When Barbara Stevens met Damien Hodder she thought she’d found her soulmate, but there were subtle signs his behaviour would turn sinister.
Barbara Stevens had been in a relationship with Damien Hodder for less than a year when she was viciously attacked – choked and beaten by the man she planned to marry.
Until then, she had been the victim of coercive control – she just didn’t know it.
The first few weeks of their relationship were a whirlwind of intense emotion, sweeping Ms Stevens swiftly off her feet, but after a month or two, she noticed a slight change to his personality.
They were subtle at first, jealously over male acquaintances, or comments made by male Facebook friends. At first, she found it endearing, a sign of how fast he was falling in love with her.
“I thought it was sweet,” she says. “I was quite co-dependent in a relationship, and thought his behaviours were semi mirroring mine.”
What Ms Stevens didn’t realise was that she was experiencing the beginning of a coercively controlling relationship that over time, became increasingly disturbing.
“The behaviour escalated,” she says. “He began threatening to leave me while we were travelling, leaving me on my own to get home, screaming at me to behave, and deleting anyone I was talking to online.
“Even an incident so simple as waving to the traffic controller in my street each morning made him think I was flirting – he wouldn’t talk to me for days.”
He also attacked her known weaknesses, information he’d gathered during the early stages of the relationship, during what’s known as the ‘love bombing’ period, a common tactic of abusers.
“Love-bombing usually involves a fast moving, overwhelming ‘soulmate’ declaration, and then the coercive control seeps in slowly,” says psychologist Julie Hosie, also an ambassador of domestic violence advocacy group, My Red Flags.
“The victim can be made to feel loved and cared about, like nobody will ever understand and love them like the perpetrator does.
“The perpetrator may use their privileged access to information on the victim’s vulnerability and desire to feel loved to push others away.
“It can be difficult for victims to identify or accept that they are experiencing abuse as it happens as ongoing behaviour rather than in isolated episodes.
“It can be concealed by talk of love, or expensive gifts. These loving acts become another controlling tactic.”
As was the case for Ms Stevens.
After seeking counselling and eventually putting her foot down with regards to Hodder’s narcissistic behaviour, he promised to change, quickly shifting focus to marriage and children.
Convinced, Ms Stevens proposed to Hodder, but after a night out celebrating their engagement with friends, things took a dangerous turn.
“I fell asleep on the lounge, only to wake hours later to him screaming in my face, head butting me, and telling me he was going to kill me.
“I didn’t know who he was. He head butted me again, then choked me until I fell unconscious. I have never experienced such fear in my life.”
Ms Stevens was slapped, choked, and thrown against the bedroom wall.
After begging to use the bathroom, and being given a five minute reprieve, Ms Stevens made her move, running from the home, and making as much noise as possible.
Fortunately, that noise attracted a neighbour’s attention, and police were called, leading to Hodder’s arrest.
In January, at Ballina Court House, NSW, Damien James Hodder, 39, was convicted of assault occasioning actual bodily harm, stalking/intimidation with intent to cause fear and intentionally choking a person. He was sentenced to a 15-month imprisonment to be served by the way of intensive correction in the community, a two-year community correction order and 100 hours of community service work.
Coercive control and homicide
Ms Stevens feels she was lucky to survive the attack, but others aren’t so fortunate.
According to Dr Hosie, the NSW Domestic Violence Death Review Team’s most recent report, which investigated murders between 2017 and 2019, showed 77 of the 78 perpetrators used coercive control on their partner before killing them.
“This follows earlier research from the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research in 2016 that found women who experienced emotional abuse were 20 times more likely to subsequently suffer from physical violence,” says Dr Hosie.
“According to the NSW Death Review Team Annual Report, many relationships ending in homicide had no history of physical violence.”
It’s these horrifying statistics that lead to the recent push for coercive control to be criminalised.
Currently, Tasmania is the only jurisdiction in Australia to criminalise coercive control and controlling behaviour as a stand alone offence.
“That legislation stipulates that economic abuse and intimidation is a criminal offence,” says specialist family lawyer and director of The Family Law Project, Shaya Lewis-Dermody.
“It follows some models in various jurisdictions in the UK, (where) the offence involves a pattern of domination and intimidation towards a family member that may include emotional or financial abuse and isolation, but does not also need to include physical or sexual violence.”
Coercive control laws by state
Last year, a campaign to criminalise coercive control called on the various state governments to take action.
Victoria is the only jurisdiction to have had a royal commission regarding family violence, but did not recommend a new criminal offence created for ‘coercive control’.
The NSW Joint Select Committee on Coercive Control recently handed down a report recommending that coercive control be criminalised, with a caveat that it be introduced after extensive training and education).
In Queensland, a task-force is consulting on coercive control legislation and is due to report back later this year.
The Northern Territory government is looking at developing new domestic violence offences to specifically criminalise coercive control abuse, while in Western Australia, the McGowan Government introduced changes to allow evidence for coercive control to be admissible, not only for Intervention Orders, but also criminal prosecutions.
While criminalising coercive control is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, it won’t come without challenges.
“One concern that is often raised around the criminalising of coercive control is an unintended consequence that the victims of family violence may be misidentified as the primary aggressor,” says Ms Lewis-Dermody.
“This is a concern that has been raised particularly for Aboriginal women and culturally and linguistically diverse women.”
While it may not be a silver bullet solution, deeming coercive control a criminal act could be a serious enough deterrent for some people to reconsider their actions, says Australian Family Lawyers head of legal, Courtney Mullen.
“It would also mean that the situation wouldn’t need to escalate to the point of getting an AVO before the police can intervene.
“As lawyers, we know that a criminal offence requires findings to be made about evidence that is ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’.
“So creating a law about coercive control also needs some flexibility as each situation is different, as well as legal protections to ensure natural justice and procedural fairness.”
While Ms Stevens is on the path to recovery, she believes criminalising coercive control is the way forward to protect victims before it’s too late.
“Too many lives are lost every day because of the beginnings of this behaviour in relationships that would subsequently be reduced if they were prevented rather than after the fact,” she says.
“The court system was the worst to deal with as hearings were delayed, the lies and attacks on myself via social media, and the judgement from others were hard not to take personally.
“I am a reasonably well educated and connected woman and I still suffered, becoming a recluse in my own home, not wanting to socialise, not knowing who really had my back, and the trust issues that followed.”
Nicole Madigan is a freelance journalist | @NicoleLMadigan