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Twenty years of social work didn't prepare her for this

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As South Australians prepare for a candlelit vigil tonight to remember victims of domestic violence, one of the workers on the frontline reveals some of the personal toll and how far we still need to go for women and children to be safe in their own homes.

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It was a mild Autumn Monday in March 2010 and family and domestic violence social worker Sandra Dunn was enjoying a day off when her team leader called.

“She called me to see if I had seen the news and I hadn’t,” recalls Dunn. “After she told me the news I went outside and had the biggest primal scream in my life. I then cried buckets.”

Dunn had just been told that the estranged husband of Zahra Abrahimzadeh had murdered her in front of 300 people celebrating the Persian New Year at the Adelaide Convention Centre.

For 20 years Dunn had worked at the frontline of domestic violence and in all that time had never been confronted by anything like this.

“I was pissed off. I still remember it like it was yesterday,” Dunn goes on.

“That he took away three children’s mother, that he could take his wife’s life and leave the kids without their mum – the one person who was constant in their life.”

Dunn first met Zahra in 2009 after she had fled 20 years of family violence. Zahra had been through the motel system and was in emergency accommodation with the Women’s Safety Services of SA (then called Central Domestic Violence Service).

“The first thing that struck me about Zahra was that she was very afraid of her husband,” says Dunn.  “And she was very articulate that she wanted a better life for her and her children.

“So when she made that decision to leave she was focused on rebuilding her life and giving her children the life they wanted and deserved.”

Zahra, like all women that Dunn supports, was unique yet how she supported her was not. Dunn’s approach is to help women make their own decisions; it also gives them space to do some healing and thinking.

“Every woman has her own story,” says Dunn. “But you always approach it as walking beside the woman, supporting her with plans that she wants. It’s how we all work.”

For Dunn and her co-workers in the family and domestic violence sector, keeping women safe is paramount. But what that safety looks like differs for each woman.

“When we talk about safety we talk about planning, things they can do to keep themselves safe if they feel compromised,” explains Dunn. “That plan has to be their plan and we support them to look at the options but they have to decide what is best for them and their family.

“For example when the perpetrator confronts her we can’t just say ring the police. She may not be able to do that because it is late at night and she is in a social setting at her girlfriend’s house. So we need to think of ways she can call the police and not feel compromised or that is she compromising anyone else.”

However Dunn goes on to say that while the rest of society thinks social workers and emergency accommodation keep women safe the truth is they cannot. She stresses the only way women and children will truly be safe is when the perpetrator is held to account for the violence.

Dunn experienced this first-hand with Zahra.

“You can’t be responsible for someone else’s behaviour,” says Dunn. “By how this happened, no-one could have stopped him.

“Zahra articulated she felt he was going to kill her. The women are the experts, not us, so we need to be hearing those voices when they express these fears.”

Rather than take time off after Zahra’s shocking death, Dunn went straight back to work. She admits this is not an easy job, it does not pay the best and during every government funding cycle your job is on the line. In hindsight she knows she should have taken a break yet quietly she feared that if she did stop, another woman would die.

It took a whole year of going over and over in her head how she had worked with Zahra and her children for Dunn to realise that there was nothing more she could have done to prevent the murder.

Zahra Abrahimzadeh

Dunn went to Zahra’s memorial while her colleagues simultaneously held a vigil on the steps of Parliament House. What they had all experienced was a type of grief they often shared privately among themselves. Others in her field had experienced this before, yet this time it happened in a public space and on Crown land.

The Coroner’s Inquest that followed the court case was scathing and revealed a system that had let Zahra down through violated prevention orders and Police who did not believe her.

“The Coroner’s inquest was scary,” says Dunn. “Just not knowing what was going to happen – not knowing what the outcome would be – but it was a relief knowing it was a really good space for this to be looked at and for changes to come out of it.”

Since Zahra’s murder and Rosie Batty’s Australian of the Year Award, domestic and family violence is now openly reported in the media. There are also more conversations about the problem in our community and a greater awareness. Police here in South Australia can now also place intervention orders on perpetrators on family violence call-outs.

However, what has not changed is the need for more funding for frontline services which are experiencing increased demand.

“We still have a long way to go to for women and children to be truly safe in their own home,” says Dunn.  “We have to stop these deaths, these are horrible heinous crimes and they’re preventable.”

The annual Domestic and Aboriginal Family Violence Vigil will be held tonight at the Rotunda at Elder Park from 5:30-6:30 and is open to the public.

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