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Why doesn’t she just leave? The realities of escaping domestic violence

Women who’ve lost touch with family and friends, or have no access to funds, turn to emergency accommodation in women’s refuges. Shutterstock

“Why doesn’t she just leave?” is the common question people ask when trying to understand domestic violence. The answer is far from straightforward.

Central to domestic violence is an ongoing pattern of behaviour, most often used by men, aimed at controlling women through power and fear. This is called coercive control and explains how men extend their dominance in intimate relationships, which then isolates women and erodes their independence over time.

Imagine feeling scared in your own home – and the fear is caused by the person you loved. You’re anxious, confused and deflated from abuse endured over many years. Now imagine you have to flee your partner and home because he has threatened your life or the lives of your children: where do you go?

The first option women seek out is to stay with family or friends for short periods while they seek alternative housing. Depending on your income, this may be public housing, the private rental market, or sole ownership.

But women who’ve lost touch with family and friends, or have no access to funds, turn to emergency accommodation in women’s refuges.

The last resort

Refuges are funded as specialist homelessness services. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reported that in 2011-12, these services assisted almost 230,000 clients, representing one in 98 Australians. One-third (34%) of these clients were victims of domestic violence and 78% were women.

First, women are assessed for eligibility to access a refuge. The social worker will assess her risk and safety, establish domestic violence as the cause for homelessness, determine her income, and review her past access to services. It’s harder for women to access these services and emergency financial assistance if they’ve used them in the past when attempting to leave.

Often refuges are full, so women and children will be placed in a budget motel, supported by workers, for a few nights while they wait for a vacancy.

Refuge accommodation is often short-term basic unit housing, where women stay for an average of three to six months. Women often leave with nothing and so workers also try to source second-hand furniture, white goods, transport, and clothing.

When refuges are full, women fleeing domestic violence and their children stay in motels. MichaelWu/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

During this time, women think about the possibility of laying charges against their partner, accessing emergency financial assistance, and arranging to get important documentation and other necessities. This is particularly difficult if English is their second language, they have a disability, or they lived in an isolated rural community.

It is virtually impossible for women to find work or continue to work under these circumstances and children are likely to miss school or will need to enrol in a new school. Under these pressured conditions, you can understand why some women return to a violent partner, especially when he says “sorry”.

Another alternative

The priority is for refuge workers and women to find longer-term, safe and affordable housing. But this is more difficult than it might seem: a national shortage of affordable housing means women are staying longer in refuges, preventing new women entering.

Acknowledging the pressures of emergency accommodation, the women’s domestic violence sector has long been advocating for women to remain in their home. The 2008 Commonwealth Government housing policy, The road home, identified the need to expand programs to allow women and children to remain in the home once a violent perpetrator was removed.

Safe at Home programs and initiatives started to emerge in 2009 and offer:

  • financial and tenancy support
  • risk assessments and safety audits
  • upgrading security in the home
  • safety plans
  • working with the police and local courts to remove the offender
  • providing court support and advocacy in applying for intervention orders and at family court proceedings, and
  • providing counselling support.

Safe at home programs in Australia are relatively new. But early evaluations show they’ve helped women feel safe in their home. This innovation is hopeful because it offers stability to women and children, and sends a societal message to violent men that their behaviour is unacceptable.

Instead of “why doesn’t she just leave?” these housing reforms are examples of asking more appropriate questions such as “how can we best support women and children and keep them safe?” and “how can we hold men accountable for such violent acts?”

Ensuring women and children’s safety

The National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness between the Commonwealth and state governments funds a wide range of homelessness prevention and family violence programs, including women’s refuges.

But this funding is not ongoing and must be renegotiated in each state every one to three years. And it already falls short of the demand.

We need an ongoing Commonwealth/state commitment to increase funding for domestic violence specialist homelessness services. This would ensure resource-intensive programs for women and children, as well as supporting longer-term outreach services to help ensure women and children do not return to violent partners.

We need to remember though that a woman’s safety in domestic violence is not just about the perpetrator being removed from the house. Domestic violence requires a well-coordinated, multi-agency response to ensure women and children’s safety.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Domestic Violence in Australia series here.

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