Why Christmas can be the most dangerous time for victims of domestic violence, expert says

A “perfect storm” of pressure is how Hayley Foster describes what the Christmas period can be like for victims of domestic violence and intimate partner abuse.

For crisis support hotlines, this can see usage rates spike by 25 to 30 per cent on Christmas Day and Boxing Day alone, while crisis relief and emergency housing programs can see spikes of around 40 per cent.

That’s according to Ms Foster, who is the CEO of Full Stop Australia, an advocacy group which campaigns against domestic, gendered and sexual violence.

“It’s a time where the stakes are high for people,” she says.

“There’s a lot of pressure, there’s a lot of expectation and there’s a lot of disappointment.

“As a society there are so many expectations around the perfect pin-up family and because of that emotions and stress levels are really high.”

The added financial stresses and environment in which families are spending more time together in confined spaces can also lead to an increase in violence and sexual offences.

“The nature of intimate partner abuse and coercive control is that the onus tends to be placed on the victim to be constantly meeting the needs of the person using that violence and abusing the power,” adds Ms Foster.

50 women lost to violence in 2022

The devastating statistics come as 50 Australian women have had their lives taken through violence in 2022. Reported via Destroy the Joint’s Counting Dead Women project, the figures surpassed the 43 deaths recorded last year.

Recently the death of 31-year-old Sydney teacher, Dannielle Finlay-Jones dominated headlines, after her body was discovered at a friend’s home in Cranebrook on Sunday afternoon.

Ashley Gaddie, a 33-year-old man she had recently begun dating has since been arrested and charged over her alleged murder.

However, in just the two days after Dannielle’s death, the lives of two more women have been claimed by violence.

At around 11pm on Sunday night, while police were investigating Dannielle’s death, the body of 37-year-old Monthana Khantherat was found critically injured in a unit at Albion Park Rail in the Illawarra region of NSW.

While paramedics attempted to save her, she died at the scene. A 28-year-old man has been charged with her alleged murder.

On Tuesday night, a 28-year-old Darwin woman also died after she was taken to hospital with multiple stab wounds. A 31-year-old woman has been arrested and charged with murder, the intent to cause serious harm and unlawfully causing harm.

However, the 50 women – some recognisable by name, while others a faceless victim in an epidemic of gendered violence – represent just the tip of the iceberg.

“We can talk about individual cases but for us it’s right across the board. This is right across the community,” says Ms Foster.

“We know how prevalent it is, so people need to stop thinking this happens in other people’s families, it happens in everyone’s families and communities.

“We all need to keep a look out and make sure we’re playing our part. We don’t want to be on the other side of this and wishing we had done something.”

Lifesaving question to ask at Christmas

For worried loved ones and family members, being able to identify red flags and reaching out with support is paramount. Ms Foster says that if someone is in an abusive relationship, the holidays provide an opportunity where friends and family can identify the behaviours and intervene.

This includes behaviour in which a partner is acting very jealous, constantly in contact with the other person, or limiting their finances. Restrictive or controlling behaviours around who someone is seeing, where they’re going, what they’re doing or constantly asking them to do things for them is another telltale sign.

“Some of the more subtle things are around whose role it is to take on certain tasks,” adds Ms Foster. “If someone has a partner who has really rigid ideas about gender stereotypes and roles, they’re more likely to be using violence and abuse in their relationships.”

The simple act of reaching out and offering support to friends and family members could also be lifesaving. Ms Foster says the “most important barrier to overcome” is to know that stopping domestic violence is everyone’s business.

“The standard we walk by is the standard we accept,” she says.

“We’ve got to think of the message it sends to our family and friends who might be experiencing this when we don’t do or say anything.”

As for how, that can be as simple as asking someone the question of: “Are you OK?” or just offering support. However it’s important to acknowledge that the victim is the “expert of their own situation,” and allow them to dictate the pace and degree of the assistance given.

“I think a lot of people jump into the role of trying to fix it and telling the person that they care about what to do,” Ms Foster adds.

“We know that the point of separation is the most dangerous time for somebody in terms of an escalation of violence and even fatal violence, so we need to trust that they will know the right time to leave and the right way to approach that.”

Confronting the perpetrator

For people in the position where they’re supporting a family member, or friend exhibiting controlling or problematic behaviours, Ms Foster says it’s important to make it known that their actions are not OK, while also trying “not to be too judgmental”.

“You want to keep the communication channels open, so you can say things like: ‘Are you okay, I’m worried about you and some of your behaviours and that things are OK. I really want to support you with what you’re going through but that behaviour is really concerning,” she says.

“Most people using violence, abuse and coercive control in relationships will see themselves as the victim, so it’s really important that you don’t go along with, or collude with them if they say that it’s the victim’s fault.”

It can also be helpful to share services that offer support in terms of how they’re relating to their relationships.

This includes hotlines like No to Violence, and Mensline Australia.

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