Our shelters for domestic violence victims are in crisis


Louise Pascale

Domestic violence support services are in crisis.

Domestic violence support services are in crisis.

It is Friday morning and the social workers in the Domestic Violence Crisis Service are already run off their feet. The phone has not stopped ringing, one social worker is sick, another's shift does not start for two hours and their team leader is at a meeting.

Gilian Cordell, the service's manager, who is also a qualified social worker, is taking calls. Mary, the administration manager, picks up what she cann.

"Have you got a safety plan for today," Dieu, a social worker, softly speaks into the phone. "If you have to go back to the house take a friend with you and make sure you have the police on standby… don't listen to the phone messages today… I know it's hard."

Meanwhile, Gilian is arranging accommodation in Adelaide for Jenny, a young Aboriginal woman, and her two-year-old from a community just outside Alice Springs. She will get on a bus that afternoon and arrive in the city Saturday morning. Jenny is fleeing from her partner who in the past has beaten her with a crow bar and is now threatening to kill her with a knife.


Jenny will have no one to meet her when she gets off the bus, only a hand-written fax with instructions for who to call and how to get to the motel. An Aboriginal women's shelter will pick her up on Monday morning.

"I understand putting her on a bus and getting her out of there because he has threatened to stab her, but I can't help worrying about her," Gillian sighs. "We bring her down here and we basically put her in a motel for 48 hours, and it's just worrying... it's not ideal but it's the best that we can do."

You often hear that Fridays and Mondays are the busiest days for women's shelters and crisis services. Gilian believes Fridays are particularly bad because women hope issues with their partners will be resolved through the week or that services will find support for them.

When they realise by Friday this is not the case, there is a panic to get out before the weekend starts.

On a Monday morning, they come to work to find up to half a dozen women and their children have been housed in motels over the weekend by the after hours service.

My conversation with Gilian is interrupted as a woman who was placed in a motel overnight has now overdosed on her medication.

The social workers describe the crisis service as a 'one stop shop' for women experiencing violence from an intimate partner. Essentially, it is a call centre for counselling and assistance to leave. They can arrange transport and emergency accommodation in a motel until a space becomes available at a shelter.

Maryanne began working as a social worker in domestic violence services more than 20 years ago. It was at a time when women could easily move out of shelters and into public housing.

However, the South Australian government has been selling of its public housing, which means affordable accommodation is harder to find. She has never seen the sector as reliant on motels as they are today, with up to a dozen women and children being accommodated in motels in any given week.

"Women can stay up to two weeks in a motel which you could imagine is really dreadful," Maryanne says. "At the start it might sound wonderful to be safe. (But) the reality of living with a family in a motel and trying to cook dinner in a fry pan or a crock pot is really difficult and if the fella says 'I'll be different' and women and children are really frustrated by being in the motel it is easy for the woman to reconcile."

Services are very limited and social workers are helping women access what is available on a case-by-case basis. This means detailing the violence women and children are fleeing to organisations like Housing SA who release funds for the motels.

If it is the woman's first or second time she has left her partner you can guarantee the funds. But, if the woman has spent multiple nights in a motel over a year, it becomes harder to argue their case. Research has shown women will leave a violent partner up to seven times before she sops returning for good.

Over the years, various reforms have rolled out across the sector to help services work more coherently. Yet they still cannot meet the demand. This crisis service used to employ outreach workers to pick up women from bus stations or police stations, take them to motels and visit them on weekends. Now they rely on overworked shelters to do that. When shelters are unavailable, motel staff are checking in on women.

Maria Hagias is the executive director of Adelaide's Central Domestic Violence Service. It's a women's shelter that provides short to medium term housing. On average, they support around a thousand women and children each year, just in the western and eastern suburbs of Adelaide.

"We certainly believe that demand has increased due to community campaigns that raise awareness around domestic violence. However, funding in relation to services at the coal face has not increased," she says.

"What it has actually meant for us is that for the first time ever we are turning people away and our focus is very much around the high risk end, and rightly so. Yet there are a cohort of women we are finding that might either still be in a relationship and not be considered high risk or could be high risk but don't have access to what we call outreach support. That's a real concern for us because, regardless of where women are living or staying, they should be able to access support. But with the demand being so high there is only so much that services can actually do."

Both Maria and Gillian are leading domestic violence services that have no guaranteed funding from the federal government beyond June 30 this year.

"We've been in limbo for the past three years, we've been waiting for funding every year," Maria says. "We're witnessing workers in our sector moving more towards secure employment, which is then making it really difficult for us to recruit due. Ultimately all these factors affect our ability to provide continuity and support to women and children, particularly at a time when we know this is the most significant issue facing women and children in Australia."

Maryanne and her colleagues know employment in the sector is unstable but they are not deterred. 

"I think we believe there should be a crisis service like this," she says. "I like the idea that you can talk with them and sometimes change happens. You don't like to think of women and children being unsafe."

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