Growing up in a violent home, Magistrate Stella Stuthridge hopes to break cycles of abuse

Stella Stuthridge, Shepparton Magistrate and La Trobe University Alumna, speaks about violence against women, a serious and widespread issue,  right on our doorstep.

Stella Stuthridge knows family violence is so much more than what unfolds in the courtroom.

She knows because she’s lived it.

Growing up in a violent home, Ms Stuthridge experienced the hidden world of abuse impacting too many Shepparton families.

She felt the fear, uncertainty and trauma firsthand, and witnessed its effects on her mother and siblings.

But by the time she left home, Ms Stuthridge was determined to help break the cycle.

And as a Shepparton Magistrate for the past 10 years – and now, Victoria’s supervising Magistrate for Family Violence – she is doing just that.

Working towards a future where family violence is prevented, and more children are safe.

“This is a difficult and intense area in which to work,” she said.

“But this is what keeps me going – human beings can change. Systems can change. Courts can change.

“In the past five years, Victoria has been on an amazing journey in terms of achieving real systemic change in relation to family violence.

“There's hope in that.

Raised in Altona North, Ms Stuthridge graduated high school with a passion for social justice.

Initially studying social work, sociology and criminology at university, she soon transitioned into a law degree at La Trobe University.

Starting her career as a lawyer in Bendigo, she soon developed a deep love for the country which eventually saw her appointed as a Magistrate in Shepparton.

In the early days of her new role, Ms Stuthridge was stunned by the sheer, heartbreaking volume of family violence cases in the region.

“As a criminal lawyer, I'd come to court on Tuesday and have one client or maybe three clients,” she said.

“But when you're a Magistrate, you see everybody on the list.

“Very quickly, I got a sense of the scale of the problem which, in communities like ours, is huge.

Family violence was a common denominator in the bulk of cases Ms Stuthridge heard – not just intervention order applications.

“In criminal matters, often the story that's told is about a person who has experienced trauma throughout their life, such as exposure to family violence, drug addiction or mental health issues in their family,” she said.

“These people have then grown up with challenges which have led to depression, anxiety, mental health difficulties and poor relationships with their partners and children.

“And that cycle repeats.

“So when you get a sense of that cyclical nature of the problem, you have two choices: You could go home and brew a pot of tea, or you can say, ‘This is something we need to address.'

“And I suppose, I didn't go home and make a pot of tea.

Ms Stuthridge was a driving force behind Shepparton’s Family Violence Specialist Court, the first of five opened in Victoria.

And from January 6 this year, she entered a new role as supervising Magistrate for Family Violence, helping implement Royal Commission recommendations and statewide reforms across all courts.

She has also witnessed the court rise to meet the challenges of COVID-19, staying open so family violence applications continued to be heard throughout the pandemic.

“That’s indicative of how far we've come as a court in terms of responding to family violence,” she said.

In her role as a Magistrate, Ms Stuthridge often sees the same perpetrators returning to the courtroom.

But while this can be discouraging, she refuses to give up on anyone.

“First and foremost, you have to start from the position that human beings are capable of change,” she said.

“I believe that. But for some people, change is very difficult.

“Think about how difficult it is to change one of your habits – for instance, if you drink coffee in the morning and I say, ‘Don't drink coffee in the morning.'

“It's a simple habit you'd think would be simple to change, but it's actually really hard.

“If I add into the mix an addiction, that you have an acquired brain injury or a mental health issue or you have never in your life seen or experienced another way to be or to live – then change becomes extraordinarily hard.

Throughout the past 10 years, Ms Stuthridge said Victorian courts had expanded the range of services and supports offered, as well as refining the referral process, in an effort to address this.

Clients are also being linked with specialist support throughout the court process, including mental health clinicians, family violence practitioners and Koori men’s and women’s workers.

“We’re getting better at analysing when people are ready for particular programs,” she said.

“So it's almost impossible to take someone who's addicted to a substance and ask them to do a relationship counselling program, because the substance is always going to affect what's going on.

“You've got to get them straight and clean before you can do the second part of the journey.

Throughout her years as a Magistrate, Ms Stuthridge has become a strong voice for children caught up in family violence cases.

“Children are so vulnerable, and they can be directly or indirectly involved in these matters,” she said.

“Sometimes children are actually present when family violence is happening and it's physical and it's visceral and they live that trauma.

“Then there are other times when children are present but not in the room. So they hear what’s going on or they get up in the morning and mum's got a black eye.

“And their poor little brains having to try and process what that all means and what they're supposed to do.

Without a direct voice in the courtroom, children rely on police, the court or a parent to advocate for their safety.

While Ms Stuthridge said Magistrates sometimes received criticism for making orders to protect children, she emphasised it was their responsibility as judicial officers.

“Where we're satisfied a child is in need of protection, we must make a way to protect them,” she said.

“I'm very polite but I regularly caution solicitors about saying ‘The children weren't present'. Because children can be exposed to family violence in so many ways.

At the end of the day, Ms Stuthridge believed prevention was better than a cure, and said focus should be placed on keeping children safe and teaching young people to build healthy relationships.

“Where children are living exposed to family violence, are we protecting them and helping them to work out any trauma experienced as a result?” she said.

“Number two, are we teaching young people the skills and tools to build respectful relationships and implement good conflict resolution?

Ms Stuthridge said education was a critical first step towards these solutions, which are anything but simple.

“The community is increasingly aware of the scale of family violence and is more likely to reach out and help people,” she said.

“So the days where they heard something going on next door and didn't get involved are decreasing.

“People are increasingly prepared to report concerns or reach out to people and say, ‘Are you okay, is there anything I can do to help you.'

“That's an important part of prevention. Because as a community, we all share a responsibility to try and fix this.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing domestic or family violence, services are available, including:
1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) — a confidential information, counselling and support service;
NSW Domestic Violence Line (1800 656 463) — a statewide telephone crisis counselling and referral service for women;
Men’s Referral Service (1300 766 491) provides telephone counselling, information and referrals for men; and
Link2Home (1800 152 152) can help refer women experiencing domestic violence to crisis accommodation.
If you are in danger or in an emergency, always phone 000

This article first appeared in Shepparton News, 8th December, 2020