For half of Leanne Fletcher’s life, she has been dealing with an abusive partner. At 32, she is a successful speech language therapist working in Nelson and living in Tapawera. She’s also about to move with her new husband to the UK to start a new chapter in her life, even though she is still healing from the abuse she suffered all those years ago.
“I was with Jason from the time I was 16 until I was 21. We both left home early, me at 16 to follow him to Christchurch after he got kicked out of his home in Westport where we were from.
“I was mentally and emotionally abused the entire time we were together. There were incidents of sexual abuse at the end of the relationship too, for which I am getting help only now. And the abuse didn’t just affect me, it has for years affected our son Flynn in ways that concern me about his future.”
Leanne says Jason was controlling, manipulative and obsessive. He verbally abused her, putting her down and calling her terrible names, including saying she was a bad mum.
“He told me often that no one else would ever love me because I was fat and ugly. He called me lazy, ugly, and a whore or slut. Everything that went wrong was my fault, from having no money to making him unhappy. And he’d say it in private and in front of friends.”
Jason asked Leanne if he could buy marijuana and she’d answer that they needed the money for bills.
“He’d start yelling and say I was useless, disgusting, and that he hated me. Then he would punch holes in the wall or throw things around the room. When his fits were over, he’d cry and put himself down and tell me he’d kill himself if I left him.”
Unexpectedly, Leanne fell pregnant at 18.
“It got so much worse while I was pregnant and after the baby was born. One night I was out with friends, and after I came home and had just fallen asleep, Jason threw a glass of cold water in my face and said ‘get out of bed, bitch, and look after your kid.’”
At 21, Leanne found the strength to break up with Jason and told him to move out of the house they were sharing with Flynn and some friends. But the abuse didn’t stop.
“He messaged me and called me all the time with the same abusive rants. It was constant.”
Following their separation, Leanne and Jason were involved with the court system over Flynn. She tried many times to let the courts know that Jason wasn’t a fit parent, in part due to his drug use, and she says the system completely let her down.
“I told them Jason was smoking marijuana at the house, in front of Flynn. The house was filthy and Flynn wasn’t being properly bathed or fed. I told them about the verbal and emotional abuse, which by then he was inflicting on a new partner. But they didn’t see any of this as a problem.”
She says looking back there were things she would have done differently but she was young and unfamiliar with how the system worked.
“At the time I didn’t have a lot of support from my legal representative or Flynn’s lawyer. I was told, because Jason wanted to be involved, that they didn’t think his marijuana use was a big deal and there wasn’t enough evidence that Flynn might be in danger.
“I felt very let down.”
The court process went on until Flynn was nine years old, which is when they moved out of Christchurch. Since then, Jason hasn’t sought out contact, so Leanne has had a bit of a reprieve.
Moving to a new city made her think it was time for her to get help for her own experience. That’s when she engaged with a programme at SVS Living Safe, a Nelson-based family violence specialist with programmes to help individuals and families achieve long-term violence-free lives.
“I started in a group programme run by Benita [Lawrence] and Lara [Buswell, both SVS Living Safe clinicians]. There were five women who attended this group on Tuesday mornings. I went first for about 10 group sessions, and I chose to continue for another 10 sessions. It was so helpful to be with people who have gone through the same experience I had. We did a bunch of activities that really helped me build my confidence. I still keep in touch with a couple of the girls I met there.”
Leanne was still having a lot of anxiety and wanted to understand what was causing it: her experiences with Jason all those years ago or her response toward Flynn’s own violent behaviour, which had manifested itself from the age of six.
“At first there were tantrums. Then he would say things to me, calling me swear words and being verbally abusive. He’d come home dirty from Jason’s and he would have eaten badly. He was just so quick to anger and these extremely violent outbursts were happening more frequently.”
Leanne says Jason was emotionally and verbally abusive to Flynn. Flynn had formed a strong dysfunctional attachment to his dad where he felt like he had to look after him.
“Flynn quite often acted like Jason’s parent when they were together. Flynn told me Jason cried in front of him, told him that he wanted to die and would kill himself, just the way Jason did with me. It was a shock when Flynn started saying to me that he too wanted to die. We talked about it and he said it’s not really true, but he felt he had no other way out. It was extremely worrying.”
Leanne sought help for Flynn in Christchurch. She talked with his GP and was referred to a psychologist. When they moved to Nelson, he went to counselling sessions with an organisation there, but Leanne says Flynn’s behaviour only continued.
“I got my Nelson GP to refer me to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS, through Nelson Marlborough Health) and they offered Flynn about six months of play therapy once a week, which worked well. What I found was that it helped in the clinical environment, but it didn’t carry over to his home or school life where he had episodes of serious distress. I knew he Flynn needed more help than that.”
For the last three years, Flynn has also had a resource teacher for learning and behaviour at school, which Leann says has been very helpful.
“The resource teacher talks with Flynn but she also brings the teachers up to speed about why Flynn is who he is and how to respond to him in ways that will minimise his emotional outbursts.”
Leanne says teachers can be too reactive and respond with punishment too quickly.
“There’s nothing helpful about a punitive approach. It’s been much more effective when they respond to Flynn calmly and work through the situation in a way that makes Flynn feel safe, not punished. You can’t just punish a child without helping him.”
What has had the most impact so far has been Flynn’s work with SVS Living Safe Clinician Seth Turner. They have worked together for a year and a half, and Leanne couldn’t be happier.
Seth started by helping Flynn’s teachers to understand Flynn’s specific needs. SVS clinicians provide this comprehensive service because kids are still reliant on adults around them to help them navigate life and feel safe. Seth also spends one-on-one time with Flynn.
“Seth has really invested in Flynn. He talks to him as long as Flynn needs to talk, he plays with him to get him talking more, and they’ve built up a trusting relationship. It’s a gentle approach that Seth says is about coming down beside the child, not over the top of the child. I think that’s really lovely – and it’s made such a difference.
“Plus they’ve bonded over soccer. He and Seth talk about football and play together all the time.”
Flynn’s outbursts are now dramatically reduced to about once a month at school and he doesn’t lash out at home anymore. The approach with Flynn is more restorative, rather than punitive, Leanne says.
Seth is pleased Flynn is dealing to his own trauma early in life, and that will be helpful going forward. It’s what his father didn’t do. Leanne says Jason came from a very insecure home. His mother had severe mental health issues and Jason’s father left the home when he was seven. Once Jason caught his mother trying to commit suicide.
“What’s missing in this story is dealing with the father’s own trauma,” Seth says. “If you want to get to the cause of problem, you have to address the individual. We are doing this with Flynn, but no one has done this with Jason. Men experience trauma and don’t understand how it affects their emotional process. If you want change that’s long lasting, you have to understand these men as individuals and help them learn to live without violence.”
SVS Living Safe General Manager Dee Cresswell says that, until our society starts to value the investment in helping violent perpetrators, these cycles are going to repeat over and over, like Jason’s experience has morphed into Flynn’s experience.
“We have to work toward real change and that involves helping the perpetrator of the violence understand how the violence is occurring and then deal with that in a very deep way, because it doesn’t just happen. People aren’t born violent, they learn how to be violent. And that perpetrator is always going to be someone’s father or ex-partner. Those relationships need to be healthy for life.”
Leanne and Flynn have a much healthier relationship after working with SVS Living Safe.
“SVS Living Safe has been the most helpful so far, they must be helping lots of other people in the community too. I’ve seen the biggest impact on myself and Flynn from their help. It’s amazing that they are just there when you need them and, if I’m really distressed, I can just go sit there and have a cup of tea with someone. They take the time.”
Newlyweds Leanne and Barrie are off with Flynn to the UK in 2020.
“Our lives are better off now, SVS has been a huge part of that. My experience has made me stronger and more empathetic. I wish it had never happened, but I’m really proud of who I am because of it.”