Inside Australia's oldest women's refuge, Beryl Women, in Canberra
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Inside Australia's oldest women's refuge, Beryl Women, in Canberra

The woman on the phone was whispering. At Beryl Women's refuge, it was an unusually quiet afternoon but, on the other end of the line, in Africa, it was the dead of night.

The woman had just escaped from a small, remote village with her two children. In a few minutes she said, her voice spiky with static and adrenaline, she would bundle them onto a plane and fly thousands of kilometres home to Canberra, leaving behind a violent husband and the life she had made on the continent.

Robyn Martin has been at Beryl for almost two decades and says the work can be almost as dangerous for staff as their clients.

Robyn Martin has been at Beryl for almost two decades and says the work can be almost as dangerous for staff as their clients.Credit:karleen minney

When they landed, Beryl staff would be waiting at baggage claim. They never asked where she got their number.

"It was all secret, like something out of a film," the manager of Beryl, Robyn Martin, recalls. "We brought them straight here to the refuge."

A fridge and groceries are donated to the refuge in 1979.

A fridge and groceries are donated to the refuge in 1979. Credit:CANBERRA TIMES

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"Last I heard, she was a practicing lawyer now."

For staff at Australia's longest running women's shelter, the world of clandestine operations and counter-surveillance is all inescapably domestic.

Robyn and her small team have helped women change their identities and flee interstate, combed over cars and phones for tracking devices, navigated complex immigration law and tipped off police, all while running carloads of children to school every other morning.

But now, the refuge that first opened its doors on International Women's Day 43 years ago, that has survived fires, break-ins and all manner of threats, is struggling to stay open.

Dana Esperanza, Chair of the Beryl women Inc. board of directors with Robyn Martin in the refuge "office".

Dana Esperanza, Chair of the Beryl women Inc. board of directors with Robyn Martin in the refuge "office".Credit:karleen minney

"We sometimes feel like we're in crisis, we're so stretched," Robyn explains over a cup of tea in the refuge "office", a converted garage and kitchen.

"Even I can't believe what we do."

By 1977, the refuge was already experiencing "overcrowding" as workers struggled to find beds for children.

By 1977, the refuge was already experiencing "overcrowding" as workers struggled to find beds for children.Credit:CANBERRA TIMES

In her near 18 years at Beryl, Robyn has seen generations of survivors, women who have turned their lives around, and children who once played in the gardens now returning years later with their own kids in tow.

"It's heart-breaking, every time, that recognition," she says.

Angie Piubello, Beryl's only remaining permanent youth and child support worker.

Angie Piubello, Beryl's only remaining permanent youth and child support worker.Credit:karleen minney

Each year the service supports about 150 women and children from all walk's of life, from diplomats and public servants to locals and migrants. These days, there can be up to 40 children at the refuge, and increasingly there are more families from diverse cultural backgrounds, who often require interpreters.

"The community know us, they trust us, we become like family," Robyn says.

Historical images of Beryl Women's refuge in Canberra during its early years.

Historical images of Beryl Women's refuge in Canberra during its early years.Credit:CANBERRA TIMES

"We have a very good reputation in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities as well. That's I think what's kept me here for so long."

Growing up on an Aboriginal reserve over the border, Robyn says she was familiar with domestic violence. It was in the community or on the street, it was "happening over there", but she never understood it until her first day working in the sector.

Robyn prepares a room at the refuge, vacated just the day before. In 24 hours, another woman will find sanctuary here.

Robyn prepares a room at the refuge, vacated just the day before. In 24 hours, another woman will find sanctuary here.Credit:karleen minney

"That was a taxing learning curve. I took a lot of my work home with me," she says.

"I carried it around for a long time until I learnt how to walk out the door at the end of the day. Sometimes though, you'll hear someone's story and it just doesn't shift in your mind."

A bedroom at the refuge in its early years.

A bedroom at the refuge in its early years.Credit:CANBERRA TIMES

When the refuge opened in 1975, the work of Canberra's early feminists, staff were only allowed to stay on for two years at a time "to avoid burn out".

Back then, the very notion of a women's refuge was a radical concept, says Dana Esperanza, chair of Beryl's board of directors.

Robyn Martin (left) and Angie Piubello warn children fleeing violence in the ACT are falling through the cracks in the system, still not treated as clients in their own right.

Robyn Martin (left) and Angie Piubello warn children fleeing violence in the ACT are falling through the cracks in the system, still not treated as clients in their own right.Credit:karleen minney

Australia's very first refuge, Elsie, had opened just a year before after activists squatted in a dilapidated house in Sydney. Beryl's founders decided to go about things "the Canberra way" and ask the government for a property instead.

"Who will mow your lawns?" was one notable objection at the time.

The refuge was renamed after Canberra activist Beryl Henderson, and the legacy of feminism remains at the heart of the organisation.

The refuge was renamed after Canberra activist Beryl Henderson, and the legacy of feminism remains at the heart of the organisation.Credit:CANBERRA TIMES

When Robyn started at Beryl, the service was growing, with twice as many workers as it has today. Then in 2013, a "devastating" round of government cuts to the sector slashed more than 30 per cent of Beryl's funding, and saw it lose two full-time staff members. Many other specialist services closed.

Around the same time, sweeping reforms to the NSW sector saw Elsie close its doors, "swallowed up", Dana says, into the large community service provider St Vincent De Paul.

The plague presented at the opening of the Canberra Women's Refuge, as it was previously known, in 1975.

The plague presented at the opening of the Canberra Women's Refuge, as it was previously known, in 1975.Credit:karleen minney

Today, Dana is worried Beryl could follow suit if its funding is not restored and they continue to rely on a dedicated, overworked and underpaid workforce of just five permanent staff.

"We're really fragile, even losing one staff member, with their expertise, could be like a domino effect," she says.

Historical images of Beryl Women's refuge in Canberra during its early years.

Historical images of Beryl Women's refuge in Canberra during its early years.Credit:CANBERRA TIMES

Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Yvette Berry acknowledged that cuts to Beryl, as well as to Canberra's other women's services Toora and Doris, were "greater than those imposed on other services within the sector". She recently sat down with the refuge to discuss their funding and says she has long been calling for more money to the sector.

"Beryl [are] integral...they have a wealth of knowledge and experience," she says. "The government has a strong commitment to supporting [them]."

A card from a former child at the refuge.

A card from a former child at the refuge.Credit:Sherryn Groch

In 2015, a string of high-profile murders related to domestic violence led the ACT government to unveil an unprecedented $21 million response package.

But, on the ground in 2018, services report they are still stretched, trying to plug "black holes" in an increasingly bureaucratic system that can swallow up the most vulnerable.

Here at the refuge every dollar is carefully accounted for, says Beryl board treasurer Tessa Keane, but there's "no fat left" to trim. Do you skimp on secure phones and taxi vouchers for women fleeing danger, or reduce staff hours? Already, only Robyn is full time.

The phone rings and she hurries into a back room. Mary and Grace, who do not want their real names published for safety reasons, are catching up over cake, as Mary's young boys play in the gardens.

It was in this kitchen, Mary says, that she started to breathe again, really breathe, after she brought her children to Beryl to escape a violent marriage.

Grace was the support worker who sat beside Mary in court every day as she battled to keep custody of her youngest child.

Staff like to keep the air clean at the refuge, Grace says. Constant talk of violence and trauma, of rape, can weigh it down, a strange energy can build in the corners and near the doors. About four times a year, an Aboriginal Elder will perform a smoking ceremony to cleanse the building.

Mary remembers. She's from Spain and had never seen anything like it. She came to Canberra on a student visa and there she fell in love with an Australian, who she thought would be "the man of [her] life".

But soon after they married, the picture shifted to one of control, blame and violence.

"He always had to know what I was doing on the phone," Mary says.

"When I stay with him that was the worst time in my life...physically, mentally, I couldn't sleep.

"And everything he say was true because he was Australian and he know, he had his family and friends all here and in court, I was so alone, I couldn't tell my family, even now still they don't know."

Within two days of Mary leaving, her husband had already reported her to the immigration department. A week later, he had taken her to court to claim custody of their child.

Grace says they had to move just as fast to help get Mary the right supports, in touch with Legal Aid, on a welfare payment, and filing for permanent residency.

Today, Mary is thriving, she's just bought a new car ("Beryl paid for me to get the driving lessons"), she's living independently with her two boys, and she's discovered a new love for cooking, forged in the refuge kitchen baking school treats.

But she still has to see her ex-husband once a week when she hands over their son for visits. And she can't go home to Spain.

For Grace, it is these "failures" in the family court process that are most frustrating and dangerous for women, and the system is only "getting worse".

"We've had women who have had to go across five states to try and get safe, or one woman, he broke both her knee caps, and she still had to deal with him in family court," Grace says.

"Canberra doesn't think this stuff goes on...I spend all of my time trying to get through barriers in systems that are supposed to support women and I struggle and I'm familiar with most of them."

Angie Piubello agrees. She's spent the past decade as Beryl's only permanent child support worker and says no day is the same at the refuge. "You never know what will come through the door".

But too often, she says, children are lost in bigger discussions about domestic violence, even though they make up the majority of clients.

An ACT government report released last month found children were often falling through the cracks without specialised support funding, displaced from school or left off protection orders.

Jo Wood, the coordinator-general for family safety in the ACT, says some of the personal stories in that report were "shocking", highlighting a fragmented system in need of training and innovation.

"We talk about domestic violence now, and a lot of people want to change things [around] Australia, but do we really understand it?" she says.

"Beryl were so generous in helping me understand...[they] were almost my first glimpse into the world of domestic violence when I started in this role."

Beryl was recently awarded an eleventh hour government grant for a second part-time children's worker, but that money runs out in June, leaving just Angie to "triage" her time with the kids..

"It's hard when as a service you feel like you're letting kids and young people down," Angie says.

"But you do the best you can...And I am really proud at what we've managed to do...whether that's buying uniforms or taking the kids out for the afternoon, checking in with them."

Even something as simple as changing school can quickly become a bureaucratic nightmare for families, she says. Mary recently found herself facing thousands of dollars in international student fees just to send her oldest son to school.

That staff are increasingly forced to spend their time applying for temporary funding grants and wading through paperwork, has become "untenable", according to the board.

Part of the problem, Tessa says, is that domestic violence services are still only funded under homelessness portfolios, when housing is just one part of the problem.

"For us, that's almost when our story begins with these women, they have so many other complex needs."

The board is now calling on the ACT government to "become a leader" in this space by funding women's services across portfolios.

The refuge can't afford to keep waiting on Commonwealth deals with the territory, Dana says.

"We're dealing with a recent history of Australia losing its first women's refuge and that's the last thing any of us want to see for Beryl, we should be proud of this history and this legacy and we should all be rallying behind it to keep this expertise."

At the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Chrystina Stanford says Beryl is always her first point of call when referring a client.

"I know that whoever goes to Beryl will be better off for it," she says.

"Right from the beginning, it's been led by some incredible women and what Beryl does works, there's a long history of evidence that tells us that...they're that human connection survivors need.

"This can happen to anyone."

Speaking softly as her son farewells Grace in the kitchen, Mary says she still has nightmares about her ex-husband some times.

"When you cross that line...I think it mark the life not only for the woman but for the kids," she says.

"Still in my mind sometimes I'm there with him. But I'm happy now. I breathe."

"That little one," says Grace some time later, after Mary has loaded the boys back up in her new car.

"She never would have thought any of this was possible."

Sherryn Groch is a reporter for The Canberra Times, with a special interest in education and social affairs