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The evidence supports specialist refuges for domestic violence

Many services in NSW that previously operated as specialist women’s refuges have been dramatically transformed under recent reforms. shutterstock

Research about specialist women’s domestic violence and other refuges does not support the claims made by NSW Family and Community Services Minister Gabrielle Upton that recent sweeping changes to these services are based on evidence.

Upton’s “Going Home Staying Home” measures were intended to improve responses to homelessness. However, specialist women’s refuges claimed that they would worsen assistance for women, young women and children affected by domestic violence and abuse.

The NSW government aimed to make homelessness services easier to access and to reduce repeated episodes of homelessness through changes including service design, planning and resource allocation. Individual homelessness and domestic violence services and organisations were consolidated into a much smaller number of service packages.

Information on the impact of the changes is patchy and based on local reports. However, it is clear that many services that previously operated as specialist women’s services have been dramatically transformed.

For example, many specialist services that were run by local groups have been transferred to large charities that do not specialise in domestic and family violence, but accommodate both homeless men and women in diverse situations. In many cases, staff members have not been carried over and expertise has been lost.

SOSwomensservices, an advocacy group set up in response to the changes, says that more than 80 women’s refuges have closed as a result of Going Home Staying Home.

The role of refuges

Research indicates that women escaping domestic and family violence have diverse circumstances and needs. Consistent with this, one size does not fit all. There is no single “best” response to domestic violence.

A range of responses is needed. These include safe, secure and affordable housing options and a continuum of individualised, open-ended support.

Women seek safety by various means. Recent schemes where women remain in the home while violent men are excluded by court orders and security measures work well for some women. However, these “staying home” schemes cannot provide effective protection for all women and do not purport to do so.

Staying home schemes are only as effective as the legal and administrative systems that underpin them. For example, in 2013, 25,535 apprehended domestic violence orders were granted, but there were 9593 breaches. Schemes that rely heavily on court orders provide a choice, but may be of more benefit to women in lower, rather than higher, risk situations.

Refuges continue to have an essential place in the response to domestic violence. While nothing keeps every woman safe, research consistently identifies two things as making women safer – going to a refuge and/or contacting a specialist domestic violence service.

Domestic and family violence is the most common reason people seek help from services providing supported accommodation for people experiencing homelessness. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that, in 2013-14, 43% of females seeking assistance needed help because of domestic violence.

However, demand for refuges outstrips supply. More than half of all women who seek refuge are unable to be accommodated.

How refuges help

Research suggests that several features of women’s refuges are of key importance in assisting women and children escaping violence.

First, refuges’ specialist understanding of domestic and family violence and their emphasis on the right to safety is particularly important. Their approach that treats women escaping violence as partners, and which emphasises justice, strengths-based advocacy, respect and empowerment, is another important factor in enabling women and children to move forward.

Refuges are also a key part of a co-ordinated response to domestic violence. Refuges have changed over time to become more complex services, which provide a range of supports. Research suggests that the continuum of service offered by refuges has been pivotal in advocating, facilitating and co-ordinating other agencies’ support and involvement.

The Going Home Staying Home changes are focused on co-ordination of homelessness services. However, refuges as a response to domestic violence need to be integrated with services that survivors of violence will require, including legal, child protection, support, outreach and counselling services.

Finally, there are strengths in refuges’ smaller, local nature. Research indicates that service solutions may best be located in the community, and that independent, locally based organisations generate a strong culture of support. As service providers become bigger, women may encounter more bureaucracy and difficulty with accessing services. Smaller organisations were perceived as providers of better quality and more efficient assistance.

Some research suggests that reducing the number of contracts may cause “dis-economies of scale”, where providers are funded across diverse service streams. They may not have the range of skills, expertise, knowledge links and other systems and services to develop an integrated response.

More research is needed about responses to domestic violence in general, including refuges, safe-at-home schemes and other measures. However, there is not a basis in research to claim that the sudden changes to women’s refuges in the Going Home Staying Home reforms involve a shift to more evidence-based services.

The author would like to acknowledge Associate Professor Lesley Laing from the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney for her input into this article.

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