© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2024

Behind Closed Doors: A glimpse into the harsh reality of domestic violence in New Zealand

Georgie Hanafin
shutterstock 1501308344 v2
Domestic harm doesn't discriminate  Shutterstock

Any form of violence or harm within a family or whānau is unacceptable, yet in the year ending June 2022, NZ Police were attending callouts related to domestic harm every three minutes.

*Names have been changed to protect the survivors and their stories

Trigger Warning: This article contains sensitive and potentially distressing descriptions of domestic violence. If you or someone you know is danger, don't hesitate, call 111. Please consider your emotional well-being before reading. 

In the heart of New Zealand, hidden from public view behind closed doors, a disturbing reality unfolds, as exemplified by survivors like Ben* and Sarah*. Their experiences represent just two of the countless stories of abuse and resilience I encountered during my research for this article.

Domestic harm, often referred to as family violence or domestic abuse, casts a pervasive and enduring shadow, leaving deep emotional scars on its victims.

The Family Violence Death Review Committee reports that between 2009 and 2019, there were 292 fatalities in New Zealand attributed to intimate partner violence, child abuse, neglect, or family violence.

Family harm does not discriminate, impacting people of varying ages, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, cultural backgrounds, and belief systems.

Ben's* Story

Ben had separated from his wife and was living in a flat with his young son and a friend when he decided to give Tinder a go. He matched with Rose in early November 2019. By February 2020 he’d be searching Google for ‘how to get a protection order’.  

“Our first date was Guy Fawkes, and she seemed cool. We had similar interests and hobbies. She was looking for casual (she was Canadian and returning home in a few months), and I was newly single and not looking for anything serious, so it seemed like a mutually beneficial arrangement” 

After three weeks of dating, Ben said Rose showed up on his doorstep, suitcases in hand and in tears, claiming her accommodation had fallen through. "She only needed a place to stay for two weeks before her flight home."

However, Ben soon realized he was in trouble. “I quickly found out she was a raging alcoholic, and a nasty and violent drunk.”

According to Ben, Rose frequently launched verbal attacks on his appearance and weight whenever he asked her to stop drinking around his son.

These attacks weren't solely verbal, he said. “She set fire to my pool table and destroyed things around my flat. One time I woke up to her drunk in bed with me, drinking my blood from a nick she’d made in my neck with a razor.”  

Despite this, Ben never called the police, as he knew she was leaving and didn't see the point.

Rose's departure date arrived, but she didn't board the flight. Instead, Ben claims Rose continued to cause havoc in the home he shared with his son.

The situation reached a breaking point one day when Ben was gaming, and his young son played with his trains on the floor. Rose stumbled in, asking to talk to him outside. He followed her out but couldn’t make sense of what she was saying.  

“She was slurring her words and mumbling, so I asked her what was in her cup. This was around lunchtime. She kicked off, so I tipped the contents of the cup in the garden and walked back inside to my boy and our games. She came hurtling up the stairs and flying-kicked me in the back,” he said. “I went down, and she just kept whaling on me, kicking, punching and screaming. My son was screaming. He saw it all. My flatmate heard the commotion and came running in. He pulled her off me and locked her outside.”  

Once again, Ben said he refrained from calling the police because she was supposed to leave the country, and he was aware of how well Rose 'presented herself.'

“You have to understand, this woman was 5ft nothing and weighed 50kg soaking wet. If I’d fought back, I’d have destroyed her. My flatmate and I packed up all her clothes into her suitcases and we dropped her off at the YMCA. I didn’t think I’d ever have to deal with her again.” 

However, Rose never returned to Canada. Ben claimed that she continued to stalk and harass him, prompting him to obtain a protection order to shield himself and his son from her persistent abuse. He doesn't believe he'll ever be free from her.

"I've made multiple calls to the police since that day. I called welfare checks when she threatened suicide, and also when she was stalking me by hanging around outside my house. I've always felt like the feedback I get from the people I've told is to just get over it, which makes it harder and harder to talk about to be honest."

“It’s been nearly four years. And we dated for three weeks. She got a job in my industry, which is notoriously small, she still sends me messages that range from drunken abuse through to nudes and messages about what she thinks I’m ‘missing’. She even sent my partner intimate pictures and videos of herself and hundreds of messages over two days bragging that she could get me back at any time.”

Stephen McPaike
Stephen McPaike stands outside the Chch Men's Centre with the result of his 2020 fundraiser. Stephen McPaike

Christchurch man Stephen McPaike is an advocate for male survivors of domestic harm, and a survivor himself.

In 2020 he completed 29 laps of Hagley Park in 24 hour, raising nearly $3000 for the Canterbury Men's Centre, an organisation that provides counselling and support for men in Ōtautahi.

Stephen says finding information online surrounding data for men is far too hard, and believes there needs to be a societal shift. "We have this belief that men have to be strong and would not be on the receiving end of domestic violence," he said.

Stephen had an important message for anyone who read Ben's story and might relate. "You are not alone," he said. "Most males I have met during my 39 years of life have endured some form of relationship abuse."

He also stressed it was important to find someone you trust and bring them on board. 

"Call the police if you or your family are in danger and contact someone you are close to. If you cannot stay in your current location, ask family or a friend to stay at their place. After you are safe, and when YOU are ready seek counselling for you and/or your family," he said.

Sarah's* Story

Sarah’s* eldest daughter Sophie was only 9 years old, but she knew she had an important job to do before bed – pack her and her sister’s most prized possessions into two bags, ready to be grabbed and thrown in the car the minute her dad fell into his nightly booze-induced coma.

Sarah had already stashed a couple of suitcases filled with clothes, photos, and important papers and documents at a friend’s house, while she built up the courage to escape the man who terrorised her and her kids.

Sophie was sworn to secrecy. 

“The hardest thing for me was waking up to the realisation that I was being abused,” Sarah said. “I’d always thought of myself as this strong, independent woman, so to accept that I was in this abusive relationship was difficult.” 

At first, Sarah said, it was just her he would target, and humiliation was his weapon of choice. She spoke of a work dinner she attended, where her husband knew a lot of her male colleagues and higher-ups.

“I used to dread any event with alcohol,” she said. “He’s charming when he’s drunk, but he’s also mean. He’d undermine me in front of these people I work by making jokes about how slow I was, or how useless a wife or mother I was. The men would always laugh along but the women would give me apologetic looks.” 

When his drinking ramped up, Sarah said things began to turn physical.

“He didn’t care if the kids were in the room or not...sometimes he’d just walk past when I was cooking dinner and pinch me on the leg really hard, or he’d grab my wrist when I’d reach for something. It was all a big display of power.”  

She’d have little to no contact with her husband during the day, but recalls the feeling she'd get right before he was due to walk through the door.

“He’d walk in after a day at work, with a box of beers under his arm, and my stomach would drop. If it was a good day at work, the man he was when he walked in the door would be jovial and high spirited and this mood would remain until his third or fourth beverage. Then he'd get physical.” 

A bad day, Sarah said, meant the first beer usually came with an eerie calm before the storm. “The sound of a can tab popping is still enough to send me back into a full-blown panic attack.” 

When her husband struck their daughter for the first time, Sarah said she knew it was time to go. "I'd always been the punching bag in the hopes he'd leave the kids alone."

She stealthily packed a few more important pieces, and began to get her ducks in a row, ready to leave for good.

Sarah said while making the decision to leave was easy, she knew she only had one opportunity to get it right.

"There were so many cogs moving and everything had to fall perfectly for this to work," she said. "My friend had given me an old phone of hers with a new number, so I sent her a message telling her tonight was the night. We'd already worked out the plan, so now she knew we were putting it into action."

Sarah remembers that night vividly, and said her husband returned home from work earlier than normal, and in a feral mood.

"He's a tradie and a lot of his job relied on other trades doing their jobs properly. That day there'd been a lot of waiting around, which was always a trigger for him."

She said he walked through the door with his box of beers and a bottle of spirits, and immediately started "kicking off".

"He was so angry about everything. The kids were playing too loud, dinner wasn't what he felt like, the house was a mess, I'd let myself go."

Sarah got to work putting the kids to bed, all the while going over the plan for later in her mind.

"I took a real beating that night. For some reason it was easier that time though. I knew it would be the last one he'd ever give me."

Eventually, the man who'd repeatedly broken his vows to love and protect her, fell into his routine drunken slumber.

At 1am, Sarah messaged her buddy, who drove 45 minutes to her house, helped her load her sleeping children into her car, and took her to a safe house.

Here, Sarah would begin the arduous process of officially leaving her abuser, and starting her life again.

New Zealand on the global stage

Once a pioneering nation when it came to granting women the right to vote, New Zealand now finds itself at the bottom of the global rankings when it comes to safeguarding families in their homes.

The Government's Ministry for Women says women face a higher likelihood of experiencing abuse from their partners, which can sometimes be recurrent, and they are also at a greater risk of being subjected to sexual violence. It says the consequences of this violence are severe, enduring, and tragically, in many cases, even deadly. 

Women's Refuge report around 50,000 women and children were referred to their services last year, and on average answer 71 crisis calls per day.

The organisation says around 33% of New Zealand women have experienced physical or sexual intimate partner violence (IPV) in their lifetime, and when psychological abuse, including economic harm, is considered, this figure increases to about 55%.

They also report that one in eight men have disclosed their experience of family violence.

Power and control wheel
The Power and Control Wheel highlights the various forms of abuse experienced by family harm victims, often occurring simultaneously. NZ Police

Victim support organisations online such as Aviva and Good Shepherd NZ say family violence takes on many forms.

It can manifest through physical or sexual violence, emotional manipulation, controlling behavior, jealousy, stalking, and an array of other tactics that strip away the essence of personal dignity. It often remains concealed behind closed doors, leaving its victims trapped in a nightmare of silence.

These groups say no one has the right to harm another person, and victims should never bear the blame for the abuse they endure.

Seeking help can be an arduous journey, but it's one survivors like Sarah say is worth it. 

"It's a process I don't regret. I'd leave and start again any day of the week if it meant I got to live the life I do today."

The following helplines available for people needing help:

If you are a victim of family violence, sexual violence or there is someone that makes you fearful, threatens or harasses you, seek help as soon as possible. You have the right to be safe.