Why doesn’t she just leave?

Experts say relationships are the most powerful attachments we can make – breaking that bond can feel impossible, even when things become violent. Sinead Gill reports.



Stuff NZ Newspapers



Sammi Graham-Rees is living proof that leaving an abusive partner is ‘‘100 times harder than quitting meth’’. ‘‘We had just been through so much together… At the start he was so full of energy. I thought, wow, I’m going to be laughing forever.’’ By the time things turned violent, their bond felt too strong to break. A life without Stephen Perawiti didn’t just sound impossible, it sounded terrifying. ‘‘He told me I was nothing without him... I believed him.’’ It took nearly seven years of lying and hiding from her friends and family before she and her two young daughters – one she had with Perawiti, one from a previous relationship – left. She wants to share her story so others can learn the signs, understand the need for patience, and to convince anyone experiencing abuse to unlearn what they had convinced themselves. ‘‘I wish they could know how good life could be.’’ In her early 20s in Feilding Graham-Rees met Perawiti. She fell pregnant after a few months of dating and the abuse started after their daughter was born. It started small. She says she’d be scolded for offering to help others, no matter how insignificant, ‘‘like picking up a dropped pen’’. By the second year, she says the abuse became physical. Graham-Rees was convinced she was nothing without him. She says every episode of alleged abuse – only two of which Stephen would be convicted of in 2020 – would be followed by weeks of remorse and love bombing. She says Perawiti controlled who she saw and what she did. She says if she didn’t get his permission, there would be consequences; that he was convinced she was cheating. When Perawiti left the house, Graham-Rees says she was ordered to sit on her ‘‘special stool’’ in a corner of the house and wasn’t allowed to move until he got back. She watched over her children through a baby monitor. Nonetheless: ‘‘There is a certainty in abuse. The thought of getting out was so much scarier than the fear of what could happen to me. I thought, if I go, where do I go? What do I do? It took everything sometimes just to get up and brush my teeth.’’ It took an assault on March 30, 2019, for the abuse to come out. He hit her so hard his knuckles were bruised. Details of the assault are in the 2020 sentencing notes, after Perawiti was charged with assault. Judge Stephanie Edwards labelled the abuse as ‘‘unprovoked and gratuitous in nature’’. On that day, Graham-Rees had planned to take her daughters to a wildlife centre, and drop Perawiti at home on the way there. In the car, he accused her of visiting someone in secret. He pulled the handbrake, causing the car to slide. When they pulled up to the house, he demanded she get out of the car. She refused. The assault included spitting, hair-pulling and punching with a closed fist. Their daughters were in the car with them. Perawiti’s mother came out and tried to intervene, asking her son not to cause a scene ‘‘as they had recently moved into that street’’. But Perawiti yelled at her, then punched Graham-Rees in the head again, according to the sentencing notes. Perawiti’s cousins, including Lisa Snook, later saw his bruised knuckles. Snook says they weren’t convinced by his excuse. When Snook’s partner dropped by the house unannounced, ‘‘He had a look of horror on his face’’ when the door opened, Graham-Rees says. ‘‘He [the cousin] made sure to invite us out bowling the next day in front of the children, so they’d get excited and beg me to go. He knew Stephen wouldn’t come because he was avoiding him, because he owed him some work.’’ Graham-Rees felt pressured to say yes. The consequence of that decision was a ‘‘more serious’’ assault, the sentencing notes say. Perawiti was angry at not being invited bowling. While their daughters hid in a bedroom, he spat and punched Graham-Rees multiple times. The next day, Graham-Rees texted Snook that she couldn’t go bowling any more, but Snook was already on her way. ‘‘As soon as I saw the bruises, I knew she had to get out of there,’’ Snook says. The bathroom mirror of the bowling alley was the first time Graham-Rees had seen her own face in days. Upset by what she saw, she told Snook she needed to go home. ‘‘Lisa just turned to me and said, ‘hun, you’re never going home again’.’’ Says Snook, ‘‘I just knew, ‘nah’, at the first sign of domestic violence. There’s no way she’s going back. I knew it would cause s .... in the family, but I didn’t care.’’ The cousins took her to the police station to file a report. Graham-Rees got medical attention for a concussion. At the Palmerston North District Court Perawiti was eventually sentenced to nine months home detention and 100 hours community service after pleading guilty to assault and injuring with intent to injure. Judge Edwards said Perawiti’s remorse, willingness to attend restorative justice, and commitment to reconnecting with his Ma¯ oritanga contributed to his sentence. Survivors of family and sexual violence say friends and wha¯ nau being educated on what abuse looked like is crucial to eliminating the problem. In 2021, advocacy group the Backbone Collective surveyed 264 survivors of family and sexual violence. Almost half – 48% of the respondents – reported their abuse stopped because they moved away from the abuser, and 21% got a protection order. Some 13% of respondents believed the abuse stopped because their abuser had moved on to someone else. Only 22% said they had no help to leave. Only a quarter used family violence services. One of the key themes in helping them leave abusive situations was external support, ranging from workmates and police, to trusted friends and family. The report concluded that it was a high priority for everyone to be educated on what abuse looked like, and what to do about it. People like Jackie Graham, Graham-Rees’ mum, wished she’d known those answers earlier. She said the years when she’d lost touch with Graham-Rees had been full of fear and regret. ‘‘I was worried if I got involved or said something, she’d just push me further away. You feel like you’ve failed as a mum, not being able to protect your own kid.’’ Graham-Rees had pushed her away for years so she wouldn’t see the bruises. Regardless, Graham says she felt something was wrong. She wanted to take Graham-Rees to a place like Women’s Refuge but Graham-Rees says on reflection, she’s sure she wouldn’t have gone. ‘‘He’d [Perawiti] tell me, only pathetic women go to places like that... it’s for lesbians, and are you a lesbian?’’ It’s a pervasive myth that Women’s Refuge chief executive Ang Jury has been fighting for decades. ‘‘Every time someone says ‘oh, it’s just a bunch of lesbians’, it serves that person’s purpose. Anything that sows that seed of doubt is an excellent tool in the hands of an abuser. The power of those myths and what they do to women is common.’’ Jury says although her organisation no longer has the same ‘‘secret squirrel’’ way of operating, and were more vocal about domestic violence, it was still difficult for people to access their services. She wants people experiencing family violence to know any degree of violence was serious and worthy of seeking help for, and that accessing Women’s Refuge didn’t mean you had to be a woman on the run. ‘‘It’s about working alongside women who are putting their lives back together... we will walk alongside you.’’ She says awareness of domestic violence has improved because of better education, more vocal advocacy and more support from the Government, such as the 2018 law change which entitled people experiencing domestic to 10 days annual leave. Professor Doug Sellman, director of the University of Otago’s National Addiction Centre in Christchurch, says attachments to substances can look as compelling as relationship attachments, but aren’t. ‘‘Primary relationship attachments are the most powerful attachment we humans engage in. Following on from the bond between mother and child, this intensity of attachment transfers to our primary adult relationships. Both dependency on a relationship and dependency on a drug can look similar in terms of the life and death nature of the emotional response that can be ignited when the relationship or drug availability is threatened.’’ While attachments to relationships wasn’t bad – it’s crucial to the health and happiness of humans – when the people in those relationships were insecure, or had poor experiences with relationships, especially in childhood, things could sour, he says. Colleague and primary author of a 2020 study on the link between meth use and domestic violence, Associate Professor James Foulds, agrees. Neither he nor Sellman believe public education and awareness on its own was an effective strategy to reducing domestic violence and drug abuse, since the seeds of those issues were sewn in childhood. ‘‘The solutions require long-term political commitment from successive governments... This needs to start with better support for children in vulnerable families.’’ Judy Chappell and Jan Spence work for the Christchurch City Mission, in the Wahine Whai Ora and Addiction space respectively. They frequently saw women in the same position as Graham-Rees, and also saw the parallels between a dependency on their relationship and of substances. ‘‘More often than not, women gravitate towards someone who feeds their belief about themselves,’’ Chappell says. ‘‘They feel, ‘he understands me better than anyone, he knows what I’m worth’. They will go back, and back, and back because it’s what they know... there is comfort in that.’’ Like Women’s Refuge, a big part of their services was about helping survivors of domestic violence at their own pace. ‘‘You can’t make someone else do anything. So what we do is create a non-judgemental environment, so they can begin to trust... it’s not so much seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. First of all, she’s got to believe she deserves it.’’ Staying away from Perawiti was agony, Graham-Rees says. ‘‘Even when I got out, I thought... if he asked me to come back, I would have... that is how much power he had over me.’’ Snook and other family members’ support stopped her from going back. They gave her and her daughters a place to stay, and firm words of encouragement. She says she used meth for several months because she was afraid to sleep, fearing her ex would find her and hurt her. ‘‘The anxiety, the panic, I didn’t know how to go to places. There was structure in the abuse. I wasn’t comfortable in it, but I was secure.’’ After regaining her independence and beginning to work again, she met a former addict who introduced her to the Manchester House meth support group in Feilding. Graham-Rees now laughs when she remembers her first support group meeting. ‘‘They said the first 21 days were the hardest, but by that point I’d already stopped for two weeks. I thought, is that it? Leaving my ex was one hundred times harder than quitting meth.’’ In 2020, Graham-Rees reconnected with a man named Harley who was on his own journey of addiction and recovery. They became each other’s rock, and were engaged in less than a year. ‘‘I realised, I deserve this... I had to stop denying happiness.’’ They married in February and, along with Graham-Rees’ daughters, were living ‘‘happily ever after.’’ ‘‘I now don’t know what to ask for when I make a wish. I want anyone out there who thinks there is no hope, to know there is. Life can be so good.’’