Yesterday I spent the entire day supporting a client at DV court. The court house at Cleveland is not very big, so that all the victims and perpetrators are forced to wait in the same room. There may be some provision for a safe room for women who are very fearful, and there was a WAVVS DV support worker there which was good. Also on the positive side my experience of the police there is that they were mostly helpful and friendly. I myself found it a little confronting being surrounded by men who were probably perpetrators, and certainly many of them gave off an air of arrogance and entitlement. I’m not used to spending time around men like that, but it was very enlightening to see patriarchy in action! On discussion with my supervisor, she says that in a couple of courts in Brisbane there are workers present from MensLine. Reports of this program indicate that the Mensline workers in many cases helpful in maintaining calm in the male clients facing DVOs and smoothing the acceptance of the orders. There are options to consent without agreeing with the contents of the order, or to consent with agreement, or to contest the order. The ability to consent to the order without admitting guilt is probably a very helpful option in protecting women and still getting that record made that an order was indeed necessary, saving face for the perpetrator until they are in a better place to accept that they are not entitled to control and hurt their partner to get what they want.
Court is a disempowering experience for anyone: the language used, the bizarre costumes, the presence of large numbers of lawyers and police and the long, dull wait for your turn in court add to the stress a person facing charges or having a deep emotional investment in the outcome might feel. For women who are the victims of violence, they may be feeling PTSD-like symptoms in such a situation: fear and anxiety, shame, guilt and self-blame about the incident, or indeed angry at the perpetrator. Emotional turmoil affects the rational faculties of all of us.
Our client has a mild cognitive impairment, meaning she needed to be reminded of what was occurring and what she might say and do before, during and after court. It was a pretty unjust situation in my opinion, in that the client who has substantial and visible injuries, and had been hospitalized since the incident, was appearing to defend herself against DVOs taken out against her by the ex-husband and his mother, plus one by the police on behalf of her own mother. The ex-husband was clearly much bigger in physical stature than the client. However, because of the clients continued attachment and love for her ex-husband, and the mixed messages she had been receiving from him, she was reluctant to press charges against him. It was still early days in the separation process, and she was having difficulty remembering that her relationship was not all good.
It was easy to see how the issue of the client’s cognitive impairment could be overlooked in a court situation, especially as the courts are so busy and it is difficult for the impairment to be immediately identified when a person can speak well. A cognitive impairment means that not only can a person have difficulty understanding the situation they are in, but they can be very suggestible, not wanting to appear stupid or not understanding, so not asking questions and agreeing to things they don’t fully understand. There didn’t seem to be an opportunity to make the magistrate aware of the clients difficulty in understanding her situation, because she tended to agree when asked if she understood what was happening, although when discussed afterwards it was clear that she did not, or at least did not understand what things she might do could breach the DVO her ex-husband had taken out against her. Some of those things seemed benign and quite sweet, like wanting to send him flowers, contact him for his birthday and tell him she loved him by text message. However, even those things could be taken by her ex as breaches or harassment (if he so choose to be vindictive), although generally accepted by the ex who was still contacting her (and was not at risk of criminal charges if he did). On a number of occasions our client voiced her “worship” for the ex-husband who had hurt her, so we had a few conversations about what a respectful and loving relationship looks like and what was not so perfect about her ex (like, “does he clean the toilet?”, keeping it light and jokey). Despite the potential heaviness of the day, myself and the other SW managed to keep conversations light and look at the positive side for the client which helped her laugh and generally made the day in court much easier for her, cutting down the dwelling on the negative.
It also highlighted for me the importance of feminist practice and having a safe place to talk about issues. It would have been unlikely that the client would have disclosed the further incidents of disrespectful and controlling behavior had a male been present, including the investigation of the ex and his mother by the police child protection investigative unit (CPIU). We were able to share common experiences of relationships that normalized her feelings of loss and resentment and fear of the unknown and also laugh about those things.
Previous to the day I had read the discussion paper “The Right to Choose: enhancing the best practice in responding to sexual assault in Queensland” put together by a wide range of community based services and NGOs that deal with sexual violence in Queensland. One of the recommendations in that document is that a gendered approach to SV is vital: although men are sometimes victims, they are overwhelmingly perpetrators and often capable of much more damage than women. They emphasis the need for a “women’s only space” to “provide a safe and supportive environment to meet the physical, emotional and psychological safety needs of women” (2010 p.4). Clearly a court situation that creates a space where victims and perpetrators are all forced into each other’s company while waiting to see the magistrate is not meeting such needs.