Listening to those with lived experience

In April 2023 a special edition of ‘Parity’, national journal of the Council to Homeless Persons, explored the theme of ‘Safe at Home’.

This overview of what McAuley has learnt from consultations with women with lived experience of family violence and homelessness appeared in the edition. It was written by Dr Katherine Schofield, Advocacy Project Officer, in consultation with Kerrie Soraghan, former Lead of the McAuley ‘Safe at Home’ project.

The perspectives of people with lived experience of family violence and homelessness are central in learning how a ‘Safe at Home’ approach could work in the Victorian context.

In 2021, McAuley consulted two victim-survivor advocacy groups, and thirteen women who were at risk of or had experienced homelessness, to gain an understanding of their housing, employment, legal and income situations before and after leaving family violence.

In total, the perspectives of forty women were sought on whether they were given the option to stay or leave their homes after family violence. The effects of this outcome on themselves and their children, and how services could better support victim-survivors to make these choices were also examined.

While each of the participants’ experiences was unique, there were a number of common themes that emerged from the discussions.

‘Safe at Home’ as a choice

Overall, women who took part in the McAuley consultations had not received sufficient information from services regarding their right to remain in their home, with many not even aware that staying and having the person using violence excluded from the property was a possibility.

Comments by the women highlighted the domino effect that leaving their homes due to family violence created, including rendering victim-survivors effectively homeless and creating a reinforcing cycle of instability that entrenched the disadvantage they faced.

Yet despite such struggles, many of the women could not have imagined remaining in their home even if the person using violence had been removed.

For some, this was because they believed that the harassment and abuse would continue if the person using violence knew where they lived, and that they would be ‘constantly looking over [their] shoulders’ if they had stayed.

And for many women, the trauma suffered in the house itself, and the long history of fear and terror they had experienced there, made them question the whole concept of ‘safety’. With that house not even feeling like a home, a decision to leave was for some their best option, and importantly, part of their journey to recovery.

This information demonstrates that a ‘Safe at Home’ option should be one of a range of choices provided to victim-survivors. The need to feel emotionally and psychologically safe – rather than just physically safe – means that for some, it will never be the preferred outcome.

The role of economic security

Unstable employment or a lack of income prevents victim-survivors from leaving violence as they have no way to support themselves or their children. If they do leave, it is extremely difficult for them to maintain housing, recover, and rebuild their lives.

Many of the women consulted had experienced financial abuse, which meant that they had very little to no money, and some had considerable debts in their name. They spoke of escalating costs resulting from frequent moves, and noted that paying for storage, bond, and rent meant that victim-survivors ‘keep getting further behind’.

Victim-survivors who had been employed often lost their jobs if they relocated, which made finding suitable housing even more difficult. In turn, their lack of stable housing created difficulties in gaining employment.

Flexible Support Packages (FSPs) provide brokerage to service providers and agencies to enable victim-survivors to purchase a range of supports according to their individual support plan. Overall, the women reported negative experiences of FSPs, finding the process slow and paternalistic.

A lump sum payment that is provided directly to victim-survivors to spend as they see fit was suggested by those McAuley consulted as an alternative to brokerage. Such an approach was viewed as ‘giving power back’ to victim-survivors – a step towards restoring their sense of agency after abuse.

System failures

In Victoria, FSPs are also used to fund Personal Safety Initiative (PSI) responses, the key means through which the State Government supports victim-survivors to stay safe in their homes. PSI responses involve safety and security audits, as well as the implementation of security technology and property modifications recommended in audits.

The women consulted spoke of issues including delays in accessing PSI responses, and then in getting security equipment installed. They highlighted how such measures are not suitable for those in temporary accommodation, and their belief that the expense of security equipment means it can be rationed according to perceived need.

Although some victim-survivors consulted by McAuley found PSI responses useful in providing them with ‘peace of mind’, there were concerns that they could create ‘a false sense of security’ in many cases.

Similarly, women repeatedly reported that intervention orders (IVOs) offered them very limited protection. IVOs were described by one victim-survivor as ‘just a piece of paper’, and it was broadly agreed that they did little to deter the person who uses violence from continuing to harass them, and often resulted in an escalation of the abusive behaviour.

Many of the victim-survivors described feeling let down by other aspects of the system and that the service response left them exhausted and in ‘a constant state of fear’. Common reasons cited included lengthy processes, as well as the crisis-oriented nature of the system in which the long-term support needed to recover and re-establish their lives after family violence is not adequately provided.

The high turnover of workers coupled with the siloed nature of the system resulted in victim-survivors having to repeat their stories many times to different people. This was described as ‘traumatising’ and ‘overwhelming … you start to give up’.

Victim-survivors suggested ways to better support them included having either one key worker who advocates for the victim-survivor across different services, or a ‘one stop-shop’ where all the services they need are in one place.

The overwhelming feeling from the women consulted by McAuley was that a ‘Safe at Home’ approach was not viable in the current system and that the approach would only work if a client was ‘really well-supported’ by the system and had ‘real options’.

Diversity in experiences

Isolation is often used in family violence as a tactic of control, and this experience is compounded for victim-survivors from particular groups, including those living in rural areas. One woman consulted by McAuley reported having difficulties in accessing the support she needed due to a lack of services where her family was living.

Women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds reported being unable to self-advocate effectively through system processes because they lacked knowledge of their rights, and the visa status of some victim-survivors rendered them ineligible for various forms of assistance.

One woman who was a teenager when engaging with services indicated that young people were often ‘not seen as victim-survivors in [their] own right’ within the system and that the abuse they experience may look different to those experiencing family violence from an intimate partner.

For those marginalised due to other facets of their identity or experience, the legal system was not a place that offered justice or protection, but one that replicated the abuse and control of the relationship, which affected how victim-survivors engaged with it.

It was noted, for example, that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were less likely to call police for assistance due to the ongoing discrimination and injustice they experience, as well as the fear that their children may be removed from them.

While extra challenging for victim-survivors with multiple intersecting issues including diverse cultural backgrounds, the overall feeling was that the legal system was tricky to navigate in general, and that dealing with legal issues while simultaneously struggling with the trauma of family violence quickly becomes overwhelming.

Many felt that they did not receive the correct information and that legal assistance should be offered to all victim-survivors early on. Not having access to legal advice left them feeling at a disadvantage and increased the risk of the person who abused them using the legal system against them.

Perpetrator accountability

The women consulted by McAuley indicated that the person using violence often manipulated the system against them, and that there needed to be greater understanding across services of the ‘entitled mindset’ of perpetrators. Not understanding the ongoing ‘sense of ownership’ that the person using violence felt over the victim-survivor meant that monitoring and oversight lessened as time went on and left victim-survivors feeling vulnerable.

For a ‘Safe at Home’ response to be effective, the victim-survivors indicated that ‘strong perpetrator accountability has to come first’ and that the system response needs to consider the underlying issues that led to abusive behaviour in the first place.

One woman noted that perpetrator interventions should not be ‘too black and white’ or treat the person using violence as someone ‘bad’ who needs to be punished or ‘stuck in the naughty corner’. Many women indicated that they would like to see the person who used violence against them get support to work through their issues, feeling that their lives would have been different had the person who abused them engaged with services.

‘Safe at Home’ as a right

All of the women involved in the consultations agreed that the ‘Safe at Home’ approach was a social justice matter, and that the victim-survivor has a right to stay in the home while the person using violence is the one who should leave.

Changing the presumption that women who are being abused should be the ones to leave the situation in order to be safe sends a powerful message that victim-survivors should not be at a disadvantage because of another person’s abuse.

A ‘Safe at Home’ response was thought to ‘give power back’ to victim-survivors, although it can only be empowering if they are given the opportunity to choose if the approach is right for their situation.

While the victim-survivors consulted by McAuley believed that the system was not currently able to offer a comprehensive ‘Safe at Home’ response, they were clear that people should be aware of their right to remain in their home and that if more women requested support to do so, the system changes required to facilitate this approach would follow.

The consultations by McAuley demonstrate that a ‘Safe at Home’ response to family violence is one that would be highly valued by victim-survivors but as an option and not a one-size-fits-all approach, and one that requires significant support for the victim-survivor and their children in order for it to be successful.

The insights and experience shared in the process of listening to those with lived experience have been crucial in informing the work of the ‘Safe at Home’ working group, which is chaired by McAuley and includes representatives from across the sector.

These insights have also contributed to the scoping of the proposed ‘Safe at Home’ trial  and have made it clear that a systems approach is required to better support the victim-survivor’s right to stay safe at home.