• Sisters Rebecca and Gina Masterton, pictured with Rebecca's son Cody, are fighting to reform laws for parents fleeing domestic violence abroad. (NITV)Source: NITV
Fleeing domestic violence is rarely easy, but for those living outside their home country, it can be even harder — as Gubbi Gubbi and Wakka Wakka woman Rebecca Masterton found out when she returned to Australia with her son to escape an allegedly abusive husband in the US.
Ella Archibald-Binge

The Point
14 Jun 2018 - 4:22 PM  UPDATED 14 Jun 2018 - 4:27 PM

Five years ago, Gina and Rebecca Masterton were living what appeared to be a peaceful life in the United States.

Gina shared a home with younger sister Rebecca, who’d married a Mexican national and recently given birth to a baby boy, Cody. 

Though they lived under the same roof, for the most part, the sisters led "separate lives".

In 2013, Gina and Rebecca, along with one-year-old Cody, boarded a plane home to Australia to seek medical treatment for their ailing mother. 

It was only as the wheels lifted that Rebecca says she felt safe to reveal the horror that had been unfolding behind closed doors in their family home.

"I honestly felt this enormous pressure being released from my shoulders," she recalls. 

"I guess once I was up in the air and knew that I was safe and he couldn’t hear me, I just had to be honest with my sister and just talk to her about things that I hadn’t been able to talk to her about for a long time."

Rebecca says her husband had been abusing her for two years.

She claims he began by controlling her finances - refusing to give her money for toiletries and basic needs – before becoming emotionally and physically abusive.

"I knew that if he was starting to throw things at us, and he was starting to trash talk me and Cody and belittling me and isolating me from my family ... if it starts to go that way, it doesn’t ever get any better," Rebecca says.

'The mothers... they are treated like garbage with no respect and with no consideration at all.'

The sisters decided it was safest for Rebecca and Cody to stay in Australia.

Gina, a lawyer, knew there’d be legal consequences, but she didn’t know the full extent until authorities tracked down Rebecca a few months later.

Rebecca is believed to be the first Aboriginal woman to be served under the Hague Convention, an agreement between 83 countries, adopted in 1980 to deal with international parental child abduction.

It provides an expedited process to quickly return the child to their home country, where custody matters can be dealt with — but generally fails to take domestic violence into account.

A court may choose not to return the child if there’s a “grave risk” that it would expose them to “physical or psychological harm”, but in the overwhelming majority of cases, courts don’t consider domestic violence against a parent to be a grave risk to the child.

"The mothers, because of what they’ve done and because they’ve taken a child, even though it’s out of a horrendous situation, they are treated like garbage with no respect and with no consideration at all," says Rebecca.

In August 2013, Cody returned to his father in the US.

The sisters followed, spending a harrowing three months negotiating with Cody’s father before he finally relented, allowing Cody to return to Australia.

'More often than not, the abuse escalates'

Australian authorities received around 144 Hague abduction applications last year.

Studies have shown that 70% of alleged abductors in Hague cases are mothers, often fleeing family violence.

Some cases have ended in tragedy.

In 2007, a 24-year-old mother fled to Australia with her children to escape her violent partner.

She was forced to return to England under the Hague Convention. Months later, she was murdered by her husband in front of her children as they fled to a refuge.

Kathleen Simpson, a Gold Coast lawyer who advocates for domestic violence victims, says the number of Hague cases is on the rise - both for people fleeing to and from Australia.

"I’m often having clients coming into the office saying that they can’t stay in Australia, they can’t stay with their abusive partner who’s threatening their lives, threatening to kill their children or physically abusing them, but under our laws, under the Hague Convention they’re prevented from fleeing the country," she says. 

Ms Simpson says victims who are forced to return to their abuser are often left in a worse situation than the one they fled in the first place.

"The perpetrator feels empowered because they’ve achieved that, they’ve got them back in their control again," she says.

"The victimisation continues throughout the whole process … the abuse continues, and more often than not, the abuse escalates.

"There’s little that the Hague does for domestic violence sufferers at all and something needs to change." 

Fighting for law reform

Rebecca, a psychology student, and Gina, a PhD candidate who recently completed a thesis on the limitations of the Hague Convention, have now dedicated their lives to reforming Australian laws to protect victims of domestic violence.

They want to see an amendment to the "grave risk" exception of the Hague Convention, which stipulates that domestic violence against a parent constitutes a grave risk of harm to the child.

A spokesperson from the Attorney-General’s department says the Hague Permanent Bureau has established an international working group to develop a "guide to good practice" for judges and local authorities, to help determine how the "grave risk" exception to the Hague Convention should apply to domestic violence cases. 

"This Guide will provide advice on the grave risk exception, and should assist in its application including in circumstances involving family violence," the spokesperson said in a statement to NITV News. 

"The Draft Guide also makes note of the risks to children arising from exposure to family violence (such as where a child witnesses when a parent is a victim of family violence)."

Gina and Rebecca Masterton are determined to see change within their lifetime.

"I’ve been told by somebody that it’s going to be impossible to do this, to have this law amended and I don’t believe that," Gina says. 

"I think if we’d thought that then we wouldn’t have the vote right now. If women had thought that 100 years ago, we wouldn’t be sitting here having careers and jobs and freedoms."

Rebecca adds: "We’re not just numbers; we’re not just a file that you can just rubber stamp and just put to the side and move on to the next one. We are loving, caring mothers and all we’re trying to do is protect our children and do what’s right for them. You know at the end of the day, they’re the most important thing."

See the full story on The Point - 8.30pm Thursday on NITV, and live-streamed via NITV's Facebook page. Or catch up at On Demand.