Professional counsellors need to use domestic violence checklists

Professional counsellors need training to identify, motivate and constructively support people to leave abusive relationships

Professional counsellors were only just beginning to become alert to domestic violence at the time I left my home in 2008, Sophie thought as she walked back from the supermarket with her aunt Bea’s sturdy old shopping trolley, filled with treats for their last dinner together on this holiday with her.  Bea’s question at the end of their last conversation had dogged Sophie for the whole hour’s walk in the early afternoon, with glimmers of sunshine piercing heavy clouds in icy winds.

Bea was still having her afternoon nap when Sophie crept in the front door. Without her hearing aids in her ears, her aunt slept through anything; however, Sophie always took precautions. She silently picked up the trolley bag, removed her running shoes and tiptoed past the closed bedroom door, then closed the passage door to the large living room which included the kitchen along the back wall. After packing away all the shopping, Sophie opened her tablet and began typing notes from the lunch time conversation.

Within half an hour, Bea emerged. ‘Oh, it’s cold. Did you get wet outside?’

‘The rain didn’t quite make it to the ground, so I had a good hour’s very fresh air, thanks. How was your sleep?’

‘As usual I fell into a deep sleep, but I awoke cold. I snuggled under the cover, but I just couldn’t stop wondering why none of those professional counsellors you mentioned hadn’t questioned you about domestic violence.’

‘A few did gently, but then there was no help to do it. Unfortunately, professional counsellors’ training didn’t include a domestic violence checklist, even though domestic violence advocates had been pushing for this.’

‘Well, you’ve been at university far more recently than I have, and I’m interested to know how professional counsellors were trained with regard to this.’

‘In 2010, the Masters in Clinical Psychology lecturers weren’t interested in relationship therapy, let alone the dynamics or warning signs of domestic violence.’

‘Gee, that’s incredible!’

‘Mmm… and that was only seven years ago.’

‘So if neither they nor the police are of any help, where do you go? I can understand there being no professional counsellors’ help in Alida’s lifetime, but this is ridiculous in these modern times.’

‘Well, the first professional to pick up domestic violence was my local doctor – in fact, all three of my GPs over those nine years had made notes.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘When I had to fight in court for the legal protection order. It’s called a Violence Restraining Order in West Australia. I had to collect a lot of evidence. As you know, he got a defence lawyer who was regarded as the ‘worst’, meaning undefeatable, by the lovely lawyer I started with. He had already got me to start collecting evidence, and we had lined up my GP for a hearing that got postponed, but that’s another story.’

‘Yes, let’s just discuss what the doctors said in those notes. I am curious to know.’

‘The main point is that they’d all made notes without me being aware of them doing so, until the third GP was contacted by my lawyer. Now I remember how the second doctor was telling me that the difficulties I was having were not acceptable. She was urging me to leave him, and this may have been the reason why we stayed apart for a number of years.’

‘I remember those years when you were separated. Your uncle and I discussed it a couple of times. What happened to that doctor?’

Sophie looked like she was going to cry. ‘She was the same age as me. But she got breast cancer. Her parents happened to be friends with mine. She nearly died because the cancer was pretty bad by the time she’d noticed it. Once she had survived all the cancer treatment, she changed her lifestyle.’ Sophie raked her hair. ‘My friend who’d referred me to her had found another lovely woman doctor and asked if I could be accepted as a patient at her practice. Luckily for me, when I phoned, they agreed to see me.’

‘But what did any of them do?’

Sophie burst into laughter, ‘The first doctor was a man, who retired about a year after I’d found him. Both my ex and I went to him when we got a bad dose of the flu. He became our family doctor.’

Bea started to laugh. ‘What is so funny? You’re laughing when you are telling me about serious things.’

‘On a few occasions, my ex would come home from having sunspots removed.’ Sophie was overcome with giggles again. ‘He’d say that the doctor seemed to find pleasure by inflicting as much pain as he could while cutting them out rather than using nitrogen to remove them. My ex described the situation with his hands as he said, “He seemed to really dig down…”’

Sophie couldn’t stop laughing.

‘But tell me, what was so funny? What you have just told me clearly gives you a lot of pleasure today, but we were talking about the doctors’ notes about the domestic violence.’

‘Well at the time, I mentioned to my ex that even the nitrogen really hurts sometimes. I was quite concerned that his sunspots might be serious, and asked if he’d had a biopsy taken. He remembered that that was the reason the spots were cut out.’

‘Okay. So why are you laughing so much now?’

‘Well, the doctor would have very long talks with me about PTSD, because he’d been trying to help other patients with it. It was 2000 when not much was known about PTSD.’ Sophie gulped a few mouthfuls of her vegetables.

‘But what does this have to do with your ex having sunspots cut out?’

‘Sorry, I’m trying to work out which conversation came first. In putting myself in the doctor’s shoes; I’m thinking he built up my trust by discussing PTSD. When he took so much time chatting with me, I wondered what was going on. He’d said I was the last client for the day. He didn’t want me to treat the chap’s PTSD because it was some years earlier.’ Sophie nibbled some more greens.

‘As always, your memory amazes me. It has been seventeen years since 2000.’

‘What does ring in my years is how suddenly the doctor asked me, “So how are his sunspots?” Of course, I mentioned that he’d complained a lot about how much it hurt having them cut out.’ Sophie’s beaming face broke into laughter, again. ‘Do you know what he then said?’

Professional counsellors
Professional counsellors need to explore below the surface

Bea sat back glaring. ‘No! I’m waiting for you to tell me.’

‘He kept typing on his computer and said, “It wasn’t supposed to.”’

Bea’s mouth gaped, then a deep, slow ‘He he he’ rumbled up from her belly. It was Bea’s turn to laugh. ‘What a pity it’s taken you so long to remember what seems like a wonderful act of revenge – even though I don’t think the doctor meant it like that. But I can see how you could’ve misheard him and it may have felt good for you to think of it that way.’

‘Well at the time, the doctor then gave me a serious talk. He asked me why I put up with my ex. He said that at my age I had the world at my feet. Things like that.’

‘He was right. Did he have any helpful ideas of how you might go about leaving?’

‘No. He just told me to “get rid of” my ex. He was not a lot younger than Dad at the time, so they both said the same thing. Of course, I felt ashamed and avoided the doctor as much as possible. I don’t need doctors much anyway.’

Bea looked puzzled. ‘Were you ashamed?’

‘Even now, it’s not something women tell just anybody. Personally, I felt ashamed of having chosen such a bad partner, for not having the courage to leave him, and, deep down, almost believed that I was to blame for what occurred. He certainly blamed me for his behaviour.’

Bea thudded back into her chair, chin cradled between forefinger and thumb, elbow cradled in the other hand on her tummy. ‘I guess I’ve been told about domestic violence by my children, and as a social worker seem to find myself discussing it with other people. But you’re right, I’ve never heard gossip or overheard other people discussing it.’

‘I now wonder if perhaps the doctor also advised my ex, who had been threatening to leave for some time but never did.’

‘How long did this go on for?’

‘I think it was only five weeks after we bought the first house together that he started to threaten me. Somewhere along the line, I got some Dutch courage and put the sliding lock on the front door, so that even when the key was turned you couldn’t open it from outside.’

‘That was either brave or stupid. What did it turn out to be?’

‘The door was full of windows. So he just smashed one with his briefcase and opened the door.’


‘There was some shouting by both of us. He told me to never do that again and shouldered me at any opportunity. But then he refused to discuss whether or not he was going to move out.’

‘How could you live like that?’

‘He moved into another bedroom where his big bed was. The situation drifted on like that for months.’

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