At last, action on domestic violence that should save lives

Livia Stanton, Policy and Advocacy Officer

This article originally appeared as an opinion piece for the Sydney Morning Herald.

One in two women are turned away on average, from shelters in NSW. That’s one in every two brave women who have mustered the courage to pack up their lives – and often their children – to finally leave a violent relationship, only to learn she has nowhere to go except to live in her car, to turn to the streets, or to go back to her abuser. 

This week, however, the NSW government has announced the largest investment to address domestic violence in the state’s history – a $484.3 million commitment to build 75 new refuges and refurbish existing ones, and a boost of 200 social housing dwellings. It will also cover a trial in two districts to provide dedicated support for unaccompanied children and young people experiencing or at risk of homelessness. 

This reform, at last, has the potential to save lives.  

And it is powerful because it respects the expertise of domestic violence specialists with the skills and capability to meet the needs of victim-survivors. As the renowned Canadian family therapist Dr Allan Wade says: “You wouldn’t have just anyone perform a life-saving heart surgery; you’d employ a trained specialist.” 

In 2014, under the problematic reforms of the Going Home Staying Home program, refuges changed management and were placed in the hands of organisations with limited experience. There was a significant reduction in specialist domestic violence services. Specialist workers with decades of experience, burnt out and tired of feeling devalued, left their jobs. Refuge managers were afraid to speak out, fearing even more budget cuts. The strongest advocates for vulnerable women – and their voices – were taken away. 

In Australia, 7690 women a year are returning to perpetrators because they have nowhere affordable to live. Even if a woman manages to get a refuge bed, where does she go after that? 

This week’s announcement certainly redresses those setbacks; however, it addresses only a fraction of the housing problem.  We welcome the 200 extra homes for social housing, but Domestic Violence NSW will continue calling, until we are hoarse, for 5000 new houses a year for the next 10 years to address the shortfall. 

As a peak body representing more than 120 services across the state, DVNSW has witnessed the excitement that has followed the announcement, but has also fielded the questions: Where will the funding go? Which towns will get refuges? Will they be specialist? Will the sector be consulted? 

We are heartened by the recognition for domestic violence specialists in the announcement. Their work is client centred. It does not victim-blame but empowers. It sees gender-based violence as a fundamental violation of human rights. It understands that particular communities best understand their own needs: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, culturally and linguistically diverse women, trans and gender-diverse women, older women and young women.  

Now we, the experts – who have seen first-hand the devastating impact of domestic and family violence – need to be heard. We need to get this right. If we do, this incredible investment will change and shape the lives of women and children in NSW. 

Delia Donovan is the chief executive of Domestic Violence NSW. 

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