‘It’s in McAuley’s DNA’: opinion piece by Jocelyn Bignold OAM
You could say that an interest in ‘Safe at Home’ approaches has been part of McAuley’s very DNA.
We formed in 2008 with the merger of two organisations, each with a proud, decades-long history of supporting women. Mercy Care had pioneered 24/7 crisis accommodation responses for women and their children leaving family violence, while Regina Coeli focused on women’s long-term homelessness.
When these two services came together it brought the connections between two damaging and corrosive experiences affecting women – family violence and homelessness – into sharp focus. From our earliest days we were troubled by the question of why these two problems were so inextricably linked.
The Link Between Family Violence and Homelessness
Supporting women who had long-term and multiple episodes of homelessness, we observed that family violence was in the majority of cases – consistently more than 60 per cent – an ‘entry point’ into that cycle. We saw long-term impacts: poor physical and mental health, disconnection from their families, poverty, isolation and sheer exhaustion.
In our family violence crisis service we saw those initial experiences of disruption and upheaval. When women and children first left their family home to be safe, they also left behind communities, neighbourhoods, employment and friends. These were not temporary experiences of homelessness while the situation was somehow sorted out; it was rare that they returned. The drift into unstable housing and homelessness meant the trauma of the violence was compounded. The impacts on their children’s education and wellbeing were deep and long-lasting, and the consequences continued to reverberate well down the track in their lives.
From our perspective as a provider of services in both ‘systems’, we began to see it as a paradox. A well-intentioned focus on refuges, motels and safe houses where women ‘fled’ had become an accepted, default position. But their very availability inadvertently led to homelessness and a new set of intractable problems and furthered the injustice for victims.
‘There needs to be a place’: Removal of Women Normalised
It has been said that: ‘Australia has a history of normalising the ‘solving’ of domestic and family violence situations by removing the women and children from the home’. (1) This focus can be traced back to the 1970s feminist response to violence. In fact, Mercy Care’s founder Sr Sheila Heywood exemplified contemporary thinking, when in the early 1980s she saw women and children with nowhere to go to escape family violence and exclaimed: ‘There needs to be a place!’ She was articulating a view, already becoming entrenched, that the answer lay in creating safe places. Even within the women’s movement, ‘taking back the castle’ and challenging men’s rights to remain home, was a bridge too far. (2)
‘Safe at Home’ as a Solution
I was increasingly convinced ‘Safe at Home’ approaches could provide answers and disrupt the family violence-homelessness connection. It is an approach challenging the assumption that victims of violence must be the ones to leave. I was also drawn towards systems thinking, a way of making sense of complex situations and charting the experiences of individuals, in this case, those who were encountering the family violence and homelessness ‘systems.’
In my view each of those two ‘sectors’, while working with similar cohorts, had a widely different focus. These were frequently at odds with each other, especially within a context of overwhelming demand. Homelessness services were about a housing response, ‘gender-blind’ to the situation before them and shaped by a system more attuned to supporting male rough sleepers. Family violence services prioritised safety and paid less attention to the housing need. Meanwhile other system parts – mental health, or drug and alcohol— had no view of, or ability to change, what was often the central issue for the individuals they saw: the loss of housing because of family violence.
I was aware, too, of a huge obstacle to gaining further traction in ‘Safe at Home’ approaches: high-profile examples of constant, relentless violence against women had created fear that women would be ‘sitting ducks’ in their homes. Together with pessimism about the possibility that men could change their behaviour, and the appalling consequences if a decision to stay home led to serious injury or death, it is unsurprising that removal of women has become almost reflexively the ‘safe’ option.
There has been doubt, too, as to whether community thinking is ready for such a dramatic paradigm shift in how responses to violence are framed. Conversations have often been centred on: ’Why doesn’t she just leave?’. It has been noted that this ‘places responsibility on women for their own safety…and erroneously assumes the violence will cease once they do leave.’ (3)
McAuley’s ‘Safe at Home’ Advocacy
Despite our interest, McAuley’s own efforts were having little impact on the ability of women to stay home. It was discouraging to see that we were unable to lift our own ‘Safe at Home’ rate, which was, year on year, only four or five per cent of those coming into our crisis accommodation. At one point we tried to build alliances across metropolitan Melbourne, offering a tailored ‘Safe at Home’ response to other organisations. Yet at the end of a full year, we had just one single referral.
With renewed attention on family violence coming from the 2015 Royal Commission, the need for ‘Safe at Home’ responses formed the main plank of McAuley’s submission. We were pleased that commitment to ‘Safe at Home’ was one of 227 wide-ranging recommendations. However, we remained uneasy at the slow pace of practice change on the ground while rates of women’s homelessness climbed. We were also concerned that ‘Safe at Home’ was being seen as fulfilled by the rollout of personal safety initiatives such as cameras and security upgrades. While often essential and sometimes transformative, we believed they were only one aspect of a ‘Safe at Home’ response.
My long-standing interest in ‘Safe at Home’ responses led me to focus on it in postgraduate study. I looked at its visibility within Victorian policy, finding that though the intent was there, it was assumed rather than explicit across 14 documents. I also compared Victoria’s approach with overseas responses, such as Austria, which used clear and unambiguous language to outline a strong community expectation that those using violence must leave, and automatically excluded them for 14 days.
Most significantly, I found that in Victoria, all the identifiable components of a ‘Safe at Home’ response were in place: the justice system, police, women’s family violence services and housing. Each was funded to address a part of the response but were not coordinated around a ‘Safe at Home’ objective.
A Coalition for Change
My research provided an impetus for McAuley to reach out to other organisations and explore where the barriers, and opportunities for change, might be. I was increasingly convinced that only a systems approach would bring about change and connect multiple players who each saw only a narrow slice of the big picture.
There was an immediate, overall willingness to share information and reflect on what could be done better. A working group (4) began meeting in March 2020 and one of its earliest tasks was to develop a systems map, which identified barriers and enablers around the four ‘Safe at Home’ pillars outlined by Professor Jan Breckenridge. (5)
What We Learnt
McAuley also conducted its own research. A data analysis found that no specific measurement existed around how many women were ‘safe at home.’ But there was considerable information from homelessness data which we collated and analysed. In 2019—2020:
- 45 per cent of presentations to homelessness services were because of family violence
- women made up 64 per cent of those unassisted
- numbers of unique clients presenting because of family violence grew by 30 per cent since 2015-2016.
We also consulted with women with lived experience of both family violence and homelessness (See Katherine Schofield’s article in this edition) and together with the University of Melbourne interviewed frontline family violence workers on their perspectives. (6) A picture emerged of a fragmented, difficult to navigate service system: as one woman put it: ‘It would be good having people all in one service. You need it at the right time, and the right place. It can be quite overwhelming, repeating yourself. You start to give up’.
It was clear ‘Safe at Home’ would not be appropriate or desired by every woman, while the need for closer integration of services was paramount whatever the housing outcome.
This collective body of work has led to enriched understandings of the necessary elements in ‘safe at home.’ One example concerns perpetrator accountability, perhaps initially perceived as the need for a strengthened justice response, and more exclusions of men from their home. But we heard from women and frontline workers that women often did not want a solution which made their partners homeless; they remained concerned for the mental health and wellbeing of their partners or wanted to preserve the relationship. They also felt they would be less safe if the perpetrator was angry and adrift without support. With this more nuanced and complex picture, initiatives for perpetrator accommodation and behaviour change programs were recognised as integral to a successful ‘Safe at Home’ response.
‘Safe at Home’ in Victoria has been re-invigorated by these conversations. We know that just tinkering around the edges of family violence practice and policy will not bring about necessary and fundamental system changes. McAuley is now proposing a trial of ‘Safe at Home’ based on these foundations (See the article by Emma Constantine in this edition). It is an opportunity that we must not let slip.
Spinney A, Blandy S, Hulse K 2013, Preventing homelessness for women and children who have experienced domestic and family violence, AHURI Research and Policy Bulletin, Issue No 164, Melbourne.
Mc Ferran L 2007, Taking back the castle: how Australia is making the home safer for women and children, Issues paper 14, Aust Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse, University of NSW.
Brunton C. Tyson B 2017, ‘Leaving violent men: A study of women’s experiences of separation in Victoria’. https://journals.sagepub.com/home/anj
It included police, courts, family violence, services for perpetrators, and homelessness services.
Breckenridge J, Cripps K, Whitten T, Burton M, Dubler N, Suchting M 2021, National Audit of Keeping Women Safe in their Homes/Safe at Home Programs: Jurisdictional Report – Australian Capital Territory, Gendered Violence Research Network, Sydney.
Soraghan K, Bignold J, Humphreys C, Grgat J and Kan M, Keeping Family Violence Victims ‘Safe at Home’ Practitioner Perspectives, Parity, vol. 35, 01, March 2022.