australia,” she told SBS News.

“It’s really important that this website can be translated into different languages because domestic violence is present in almost all homes; it’s not just one community or another.”

As domestic violence remains under-reported in Australia, Ms Canny said victims should ring the police in an emergency.

“Don’t err on the side of waiting for things to get better … safety is the most important thing. After safety is established then get some good legal advice.”

Four years on, Ms Natoli is helping domestic and family violence survivors just like herself.

“I run my own charity now,” she said.

“Our long-term goal is to provide caseworkers for women who are leaving or have left domestic abuse relationships so we can support them long-term.”

When asked what makes her happiest, Ms Natoli said it was knowing she and her boys don’t have to live in fear anymore.

“I don’t live with this turmoil, I don’t have to spend my life stepping on eggshells and I want other women to know that you can go back to that kind of life again - where you are safe and you are happy.”

View the website at familyviolencelaw.gov.au

Those impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence and abuse can get also advice and be referred to a facility by calling 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. They can also call Link2Home on 1800 152 152.  In an emergency, call 000.

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