Domestic violence survivor Melissa Edwards clutches crow feathers in her hand during a photo shoot with Mercury photographer Sylvia Liber.
The Wollongong mother-of-two has an affinity with crows, she says. They've become a symbol of her strength, how far she's come since leaving a relationship where she experienced many forms of domestic abuse - emotional, physical, verbal and financial.
It's taken three long years since that separation to come to a place where she feels safe, ready to move forward with her children.
"I have an affinity with crows. They have the ability to take a bird's eye view and see the bigger picture," she said.
"They are clever. Crows see danger coming and hop out of the way. ...They observe and learn about how to avoid the predators in their midst."
It took some time for the now 45-year-old to see the signs of danger. She met her ex-partner as a teenager, forming an off-and-on again relationship for some years. It wasn't for a long time that she saw the cruelness in him, and longer to pick up the courage to leave.
She doesn't want to detail all that happened; what she does want to do is tell other women that there is a way out. That with the right support they'll find their way back to the person they once were.
"I was in a relationship that was marked by domestic violence, but I'm charting a different course now," Melissa says. "My focus is on breaking cycles, healing and helping my kids and myself reach our full potential."
Asking for help from strangers - even those she was close to - was new to her, but eventually she reached out. And she's glad she did.
The gaps in support and safety for women experiencing domestic violence have become glaringly clear to me.Melissa Edwards
"When fear has been used as a weapon against you for so long, it takes a great deal of courage and determination to keep stepping up and saying no," she says.
"And when your boundaries continue to be ignored, it takes courage to ask for the help needed for others to help maintain those boundaries with you.
"When you are in survival mode and your only focus is having a roof over your head, food on the table and keeping your kids safe, the right kind of support and services helps you to keep going.
"On this journey post separation, I have been supported by a number of incredible friends, family members, professionals and service providers, who in their own way have helped me on the journey of rebuilding my life."
However she said, the gaps in support and safety for women experiencing domestic and family violence have become "glaringly clear" to her. That's why she supports the development of a Women's Trauma Recovery Centre in the region.
The Illawarra Women's Health Centre's bid to establish the Australian-first centre in the Illawarra is one step closer thanks to a $50,000 NSW Government grant.
The funds will be used to establish a design for the centre, which is set to provide a range of free mental health, legal and social support services for women and children affected by family and domestic violence.
"I can see a tremendous need for this innovative trauma clinic for survivors of domestic violence," Melissa says.
I was thinking it should be ok to add the following point about Uni.
As for Melissa, she's back at university studying social science - so to one day help those, like her, who find themselves in vulnerable situations due to DFV or many other reasons.
"I have had a life long interest in social justice but a more recent calling to better understanding the systems that are meant to support our most vulnerable citizens," she says.
''This has prompted further study in Social Science at UOW. My objective is to be able to contribute to meaningful change through social policy and to empower individuals and communities through social enterprise."
DFV survivors may face many legal issues
Illawarra Legal Centre co-ordinator Truda Gray said the vast majority of women trying to escape domestic and family violence, also had to contend with an array of legal issues. Many of these revolved around family law issues - including parenting arrangements, property division and divorce.
"There's a lot of disputes around child support for women trying to leave domestic violence," Ms Gray said. "It's one of the ways the partner will try and control their ex-partner from a distance - by trying to control access to children, or limit where they can take children on holidays or from taking them to see their grandparents."
The Warrawong-based legal centre - which offers legal services to victims of domestic and family violence - said family law issues could take some time to resolve, adding more stress and trauma on women and children. These women also often needed assistance with more immediate issues - where they were going to live, and cash flow.
"Very seldom do women leaving DV have a whole heap of resources and able to support themselves separately financially," Ms Gray said. "Their partner would often have had control of the family finances, so they don't have the experience of how to manage finances, and they don't have access to the funds.
"So financial counselling is often important, as well as assistance to disentangle themselves from joint finances, and to deal with Centrelink issues."
Women too often had nowhere to go - and once they'd spent time in crisis accommodation and refuges, they needed help with issues around tenancy. "Again, not often do we see women leaving domestic violence having the luxury of their own home," Ms Gray said.
Ms Gray said the legal centre could assist victims to "get back on their feet" by getting these issues resolved. However she acknowledged that women were often reluctant to reach out for help.
"We can help build up their long-term capacity to manage their own affairs, so that they don't fall back into those old relationships," she said. "However we know, because we are told by support workers, that women who are referred to us are often reticent to come into a legal centre - they find it a bit scary."
That's why Ms Gray is one of many of the supporters for the Women's Trauma Recovery Centre.
"Legal services would be far more accessible to women if available at such a centre - it would reduce any stigma of reaching out for that legal assistance," she said.
"What's most vital at the proposed centre is the access to counselling support to help women deal with the stress and trauma of domestic and family violence - for as long as it's needed. At the moment they have access to six appointments through the public health system, and then they're left on their own.
"Having legal, health and counselling services and more under the one roof, I think, is the only way to break the cycle of domestic and family violence."
Domestic violence takes up half police workload
Domestic violence related incidents take up, on average, half the workload of officers within Lake Illawarra Police District.
In 2019, district police attended more than 4000 such incidents - a number that is on the rise, due in part to increased reporting of it.
But while the statistics are certainly alarming, Lake Illawarra Commander Superintendent Dean Smith is encouraged that more people are willing to speak out about it.
"The increased willingness to report domestic violence is a good thing - it shows that people now understand it's not okay to remain silent, we also know that there is still plenty of work to be done to support victims and families impacted by domestic and family violence," he said.
"Our message is that there is help, there is support and we would encourage everyone - whether they are a victim, a witness, family member, friend or work colleague - that it is not okay to be silent, you must speak up.
"We'd like to think everyone was comfortable and confident enough to report it to us but, if not, there are other ways to get support - such as through support services, counsellors, medical and health professionals."
Supt Smith said all police were trained to support victims and families, and to help them access support services.
"Domestic violence related incidents account for 50 per cent of our workload - and those incidents include assaults, breaching violence orders, verbal arguments and more," he said.
"The highest percentage of victims are women, but there are some female perpetrators and some men that are victims. We also see young people who are perpetrators of DFV against their parents, grandparents or carers.
"We have dedicated domestic violence teams here in Lake Illawarra, as well as a high risk domestic violence team that works across the Southern Region to target the most serious and recidivous offenders.
"However we couldn't do it alone - we can't just arrest our way out of it - and that's why we're constantly working collaboratively with our partner agencies and support agencies. Everyone plays a role."
That's why Supt Smith is on the working group for the Women's Trauma Recovery Centre, proposed by the Illawarra Women's Health Centre.
"To have a facility where there is a multi-agency approach to domestic violence, so victims can get timely, professional and co-ordinated assistance is vitally important," he said.
Meantime the police district is making some inroads into the problem. "Last year we conducted over 1300 apprehended violence order (AVO) checks and are constantly running DFV focused operations which look at the most serious recidivous offenders," Supt Smith said.
"We want to make sure the incidents of violence from those repeat offenders is going down - and we are seeing that in this region due to the enforcement of apprehended violence orders, compliance checks, targeted operations, as well as other appropriate investigative and legal action."
The Mercury is supporting the campaign to establish the centre with its Road to Recovery series. Along with the Illawarra Women's Health Centre, it will present an exhibition of domestic violence survivors by photographer Sylvia Liber. If you need help call Lifeline on 13 11 14.