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The terrible injury often overlooked in domestic violence


The terrible injury often overlooked in domestic violence

IT'S the late night phone call that every parent dreads. A police officer is on the line. Come quickly, the officer says, something terrible has happened to your child.

This is how Ian and Helen Barker, along with their son Glenn, found themselves driving from their home in the Victorian town of Benalla to Wangaratta Hospital just before 11pm on March 7, 2002. The Barkers' vivacious and sporty 16-year-old daughter, Anj, had been brutally bashed by her erratic and controlling ex-boyfriend* on the grounds of Benalla's local high school.  When they arrived at the hospital, a doctor advised them "not to go and see her" because Anj's condition was so bad. The feeling Helen had was "indescribable".

"At one stage a nurse came out, just not long after we had arrived, and handed me her necklace, which was covered in blood.

"I can remember just standing there holding it. Looking at it and thinking: 'Oh my God. What has he done?'," Helen says.

Ignoring the doctor's advice, the family waited to see Anj. Meanwhile, medical staff were urgently working to stabilise her before she could be airlifted by helicopter to Royal Melbourne Hospital. Helen then overheard a conversation that will stay with her forever. "The police had rang and a doctor had been called out to speak to the police. The doctor said: 'No, she's not dead yet'," Helen recalls.

"I nearly collapsed," she says, adding, "the police apparently wanted to know whether he [Anj's ex-boyfriend] was going to be charged with assault or murder."

When the Barkers finally saw their beloved daughter, she was unrecognisable. Her head was swollen and she was covered in blood and bruises. Anj's head had been hit against a steel bench multiple times. She had been strangled and kicked and her face had been stomped on, smashing her jaw and fracturing her skull.

"There was tubes everywhere," Helen says, and "her ear was really swollen and there was blood running out of her ear." Another nurse told the family this wasn't just blood but brain fluid too and they should prepare for the worst.

Anj didn't die from her horrific injuries but instead, embarked on a long and often painful recovery. She spent eight weeks in hospital, four months in rehab and another two years in a nursing home. It took her five years to learn to talk again. The severity of Anj's injuries and her courage in speaking out against domestic violence, have led to national and international recognition.

But researchers suspect that most brain injuries caused by domestic violence fly under the radar. According to a 2007 study by American neuropsychologist Dr Martha Banks, up to 94 per cent of female domestic violence victims seeking medical help sustain facial injuries. "It is difficult to seriously injure the head or face without simultaneously injuring the brain," Dr Banks writes.

Despite this, "traumatic brain injury is often overlooked as a consequence of those injuries," she states in the paper.

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