It became second nature — each morning as Pamela McConchie travelled to work, she would get ready to put on her ‘mask’.
For more than a decade, slipping on that cool, calm exterior was just part of her daily routine. As the owner of a recruitment company and professional businesswoman, she knew this mask — the competent and savvy one — had to stay on all day.
But when she returned home each night, the mask would come off revealing the woman underneath — someone scared, bracing herself for what could happen when she walked through that door.
Moving on: Domestic violence survivor Pamela McConchie kept her violent relationship hidden from everyone, including her friends and family. Picture: Rob Carew
She knew that at any time, her partner may hit her. And during the bad times, he did.
“There’s an incredible amount of shame knowing that you’re a professional person and you’re caught up in this sort of relationship,” Ms McConchie says.
“So I kept it hidden. For the whole time I kept it hidden. I knew it was wrong but didn’t know how to change it.”
Up until five years ago, when she finally mustered the courage to leave the relationship, the Ringwood East mother was one of the many family violence victims in the eastern and south-eastern suburbs.
The most recent figures from Victoria Police show the number of reported incidents has risen dramatically in the past few years — up 43.6 per cent.
In Monash, the number of reported cases has increased from 592 in 2009-10 to 924 in 2011-12. In Knox, the increase is similar, from 904 in 2009-10 to 1379 for the same period.
For those working in the field — such as women’s support groups and police — the numbers show that new approaches to investigating the crime, and raising awareness of the issue are working. Victims are more willing to report cases to police or use the support services available to get out.
Ms McConchie was with her partner for 13 years. The relationship became violent “very early on”.
After each time he hit her, a screaming voice inside her would insist she leave. But Ms McConchie, like most other women caught up in similar situations, found it incredibly difficult to leave the man she fell in love with.
Eventually in 2009 after several attempts, she left the relationship for good, but not before there was much emotional damage to both her and her daughter, now 14.
Ms McConchie credits the help of her immediate family and then support groups, which she had avoided for years, as the reason why she could finally leave.
She now works as a media advocate for Women’s Health East and regularly speaks about her experience to encourage other women to speak up about their problems.
She believes the number of incidents is rising primarily because victims are more willing to report an abusive partner. “It’s become more open, that’s my opinion. There are advocates out there talking about it whereas before there was no one.”
Dandenong Police family violence liaison officer Sergeant Gary Gladwell says the spike in figures is down to a combination of factors.
“We’re enforcing the reporting of family violence incidents more, and people are more prepared to report matters to the police as a result of better education programs out there.”
The Dandenong police run a dedicated recidivist family violence unit, which launched as a pilot program in April last year. The unit can receive more than 100 call-outs a month — and many of those might be to the same address.
Sergeant Gladwell says the Dandenong unit, and similar ones in Casey and Knox, have proved invaluable, but it was now down to the public to ensure intimate partner violence is eradicated.
“We’re pretty much at the limit of what we can do. We need the co-operation of female victims; it’s very hard to prosecute without their help.”
He says it is not uncommon for a woman to be beaten by her partner, call the police and then back down at the final hurdle.
There is a growing base of research on why men hit the person closest to them in the first place. While unemployment, work stress, upbringing and substance abuse are all cited as contributing factors, research overwhelmingly shows that gender inequality and power imbalances are the prime reason.
A 2009 report from the National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and Children found that domestic violence stemmed from “an ongoing pattern of behaviour aimed at controlling one’s partner through fear”.
Ms McConchie’s own attempts to reach into the male psyche lead her to suspect sexism is a big part of it.
“I don’t know, from the male’s point of view. I don’t know why they hit the female in their life but they won’t go out and hit the workmate or their mates or anyone,” she says.
“They have the anger, but they don’t actually lash out at others. They only lash out at us. And I don’t know why that is.”
The children who witness violent acts within their home can also be severely affected.
Ms McConchie says her daughter changed from a grade-A, affable student to a quiet and reserved person who took 80 days off school last year and spent much of her time alone.
She has no doubt this was because of the violence she witnessed and the fear that her mother may leave.
“It breaks my heart to know that I have inadvertently done this to her and I am doing everything to put into place a solution for her.”
She says her daughter still loves her father dearly but the violence and uncertainty of the past has changed her. “She is still the same beautiful child she was but there is a sadness for, and total disconnect from, everything around her. She is lonely and keeps herself hidden.”
Pakenham mother Lisa Fothergill, a foster carer who looks after children who’ve witnessed severe domestic violence, says it is easy to tell the children who come from this sort of background. “Some of the boys have been disrespectful to me as a woman and called me names that most likely they’ve heard their mother been called,” she says.
“I’ve found that the girls are also quite jumpy. For example, if you touch their hair they coil back and get worried very quickly.”
The after-effects of domestic violence range from child to child.
“Some are completely traumatised from the past and have nightmares, while others become completely desensitised to it. I see these kids watching TV and when something [violent] happens and you expect them to say ‘woah’, they just sit there.”
If you are experiencing family violence, contact:
■ Eastern Domestic Violence Service: 9259 4200
■ Men’s Referral Service: 1800 065 973 or 9428 2899
■ Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service: 1800 015 188 or 9322 3555
■ In an emergency, call Triple-O.
Number of reported incidents by local government area
Yarra Ranges: 675
Yarra Ranges: 1068
Source: Victoria Police