Warning: this article discusses domestic violence and may upset some readers

Coercive control is a form of domestic violence and will be a criminal offence in NSW from 1 July. Niki Waldegrave reveals its scourge on the North Shore

On average, one woman is murdered by a current or former intimate partner every week, with one in four experiencing domestic or family violence (DV) during their lifetime.

Alarmingly, data shows 97 per cent of intimate partner domestic violence homicide victims had experienced coercive and controlling behaviours before their deaths.

NSW is the first Australian jurisdiction to introduce a standalone dedicated offence of coercive control from 1 July. The Crimes Legislation Amendment (Coercive Control) Act 2022 (NSW) (the ‘Act’) makes coercive control illegal in NSW, with a maximum penalty of seven years imprisonment.

Jodie Harrison, Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, tells North Shore Living (NL): “Coercive control is insidious and looks different in every relationship.

“It might include financial abuse, threats against pets or loved ones, tracking someone’s movements, or isolating them from their friends and family.”

NSW Bureau of Crime and Statistics data shows 612 DV-related assaults were reported in North Sydney and Hornsby from January to December last year.

But Kylea Tink, Independent North Sydney MP, tells NL the reality is much starker, revealing: “What’s alarming is that 80 per cent of women (and 95 per cent of men) who have experienced violence from a current partner have never contacted the police.

“It is truly happening behind closed doors and in the dark, which is why the introduction of the coercive control laws in NSW is a really significant step forward.”

North Shore mum-of-two, *Jane, was referred to Mary’s House Services via the Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service after her husband, and father of her children, assaulted her.

It was the latest attack in a long history of domestic abuse and coercive control. Jane got an apprehended domestic violence order (ADVO) against her husband, who controlled all finances and monitored all spending – a common feature of coercive and controlling relationships.

“Because he got a minor injury as I was trying to escape, he contested the ADVO,” Jane says. “His high wages and tight grip on the finances allowed him to pay for a senior barrister to defend the allegations, and ultimately the criminal charge and the ADVO were dropped.”

‘We will never be able to build enough refuges for the number of women that need to run,’ says Kylea Tink, pictured speaking here

“The community plays an important role in preventing or identifying this pattern of abuse”

Jodie Harrison, Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault

When he moved out, Jane was subjected to constant threats, approaches and continual harassment.

“I was terrified he’d kill me and the kids,” she says. “He told me I ‘wouldn’t get away with it’ and not only was he harassing me, he was calling and emailing the children’s schools, counsellors, police and doctors, raising concerns about my parenting due to my, unsurprisingly, ‘declining mental health’.

“I called the police numerous times, but they said their hands were tied as there was no current ADVO in place, and no physical (violence) by him against me.”

Mary’s House is a community-funded North Shore refuge providing immediate critical care, safety and shelter for women and their children escaping DV. It recently won the North Sydney Council ‘community builder of the year’ award for its services.

Chief executive officer Yvette Vignando says Jane’s husband’s behaviour is ‘textbook’ coercive control. Up until now, the perpetrators knew the many barriers women faced in reporting it to police.

“For example, they think they will not be believed or be taken seriously by a police officer, especially if there is no physical and/or sexual violence to report,” she says.

“Many women tell us they do not report the abuse to the police and their GPs, not only because they fear the abuse and/or violence will escalate, but because they do not want the perpetrator to be reported to authorities ‘because he is the father of my children’ (many women say). And (they fear) economic hardship will follow.”

Now, when police are guided to look at patterns of behaviour in coercive control, Ms Vignando says this will give a clearer view of the tactics a perpetrator uses to wear a domestic abuse survivor down financially, emotionally and psychologically.

“A new coercive control law, if accompanied by extensive training and support for police, could mean that risks to women are validated, understood and action will be taken,” she adds.

“This will hopefully ensure better results in court for survivor victims of domestic abuse.”

The Federal House of Representatives unanimously passed a motion from Independent Warringah MP Zali Steggall in May, putting the parliament on notice of the calls from so many on the frontline for a crisis response.

“Too many Australian women are being killed by a current or former intimate partner,” says Ms Steggall. “As a barrister and now MP, I’ve learned that domestic violence does not discriminate and can happen to anyone.

“Domestic violence is at crisis point in Australia and it needs an emergency response.”

The State Government has committed $230 million to support domestic, family and sexual violence victim-survivors. This allocates some $48 million to the Staying Home Leaving Violence program, which Kylea Tink says is a ‘step in the right direction’ – but ‘inexplicably’ excludes the North Sydney post code.

“One of the biggest challenges is we will never be able to build enough refuges for the number of women that need to run. But if we can turn that on its head and let women and children stay in their homes and have the perpetrators leave, we have a much more controllable situation.”

If in danger: call 000
Mary’s House refuge: 1800 002 111
NSW Domestic Violence Line:
1800 RESPECT 1800 737 732
Lifeline: 13 11 14

But given the high cost of rent across North Sydney, more funds are needed: “When you look at the way the system is currently geared, we have some of the highest rental costs in the country in our electorate at the moment, and some of the lowest vacancy rates, and the programs that are designed to support people fleeing violence simply don’t cut it.”

Along with Mary’s House, Ms Tink is campaigning for specialist DV courts, more refuges, transitional housing and case workers.

For those who must leave, Ms Vignando says there are not enough shelters: “Our refuge can house four women and their children each night. Our dream is to offer more refuge beds, in the form of self-contained accommodation.

“Some women tell us they have been in temporary housing (hotels) for months, waiting on refuge vacancies. This is unacceptable, and is a huge problem in the northern suburbs of Sydney.”

Ms Tink adds: “The truth of the matter is that right across the electorate of North Sydney, all of our family and domestic violence services are completely overwhelmed.”

Jodie Harrison says the community plays an important role in combating DV. “Often, close friends or colleagues may well see it before the person in the relationship, so it’s vital that people know the signs of abuse.”

Elise Phillips, deputy chief executive officer of Domestic Violence NSW, adds: “When it comes to ending (DV), everyone has a role to play. It’s not about pointing fingers – it’s about everyone refusing to tolerate violence and abuse and doing their bit to change attitudes.”

The State Government launched a website last year to explain the different types of coersive control. To publicise the start of the law’s application in July, it is running an education campaign, “It’s not love, it’s coersive control,’ encouraging people to understand more about the signs of abuse. To find out more, go to nsw.gov.au and search for ‘coercive control’.

*Jane – real name not used