‘The time is right’: re-imagining ‘Safe at Home’

In the April 2023 edition of Parity, national journal of the Council to Homeless Persons, McAuley set out a concept for how a ‘Safe at Home’ trial could operate in Victoria. The trial proposal is built upon work over the past three years of a coalition of organisations with a keen interest in addressing the current, unacceptable links between family violence and homelessness.

The article was written by Emma Constantine, Head of Innovation and New Business at McAuley, and Kerrie Soraghan, former Safe at Home Project Lead.

McAuley has long been committed to, and advocated for, a ‘Safe at Home’ approach. This transforms the default system where women and children ‘escape’ violence and become homeless; instead they are supported to stay home safely, while ensuring accountability from the person using violence.  

A ‘Safe at Home’ approach is one of seven targets of the Victorian Government’s 10-Year Plan: Victim-survivors will be supported to remain safely in their homes and connected to their community. Yet for the past decade there has been a growing association between leaving a violent relationship and a drift into homelessness for women and children. This link has persisted and worsened even against a backdrop of record investment in family violence services since the 2015 Royal Commission.   

Within our own family violence crisis service, we had faced challenges in ‘moving the needle’ towards a ‘Safe at Home’ approach. Only a tiny proportion of women we supported remained in, or returned to, their own homes after their stays in crisis accommodation. This was especially disappointing because our data consistently showed that more than 90 per cent were leaving an existing home: a housing situation which was ‘worth saving’. Yet they entered our crisis services already homeless, having lived in short term or emergency accommodation in the previous month. Their drift towards unstable housing and homelessness, with all its attendant consequences, was already underway. 

In 2020 McAuley began a process to test assumptions about ‘Safe at Home’ barriers, and gauge interest in working together with other organisations to overcome them. A coalition which included police, courts, family violence and men’s services formed to collectively explore what could be done. 

No clear ‘Safe at Home’ strategy 

It was clear early on through the group’s sharing of information and McAuley’s research, that ‘Safe at Home’ had not been ‘owned’ or driven by any single organisation. Its principles were not commonly recognised or systematically applied. Nor was there a dedicated program, in contrast to NSW for example where there is an articulated strategy (positioned within the homelessness five-year plan), with set targets and ongoing evaluation.  

In Victoria, there is no single source of authority, oversight or accountability, and ‘Safe at Home’ outcomes are not being measured except through the rollout of personal safety initiatives. These are by no means a comprehensive solution: in 2018-2019, 2329 packages were allocated, yet in that same timeframe, 54,762 individuals presented to homelessness services because of family violence. 

The formation of the group, which held regular workshops and shared information and insights over the past two years, has now created a body of evidence and a committed partnership willing to work together. The recent release of a national Safe at Home Operational Framework has also been timely in providing guidance on best practice.  These are pre-conditions in which we now believe a dedicated, deliberate ‘Safe at Home’ approach can, and should be, established and trialed. 

McAuley has now developed a trial proposal in consultation with the group, Family Safety Victoria and sector partners.  It draws extensively on our research with victim-survivors and family violence workers which gave a unique, up-close perspective on how the system works and what change is needed. 

The evidence base shaping McAuley’s proposed trial 

  • Women who’d become homeless because of violence encountered systems that were fragmented. They struggled to locate the help they needed, and had to tell their story too many times. They felt the system did not give them enough time, was crisis-oriented, and was difficult to re- engage at later points. The possibility of staying home had hardly ever been raised. 
  • Frontline family violence workers gave insights into how very real fears of men’s ongoing violence, an overburdened housing system, and slow and overly bureaucratic processes for financial support and security upgrades, meant that options to stay home were frequently not even explored. Workers in organisations that also offered perpetrator support felt more confident about the feasibility of women staying home. They spoke of a sense of relief that the perpetrator was being monitored and supported, so that heightened risks and escalating behaviours could be quickly identified.
  • We heard consistently that timeliness in offering a ‘Safe at Home’ option was critical. Once a woman left home, it was almost always too late: a sense of inevitability developed and the question of returning home had faded from view, seen as too late, difficult, or unsafe.
  • McAuley, through a partnership with legal service WEstjustice, had already demonstrated how quick resolution of debt and legal problems associated with family violence can be a game-changer in enabling women to maintain their housing. Evidence through McAuley’s employment support service showed that economic security and employment were also crucial. 

The trial’s objectives 

McAuley’s trial will provide a closely integrated service with these objectives: 

  • Women and children remain connected in their community.  
  • Children’s education continues without disruption.  
  • Women gain and retain financial and economic security. 
  • Women and children experience improved personal safety.  
  • People using violence get support to stop.  
  • Individuals and family groups have a positive experience of support.

The trial in practice 

Orange Doors will be central referral points, though in line with a ‘no wrong door’ approach, self-referrals or referrals from community organisations will be accepted. The Family Violence Multi-Agency Risk Assessment and Management (MARAM) Framework will be used to identify risk. It is acknowledged that ‘Safe at Home’ may not be appropriate for those in danger of imminent or immediate risk of substantial violence or homicide. 

The trial proposes a rapid response – within 24 hours of referral – coming from an integrated, multidisciplinary team with specialist expertise in family violence, mental health, perpetrator support, alcohol and drug support, police, cultural, employment, and financial and legal help. This addresses what we learnt about the need for a swift, timely and co response: otherwise, women will have already left home, seeing no other option, or families may have reconciled without addressing the cause of the violence. 

Daily ‘Safe at Home’ meetings will review referrals, and consider which agency is best fitted to take on the role of ‘lead’. Within the 24-hour window, contact will be made to hear from those affected what they need. This could be material aid, temporary childcare, legal advice, personal safety support, and finding a place for the person using violence to stay. The team will be able to use flexible funds to rapidly put in place additional support.  

At this point, options can be explored of whether there are resources and strengths within the person’s own network: family, friends, and cultural or spiritual leaders. A co-ordinated multi-agency plan will be developed within 72 hours, addressing the immediate need for safety and wellbeing of all family members, and lessening the potential for violence.  

Opportunities to provide support for the person using violence – as well as help in finding alternative accommodation are also essential to the trial. Where possible these will be guided by the advice of family members. 

Foundations of the model  

The trial aims to run for five years, and operate from two sites: the first built out from an existing integrated support service in a large regional location. The second will be designed specifically for Aboriginal families and led by an established, Aboriginal-controlled organisation.  

The trial design, delivery and evaluation will be shaped by two underlying principles and models: Codesign and Collective Impact.  

Codesign is an approach to designing with, not for people. It is a social justice-informed approach that is sensitive to issues of power and trauma, and enables people with lived experience, communities, and professionals to work as active partners in improving something they all care about – in this case, ending family violence.   

Collective impact is about place-based initiatives where collaborations navigate entrenched systems and find opportunities for creative practice. This approach works to sustain leadership from community and to centre the perspectives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people5 

The economic benefits 

With no effective ‘Safe at Home’ strategy in place, other parts of the response system have come under enormous strain. Long-term impacts of homelessness, mental health, and intergenerational trauma remain hidden but are highly damaging – and come at an economic cost. 

 McAuley commissioned an independent report to identify and calculate potential savings to the Victorian Government from a ‘Safe at Home’ pilot.   

The present cost to the Victorian Government for family violence-related support is estimated to be $1.8 billion per annum. These include hospital treatment, trauma counselling, police callouts, crisis refuge accommodation, child protection services, and court and corrections services for offenders.  

The analysis found that Safe at Home can generate significant savings for the Victorian Government. Modelling based on a small pilot of Safe at Home involving 16 households predicts substantial costs avoided:  

  • annually – between $591,000 and $844,000 
  • over the remaining lives of the family violence victims – between $23 million and $33 million. 

The time is right  

An environment has now been created in which a ‘Safe at Home’ is the necessary and logical next step. We have a broader and deeper understanding, from those who have experienced family violence and homelessness, and the agencies that support them, of what is needed. We need to move further on from those conversations now to test and refine what works with a trial which is both innovative and cost-effective.