Sarah Ferguson: What six months on the frontline of family violence has taught me

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Clip: Hitting Home with Sarah Ferguson

Award-winning journalist Sarah Ferguson made her name with hard-hitting investigative reporting like ABC's Hitting Home. Vision courtesy ABC.

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When you watch Hitting Home, the ABC's new documentary on family violence, you will be frightened. 

Frightened yet transfixed. Sit still, watch every moment.  

Your understanding of why women don't leave abusive partners will change just as dramatically as journalist Sarah Ferguson's understanding has after spending six months on the frontline of our national crisis.  

Sarah Ferguson inside a women's refuge.

Sarah Ferguson inside a women's refuge. Photo: ABC

Ferguson recalls the only other recent story she has done on domestic violence. It was a program she made for Four Corners just three years ago about poverty in Sydney's west. Much like Hitting Home, she enters the lives of struggling families.  Much like Hitting Home, her ability to empathise without looking like a phony meant people revealed a lot. 

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But there was one family in particular where she gave quite a lot of space to a man trying to explain away his violent behaviour. And she used his quotes: "In the full blush of my ignorance . . . he blurted out perfect jargon . . . it  only now really registers what was going on in that family."

And if the ABC's most insightful reporter can be fooled, no wonder so many of the rest of us ask that question. 

"There is an army of domestic violence liaison officers in the police, doing an incredible amount of  work with subtle ...

"There is an army of domestic violence liaison officers in the police, doing an incredible amount of work with subtle understanding and real compassion for the people they come across." Photo: Mark Rogers/ ABC

"Why doesn't she leave?"

Ferguson's documentary will answer those questions, looking at the victims, questioning the perpetrators, examining those who help and support the women who need it. 

"Those women are so fantastic, they just blaze a trail that I just walk behind," she says. "They are dealing with shame and fear and embarrassment."

And despite that, they can muster the courage to leave.

She is reserved when asked if she is disturbed by what she saw – it probably wouldn't do for Sarah Ferguson to admit that anything disrupts her calm. But there is a scene where she is cuddling and rocking a baby of a young woman who escaped to a refuge so she could keep her child.

"The thing that troubles me is the children . . . that just makes you angry. It is those months and years of human unhappiness as women become subjugated to [the perpetrators].

Once people understand this, they stop asking why victims don't leave. And they start asking why the perpetrator is behaving in that way.

"Once you understand that control is the precursor or the condition we are talking about then you stop asking questions in the same way . . . people need to understand that control comes first. If you understand what happens under a regime of extreme control, it is hard to take action. You are ground down by that and the subtlety of that exertion of control."

Hitting Home has been in production for two years now. Director Ivan O'Mahoney and series producer Nial Fulton spent last year working on getting extraordinary access to courts, to safe rooms, to the stories of the women, the children the men.

Ferguson says she can't remember whether the conversation to make Hitting Home began before or after the murder of Luke Batty but she does think that Rosie Batty's resolve made the conversation much easier.

"That was the moment the [public discourse] really shifted . . . Rosie's capacity to talk close the the rawness of her grief change the conversation profoundly.

"She was able to get outside and she didn't want to be managed NOT to speak. That absolute first rawness took us closer, closer to raw testimony. She is plain spoken and able to show compassion and speak frankly around domestic violence."

So after two years, what does Ferguson think we can do?

"The responsibility lies with all of us. We need to talk about every relationship and we are all in this together."

That's a big task – but she has some smaller goals we could manage in NSW. That includes the establishment of  specialist domestic violence courts as are now in place in Queensland. She says they are the best possible way for the legal system to deal with this epidemic.

Ferguson also says there are lots of good things happening. 

"There is an army of domestic violence liaison officers in the police, doing an incredible amount of  work with subtle understanding and real compassion for the people they come across. 

"They are interested in crime and in prevention, they are the opposite of of old-school ."
 

Hitting Home this week on ABC2, Tuesday and Wednesday from 8.30pm. 

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au