Safety net

Safety Net

Safety net

The security business partnering with domestic violence services to help women and children escape abuse.

Steve Schultze looks exactly like the kind of cop you’d see jumping a fence with his gun drawn. A former homicide detective with Victoria Police, he is a picture of machismo – heavyset and brawny – and rides a big black motorcycle. I’m on the street when he pops his head out the front door to say hello; the place is decked out with security cameras, and he saw me approaching on the security screens before I even arrived.

This security is essential: inside, Schultze and his team host women and children who are escaping domestic abuse, many of whom are being tracked by their perpetrators. “We’ve got a locked car park out the back with a massive gate, cameras all around, alarms and a safe space everyone can go to downstairs if we have to call the cops,” says Schultze as we walk up the stairs. In the immaculate front room of his offices there’s a metal shelf holding toys and teddy bears. “Mums come here with their kids, and usually they’re little kids,” Steve explains. He does a double take on the shelf. “We used to have trucks and everything! Usually we give away toys, because they’ll get attached to something. We just give stuff away.”

On the other side of the room is a sparse glass cabinet displaying toys of another kind. These are the tracking devices Schultze and his team have found in women’s cars. “That’s a USB tracker,” he says, pointing to a device that looks like a car cigarette lighter. Below it is a chunkier piece of metal that looks like a battery. “This one was under the bonnet. We ran our scanning equipment over the car and it lit up like a Christmas tree.” On the bottom shelf is something that looks a bit like a toy helicopter. “This drone has a camera in it. It lost battery and crashed into the woman’s house.” It’s no longer unusual for perpetrators to track and remotely surveil their victims. At one refuge that Schultze’s team partners with, close to 85 per cent of the women have shown up with concealed tracking devices, mostly hidden on their phones or in their cars.

Schultze is one half of Protective Group, a private security business he founded with Stephen Wilson. They both have policing backgrounds: Schultze was in homicide, criminal investigation and armed robbery; Wilson was an undercover operative embedded in organised crime gangs. “We’ve come from that serious crime experience, where things were done a lot differently.”

Their outlook completely changed a few years ago, after training with the Family Justice Center Alliance, an innovative group that’s driving down domestic homicide statistics in the United States. There, Schultze and Wilson received a deep education in how women and children experience domestic violence, how to assess the perpetrator for future risk and, most critically, how to approach each case with a trauma-informed response. That meant counteracting instincts they say they developed as police: the ones that told them to look for injuries as proof of violence, to be suspicious of people who can’t get their stories straight and to think twice about believing – or helping – a victim who won’t leave their abuser. Trauma, they learnt, makes victims look and act “suspicious”: it fragments their memory, impairs rational thought, triggers shame and self-blame, and can lead to dissociation. “It’s the sort of knowledge I wish I had when I was a homicide detective,” Schultze says. This training saw their focus turn away from enforcement and towards protection. “We were a security company before, but we don’t see ourselves as that now. Our core business is protecting people.”

Now, Protective Group partners with family violence services, police and the victims themselves to make the women feel as safe as possible – whether they’re willing to leave the relationship or not. “They need to know that you believe them, because they may never have been believed before. Then it’s about safety planning. They might mistrust police, so who do they trust? Who is their go-to person?” While Schultze and his colleagues don’t pressure women to leave – “even when it’s as obvious as a bleeding elephant in the snow” – they do speak candidly to them about what it means to stay. “We ask the mums: ‘Are you being a protective mother if you’re staying in that relationship?’ As hard as that is to say sometimes. They might say, ‘Well, he’s the drunk, or he does this.’ And it’s like, ‘Yeah, he does – it’s his fault, not yours. But what can we do to help you? At the end of the day, we have to protect your kids, and you need to be part of that. Because the kids are in danger, too.’”

Usually, however, Schultze and his colleagues meet women and children at the critically dangerous point of leaving, at a time when they can “wrap a safety net” around the woman. First, they compile a detailed case history, drawn from family violence services, police, courts, hospitals – as much as they can gather, so the woman won’t have to retell the basic details of her trauma. Then they set out to learn everything they can about the perpetrator. “We need to know about him. What was his childhood like? What’s his relationship with his family like now? What’s his friendship group like? Does he play team sport? This all goes to assessing how dangerous they are.” This information is crucial, says Schultze, because when a perpetrator has few friends or interests, they’re more likely to be “100 per cent focused on causing absolute misery to their former wife”.

The next step is to assess what the woman needs to feel safe. “Women will say to us, ‘I want an electric fence, roller shutters,’ and so on. And it’s like, ‘Okay, but has he breached at the house before?’ And they might say, ‘No, he gets me when I go to footy with the kids on the Saturday.’ So we might be able to recommend a wearable device with cameras and audio that will have a proactive effect [in deterring him].” These resources come free of charge through the family violence services with which Protective Group partners around the country.

One wearable device is a watch that Schultze and his team created, called the Tek Safe Wearable Duress Alarm. It looks like a smartwatch, but it acts like a virtual security guard. To activate it, users tap it twice – a movement that can be imperceptible to perpetrators – and it turns into both a GPS and recording device, with its audio transmitted live to a monitoring station in Queensland. Schultze says it has a huge advantage over a phone alarm. “Perps will often grab a phone: ‘Who you ringing – you ringing the cops?’ So she can discreetly activate the watch and say ‘Here, take my phone, I’m not calling the cops. Please, you know you shouldn’t be here, you’re scaring me, the children are scared.’ And as she’s buying time, this is all being recorded. Plus, her hands are free, so she can pick up little ones.” When the station receives an activation alert, the client’s notes come up: how many children there are, whether there’s an intervention order, the perpetrator’s name, and so on. “She might have a code phrase … They know straight away he’s breaching, so they can call the police.”

Schultze knows the device is saving women’s lives. In one case, a perpetrator was hiding inside his ex-partner’s house, waiting for her to return from the shops. It had been a few weeks since he’d made contact, so she wasn’t wearing the watch – it was in the bedroom, under her pillow. “So he’s waiting for her when she gets home,” says Schultze. “He’s smashed her head on a concrete floor, raped her, threatened to kill her, and over a number of hours held her against her will in this little flat.” When he took a break to go to the bathroom, she scrambled to the bedroom, grabbed the watch, activated it, and then showed it to him saying, “Look – the cops are on the way.” As he was running out of the place, the police arrived and captured him.

But, as Schultze explains, the watch isn’t just for emergencies. “[It] can act as a chaperone. You can activate it, and say, ‘I’m okay at the moment, but I’m seeing a suspicious car; it could be the perpetrator, can you stay with me?” The watch itself costs $600, and the monitoring costs $40 per month.

Schultze says he’s “really confronted” by the extreme level of violence women disclose. “I thought I’d seen it all, or heard it all. I used to get paid to go and look at dead bodies. I’m like, how has this been allowed to happen?” He has no time for the men’s rights activists who claim they experience the same kind of domestic violence as women. “These clowns who say one in three men are victims of family violence are kidding themselves. They are absolutely kidding themselves. It’s different to what these women are subjected to.”

Although he’s a former cop, Schultze says he’s often frustrated by the police. “I’m advocating for someone rurally at the moment. We put cameras up, and there’s evidence of the perpetrator in unregistered cars – breaching, stalking – on camera. The young woman’s family is saying, ‘All the police do is take statements and get copies of the CCTV.’ They’re ringing me saying, ‘Why aren’t they arresting him?’ And I’m asking the same question of the police: ‘Why aren’t you arresting him?’ ‘Oh, because he isn’t within 200 metres in a public place,’ or some other bullshit excuse. Because I can’t be bothered? Because I don’t want to upset anyone?”

In 2015, Schultze vented his frustration to Victoria’s Royal Commission into Family Violence, where he testified about the women who were “falling through the cracks”. “Women and children’s violent experiences are not being validated,” he wrote to the commission, “[they are] being left unseen, unheard and unprotected because of system failures, and in some cases, the failure to conduct proper criminal investigation of family violence matters.” This baffles Schultze, because commonly these matters involve serious crimes such as attempted murder, rape and unlawful imprisonment. “For a young detective confronted with an assault or a rape, I cannot understand why the approach would be different depending on whether or not it occurred domestically or it happened on the street.”

He’s concerned that, too often, police aren’t interested in helping women who don’t look like “ideal victims”. “Are they both a victim and a perpetrator? Is she self-medicating? The answer might be yes and yes, but does it excuse the fact that she’s just been bashed and raped, and she’s been exposed to that for years? Does it? Never, never, never.

“And a lot of people think, ‘Well, hey, it’s her choice. Why didn’t she leave?’” Schultze narrows his eyes. “Do you hate hearing that? I hate hearing that.”

This article was written by Jess Hill for The Monthly and originally published in September 2019.  Jess Hill is an investigative reporter and the author of See What You Made Me Do.