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Juggling demand, securing safety: an interview with Rose Solomon

Juggling demand, securing safety: an interview with Rose Solomon

Safe Steps (formerly Women’s Domestic Violence Crisis Service) is Victoria’s 24-hour telephone service for women experiencing or escaping domestic violence. It has a vital coordinating role in the sector. This article is based on an interview with Rose Solomon, the crisis telephone coordinator at Safe Steps. Rose discusses recent trends in the calls received and changes in the service system. On the day of our visit to Safe Steps, all of Victoria’s refuges are full. There are three workers on shift and the phone rings non-stop. As well as observing a shift in the phone room, we met with Rose Solomon, who supports and supervises the Crisis Support Advocates (CSAs) on the telephone service. Rose has worked in the domestic violence field for twenty years and she’s been at Safe Steps since April 2010. This article is by DVRCV's Quarterly Editor Mandy McKenzie and was originally published in the Summer 2010 DVRCV Quarterly - available by subscription.

You receive over 50,000 calls a year. Who are your callers? Are most of them seeking refuge?

People often assume that all we do is refer women to refuge, partly because the service used to be called the Women’s Refuge Referral Service.

But, in fact, only about 20 per cent of the women we talk to end up in refuge.

Our callers vary from women who just want some basic information, those who live with a violent partner and are looking at their options, and those whose lives are in immediate danger. We also receive many calls from concerned family members and friends seeking advice on how they can best support their friend, mother, sister, auntie, work colleague, etc.

What might be surprising to some, and certainly was to me when I first started here, is the level of case management work the telephone workers do.

They support and advocate for individual women over a period of days, weeks or months. This includes writing support letters, organising permanent residency applications, advocating with police, coordinating court support, and organising taxis, removalists and interpreters.

Is there a great demand for refuges?

Yes, they are almost always full. And the demand means that these days women are staying longer in refuge.

A big problem is a lack of long-term housing options for women and children when they leave refuge.

The lack of affordable private rental properties often means that women who exit refuge can’t access the private rental market. The lack of accommodation options is why some women return home to abusive partners.

What are the recent trends in the kinds of calls you receive?

 There has been a significant increase in contacts from women who don’t have permanent residency in Australia ...

They may be here on spousal, student or tourist visas. They may have come to a new country to get married, but then their partner becomes violent to them.

Assisting these women can be resource intensive because they are extremely vulnerable. They have no financial support and often no family support. Their rights are unclear and it can be hard to get medical assistance. Often they can’t be accommodated in refuges because they don’t have an income – most refuges and accommodation services charge a nominal fee these days. Because of this, women without permanent residency often stay for extended periods in Trish’s Place, the interim accommodation refuge managed by WDVCS. Some choose to return back to their home country, and we support them to do that, or to obtain bridging visas if they want to apply for permanent residency.*

*For more information, see Fact Sheet 38: Family Violence Provisions (2010) from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship: www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/38domestic.htm

Another trend is the increase in the number of women contacting us who are being subjected to abuse from their children.

For example, just today we had a call from a woman aged in her 70s whose son is threatening her daily.

Why has there been an increase in calls from mothers being abused by their children?

I think we’re hearing more about it now; it’s not new violence.

The definition of family violence has broadened to include different types of violence. We went from using the term ‘domestic violence’ to ‘family violence’. I understand why that was. Having come from working in the Indigenous community, I’ve seen a high level of trans-generational violence – and I think we’re realising now that it’s there in the broader community as well.

Trans-generational violence is linked to violence against women.

When young men, and young women for that matter, observe their mother being abused for a lifetime, it almost becomes normal to them. We need to demonstrate to young people that violence against women and the attitudes we hold will shape them as adults and influence their own relationships.

Has the crisis service noticed any improvements for women since the shift towards integrating the service system in Victoria?

Yes. There’s an increase in women taking out Intervention Orders. And police, welfare agencies and government bodies have increased their understanding of the impact of violence on women and children.

I’m excited by the reforms, but the changes are going to take some time.*

* Reforms were introduced in 2005 by the Department of Human Services, requiring services and police in each region to work together to respond more effectively.

Where these types of models have been introduced overseas, the results have been seen several years down the track. We’ve got to give it some time because this is a new approach – historically, women’s services didn’t sit at the table with men’s behaviour change programs, or police for that matter. Some of the after-hours responses are positive changes – such as the services provided by the Eastern Crisis Advocacy Response Service (ECARS) and the Northern Crisis Advocacy Response Service (NCARS)*. These mean that a face-to-face crisis response is available 24 hours a day in these regions.

* The after-hours services are a partnership between family violence services, Victoria Police and the WDVCS. A crisis worker can meet women at a police station, hospital, motel or any other safe place. The Victorian Department of Human Services has introduced a statewide rollout of funding for after-hours services.

Has the police response improved?

Compared with how it was ten years ago, the police response has improved significantly. Now, under the Victoria Police Code of Practice*, when police are called to an incident of family violence they are required to make a referral to support services. So, many of our contacts with women come via the police.

Police, welfare agencies and government bodies have increased their understanding of the impact of violence on women and children.

We still see a few problems – often related to an officer who might be a new constable. But the majority of the time we’re getting good responses. When there’s not a good police response, we advocate on behalf of the woman.

* Victoria Police Code of Practice for the Investigation of Family Violence (2004)

What do you think about new ‘safe at home’ models?

Locked door on Flickr I think for some women, the option of getting an Intervention Order that excludes the perpetrator from the home can work.*

It certainly doesn’t work for all women though, and it’s not always straightforward to organise. It can take a while to get the money to get locks changed.

Women may have to use emergency accommodation while arrangements are made to change their locks – and this may take up to two weeks.

* New ‘safe at home’ models aim to assist victims of violence to remain in the home. Women can apply for Intervention Orders with conditions that exclude the perpetrator from the home, have the locks changed and put other security measures in place.

Have the links improved between domestic violence and sexual assault services?

It’s a logical step to link up, and there are some promising developments. For example, some great work is being done in the southern region where the sexual assault and domestic violence services are linking up to provide afterhours support to victims of violence. The inner-south region has recently received some funding to provide an after-hours domestic violence service. The response will be based on the Sexual Assault Crisis Line (SACL) model; we’re not reinventing the wheel because SACL already have an on-call system for each region.

So all we’d have to do is ring them to contact the worker on call for that night. They’ve got crisis care units and all the security measures are already in place at Monash Hospital. We even have the medi-hotel right there on the premises to accommodate women, with security and everything.

What changes are needed in the refuge system?

I have to say, refuges are under extreme pressure and they do an incredible job supporting women and children.

But I do think some refuges need to look at whether they can be more flexible to ensure that women can access them. I think it’s time to review some of the policies around safety and unsafe areas.

Women in refuge can’t disclose their location to any friends or family, which is important because they’re high-security refuges.

These days, refuges are mostly for women whose partners are actively searching for them.

But, in some cases, refuges have blanket criteria around safety, which means that some women are unable to use them. Refuges may deem certain areas as ‘unsafe’, meaning that they can’t accommodate women who have to go into these areas, whether for work, family or other commitments. Services are supposed to do a risk assessment to look at the woman’s level of safety, and this assessment should be based on a worker’s professional judgement as well as the woman’s own evaluation of her level of safety. However, at times refuges don’t take women’s own assessments into account – instead, they just apply a standard policy around what areas are unsafe. For example, they might say they can’t accommodate a woman because her mother lives three suburbs away from the refuge – despite the fact that the woman is clearly saying that the refuge is in a safe area for her.

We have to ask: who is the safety about – the woman or the agency? I think our responses should be as diverse as the women we see.

Another area we need to review is what we can do for women who are required to have contact with their children’s father (the perpetrator of the violence) because of a family court order. Some refuges require that this contact be suspended, even if the location where children are handed over to their father for contact is safe.

A woman may feel torn: if she doesn’t handover the children for contact with their father, she will be in breach of the family court order; yet if she does hand them over, the refuge may see this as a breach of their security policy.

So she might re-think her decision to come to refuge. Child protection matters can also be a barrier. Some women have had their children removed from their care for whatever reason – and often it’s because of family violence. The Children’s Court usually make an order for the woman to have contact with her children. However, some refuges have a requirement that women suspend their access to their children.

Do refuges have policies to not accommodate older sons?

Most refuges say they will take women with older male children, but there can be difficulties. We recently had a situation where a woman was at very high risk but we couldn’t get her into a refuge. The refuge wouldn’t take her because she had a 16-year-old son.

But let’s think about what we’re asking women to do: we’re asking them to separate from their children at a time of crisis. This is a crucial time for that child. This is where you demonstrate to a 16-year-old that violence is not going to be tolerated. And certainly if I was a woman with a 16-year-old boy and I had to leave him, I would not. That’s the reality for many women.

Are there any other problems you see in the service system?

More emergency accommodation is needed

We need more emergency accommodation options – for women who are at high risk, and also for other women where safety is not the primary concern. And we need more places for women to go once they leave a refuge.

The domestic violence sector needs to advocate for this. Also, we’ve had all these studies around the impact of violence on children, yet children are still not counted in our system as individual clients. The election campaign coordinated by Domestic Violence Victoria for this year’s state election was focused on children – and rightly so. [ref] Domestic Violence Victoria is the peak body for women’s family violence services in Victoria. [/ref] The work that is done by domestic violence services in terms of child protection is not recognised. You’ve got children in crisis who require some type of crisis therapeutic response, you’ve got waiting lists for counselling, and some children’s counselling services take the position that they can’t provide any counselling unless a child is out of crisis. So there are a lot of issues.

These children are our future – we need to invest in them now – not ten years down the track!

Do you have women who call your service repeatedly for assistance?

Yes. Some women return to the perpetrator several times before they finally leave. We have to be clear that we understand the cycle of violence and don’t judge women who go back to violent partners. We’ve got to avoid the same blame cycle the broader community does.

Whether it’s the fourth, the sixth or tenth time that a woman has been with us, if she walks away from our service more informed and a little bit stronger – and she feels she can contact us again – we’ve done our job.

If a woman decides to return to her partner, we do a safety plan with her. If she’s going back to a violent partner and we’re concerned for her children’s safety, we’ll tell her we’re making a notification to child protection because of our concerns. We will always endeavour to inform her when making a notification.

Does WDVCS get caught in the middle of, say, a housing service that wants to get a woman into a refuge and a refuge saying they can’t take her?

Yes, we do. And I have to say, I feel for housing workers – they have to turn people away. Once they’ve run out of Housing Establishment Funds or if they’ve got no properties, what can they do? That must be horrible. But we’re conversing more with housing services now. We invite them to come and observe shifts at WDVCS, so they can understand our perspective.

And I want to send my workers to a housing service just to understand the frustrations of housing workers. It’s very important to understand each other’s roles because there’s lots of assumptions on both sides about what we do and don’t do.

We’re keen to offer other organisations in the sector the opportunity to visit WDVCS so they can have a better understanding of our role.

Contact Safe Steps (formerly Womens Domestic Violence Crisis Service)

Image credits

Illustrations and photos from Flickr: Phone illustration by Mazarello Media and Arts Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Australia map drawing by detainees in Woomera Detention Centre at Karen Eliot Creative Commons: Attribution Share Alike iconDoor and lock by Jennifer König Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Hotel room by Hussein Abdallah Creative Commons BY icon