Rosie Batty woke in shock, her home full of “everyone I knew” who had rushed to support her.
The afternoon before, her only child, Luke, 11, had been beaten and knifed to death by his father in daylight in front of her and others at his cricket practice, and Rosie’s friends were discussing ways to deal with the media outside.
Rosie Batty and her 12-week pup, Spencer.Credit:Simon Schluter
Composed but clearly broken, Batty branded her message into the consciousness of a horrified nation: “I want to tell everybody that family violence happens to everybody, no matter how nice your house is, no matter how intelligent you are.”
Not long after, thanks to an introduction by a journalist, the grieving mother found herself in the office of someone he thought she should meet. She was accompanied to her first conversation with then opposition leader Daniel Andrews and his legal adviser, Jaclyn Symes — now Victoria’s Attorney- General — by Fiona McCormack, then head of the state’s peak family violence body, Domestic Violence Victoria. She also took along a personal friend.
“Jackie was in tears, other people were in tears. Fiona and I got out and she said, ‘I was about to make some really ugly noises’, because she was trying to hold back hers,” Batty recalls.
“We all credited that meeting with the impact [the issue of family violence] had on Daniel Andrews, who had a son the same age as Luke.”
They also credited it with planting the seeds for Andrews’ core 2014 election promise of establishing the country’s first royal commission into family violence. At Labor’s state conference shortly after, in May 2014, he declared Victoria’s family violence system “doesn’t protect the vulnerable, it doesn’t punish the guilty, it doesn’t save enough lives”.
The 13-month inquiry Andrews commissioned from former Supreme Court Justice Marcia Neave heard from 800 Victorians and took 1000 written submissions. It handed down 227 recommendations on March 29, 2016, in a 1900-page report.
We expect [women] to be lying, and require them to prove they are telling the truth.
Batty gave a moving witness statement on Day 16, August 10, 2015, describing the impact on the self-esteem of victims — “it is so eroded that you believe it’s your fault. You’re depleted in every way” — and the fact that there was a culture of women not being believed. “We expect them to be lying, and require them to prove they are telling the truth,” she said.
“It is dangerous for a woman to show her emotions. As soon as she is seen to be emotional, depressed or anxious, it works against her and she is seen to be neurotic and untrustworthy.”
Batty talked about the culture of victim-blaming and how the “why didn’t she leave?” debate was an enormous obstacle, and emphasised that family violence was a gendered issue, not one that could be easily explained away as simply caused by alcohol and drug use or other background issues.
She said she believed that one of the reasons she was able to speak and be listened to at 100 organisations in the year since Luke’s death was “because I am white, middle-class, well-educated and articulate. If I did belong to a rough neighbourhood, or I were Indigenous, or from another ethnic background or had a disability, I would not be heard”.
When the commission’s report was tabled, government immediately committed to introducing all recommendations and assigned nearly $3 billion to efforts for better prevention of violence, better response and support for victims and better holding of perpetrators to account.
As its five-year anniversary approaches, Batty — now 59 and a former Australian of the Year — is among many assessing the question: Are women and children (the primary victims) safer from being injured, killed or experiencing other forms of family violence?
Do the thousands of hours of work and millions of dollars ploughed into police and court systems, prevention programs, risk assessment structures, education, the health system, crisis support, men’s behaviour change and into vast information-sharing upgrades, new safety hubs and legislative reforms mean what happened to Luke and Rosie Batty couldn’t happen again?
Batty says some good groundwork has been laid.
“One of the key things for me [in the recommendations] was about the siloed approach that existed in how women and children were treated. That siloed approach doesn’t help, people fall through the cracks … I was particularly encouraged by the concept of the Orange Door system and the integrated approach,” she says.
Orange Door was the eventual name given to the priority reform of creating “one-stop shop” family violence hubs in all 17 Victorian local government areas, at a cost of nearly $450 million. Inside these, clients and perpetrators are triaged into case management, support and shelter.
Seven of the 17 Orange Doors are up and running, but an Auditor-General’s report on their effectiveness, tabled in Parliament in May last year, found they had been rushed and poorly implemented, and had not yet demonstrated any benefit to victims of violence.
The government has vowed to address the issues, and Batty says “if they could get that right, this is a really key improvement for victim survivors”.
You still battle police not understanding … stalking or coercive control, where the victim can be portrayed as the problem.
She is also encouraged by changes to policing of family violence and to information sharing. At the inquest into her son’s death, Coroner Ian Gray noted several “missed opportunities” existed in the run-up to the murder. Luke’s killer, Greg Anderson, was on two intervention orders and subject to four arrest warrants that had not been executed.
With 20 of the 21 recommendations regarding police policies, systems, training and practices ticked off as implemented, Batty believes “at the end of the day, you are more likely to get a good response than you were some time ago”. But she still holds reservations.
“You still battle police not understanding the risks; whether it’s stalking or coercive control where sometimes the victim can be portrayed as the problem — those are the things that happened to me during the course of my violence. It was me having to work really hard to try to get him arrested and of course, what was the outcome?
“When this happened to me, men were not being held accountable for breaches of intervention orders. There’s many reasons why a lot of women do not want to go to the police. Ultimately, going to the police is one thing and then finding actually they’re not taking this as seriously as you’ve been led to believe they would [is another],” she says.
On whether discernible progress had been made towards ensuring men on court orders obeyed them, and women and children were protected, she says: “We still excuse [perpetrator] behaviour, but now you are much more likely to have a breach taken seriously.
“Within the Magistrates Court system, we’ve had a lot of training; and that again will affect how you are treated in court. [When she was in the system] it was very judgmental, very victim-blaming, minimising your experience, treating you as ‘less than’. I believe that has improved.”
Despite the sweeping system change since 2016, family violence incidents continue to rise in Victoria and are now at an all-time high, increasing from 77,987 in 2015-16 to 88,214 in 2019-20.
But Coroner’s Court data shows the number of family violence deaths has declined, from 38 in 2015-16 to 27 in 2019-20. This still equates to just over one person dying every two weeks in Victoria as a result of family violence.
Associate Professor Kate Fitz-Gibbon, director of the Monash Gender and Family Violence Prevention Centre, says she is not aware of evidence that suggests a correlation between the reforms and the decline in deaths: “Given the size of the numbers, it is not possible to suggest a decline when the overall number of women killed does still go up and down across any one to two years.
We still excuse [perpetrator] behaviour, but now you are much more likely to have a breach taken seriously.
“We are not seeing a definite decline consistently over 10 years. It is encouraging that the last two years have been lower but in 2017-18, there were 38 women killed, the same number as the year of the royal commission in 2015-16. The decline is not sustained nor consistent.”
Batty says though some improvements since the reform process began are pleasing, the target of the reforms must be zero deaths, and statistics show “we’re still a long way from women and children being safe”.
“You have to aim for no murders, no deaths, for this to stop. Because accepting one or two is not good enough,” she says. “It’s a huge task that we’ve ignored all of our lifetimes, and all of the previous generations’, [at least] we know more now.”
Tania Farha, CEO of the newly merged peak family violence body DVRCV, says it was Batty’s bravery in speaking out, “joining the calls of many strong advocates before her and inspiring the many survivors who are speaking out now”, that created a catalyst for the royal commission.
“Her experience of family violence, and her efforts to protect her son, Luke, and herself is a story shared by many victim survivors,” says Farha. “Rosie has a way of telling her story and speaking about family violence in plain language that struck a chord with everyday Australians.”
”Rosie transformed her grief into an incredible force for change, and she has continued to give so much through her advocacy.” Former police chief Ken Lay has also credited the large up-tick in public interest and concern about family violence to “the Rosie Batty factor”.
Batty agrees that the heavy focus on prevention in the recommendations – which produced the state’s new prevention agency Respect Victoria — has contributed to far greater awareness of issues around family violence and its precursors. Respect Victoria was created under the state’s Prevention of Family Violence Act (2018) and is a statutory body headed by former Hawthorn Football Club CEO Tracey Gaudry. It uses research to create campaigns aimed at preventing family violence.
Batty is particularly pleased with the implementation of one of the key initiatives she wanted: Respectful Relationships education in schools.
“It was an area I advocated strongly for, and again Victoria put into thousands of schools. [Latest figures show most of the 2542 state schools, 227 of 498 Catholic schools and 56 independent schools have adopted it; the rest of the public system will have taken it up by March 31.]
“It delights me to see the potential within our school system being harnessed [for prevention], that is where we are going to see generational change,” Batty says.
Respectful Relationships is considered by many to be the best respect and sexuality teaching tool in Australia, and other states are being urged to adopt it. It is a direct result of the Royal Commission’s findings and Batty’s advocacy that she hopes is making a difference.
As for the personal life of the woman who lost her anonymity the moment she shared her raw grief and took up her crusade, the intense work of the seven years since Luke’s passing — including 280 speaking engagements in her year as 2015 Australian of the Year and 180 the following year — has given way, for now, to a less frenetic period.
She still lives on acreage in the Tyabb home she shared with Luke, and spends much time with her pets, including two donkeys, a horse, a cat and three treasured dogs (black lab Nelson, rescued schnauzer Jack, and Spencer the English cockerpaniel puppy, with whom she is a regular fixture at local dog parks and beaches).
She lives mainly alone, though she has a long-term lodger, a friend who splits his time between Tyabb and his partner’s home in the suburbs of Melbourne. She has been a director of the Royal Women’s Hospital since June 2019.
Batty says the time she had out to grieve and restore her energy after the whirlwind years of early public life, and the difficult decision to close the Luke Batty Foundation in 2018, have helped her to see that for years after Luke’s death, she was battling symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Those symptoms were due to trauma related to Luke’s murder and her family violence experience, she says, and not a result of attacks on her for highlighting the gendered nature of violence against women by figures including Mark Latham.
“Three years ago, I was really needing to take some time out, I realised my pace was unsustainable. I didn’t realise how much further grieving there was to go … I can talk about my psychological health now because I can look back and see where I’ve come from,” she says.
“I was struggling at different times but I didn’t have a name for it or realise what exactly it was. I can see a lot of the time I was Australian of the Year and for quite a while I was struggling with PTSD, [from] the hyper-vigilance and extreme reactions to things that seem exaggerated and disproportionate.”
In her darkest moments during this period, “obviously there were times where I just didn’t want to keep going. This is why when the foundation was closed that was a bloody difficult level of despair”.
She completed her three years as the chairperson of Victoria’s inaugural family violence Victim Survivor Advisory Council in late 2019, but is still involved with elements of the advocacy sector and feels ready to re-enter the public speaking arena now her psychological health is good.
“For so long, I just immersed myself [in family violence advocacy] because it was my way of getting through and surviving,” she says. “Seven years later [after Luke’s death], I’m much closer to being the person who I’d like to be and the person who I used to be.
“I feel I want to enjoy life, and make the most of my life, which also means I have to have balance and other things that bring me joy and happiness.”
In several conversations with Batty, she sounds more relaxed and at ease than she has in public appearances at the peak of her fame. She allows herself a hearty laugh and says she is looking forward to returning to the passion she developed prior to COVID-19, completing long walks in beautiful locations around the world.
Batty says she feels “challenged sometimes” about what her ongoing part is in the struggle to prevent and address violence against women, and acknowledges that “it really does take a lot out of you when you are advocating [around] something that is so damaging”.
Still, it would be unwise to assume we have seen the last of the woman to whom the beginnings of such a massive effort to fix a broken system are in no small measure attributed. “For the rest of my life this is going to continue to be a problem,” Batty says, “and it’s not going to fix itself.”
If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service on 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), Lifeline 131 114, or Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.
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