ALAN* was angry. Angry that his former partner, the mother of his child, had started seeing other people. It did not matter to him that they had separated months ago.
He tracked her down to her father's home in Traralgon, the largest town in the worst region for family violence in Victoria. In the Latrobe Valley, family violence occurs at 2½ times the state average.
Alan had talked her into the backyard. Then he snapped. He knocked her sunglasses off and seized a jerry can. He sloshed fuel around the house and yard, then threatened to burn her alive while tipping the can over her head. It was empty.
He shook the can, and tried to douse her again, but nothing came out. Alan would not be stopped. He took out his lighter. That failed too, and as he battled to find a spark, police arrived. Just in time.
Sergeant Craig van Breugel, the head of Latrobe's family violence team, had his officers handle the case. Time is what Sergeant van Breugel thinks is most crucial - not just to Alan's victim, but to the hundreds who suffer family violence each day in Victoria.
Despite an unprecedented police focus and $90 million from the state government announced this year, he says that if family violence victims and culprits are not dealt with as soon as possible, the problem will never be fixed.
Community groups at the coalface of victims' most immediate needs, including shelter, food, and legal representation, say they cannot afford to provide the level of help now needed, with demand rising at an unprecedented rate, a direct result of the increased police focus on family violence.
Sergeant van Breugel says society cannot afford to have another generation exposed to family violence. "I say to people, it's not this kid's fault he is how he is now," he says, "because you understand he's a product of his environment.
"These people turn into monsters. They really do. These people do not have the ability to connect to their society and community because of how they were brought up.
"It's not without hope, but it has to be changed. You're just going to end up with more sex offenders, more murderers, more family violence offenders. Family violence really is the root of all evil."
Sergeant van Breugel says that if victims are not supported from the outset, they can lack the courage to move on. And if the culprits are not removed from the situation immediately, while being given a chance to rehabilitate, their remorse can be replaced by regret - not at their actions, but at being caught.
Fairfax Media spent time with Sergeant van Breugel's Morwell-based team in the week before Christmas.
As he discusses his work from his office, a space shared with the four other members of his team that has windows overlooking the belching smoke-stacks of the Hazelwood power station, references to timeliness are common.
It is a view shared by his superiors. Deputy Commissioner Tim Cartwright, the man charged with overseeing the family violence response across the force, champions early intervention, and getting it right the first time. This is backed by Chief Commissioner Ken Lay, who made family violence a priority on his first day in the job last November.
Only days later, he announced the Enhanced Family Violence Service Delivery Model, promising a three-year commitment to targeting recidivist offenders, supporting repeat victims, improving intelligence, promoting early intervention and reviewing police training.
Mr Cartwright says the rate of re-offending is a major indicator of progress, but acknowledges that this is on the rise and not expected to fall for at least two years.
In the meantime, the number of broader family violence offences is likely to continue to increase at a frightening rate.
Whether this is due to increased offending or more reporting is difficult to say. In the 2011-12 financial year, the first increase in the total annual crime rate for 12 years was attributed to a jump in family violence-related offences.
Watching the problem more closely has created something of a self-fulfilling prophecy - officers have paid more visits to homes (the number of callouts has grown 23 per cent to about 51,000 this year), which have led to more charges (45 per cent of those visited) and intervention orders. In 36 per cent of cases, children were present.
Mr Cartwright says these figures alone indicate "our members are going harder at it and are probably being more successful".
The number of police officers in specialist teams, many dedicated to the most problematic cases, has grown at a rate that even they find difficult to keep up with.
"We've got, what is it - 14 now?" Mr Cartwright asks his media adviser. She corrects him: "Eighteen."
"It keeps changing because we keep increasing but we have 18 full-time dedicated family violence teams across the state," he says.
There are also 14 full-time advisers and 180 liaison officers, with a nominated "family violence officer" at every 24-hour police station in Victoria to identify "higher risk incidents".
Sergeant van Breugel, as head of one of those 18 teams, knows he is making a difference. He is less sure that there is not more that could be done.
"Our support services are fantastic, but they're just not big enough," he says. "Us doing our job better is putting pressure on everyone else. Those community providers are getting smashed."
As the number of offenders climbs, so does the backlog of victims needing help. Charging someone, according to Domestic Violence Victoria, is just the beginning, with women and children at the greatest risk of escalated violence and death when they try to leave.
"Women are terrified to leave unless they have confidence that the system is going to support and protect them," says the group's chief executive Fiona McCormack.
"Because police are taking this seriously, they are safer to a certain extent. But there's a vulnerability in trying to leave."
If women are not getting the right kind of support when they do leave, she says, they then return.
"That sends a very strong message to men who choose to be violent, that they can get away with it or that nobody's really going to help her."
Victims, especially those who feel stuck in long-term relationships, can be manipulated by their abusers when not provided with support.
In August, a man from Morwell, who managed to repeatedly lure his former partner back, was sentenced in relation to 45 charges, including 21 of breaching an intervention order. He received an 18-month community corrections order, including drug and alcohol rehabilitation and 90 days' jail (45 suspended).
The man threatened self-harm repeatedly, once grabbing the wheel of the victim's car and trying to swerve into a concrete pole while she drove between Morwell and Churchill. Once, after being refused sex, he wiped his penis on the victim's car window as she backed out of his driveway.
Another time, he stood with his foot behind a rear tyre, saying she would have to run over him to leave. After 10 minutes, she did.
Despite all this, the victim felt guilty reporting the repeated intervention order breaches. When he was arrested, the man told police he "loved her so much" he did not care what they did. It was the first time he had been in trouble with the police.
Sergeant van Breugel says that "back in the bad old days of policing family violence", those repeated breaches, without the co-operation of a victim, would have been impossible to prosecute. Now, it is not only easier for police to crack down on breaches, but orders can be imposed without victim involvement.
It would be hard to find anyone among those seeing victims daily who would say the new hardline approach has been unwelcome, despite a Public Accounts and Estimates Committee's report to the Victorian Parliament earlier this year that questioned the progress police had made.
In its March report, the committee said it had been difficult to determine how much greater police activity had improved victim safety, with the number of repeat calls to family violence incidents remaining at 32 per cent in 2011.
However, those service providers who support victims trying to leave their partners are sure that the stronger show of force has helped publicly demonstrate that police want to stamp out family violence.
That has brought more victims out of violent households to knock on their doors for help, with assistance needed even at court to protect against threatening behaviour.
In some courts, victims must wait in the same room as their attackers for their case to be heard.
In family disputes before the Family Court, unlike when obtaining intervention orders, there are no vulnerable witness protections, which means a victim could even be cross-examined by the abuser.
Domestic Violence Victoria's Ms McCormack says that building a strong support system for victims after police have left their homes must include courts that are able to process their claims, giving victims time to explain their circumstances and understand their legal options.
"Currently, I'm dubious about whether we have a system like that because it's being flooded, absolutely swamped," she said.
Family violence prevention work at community legal centres has grown by nearly 70 per cent over the past five years, and is now the most common issue they help with.
"In many cases, women have nowhere else to go," the Federation of Community Legal Centres' executive officer, Hugh de Kretser, says.
The Victorian Women's Legal Centre, which largely works for victims of family violence, has seen a 30 per cent rise in the number of victims in County Court in the last financial year.
Judge Paul Grant, the president of the Children's Court, has also said that at the rate child protection orders are rising, the court will not be able to cope with the backlog.
Yet the government's plan for violence against women and children, released in October, does not include advice on how the justice system should manage what Victoria Legal Aid calls an "unprecedented" rise in demand as a direct result of the new police approach to violence.
Legal Aid this month embarked on the most sweeping changes to its eligibility guidelines in its history as it faces a deficit of more than $3.1 million next financial year.
"It's ineffective if it's not actually addressing what is now a crisis in the courts. There will be longer waiting times for victims," says Dr Chris Atmore, family violence policy officer at the Federation of CLCs.
"Unless funding is forthcoming commensurate with victim demand, there will come a point where more people are not able to be given legal advice all through the process," she says.
The state government's plan to tackle violence against women and children was released in October after about a year of public consultation. The plan crosses several portfolios, including women's affairs, police and emergency services, housing and crime prevention.
It followed the previous Labor government's equivalent 10-year plan, which was five years in the making.
To be implemented over the next three years, the plan has so far raised the maximum sentence for those with serious or repeated breaches of intervention orders to five years' imprisonment and extended police-issued family violence safety notices from three to five days.
The government has started allocating part of the $90 million marked for expanding family violence services, including counselling and existing men's behaviour change programs. It has also awarded $600,000 grants to Department of Justice programs for reducing violence.
But Dr Atmore says that victims continue to be plagued by systemic problems not so easy to change, including some magistrates' tendency to shy away from maximum penalties for offenders, and the "pockets" of police who take less care than they should with the most vulnerable victims of family violence.
Victims with disabilities, indigenous people and those from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are at greater risk of falling through the cracks of a system struggling to cope.
A study of victims and family violence service providers earlier this year revealed that many providers often "screen out" women and men with an uncertain immigration status because they are not eligible for their services and cannot fund assistance otherwise.
They are also often ineligible for other benefits, such as public housing, which make it all the more difficult for victims to escape violent homes.
The study, by Whittlesea Community Connections, also found there are no anger management and violence reduction programs in Victoria specifically for men of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.
"The reality is that the vast majority of men who commit family violence don't go to jail and aren't necessarily charged, although that's improving," Dr Atmore says. "Almost all family violence is a crime. You expect it to be treated like a crime, but unfortunately it's not."
In Morwell, Sergeant van Breugel and his partner, Senior Constable Mick McKay, are more than half-way through their eight-hour shift.
Earlier that day, they had tried to find a man who had recorded repeated breaches of an intervention order in the town. He is not at his Morwell home.
"Most of these people don't have jobs, so finding them if they're not at home is difficult," Sergeant van Breugel says. "You go to a family member's house, then another family member, then a friend, but they could be anywhere."
The officers are more hopeful of finding another man, believed to be in Traralgon, who they allege has breached his bail conditions by contacting his alleged victim.
A house in the man's street is decorated with Santas and reindeer, blinking among candy canes as a cool summer's day begins to fade.
Tonight, blue and red police lights do not join the show. Their lights might not be flashing, but neighbours note the presence of four officers as they head for the house. Soon after, the man is led from his front door into a divisional van.
He will have a chance to explain his alleged offending after the 10-minute drive back to Morwell.
"More often than not, it's some sort of stressful situation in their life, whether it be due to drugs, alcohol, gambling, unemployment, you name it, and when that blows up that's when things go bad," Sergeant van Breugel says.
"It's their capacity to deal with that. Most people, when they get angry or upset, don't beat up their domestic partner.
"A common line I say to them is: if a stranger walked up to your wife and children in the street and acted this way towards them, how would you act?
"And usually they answer that they'd kill them."
* Name changed for legal reasons