Domestic violence: where services go, reporting follows

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Above: The high-walled grim facade of the Alice Springs women’s shelter, and below, the sally port entrance and CCTV cameras speak to the very real threat of violence against women and children that the service deals with. 

 

By KIERAN FINNANE

 

If domestic violence is under-reported in Central Australia “we’re in big, big trouble”, says Dianne Gipey, CEO of the Alice Springs Women’s Shelter.

 

“We’re really busy, the police are really busy, there’s mandatory reporting, we report everybody who comes through the doors.”

 

p2380-asws-entranceCompared to the previous financial year, the crisis accommodation arm of the service has had 71 more women using it this financial year, making a total of 1100. Many came with children. A “large proportion” also came with injuries from serious assaults: the hospital is the shelter’s greatest referrer.

 

A small number of children “self-referred”, mostly teenagers who had been at the shelter previously in their young lives and knew it as a safe place. However, one child turning up alone last year was under five years old. (The shelter can’t accept children without an accompanying adult, so if they can’t go back home, staff call Territory Families.)

 

The outreach arm, commended recently by the Productivity Commission for its proven effectiveness, has experienced significant growth, says Ms Gipey: 1350 women have seen a case worker in 2015-16, compared to 490 in the previous year (the huge increase is partially explained by the service having expanded).   Staff caseloads are “enormous”, about 145 individuals per caseworker.

 

These women have mostly been experiencing a different kind of violence – the exercise over them of power, control and manipulation.

 

p2380-asws-cctvSome access the service at its offices, but staff also go to where the women are if they wish. The core of the work they do is on safety planning (this goes too for women intending to return home after a period in the shelter). Staff do a risk assessment and help the women think about their options: what are they going to do if the violence happens again, who is the person they can contact straight away, what other services are they linked in with.

 

“Women are really good at that, really good at having a bag somewhere, or another phone, or someone they can contact. There are lots of different things to do to support the woman in her choice.”

 

The outreach clients included women from four remote communities – Yuendumu, Papunya, Ti-Tree, and Ntaria (Hermannsburg) – to where the service now extends, as well as young women under 18 years, who have responded to the information and support offered by a dedicated caseworker employed over the last year. The youngest was just 13: she had been in “an intimate partner relationship and assaulted,” says Ms Gipey.

 

It seems that wherever the service makes new inroads, women are responding, lending support to the argument made recently by Jacinta Price that domestic violence is under-reported.

 

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But there are some positives to the current picture, suggests Ms Gipey (pictured left).

 

“Family members are supporting women, there’s a change. We are seeing the women report, saying enough is enough, not that they don’t want to be with him, but saying this is domestic violence and I don’t want to put up with it any more. And I’m going to get help, see how that looks and decide what I’m going to do to stop it.”

 

Careful groundwork, including a research paper and extensive consultation, was done before the remote service began: “We met with women, how would this work in your community, what are the dos and the don’ts?” The response from the communities has been “fantastic”: “Staff are quite exposed going out there, and the communities have been working alongside us, keeping the staff safe.”

 

Ms Gipey is also heartened that, here in The Centre at least, “a lot of women are working together to reduce domestic violence, out bush, in town. And there’s a lot of community interest to see what they can do to help.”

 

p2380-asws-curtainsDonations, for example, make a big difference. Coles supermarket donates fresh food and bread on a weekly basis – “brilliant, we couldn’t manage without it.”  And Ms Gipey points to the curtains in the dining room (left), donated by the local Aboriginal Fabric Gallery: “Little things like that help us make the shelter feel more homely.”

 

It’s not easy though to paper over the deficiencies of the shelter’s infrastructure, built when demand for the service was about a third of what it is today. It is plagued by the maintenance issues that go with an ageing building and its capacity is simply not up to the demand.

 

Some 15 to 20 women must cook for themselves and their children in a kitchen equipped with just two standard household stoves (below right), so it’s busy around the clock.

 

Six beds are crammed into bedrooms intended for half that number. The six occupants share a tiny en suite, with toilet and shower (below left). Privacy is at a minimum.

 

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There’s no choice about sharing. Old, young, children, babies, all in together, whether they know  one another or not.

 

Some women can’t face sharing and won’t use the shelter. In such cases, if they’ve got nowhere else to go, the service will put them up in a hotel.

 

The majority of the shelter’s clients are Aboriginal, but it is a mistake to assume that they are all happy to share, says Ms Gipey. Some certainly are not.

 

“We talk to women, ask them ‘what would you like in the new shelter?’ They say things like ‘not to have to look at everybody, not to have everybody look at me.’

 

“They’re traumatised, they’ve left their normal life and need some time and space to think.”

 

So individual rooms, with the possibility of opening doors between them for those who want to share, are a priority for the new building to which the NT Government has allocated $6m.

 

An industrial kitchen, staffed by a professional cook, is also high on the list. It will allow the shelter to have structured mealtimes as well as to run programs in the kitchen, nutrition and cooking, possibly even developing a catering business.

 

p2380-asws-kitchenPerhaps most importantly it will relieve women, or the staff who help them, from the responsibility of cooking, when they’re nursing a broken arm or foot, or recovering from a stab wound.

 

Outside, behind the metres-high fence, there’s a rudimentary playground (below left), falling well short of the needs of traumatised children, says Ms Gipey.

 

Given that children make up half the shelter’s clientele, the service wants to factor into the building program a specialist trauma-informed designer to develop the playground, with the kind of spaces and play experiences that can promote healing.

 

The service’s last operational funding agreement was for 12 months only ending next June, with the exception of one position, a sexual assault worker, funded to 2018. This means that all staff are on casual contracts. Ms Gipey is hoping that the service will be put on longer term funding cycles, as the government has suggested it will for NGOs generally. This would allow for better staff conditions and hence retention and better service planning.

 

“We’re hoping the new NT government will start negotiating for new funding right now. We haven’t had negotiations for quite some time while service delivery has increased enormously.”

 

The crisis accommodation arm is funded by the NT, while the outreach service is predominantly federal funding, which all ceases next June. Ms Gipey hopes for an increase in that funding to take the remote service into more communities. The commendation by the Productivity Commission, of which the service is justifiably proud, should help.

 

p2380-asws-playgroundWhat the commission said about the outreach service in its 2016 Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage report:

 

The ASWS outreach service was identified under the heading “things that work”. Only programs that had been formally evaluated were considered under this heading, and as has been widely reported, only 34 out of 1000 Indigenous-specific initiatives had been.

 

The outreach service began in 2009 and was evaluated in 2012-13, when almost 400 women were assisted, with 80% identifying as Aboriginal.

 

In an “independent mixed method evaluation”, all 19 women interviewed (with 43 children in their care) reported that their safety had improved with the support of the service.

 

Of those women who had previously used the crisis accommodation service (84% of respondents), 42% had not used it again.

 

 

 

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  1. Phil Walcott
    Posted November 25, 2016 at 5:54 pm

    Congratulations and well-deserved adulation to Di Gipey and her wonderful team for the very important outcomes they continue to deliver to women and children in Alice Springs.
    A very impressive turn out today for the White Ribbon celebrations. I predict something like 300 plus local participants joined the parade with an extensive attendance by men and boys who stand united in the focus of non-violence. Along with many local adult leaders, these young people represent the future of what our community can look like if we choose to embrace harmony.
    Violence against anyone is unwelcome and must be discouraged at every level if we, as a commUNITY, are to grow strongly forward.

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