When she enters a room Rachael Natoli, with the most welcoming of smiles, turns on all the lights. She is a well-regarded primary school teacher, who has successfully brought changes to the education sector through a recommendation paper she co-authored on the importance of learning through play and its continuation past the first year of school.
Rachael moved to Australia in 2007 and is the mum of a pair of energetic, nine-year-old twin boys. When the boys were two years old, she fled an abusive relationship which involved physical, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse. Six years later, she refers to herself as a survivor and has dedicated her life to the prevention of domestic violence. She is the creator of Lokahi Foundation, a charity that supports and empowers women and families to escape abusive relationships and reclaim their lives.
Rachael is a testament to life beyond domestic abuse; but she is honest and says that the journey to get there, “….takes time, support, and a lot of determination, but it is possible to break free from this abuse”.
When you first meet Rachael, it’s hard to imagine that she could ever have been in an abusive relationship. She is strong, confident, and vibrant, everything you would imagine a person in this type of relationship not to be. She is quick to correct this misconception, “Strong independent women are a much greater challenge” and, therefore, more sport for the abuser.
Rachael points out the complexity within these relationships. Although the coercive behaviour is there from the outset, often, it is only through hindsight that it becomes obvious. It only took three months after their arrival in Australia for the first physical abuse to occur. Rachael was completely reliant on her partner for company and all support, she had but one friend in Australia and no family.
It took some time for Rachael to decide to leave this relationship but, eventually, being responsible for her twin boys and fearing for all of them she made the break. Once again, she called the police and, this time, she pressed charges. This was the beginning of a very long and challenging journey. Everything that could go wrong did. Her ex-husband ensured that everything was as difficult as possible.
She had two-year-old twins, no home, no money, and no car. Friends helped as much as they could, but the main support came from the caseworker assigned to help and support Rachael through her resettling process. She recalls just how vital this support was. When the pram broke, the hire car was towed away and the housing she was allocated was withdrawn due to her ex-husband’s interventions, Rachael wanted to give up and go back. It all felt impossible, but her caseworker was there. She worked overtime to correct the lies the government had been told and made sure that Rachael and the twins had a roof over their heads.
Rachael realised it was the caseworker’s support that gave her the strength to believe in herself and in her ability to create a better future for her family. It is this realisation that caseworkers are the link between a successful fleeing, or not, of an abusive relationship, that spurred Rachael on to create the Lokahi Foundation. She was resolute that she would use her own experiences in establishing the Lokahi Foundation.
A major and most important component is location. To go for help to a domestic violence support centre, Rachael had to travel out of her local area and was spotted by someone who innocently mentioned this to her husband. It was a passing comment with no malice intended but ended up with severe repercussions for Rachael. When you are in a controlling relationship, your every move is monitored and a small incident like this will ring alarm bells for the perpetrator, resulting in violent retribution. A child, no money, family and friends shut out and finances cut off by the abuser, and yet a new beginning is possible with the support of a caseworker.
Don’t abandon someone in this situation. Don’t judge them for staying despite advice to the contrary. Being there for them is an incredible support, and one day when that person is ready to leave, they will need friendship and kindness more than ever.
If you are looking for support, or would like to learn more about the Lokahi Foundation, click here.