Australia

Domestic abuse: Violence amid a life of luxury

Domestic violence survivor and corporate consultant Lisa McAdams Image copyright Zahrina Robertson/Lisamcadams.com
Image caption Corporate consultant Lisa McAdams is a survivor of domestic violence

A new shelter aims to provide a safe haven for women who are targets of domestic abuse in some of Sydney's most affluent areas, writes Ashley Donnelly.

When Lisa McAdams began her decade-long relationship with the man who abused her, she had a successful career and enough savings for a home deposit. She walked away a single parent, carrying debts that took a decade to reconcile.

"I was lucky he hit me", Ms McAdams confesses bluntly.

There's a bitter irony behind this statement. The physical assaults provided clear evidence of the abuse she was suffering. The mental and economic attacks were savage, but covert and subtle.

"The poverty pushes you into leaving, and then it is singularly the hardest bit to climb out of," she says.

Surviving on welfare was a far cry from the seemingly charmed life she had led, waving to celebrity neighbours as she spun the wheel of a luxury car through the gates of a lavish compound.

But amid the trappings of security, she was anything but safe.

It was not until a close friend, who also suffered spousal abuse, died of cancer that she knew life was too short to stay ensnared by violence.

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Image caption Some women in Sydney's exclusive waterfront suburbs find they are unable to escape their violent partners

With two small children in tow and less than A$40 (£21; $30) in her bank account, Ms McAdams wound up at the Delvena shelter in Lane Cove, which currently services the North Sydney area.

With a lock on the door, it was the safest she had felt in years.

Premise of privilege

In February, a contact connected Ms McAdams to Mary's House in North Sydney and she soon became their spokesperson.

Now she is speaking about her painful past to raise awareness of the refuge, which will open in September.

The property was being used as a storage space by the Jesuits before it was donated to the Catholic Church and converted into the 19-bed non-denominational shelter.

It's being praised as a lifesaving local solution to a national problem.

Experts say abuse in prosperous communities is underreported due to the potent mix of money, power, and social stigma.

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Image caption Under the bridge: Views from North Sydney take in the world famous Opera House and Harbour Bridge

It's this secret side of abuse, referred to as "golden handcuffs", that Lisa McAdams knows too well.

When her partner surprised her with an extravagant holiday to Paris she was the envy of friends. Omitted from the pair's splendid postcards was the beating he gave her with a heavy object, first extended as a gift.

When Lisa was asked about her trip to "the city of love" she responded begrudgingly. Her partner's overt largesse masked the menace he showed behind closed doors. It contradicted possible whispers among their social circle that he could ever be unkind.

"This evidence [perpetrators] are giving everyone you know is that you are ungrateful," she says. "Who could complain about an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris?"

Well-heeled, white-anted

Despite her prowess in the corporate finance world - where she earned a similar income to her ex-partner before giving birth - Lisa was powerless over the family budget.

At the office she would sign off on million-dollar accounts but at home she'd tremble at the sight of a standard electricity bill.

"I would make suggestions like 'maybe we should pay off our debts' instead of making a big purchase," adding that he would hit her if she got too "gobby".

"There was also this perception that I was so lucky because he did the food shopping, but in actual fact it was another way in which he could control the money," she says.

Deputy CEO of support service Wire, Julie Kun, says financial abuse is always about power and control.

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Image caption Australian businesses are beginning to count the cost of domestic violence

A common story she hears is of partners who cannot drive carrying car loans when their abuser is the sole user of the vehicle.

"[It's] using money to control the behaviour of a person and making them do something that they don't want to do," Ms Kun said.

"They leave with less money than they started with, and often nothing at all."

Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, tells the BBC that workplaces have been unaware of the pervasiveness of family violence until just recently.

But with more women filling senior positions, businesses are beginning to count the cost of violence at home.

When their team leaders are forced to take time off to rearrange their lives and productivity slips, it impacts the bottom line.

Lisa McAdams's latest company gives advice to large corporations - including one of the world's biggest audit firms, Ernst & Young (EY) - on how to best manage staff who are dealing with the debilitating side-effects of domestic violence.

"Women are no longer just the typing pool, they are becoming more valuable in the workplace and harder to replace," she says.

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