FEAR of assault haunts almost every female who has ever walked alone after dark.
Mothers and daughters, their senses alive to every footstep, every alleyway, every bush and every person in proximity.
But it’s not just strangers. For far too many females it is those closest to home who pose the greatest threat.
An estranged husband, who showed no remorse, sentenced for the brutal execution-style murder of a Maitland charity worker. He shot her four times as the pair’s daughter tried desperately to save her mother.
An elderly Raymond Terrace grandmother found dead in the house where she lived for more than 30 years and a man charged with her murder.
An 11-year-old girl allegedly abducted and sexually assaulted in broad daylight metres from her school in a comfortable middle-class Newcastle suburb.
Every day in the Hunter eleven females are victims of assaults reported to police.
In the past five years to March, almost 21,000 women and girls in the Hunter were victims of reported violent attacks. More than half were domestic violence.
Authorities and support workers agree that the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) data is “just the tip of the iceberg” because the majority of victims do not report the abuse.
Brutal attacks on Hunter females, like the ones above that have made headlines across NSW in recent weeks, have led to calls for more early intervention programs in schools, greater police resources and increased support services for women.
Victim Support Unit (VOCAL) acting chief executive Kerrie Thompson said domestic violence was a “huge crisis issue” both in the Hunter and across the country.
One woman a week in Australia dies at the hands of her partner or ex-partner.
“It’s extremely serious here – everyone knows a woman who has been impacted by or experienced violence,” she said.
“It’s frustrating – we’re seeing so many deaths, but still very little action happening. We need to hold perpetrators to account.”
Ms Thompson said the unit received 70 new case referrals each week and most were related to domestic violence or sexual assault.
She said the unit had seen a “huge increase” in reports of physical and sexual assault, as well as threats of arson and animal abuse.
They have also seen an increase in reports of perpetrators being on ice and children attacking parents, often with weapons.
But most concerning, she said, was a “huge spike” in reports of non-fatal strangulation, which she said was rarely reported two years ago.
“It’s an extremely serious crime and one that is often reported when women are pregnant,” she said.
“Many of these women have lost consciousness.
"Plus the health implications are huge. Studies show a woman who survives strangulation by her partner is eight times more likely to be murdered by him.”
Carrie’s Place Domestic Violence and Homelessness Services executive officer Jenny Harland described domestic violence in the Hunter as a “massive issue”.
She said the Maitland-based service helped 38 Hunter women each weekday and the region’s housing crisis made the situation worse.
“It’s the biggest issue that faces our community and it happens in our backyards and happens all around us.”
For Australian women aged 25 to 44, domestic violence causes more illness, disability and deaths than any other risk factor, such as smoking, alcohol use, being overweight or physically inactive.
A disturbing Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report issued this year revealed violence against women is more likely to be perpetrated by someone they know, and in their home, while men were more likely to be attacked by strangers and in a public place.
About one in six women aged 15 or above – 1.6 million females – have experienced physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner.
According to BOCSAR, females in Cessnock and Muswellbrook are almost twice as likely to become the victims of assault compared to the NSW average.
Hunter Valley crime manager Superintendent Steve Clarke described the recent high profile crimes against females in the region as “horrific” and said any violence against women and girls was “totally unacceptable”.
Superintendent Clarke said Cessnock had been identified as a domestic violence hotspot and specialist police squads were targeting repeat violent offenders.
“For females in violent relationships it’s very, very difficult, especially if they have children,” he said.
“But we encourage them to find the strength and courage to report and allow us to help. This is something we take very seriously.”
But police and front-line services have their work cut out for them.
A signature NSW government program to reduce domestic violence rates was revealed in May to be failing to protect women from further harm, casting doubt over the Premier’s target of reducing reoffending by 25 per cent by 2021.
The Safer Pathway program, a key feature of state government's 2014 domestic violence reforms, “has only had a limited effect on the incidence of domestic violence”, according to BOCSAR. It is the third government-led domestic violence initiative to be found ineffective by BOCSAR in the past year.
Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Pru Goward said a report released last month by BOCSAR analysed data from Australian Bureau of Statistics crime victim surveys carried out between 2008-09 and 2015-16, and found the significant drop in victimisation indicated there has been “a real change in the prevalence of domestic and family violence in NSW”.
“NSW is focusing our investment in frontline services, supporting victim-survivors and holding perpetrators to account, with more than $390 million over four years to provide greater protection for those affected by domestic and family violence.”
Maitland MP Jenny Aitchison, shadow minister for the prevention of domestic violence and assault and herself a sexual assault survivor, said more still needed to be done.
She said NSW was the only state or territory government that had not joined the Our Watch domestic violence prevention program that promotes respectful relationships in schools.
“We know that when children experience violence they are more at risk of perpetrating,” she said.
Ms Aitchison said while the reported cases of violence against females in the Hunter was “disturbing”, the real picture behind the abuse was “chilling”.
“These are crimes which continue to have a ripple effect on our community,” she said.
“They have activated many in our community to think about these issues and how they can assist.”
Abuse survivor Kimmy* said available resources were not well publicised or easy to access while in the middle of violence.
She had received assistance to stay in motels.
“But no-one told me where I could go to get food or petrol vouchers.
"No one called me. There was no counselling.”
Kimmy* suggested that funding for a program that removes the perpetrator from the family home be extended to include security cameras and duress alarms if requested.
Survivors including Kimmy and service providers said too much weight was given to the assumed effectiveness of domestic violence and apprehended violence orders.
Ms Thompson said currently, anyone who reported domestic violence to police were asked 25 questions as part of the aforementioned Safer Pathways Program.
If they answered yes to 12 or more, they were deemed “at serious threat” and their cases discussed at a meeting government and non-government representatives.
“But people who get 11 and under are still at risk and need support,” she said.
“We know things can escalate in a matter of hours.
"They need to be linked with specialised services that can help with safety planning, make sure she has a safe phone and organise specific trauma counselling.”
Ms Thompson said the Newcastle Domestic Violence Committee had developed a resource card she hoped police would distribute.
For matters that do reach the courts, she said, “we need harsher sentencing, to show if you do these crimes you will be punished”.
Newcastle City Crime Manager Detective Inspector Scott Parker said domestic violence made up the bulk of police work in some Hunter areas, with alcohol, drug use, family violence and education shortfalls contributing factors.
He said reporting rates of violent crimes against females was on the rise and he urged any witness, including neighbours, to call police.
“Should someone not report violence, particularly violence against those that are vulnerable, they should consider resetting their moral compass.”