When love turns ugly

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Partner assaults are on the rise – and she sees worst of it

Tina Mongston isn’t sure if Queenstown family violence is soaring or just more is being reported.

What she’s certain about is that her team at the Wakatipu Abuse Prevention Network are busier than ever.

Their caseload jumped from 179 people for the June 2007 year to 296 for the 2008 year – and for the latest year ended last month, 374 clients were on the books.

The rise of more than 100 cases from 2007-2008 left them struggling, Mongston says. “We didn’t have enough staff to manage that increase.”

It’s a recurring theme.

Back in February 2008, Mountain Scene revealed a worrying spike in cases that previous month to 23. WAPN had dealt with eight cases each for the months of August, September and October, nine in November and 13 in December of 2007.

At the time Mongston warned: “You can guarantee if they stay in that relationship [that] in five years’ time they will be severely abused and isolated or they’ll end up in hospital or dead.”

How’s the network handling its caseload now?

“It’s really busy,” Mongston says from the Man Street base she shares with two other full-timers and three part-timers.

Unpaid volunteers also help out but another full-timer is needed to meet demand, she believes.

Asked how she copes with some of the more horrific cases, the mother of three who first started as an unpaid part-timer in 2001 jokes: “I drink. A lot.”

Actually, a clinician visits Mongston and her team every month to discuss incidents, and staff also regularly debrief amongst themselves.

Cases range from what she describes as “minor” – verbal abuse, some pushing or shoving – to more serious ongoing physical or psychological abuse.

Then there’s “major physical violence” – and yes, 95 per cent of the time it’s a female at risk.

“At that point, everything else we’re working on gets put down. There’s a small timeframe to get them out of the house, get the gear they need and find them somewhere [else to go].”

Of particular concern in Queenstown are one-off instances of booze-fuelled violence amongst couples in their 20s and 30s.

“When you actually meet with them, they don’t have ongoing issues. It’s because they were plastered in town, came home, had a barney, alcohol fuels the anger and things got out of control – but that’s not typical for that couple.”
The smallness of the Queenstown community also brings challenges.

Mongston keeps a clear separation from clients outside working hours. “What I usually say to clients when I meet them is if I do see them out, don’t be offended if I don’t come up to you. I’m not going to approach you in the pub.

“The reason for that is mostly their personal privacy – if people see you having an awkward conversation with someone in the street, then they will think ‘she must be seeing her’.”

Mongston and her team work closely with Child Youth and Family, and receive most referrals from the police – the earlier the better.

She cites the horrific murder of Dunedin 22-year-old Sophie Elliot by former boyfriend and lecturer Clayton Weatherston as a classic case.

“No previous incidents reported but throughout the trial it emerged there were plenty of people who saw little things happening that hadn’t been put together as part of the jigsaw.

“These are the kind of cases we would like to get our hands on now.”