February 2018

The Nation Reviewed

Sanctuary without secrecy: a new women’s refuge

By Zoë Morrison
A new approach to making those experiencing family violence feel safe

“The last visitors had to be blindfolded,” the duty manager at the Annie North Women’s Refuge and Domestic Violence Service in Bendigo said, with an apologetic smile. We were about to visit their traditional high-security communal refuge, where safety is also assured by the security code at the door, the screens on the windows and the anonymous suburban house location. All the women and children come from outside the area and are asked to keep their new location confidential.

Inside, two women were making an early start on lunch. On the kitchen table a baby in a bassinet observed us calmly. He was born into the refuge system, and his family spent months in a motel room before making it here. His brown eyes are enormous, versions of his mother’s, who came towards us, smiling, wiping her hands on her apron.

This style of refuge was developed decades ago when support from police, courts and the broader community for victims of family violence was minimal. Refuges basically were the family violence system. In houses like this, originally donated by churches or through public housing stock, a woman and her children are given one bedroom and share kitchen, bathroom and living facilities. The drawbacks are now widely recognised: such living arrangements can be challenging, particularly at a time of crisis, and people leave behind not only a violent husband and father but also their home, work, school, non-violent family members, friends and professional supports. As Annie North CEO Julie Oberin points out, these people are effectively “hidden away”.

Elsewhere in Bendigo, an alternative is about to be offered.

Oberin and Helen Horgan, executive assistant at Annie North, give me a tour of their new facility, which is nearly complete. Built on a gentle hill, surrounded by mature gums and a cacophony of birdsong, this purpose-built “core and cluster” refuge consists of six accommodation units and a main building for services and staff. Core and cluster refuges are already used in South Australia and parts of Western Australia; in Victoria they will replace all old communal refuges in accordance with one of the 227 recommendations in the report by the state’s landmark Royal Commission into Family Violence, released in March 2016 (although Oberin and her team started campaigning for this one long before that). The Bendigo facility will be for local women and children and allow them to live independently within a refuge but with the positive aspects of communal living. They will receive 24-hour support from staff and a range of best-practice wraparound services, all supplied on site.

In the main building, next to the small reception area, there’s a soundproof counselling room that will have a video link-up facility so women don’t have to leave the safety of the refuge to attend court. Another room will house a computer lab where women can upskill or retrain, and a satellite classroom where children will be assessed, do any necessary remedial work and continue their schooling with a visiting teacher. In the large kitchen there are plans to bring the Stephanie Alexander kitchen garden and food curriculum in for kids; outside there’s space for an orchard. The art therapy room will also house “the boutique”: a second-hand clothes and personal items supply. As we walk around, looking at these spaces, Horgan scribbles notes for the builders (“this door doesn’t work, see?”; “this cupboard has to go”). Every room is still unfurnished.

Across the drive from the main building are the accommodation units, built in a crescent shape. Inside each of them, flexible internal wall systems can house different family sizes and types (one of several ideas gleaned from the Meminar Ngangg Gimba Aboriginal women’s refuge in Mildura). One is fully equipped for a woman with a disability, her family and carer. Generous internal windows look onto the bare expanse of earth where a children’s playground will be built. A sensory garden (with water feature) will be planted in a far corner and overseen by a children’s project worker.

When the high-security facility opens it will be the first time Annie North has given refuge to local women, and its location is no secret. There is tasteful fencing, electronic locks, and when it’s finished there will be 11 CCTV cameras capable of high-resolution footage for use in court. Safety will also be assured through heightened community awareness about family violence and the raft of improvements to law and practice, including significantly improved responses by police and the courts to family violence and intervention orders. From the outset, Annie North decided to involve the local community in the facility’s development.

“Why should we be hiding these women away?” Oberin says. “[As a community we] needed to get the police and courts working better … There had to be more focus on the perpetrator … Women and children needed to stay in their own schools, own communities, with their own networks. That shift has taken quite a long while to happen. It’s not an easy shift and we’re still in the process of it.”

Over the years, the local press has charted the facility’s progress in stories ranging from the vagaries of getting state government funding to the efforts of charities and the local pub in raising support. Both the sensory garden and water feature were donated by the local Inner Wheel charity (the Rotary-affiliated organisation run by women); Zonta, an organisation focused on empowering women, funded the videoconference facility and will help run the boutique. Local Rotary clubs donated an outdoor kitchen (handy when the neighbours are invited in for tea) and fundraised for things such as inner-spring mattresses rather than foam ones (important for people with high stress levels or neck injuries from being beaten). Rotary men will be regular visitors to the refuge for working bees and minor maintenance work. They’ll receive appropriate training beforehand, as will all volunteers to the centre, including final-year law, public health, and social work students from a local university campus.

“Research says the more eyes on a place the safer it is,” explains Oberin. “It will also hopefully give women a sense that the whole community’s behind you here. The message of this facility is that it’s nothing you did or didn’t do. The community is all here supporting you while the system deals with him.”

Family violence calls to the police have plateaued in Victoria over the past 12 months (after a five-year increase), but calls to services are still going up. Annette Gillespie, CEO of Safe Steps, the Victorian family violence response centre, states that the service received 91,057 calls in that period, an increase of 16 per cent. The largest group of these (41 per cent) were referred into the community and supported either to remain safely at home (aided by improvements to law and practice, “safe at home” packages and new security technologies) or move to a friend’s or family member’s place. If necessary they went interstate or overseas. About 9700 women and children were provided with safe emergency accommodation. These are usually people at high risk, with other vulnerabilities that mean they are not able to safely relocate (for example, women without permanent residency are over-represented in this group). Gillespie says the shortage of refuge places is enormous. “There are very few entry options for women [into refuge] and there’s even fewer exit options [into transitional or permanent housing].” Safe Steps’ risk assessments also show that the frequency and severity of family violence have increased.

“There’ll always be a need for refuges,” says Oberin, “but hopefully not as many. Hopefully there will be a shift so that the perpetrator is held to account.”

Oberin has worked in the sector for 27 years, and has been trying to get the new facility built for 15 years. She is still looking for funding for things like the CCTV cameras and electronic locks, and refuses to hold an opening until all the special facilities are in, “because otherwise it’s just a building”.

Zoë Morrison

Zoë Morrison is the author of the novel Music and Freedom.

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