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Coercive control a factor in almost every domestic violence death reviewed in Canberra over two decades

A woman sits on a park bench
Canberra Capitals player Alex Bunton found it hard to speak out about the domestic abuse she was experiencing.()

When professional basketballer Alex Bunton first met the man who would become her abuser, everything seemed perfect. The former Opal and current Canberra Capitals player was going on dates and planning a future which included marriage and children. 

But things moved almost too quickly. 

And looking back now, it's the phrase "too good to be true" which springs to mind to describe that early period.

"He had that ability to influence my emotions or influence any of those – second guessing moments – it was almost like he narrated how they went," she said.

"Whenever things got hard, or things got tough it was quickly shadowed and made up for … it was like I didn't have time to think there was something wrong."

Women playing basketball
On the court, Bunton uses her platform to spread awareness about domestic violence. (Supplied: Alex Bunton. )

'Hard to put into words' the abuse she experienced

Bunton soon became used to the feeling of being constantly checked in on.

She learned how to regulate his emotions and how to defuse tense situations.

Even now, years later, Bunton said it was "hard to put into words" how that manipulation progressed because so much of it seemed like it could be happening in a normal relationship.

"It's that one-sided thing, like, I'm doing all these things but he's not taking into consideration how I'm feeling," she reflected.

It was financial abuse which started next. 

Bunton's abuser would regularly check her phone and bank accounts, encouraging her to spend more of her money on him and making her feel guilty for not doing so. 

The lack of privacy also meant Bunton became isolated from her friends, family and the sport she had dedicated her life to.

"There was no freedom of being able to confide in anyone," she said.

Alex Bunton holding her daughter up above her head while standing on a basketball cout.
Alex Bunton says her daughter, Opal, has been her reason "why". (Supplied: Alex Bunton)

Bunton quickly became alone and isolated

Bunton recalls telling her abuser stories about her day and rather than him supporting her through any issues she was having with colleagues or family, he would make them seem worse.

"So bad that I should drift away … that I don't need that in my life. I've got him, I don't need anyone else," she said.

"Even the sport that I retired from, I drifted so far away from that basketball bubble because I was made [to feel] that I didn't need that in my life anymore."

Over time, she found herself almost entirely alone — except for him.

And even though she knew something was wrong, reaching out for support seemed impossible because she felt she would be ruining the life they were trying to build.

But when he did hit her, that changed.

Pregnant with her daughter, Opal, and on her birthday, Bunton did call the police and her abuser was eventually convicted.

"I just kept holding on to the gut feeling [of] it's wrong. It's wrong. It's wrong. This is not OK," she said.

The ACT Domestic and Family Violence Review Biennial Report for 2023 shows Bunton's case is rare — for many there is never any escape.

Coercive control a major risk factor in DV deaths

In just over two decades, there were more than 130 domestic violence deaths in the ACT.

An in-depth analysis of 12 of these cases revealed coercive control had been at play in almost every case.

In 75 per cent of these instances – which covered not only murders but DV-related suicides as well – there had not been any physical violence before the death.

The report also found nine of the offenders and victims were from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds.

Those are households where domestic violence often goes unreported and even unrecognised, advocates say.

Creating safe spaces for multicultural women

A woman sits at the table
Shamaruh Mirza says it's important women from multicultural backgrounds have safe spaces to talk.(ABC News: Lottie Twyford)

Shamaruh Mirza co-founded SiTara's Story to give women from CALD backgrounds a place to discuss stigmatised topics such as domestic violence.

"It works with women, children and also men because we believe that we have to make the changes all together," Dr Mirza explained.

"It's not only educating the women but decoding the men."

She said many women who came to the workshops did not understand the different aspects of domestic violence beyond the physical elements.

Financial abuse, Dr Mirza said, could be hard for women to recognise, particularly if they had witnessed their own mother and grandmother treated in the same way and not allowed to open a bank account or have their own income.

She said weaponising a fear of deportation could also play a role.

"I have heard of incidents … [where] there is a fear of the wife not getting residency," she said.

"There is always a threat that if you go and report, you will be deported. Or, I will take the child and you will not get access."

Dr Mirza explained a lack of mobility including not having a drivers licence, not speaking English and being isolated from the broader community could also mean women didn't know where to go for support.

"We give them the support that you're safe here and you can talk about that," she said.

"It does help."

A woman stands outside an office building wearing a yellow jacket
ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner, Heidi Yates, says they're monitoring the effect of coercive control laws in other jurisdictions.(ABC News: Lottie Twyford)

More education, conversations about coercive control needed

Other advocates agreed that more education was needed across the community about the fact that not all domestic violence was physical.

The ACT's victims of crime commissioner Heidi Yates said patterns of abuse and intimidation could look different for everyone.

"It may be about stopping where someone goes in community, stopping them from spending time with friends and family, controlling what they wear or what they eat or access to finances," she said.

"These are the things that can in fact lead to very high-risk of someone being killed by a partner or ex-partner."

Ms Yates said it wasn't yet clear if other jurisdictions' moves to criminalise coercive control were having the desired effect.

"We know that any law reform must be accompanied by detailed communication and education campaigns across both community and the justice sector responsible for responding to violence," she said.

"We need to be having these conversations … in all of the places where people talk about life."

CEO of the ACT's Domestic Violence Crisis Service Sue Webeck said coercive control often didn't fit into what would traditionally be thought of as abuse.

"It is the subversive looks that have a threatening consequence to them," she said.

"It is the fact that someone is put into position where they second-guess their own decision making."

She said it was important the frontline service system could respond to victims of coercive control.

"We have to have a service response that is actually ready to recognise coercive control and trained to respond appropriately," she said.

Bunton's experience navigating the justice system had shown her firsthand how difficult it had been to prove elements of coercive control.

Sue Webeck of the Domestic Violence Crisis Service speaks about family-violence related incidentsSue Webeck of the Domestic Violence Crisis Service says many DV victims may never want to report to police.

She said the only evidence of emotional abuse she was able to share had been included in her victim support letter, which her dad had read out in court on her behalf.

"Obviously, talking to lawyers and the police, I'd write it in my statements ... anything that I could tell them, I told them, but it wasn't necessarily used in court," she said.

"These are the things people don't see … it's not on a piece of paper. They might have a recording, they might have something, but in most cases they don't."

ACT government keeping an eye on moves to criminalise coercive control

Ethos statue outside ACT Legislative Assembly building
Under ACT law, coercive control can be covered by the Family Violence Act but it's not a standalone offence. (666 ABC Canberra: Clarissa Thorpe)

The ACT government has been keeping a watching brief on other jurisdictions' moves to make coercive control a standalone offence. 

Last year, Queensland introduced legislation which made coercive control a standalone offence carrying a maximum penalty of 14 years in jail. 

A draft bill released in New South Wales proposed laws which would mean a person found guilty of repeatedly subjecting a partner to physical, sexual, psychological or financial abuse could face seven years' jail. 

In the ACT, coercion is listed as a form of family violence under the Family Violence Act. 

A spokesperson for the government said that meant a person affected by it could seek a family violence order (FVO) over it. 

Breaching an FVO carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison or an $80,000 fine. 

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