This year has seen a 40 percent spike in NSW over the last year of women dying at the hands of their partners and ex partners. 77 percent of women calling refuges in NSW find them full. (Survey done by the Women’s Coalition in Sydney.) Temporary accommodation is less than perfect.
Since 2014, the NSW government has eroded support and availability of women’s refuges. Out of 100 womens’ refuges in NSW, the Baird government has closed 80 and reduced funding and services under a disastrous, (for women suffering domestic violence) program called Going Home Staying Home.
‘Essentially women are being treated as disposable,’ says Leonie McGuire, the former Manager of the Taree Women’s Refuge.
Mrs McGuire is now part of the Coalition for Women’s Refuges in Sydney who came together in response to the cuts by the Baird government in 2014. It is composed of academics, Sydney University student activists and feminists, along with concerned women from the community and current staff of remaining refuges (even though staff speaking out run the risk of being muzzled or worse.)
Formerly Lyn’s Place
The Taree Women’s Refuge, which was known as Lyn’s Place, was closed down and its management was handed over to church organisations, as were other State refuges. The Taree Women’s Refuge is now run by the Samaritan’s, the welfare arm of the Anglican Church based in Newcastle, which is also charged with managing homelessness shelters and hubs.
‘There was no consultation and the whole thing lacked transparency,’ said Mrs McGuire. ‘The government argued that they had put a lot of money into homeless shelters but didn’t distinguish between the differing needs of women and children escaping domestic violence, which require quite different and complex needs to those who are homeless as a result of other issues such as mental health, addictions, or getting out of jail and needing somewhere to stay.
‘It’s the government looking to do things on the cheap so the community has had to go back to having cake stalls and raffles and such, to try to raise some money like the bad old days. Which is the case for the Women’s Shelter in Forster which gets small government grants and donations from philanthropic groups, or local businesses. A woman’s life is not a charity case. Kempsey Womens Refuge was an effective and model refuge operating the same as Taree. It is now more a homelessness centre for men and women.’
Mrs McGuire, and others who established, and worked for, or volunteered, at Lyn’s Place, are now concerned the service is not meeting the needs of local women suffering domestic violence.
‘Everyone agrees a refuge is a homicide prevention centre,’ says Leonie McGuire. ‘We had a staff of 15 including four indigenous women, and three trained childcare workers plus counselors, and everyone was trained specifically in domestic violence. We had local staff and volunteers on a roster, so if a woman rang during the night – and most incidents occurred during the night and weekends, the call was diverted directly to the rostered local volunteer who would then arrange to meet her. If the situation was dangerous the volunteer asked for their permission to bring the police with her. At the refuge the woman and children were taken to a room for a cup of tea, were talked with and comforted, and settled down and shown where the panic button was which went directly to a security company. Many women were afraid their partners would follow them and bash them up in a motel or somewhere when they were left on their own. We found that women in the refuge quickly became friends and supported each other, often for the first time. As a form of abuse was not to let her go out or have friends.’
Now, local women’s groups maintain that the Taree Women’s Refuge has cut back its services and it is only accessible 9am to 5pm on weekdays. Outside hours and weekend calls are referred to a call centre anywhere in NSW where they are advised to call triple 0 if it’s a safety issue. Otherwise arrangements for temporary accommodation (TA) are done long distance.
After attempting to speak to someone from the staff at the Taree Women’s Refuge we were directed to the Sydney office of the Samaritans and then Belinda Latimore from the Samaritans in Newcastle rang us saying she was in charge of the Taree Refuge, and maintains they are providing a good service.
‘We’re funded by FACS (Family and Accommodation Services) to look after Taree, Forster and Gloucester, Great Lakes patch, but regardless of where the individual is from, if they are from Gloucester but they want to get out of Gloucester, then we’ll support that. If they want to stay locally, then we’ll support that. The refuge in Taree is almost always full, so we have arrangements with motels and local real estate agents for temporary accommodation.
‘Anyway by bringing someone into the refuge in the middle of the night who are traumatised, can be destabilising, especially if children are sleeping and it disturbs the other women who have been traumatised, so it makes sense to us to put them in a place like a motel. Then at 8am the next morning they are seen by a caseworker. If it was me all I’d want to do was sleep, not talk over all my issues. Coming into the refuge might be the best solution for some people, if there’s room, as there is a time limit of up to 18 weeks before they must move out. Or we can provide what we called a Rapid Rehousing Response, which is longer term accommodation, there is no magic bullet that suits everyone.’
As the Samaritans also look after the Taree Homelessness Hub, their total of six staff are divided between the Hub and the Women’s Refuge.
‘But they can be moved between both of them as needed. We have an indigenous staff member who floats between both the hub and the refuge,’ said Ms Latimore.
The Taree refuge was started in 1982 and later was purpose built for the community with five large bedrooms, kitchen, dining and children’s area and a garden for the women to relax and talk while the children were looked after by childcare workers.
‘It all looks rather unkempt now and seems to be run with great secrecy and no-one knows what’s going on or what services are being provided. Prior to 2014 we had an AGM and anyone could see what money came into the service and how it was spent. There was total transparency,’ said Mrs McGuire.
Leaving Can Mean Murder
Domestic violence specialists and the police know that violence against women is, in many cases, premeditated murder, committed in anger or revenge. Studies show that the time a woman is most likely to be killed is when she is planning to leave. This is a period of real danger and according to women lobbying for restored or better services from the Baird government, a call centre response is plainly inadequate in that context.
Belinda Latimore agrees there is not enough funding available.
‘The Taree Refuge is funded to 2020, but the additional funds for the 24 hours service is for two years only.
‘I would be very surprised and disappointed if the NSW government reduced the funding allowance or time frame.
‘We have no where near enough funding for our needs. We need more staff, the Taree building needs renovations and painting and the air conditioner needs replacing.
‘Domestic violence is out in the open and talked about more thanks to the Rosie Batty Foundation and the White Ribbon Day, so perhaps that is why more women are prepared to seek help.’
More Services Needed
The issues are complex and the reasons why domestic violence is on the increase and more women are being killed each year, means the demand for a safe places for women are needed more than ever. Services should be extended, not degraded, nor done by stealth, as in the case of NSW.
It make sense that refuges should be managed by women in the community who are trained specialists who know the area, can tap into local people and services, specialists and the needs of local women in crisis.
It appears the Baird government has fallen upon a philosophy of divide and conquor, setting charities and community groups in opposition, to squabble over funds and function. All the while slicing back budgets, cutting services, while maintaining a publicity campaign of government great do gooding.
Women support and empower each other. Publicity campaigns by officials and politicians in Sydney, IT campaigns and outsourcing services can never replace local knowledge. There is a desperate need for more women’s refuges, not cutbacks.
Sums up Leonie McGuire,
‘Domestic violence affects women of all ages and socio economic backgrounds. That service for women at the refuge in Taree used to attract, especially to our counseling service, wives of professional people as well as those who were struggling. The goal was to support women back into safe independent living which could take years. For kids they say the trauma of domestic violence is akin to living in war zones.
Sadly, you come away with the feeling society is pretty indifferent.’