The ACT's systemic response to domestic violence should better hold perpetrators to account and give more weight to non-physical forms of abuse, a report has found.
And the territory government should commit to a dedicated funding stream for domestic violence support as frontline services struggled to meet ever-growing demand and face the "frightening" prospect they might not be able to provide help to women in need.
The Women's Centre for Health Matters on Wednesday released research gleaned from the experiences of 17 women who sought help for domestic abuse in the ACT.
The report highlighted that services had experienced a huge spike in demand from victims that was overwhelming their ability to respond, noting the ACT's Domestic Violence Crisis Service fielded 21,361 calls for help in 2015, up from 16,270 the previous year.
"This is happening at a time when the ACT government is facing considerable budgetary pressure and implementing sweeping reforms to all human services," the report said.
"With trauma-informed, specialist services squeezed by these changes, there is concern that women will not be able to access the help they need, when they need it.
"This is a frightening prospect when we think about the many ACT women yet to reach out for help for the first time, and raises doubts about the ethical integrity of continuing to raise awareness about domestic violence in our community knowing that the services most needed will struggle to respond."
The report identified three key areas of improvement, which included a need for reforms to the way violent perpetrators were held to account to better protect victims.
It said greater community awareness of domestic violence was still required and any support offered needed to be tailored to her experience and whether a woman was still in a violent relationship, leaving that relationship, or rebuilding her and her children's lives.
The report said while the women's stories showed a need for specialised services with knowledge of domestic and sexual violence as a "complex social phenomenon", there needed to be investment from all parts of the human service system, workplaces and ACT community.
Many of the women interviewed said the "narrow" misconception that domestic violence referred only to physical assault, and not other forms of coercive control such as verbal or financial abuse, had been a barrier to them seeking help.
The report also highlighted a need for victim's protection and rights to be better balanced with perpetrator accountability, with women saying that balance hadn't been struck and there was a continual "lack of systemic focus" on perpetrators.
Women commonly lamented the "ad-hoc and unreliable way" domestic violence order breaches were dealt with, the report said.
"Many of the participants in the research felt that the person who had perpetrated violence against them had been allowed to constantly flout the system without ever being held to account."
The report made seven recommendations, including that reforms to the ACT's support services should ensure women were supported long-term, from pre-separation to post-separation, in ways that were specific to their needs.
The government should invest in early intervention and prevention programs for violent perpetrators and boost consistency in the criminal justice response, the report said.
It suggested the government commit to a funding stream that was separate to homelessness and other social issues, a move the report said would enable it to maintain existing specialist support services and meet increased demand.
The report also advocated for bolstered training for employees who weren't in the domestic violence sector and funding for awareness-raising initiatives.
Report author Angela Carnovale hoped the research, the first to focus solely on the experiences of a group of Canberra domestic violence victims, would help inform continued efforts within the ACT improve responses to abuse.
"We hope that it will provide detail and depth of understanding of what helps and hinders those seeking help for domestic violence," she said.