Leila Alavi was allegedly murdered by her husband after she had repeatedly been turned away from refuges. Photo: Facebook
The last thing I want to do is speak out of turn and jeopardise this service, but we do need to be able to speak up. It's scary times for us.Sydney refuge manager
Women fleeing domestic violence in NSW are being turned away from refuges in droves as frontline workers say a culture of silence has blanketed the sector more than a year after the government overhauled crisis accommodation services.
Almost 90 per cent of women's refuges in NSW are full, with one operator likening the chances of a woman getting a bed to "winning the lottery".
In Sydney, where all the refuges are at capacity, one shelter manager told The Sun-Herald: "If you are a woman looking for a bed tonight, you are on a wild goose chase."
Across the state, there are just 350 bedrooms in 63 government-owned shelters where women fleeing domestic violence can seek refuge. A further 12 non-government owned crisis properties also cater to domestic violence victims.
Auburn stabbing murder victim Leila Alavi. Photo: Supplied
Last week, only seven refuges had vacancies . These were limited to one or two beds, and most operators said this was a rare occurrence. Just one of the 58 refuges that responded to the Sun-Herald's inquiries said it could usually accommodate a woman fleeing domestic violence on the day she sought help.
Domestic violence is a daily occurrence, with official figures showing there were 28,870 assaults in the year to March. This equates to almost 80 attacks reported every day, and social workers say the real figure is likely to be much higher as many assaults go unreported.
So far this year, eight women have allegedly been killed by their partners, four of whom face murder charges.
The consequences of the shortfall in emergency accommodation was writ large in January when 26-year-old Leila Alavi was allegedly murdered by her husband in an Auburn car park. She had been turned away from refuges up to a dozen times.
Laurie Maher, the executive officer of Coast Shelter, which manages three women's refuges on the Central Coast, described the demand for emergency shelter by women escaping domestic violence as "a crisis".
"We've had to knock back 207 referrals for domestic violence this year. We just didn't have the accommodation. Unfortunately, it does mean that some of the women remain in abusive situations."
Most refuges told The Sun-Herald their services and staff had been stretched to exhaustion after the government's Going Home Staying Home changes, with one manager saying many were now feeling "traumatised and terrified".
Last year's changes centred on a radical consolidation of the independent women's refuges with generalist homelessness services. In 2014, after a competitive tendering process, 20 of the 76 women's refuges were handed back to their usual management, while faith-based charities such as St Vincent de Paul and Mission Australia assumed control of the rest.
In more than a dozen interviews with refuge managers, across the state, most requested anonymity, saying they feared the consequences of publicly criticising the government's handling of the sector. This was the case even though many also had positive views of particular aspects of the reforms.
"It's really concerning. We're being silenced by a government department we are supposedly in a commercial relationship with," a manager of a Sydney refuge said.
"The last thing I want to do is speak out of turn and jeopardise this service, but we do need to be able to speak up. It's scary times for us."
Another manager said her organisation had been subject to "extreme micromanagement" by the Department of Families and Community Services, which had been "extremely directive about what to say and what not to say [to the media]".
"It used to be that we were real advocates for women and now we are quite fearful of saying anything at all. We have to be grateful for every cent that we get," she said.
At a meeting of service providers earlier this year, department officials issued a directive to the organisations to scale back their media presence, another frontline worker said.
"They told us women's services need to stop campaigning. It's scaring women fleeing domestic violence into thinking there aren't any services available. And we just kept saying, actually, there aren't."
Minister for Family and Community Services Brad Hazzard declined to respond to these claims, but noted that the changes had been "unfortunately uncomfortable" for some organisations.
With almost all of the refuges now operating under the broader remit of homelessness, women fleeing domestic violence are effectively in competition for beds with women who have different homelessness needs.
Mr Hazzard said the changes had delivered an "increase in transitional and crisis housing and more requests met for women in specialist homelessness services".
But on the ground, frontline workers said they are now doing more with less.
"We haven't lost the number of beds but there's more people competing for the beds. Anything vaguely associated with homelessness is referred our way and we've gained about two and a half times more clients," one refuge operate in the state's north said.
Another consequence of the changes has been the increase in drugs and alcohol being consumed in refuges.
"In our area they closed down a few services that dealt primarily with drug and alcohol use. What we've found now is that in the crisis centres we're getting a lot of people still drinking alcohol and that's a huge burden on the service," said Suellyn Moore, a manager of two refuges in the Lake Macquarie area.
Although the sector is still in a state of transition, the impact of loss of decades of knowledge and expertise is already evident, said Gemma Morley, chief executive of Port Macquarie's Domestic and Family Violence Specialist Service.
"To me it just hit home recently at a regional forum where there were new players in the room ... it just became so obvious we have lost so much expertise in the domestic violence sector.
"A lot of good came out of the reforms, but we do run the risk of losing the remaining expertise if we don't commit to that."