Cameron Howe, The Mordialloc Chronicle
March 24, 2018
Mordialloc’s Emma Gierschick is an authority on the subject of family violence, a survivor herself, and might just be the very person to bring reforms to family violence that will save many lives.
Emma had no safe refuge from the psychological abuse that included screaming, threatening and physical assaults. “It was like sleeping with one eye open and you can’t sleep,” she said.
Always, it was about protection for both herself and her daughter, who has Down’s Syndrome. Her former partner’s behaviour followed a similar pattern, there would be an incident, remorse and the ‘honeymoon phase’, before a repeat performance. “Perpetrators are all about power and control.” He was a “narcissistic psychopath.”
The short fuse between violence and rejection drives the behaviour of abusers, says Emma. She believes that in many circumstances offenders have failed to address past issues, and pushed ahead, harming others in the process.
After four years of abuse and on the third attempt, Emma left her partner, who had been violent the day prior. “I planned, prepared, screwed money away and investigated support services. I was basically case-managing myself to get out,” she says.
Her opinion is that many women develop low self-esteem from the sheer isolation that they experience, making it difficult to escape the trauma, which is often exacerbated by financial dependence. Unable to gain assistance in regional Victoria, she moved in with a friend who had a Melbourne address to gain support.
“It wasn’t easy. I was instantly relieved, but incredibly nervous. I had to take control back.”
Emma allowed her child’s father into her new Bayside home to stay overnight on a mattress when visiting her daughter. He would leave something behind each visit in a plot to move back, before emptying the pantry and fridge. The physical and verbal abuse continued, with her daughter’s father unable to accept her decision. “I was terrified when I awoke to find him standing in the middle of the doorway staring at me.”
What followed were desperate attempts to punish Emma, who was dragged through the courts by her former partner, whilst she herself entered into the beginning of a three-year war to secure an intervention order and sole parental custody. During this stressful period, Emma who was largely representing herself in the courts was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“I had two fights – life and law,” she says.
Following the finalisation of parental custody and obtaining an intervention order, Emma’s privacy was breached when her former partner was given her new address by a hospital. Despite Emma requesting the hospital keep the intervention order on file, they refused. She now sits on an advisory panel to hospitals in relation to family violence and intervention orders are consequently now kept on file.
The 2016 Family Violence Royal Commission presented 227 recommendations, however, failed to consider special needs children. “It was not complete and children with disabilities were completely overlooked. I put in two recommendations while I was having a chemo infusion in hospital,” she says.
So, Emma created the Special Needs Assessment Template, which affords greater protection to disabled children exposed to family violence. It’s a simple two-page document covering several key areas to jog the carer’s memory in preparation for court, from communication to behavioural issues. In her own personal experience, the judge was about to make a ruling without taking into consideration the challenges a child with a disability may face when exposed to violence.
“I realised that this was the missing piece in the jigsaw puzzle, and that no-one was considering the additional vulnerabilities that children with disabilities may have, which was effectively putting them in danger.”
“As a carer quite often people are burnt out. It can be difficult to detail the vulnerabilities and easy to forget to mention key things because the legal process overwhelms them.”
The template was published in the federal parliamentary inquiry into family law and violence. It is supported by various politicians and NGOs, but notably by members of the Department of Premier and Cabinet, Commission for Children and Young People, Deputy Disability Services Commissioner, Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, and Association for Children with a Disability.
“This could start making a difference tomorrow and people are astounded that we have overlooked children with disabilities.”
Whilst reaching out to key decision-makers has presented many barriers, there has been a strong uptake of the template since its November launch by workplaces across Australia. As a White Ribbon advocate and consultant, Emma recently spoke at the Sydney’s National Family and Domestic Violence Summit and International Stop Violence Conference in Melbourne.
“I am committing the rest of my life to protecting children and applying to speak at various conferences.”
Emma Gierschick’s incredible story has inspired many and she is a nominee in this year’s Victorian Disability Awards. Emma can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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