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The brutal price of domestic violence

Date

John Elder

There has reportedly been a 40 per cent increase in family violence reports over the past two years.

There has reportedly been a 40 per cent increase in family violence reports over the past two years.

This weekend, as most of the nation enjoys another public holiday, at least 51 women and 57 children are hiding out in motels across Victoria, on the run from men who claim to love them. Some will remain living there for up to two weeks until a more home-like environment can be provided - unless, of course, they lose their nerve and go back to the devil they know too well.

Another 150 women, and their children, are in secret refuges - 19 across the state, nine of them high-security - having agreed to abide by strict guidelines not to contact other family members or friends until they have resettled their lives elsewhere.

They've been told, right from the start, in gentle but honest terms, that the safe house is a short-term option; that no matter their shocked and depressed state, a lack of resources dictates they make plans for a future they cannot as yet imagine.

Even so, some of these women - who have no friends or family or independent means to call on - have been in these safe houses for months. In some cases, where they can't access government services, even years.

Too many other women and children, who didn't meet the ''high-risk'' criteria that domestic violence services use to allocate resources, are being counselled on the telephone as to how to best navigate a situation that has already turned violent, and may turn deadly. One piece of advice is to ''keep their bags packed but hidden''.

Another is to be aware of the times of day their unpredictable partner in life is prone to do his block. ''We'll ask, what are the key times when the violence escalates,'' says Sheridon Byrne, service delivery co-ordinator at the Women's Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE), a telephone service that gets 13,000 calls a year, 28 per cent of them from women seeking help with domestic violence.

''Every week we have women say they have already called and found no refuges available. They come back to us and we'll say, 'Let's explore what the options are,' and we'll talk about safety planning.''

By this stage, the woman, having already called a crisis service, has been asked a series of questions. And so they begin again: is there a friend or family she and the children can spend a night with? Does your partner know where they live and do you think he would go there? Are there weapons involved? Should she call the police or get an intervention order?

''Sometimes it means, if there is nowhere to go, and she might decide to stay for a period of time while making another plan, we talk about how to stay safe at home,'' Byrne says. ''Talk about having the bag packed, have documents ready, birth certificates. Does he have a GPS on his phone. Can she turn off her GPS so he can't track her?''

Annette Gillespie is CEO of the Women's Domestic Violence Crisis Service (WDVCS), the main source of referrals to women's refuges in Victoria. Ms Gillespie says that any woman who meets the high-risk criteria - as determined by a set of questions called the Common Risk Assessment Framework, a template used by the Department of Human Services, police and crisis services - will be immediately accommodated, even if it means being placed in a motel.

At high risk means being assaulted within three days of making the call for help, associated threats to kill and evidence of previous assaults. ''We don't have a cap on the women we will help who meet that criteria,'' Gillespie says. ''But as the demand increases … the criteria become tighter. So we move from accommodating women at risk to high risk to extreme risk. Therefore, people who may not have met the higher or extreme criteria won't be the first priority.''

There has reportedly been a 40 per cent increase in family violence reports over the past two years. Victoria Police dealt with more than 60,000 family violence incidents in 2012-13 - including 29 murders, which account for a little less than half of all murders committed in the state. What this means for the WDVCS, and organisations like the Salvation Army and Good Shepherd that run women's refuges, is a spiralling demand for their services.

''We have our own safe house, which can accommodate three families,'' Gillespie says. ''It's full all the time. If we had 10 safe houses, then we'd be able move women directly into … refuge. This is the greatest social epidemic of our time.''

As a holding strategy, the WDVCS has a number of motel rooms across the state booked and paid for three months in advance. ''What is needed,'' Gillespie says, ''is a review of the safe housing that is available … and a response in funding to match demand.''

More than half of all homeless women - living in cars, couch-surfing with their children - came to this desperate position after leaving violence at home and having nowhere to go. Even for a woman at risk of death, and granted priority access, it can take up to two years to get a place on public housing, says Alison Macdonald, policy officer for Domestic Violence Victoria. ''Housing affordability is the key bottlenecking in the system now … the abuse of power and control by their abusers often mean women don't have the means to rent or buy.''

Another bottleneck is the growing number of migrant women, particularly those who come to Australia on a prospective spousal visa, and subjected to sexual servitude. Their abuser - captor, slaver - uses the fact that they sponsored their coming to Australia as a means of maintaining control. Because such women have no access to CentreLink, a health card or public housing, Macdonald says, a woman's refuge is their only option. ''They are incredibly isolated and have no understanding of the legal system.''

There have been instances where migrant women have lived in a refuge for up to two years until their immigration status has changed to the point they could access wider services.

Gillespie of the WDVCS says the issue of migrant women stranded in refuges has become such a strain on resources that ''refuges will refuse to take in a woman in those circumstances because they already have one [already living there long-term]. For us, we might have her in a motel for four to six weeks and then a boarding hostel, which is another level of vulnerability. It's a huge issue.''

This week, representatives from crisis-line operators from across the country are meeting in Melbourne to discuss a variety of issues, with a focus on women from marginalised groups, notably those without permanent residency.

Jade Blakkarly, service strategy manager with Good Shepherd Family Services, which operates three refuges on the Mornington Peninsula - and liaises with police to deal with 1000 family violence incidents a year - recently had a migrant woman and her children occupying one refuge for 18 months. ''That's how long it took to get her a visa and … for her to be able to access services.''

Blakkarly says Good Shepherd will always find a way to help a woman get out of a violent home, even when there's no funding for it. ''It might mean putting her in a motel. Getting beyond that first step is very difficult. Often it can seem easier to go back home and deal with the abuser … because what they are facing otherwise is poverty.''

Last Christmas, the Good Shepherd's funds for helping women had run out. They ran a sponsorship appeal of the sort international charities run for Third World children. ''A gift of $130 could help a woman and her children to stay in a motel instead of on the streets. A gift of $350 could help a women who stays at home to change all the locks on her house. In this way, you could help keep her and her children safe. Or $500 could help a woman forced to move to another part of the state to purchase a phone to stay in touch with her family and friends and be safe.''

That's what it's come to.

 

Escape from hell into the dark days

She says to call her Donna. In Italian it means ''woman'' so it's a good name to go by. There was a time when Donna believed in keeping her marriage together for the sake of the children, no matter the beatings and monstering moods of her husband.

One night, with a six-month-old daughter and a four-year-old son lying too quietly in their beds, she talked of divorce. And that's when he tried to kill her.

Somehow Donna survived the night.

The next morning, when she called the Women's Domestic Violence Crisis Service, Donna had the idea that counselling might turn things around. ''They said to come straight in,'' she says.

She and the children were taken to a safe house; a regular suburban house with high walls.

She was told not to tell anyone where she was. There weren't too many friends to tell, and all her immediate family were overseas.

Donna was from Hong Kong, an overseas student when she met her husband, a professional man. She was told the refuge was short-term but, in fact, three dark months went by. Other women came and went with their kids: young, old, well educated and otherwise, disabled.

Donna remembers a woman who had been married for 50 rowdy years. ''Her grown-up son called on her mobile and said he would disown her if she didn't go home to his father. And that's what she did.''

goodshepvic.org.au/current_appeal

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