No Se­cret

The Monthly (Australia) - - CONTENTS - by Zoë Mor­ri­son

It will be the first time An­nie North has given refuge to lo­cal women, and its lo­ca­tion is no se­cret.

“The last vis­i­tors had to be blind­folded,” the duty man­ager at the An­nie North Women’s Refuge and Do­mes­tic Vi­o­lence Ser­vice in Bendigo said, with an apolo­getic smile. We were about to visit their tra­di­tional high­se­cu­rity com­mu­nal refuge, where safety is also as­sured by the se­cu­rity code at the door, the screens on the win­dows and the anony­mous sub­ur­ban house lo­ca­tion. All the women and chil­dren come from out­side the area and are asked to keep their new lo­ca­tion con­fi­den­tial. In­side, two women were mak­ing an early start on lunch. On the kitchen ta­ble a baby in a bassinet ob­served us calmly. He was born into the refuge sys­tem, and his fam­ily spent months in a mo­tel room be­fore mak­ing it here. His brown eyes are enor­mous, ver­sions of his mother’s, who came to­wards us, smil­ing, wip­ing her hands on her apron. This style of refuge was de­vel­oped decades ago when sup­port from po­lice, courts and the broader com­mu­nity for vic­tims of fam­ily vi­o­lence was min­i­mal. Refuges ba­si­cally were the fam­ily vi­o­lence sys­tem. In houses like this, orig­i­nally do­nated by churches or through pub­lic hous­ing stock, a woman and her chil­dren are given one bed­room and share kitchen, bath­room and liv­ing fa­cil­i­ties. The draw­backs are now widely recog­nised: such liv­ing ar­range­ments can be chal­leng­ing, par­tic­u­larly at a time of cri­sis, and peo­ple leave be­hind not only a vi­o­lent hus­band and fa­ther but also their home, work, school, non-vi­o­lent fam­ily mem­bers, friends and pro­fes­sional sup­ports. As An­nie North CEO Julie Oberin points out, th­ese peo­ple are ef­fec­tively “hid­den away”. Else­where in Bendigo, an al­ter­na­tive is about to be of­fered. Oberin and He­len Hor­gan, ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant at An­nie North, give me a tour of their new fa­cil­ity, which is nearly com­plete. Built on a gen­tle hill, sur­rounded by ma­ture gums and a ca­coph­ony of bird­song, this pur­pose-built “core and clus­ter” refuge con­sists of six ac­com­mo­da­tion units and a main build­ing for ser­vices and staff. Core and clus­ter refuges are al­ready used in South Aus­tralia and parts of Western Aus­tralia; in Vic­to­ria they will re­place all old com­mu­nal refuges in ac­cor­dance with one of the 227 rec­om­men­da­tions in the re­port by the state’s land­mark Royal Com­mis­sion into Fam­ily Vi­o­lence, re­leased in March 2016 (al­though Oberin and her team started cam­paign­ing for this one long be­fore that). The Bendigo fa­cil­ity will be for lo­cal women and chil­dren and al­low them to live in­de­pen­dently within a refuge but with the pos­i­tive as­pects of com­mu­nal liv­ing. They will re­ceive 24-hour sup­port from staff and a range of best-prac­tice wrap­around ser­vices, all sup­plied on site. In the main build­ing, next to the small re­cep­tion area, there’s a sound­proof coun­selling room that will have a video link-up fa­cil­ity so women don’t have to leave the safety of the refuge to at­tend court. An­other room will house a com­puter lab where women can up­skill or re­train, and a satel­lite class­room where chil­dren will be as­sessed, do any nec­es­sary re­me­dial work and con­tinue their school­ing with a vis­it­ing teacher. In the large kitchen there are plans to bring the Stephanie Alexan­der kitchen gar­den and food cur­ricu­lum in for kids; out­side there’s space for an or­chard. The art ther­apy room will also house “the bou­tique”: a sec­ond-hand clothes and per­sonal items sup­ply. As we walk around, look­ing at th­ese spa­ces, Hor­gan scrib­bles notes for the builders (“this door doesn’t work, see?”; “this cup­board has to go”). Ev­ery room is still un­fur­nished. Across the drive from the main build­ing are the ac­com­mo­da­tion units, built in a cres­cent shape. In­side each of them, flex­i­ble in­ter­nal wall sys­tems can house dif­fer­ent fam­ily sizes and types (one of sev­eral ideas gleaned from the Mem­i­nar Ngangg Gimba Abo­rig­i­nal women’s refuge in Mil­dura). One is fully equipped for a woman with a dis­abil­ity, her fam­ily and carer. Gen­er­ous in­ter­nal win­dows look onto the bare ex­panse of earth where a chil­dren’s play­ground will be built. A sen­sory gar­den (with wa­ter fea­ture) will be planted in a far cor­ner and over­seen by a chil­dren’s project worker. When the high-se­cu­rity fa­cil­ity opens it will be the first time An­nie North has given refuge to lo­cal women, and its lo­ca­tion is no se­cret. There is taste­ful fenc­ing,

elec­tronic locks, and when it’s fin­ished there will be 11 CCTV cameras ca­pa­ble of high-res­o­lu­tion footage for use in court. Safety will also be as­sured through height­ened com­mu­nity aware­ness about fam­ily vi­o­lence and the raft of im­prove­ments to law and prac­tice, in­clud­ing sig­nif­i­cantly im­proved re­sponses by po­lice and the courts to fam­ily vi­o­lence and in­ter­ven­tion or­ders. From the out­set, An­nie North de­cided to in­volve the lo­cal com­mu­nity in the fa­cil­ity’s de­vel­op­ment. “Why should we be hid­ing th­ese women away?” Oberin says. “[As a com­mu­nity we] needed to get the po­lice and courts work­ing bet­ter … There had to be more fo­cus on the per­pe­tra­tor … Women and chil­dren needed to stay in their own schools, own com­mu­ni­ties, with their own net­works. That shift has taken quite a long while to hap­pen. It’s not an easy shift and we’re still in the process of it.” Over the years, the lo­cal press has charted the fa­cil­ity’s progress in sto­ries rang­ing from the va­garies of get­ting state govern­ment fund­ing to the ef­forts of char­i­ties and the lo­cal pub in rais­ing sup­port. Both the sen­sory gar­den and wa­ter fea­ture were do­nated by the lo­cal In­ner Wheel char­ity (the Ro­tary-af­fil­i­ated or­gan­i­sa­tion run by women); Zonta, an or­gan­i­sa­tion fo­cused on em­pow­er­ing women, funded the video­con­fer­ence fa­cil­ity and will help run the bou­tique. Lo­cal Ro­tary clubs do­nated an out­door kitchen (handy when the neigh­bours are in­vited in for tea) and fundraised for things such as in­ner­spring mat­tresses rather than foam ones (im­por­tant for peo­ple with high stress lev­els or neck in­juries from be­ing beaten). Ro­tary men will be reg­u­lar vis­i­tors to the refuge for work­ing bees and mi­nor main­te­nance work. They’ll re­ceive ap­pro­pri­ate train­ing be­fore­hand, as will all vol­un­teers to the cen­tre, in­clud­ing fi­nal-year law, pub­lic health, and so­cial work stu­dents from a lo­cal univer­sity cam­pus. “Re­search says the more eyes on a place the safer it is,” ex­plains Oberin. “It will also hope­fully give women a sense that the whole com­mu­nity’s be­hind you here. The mes­sage of this fa­cil­ity is that it’s noth­ing you did or didn’t do. The com­mu­nity is all here sup­port­ing you while the sys­tem deals with him.” Fam­ily vi­o­lence calls to the po­lice have plateaued in Vic­to­ria over the past 12 months (af­ter a five-year in­crease), but calls to ser­vices are still go­ing up. An­nette Gille­spie, CEO of Safe Steps, the Vic­to­rian fam­ily vi­o­lence re­sponse cen­tre, states that the ser­vice re­ceived 91,057 calls in that pe­riod, an in­crease of 16 per cent. The largest group of th­ese (41 per cent) were re­ferred into the com­mu­nity and sup­ported ei­ther to re­main safely at home (aided by im­prove­ments to law and prac­tice, “safe at home” pack­ages and new se­cu­rity tech­nolo­gies) or move to a friend’s or fam­ily mem­ber’s place. If nec­es­sary they went in­ter­state or over­seas. About 9700 women and chil­dren were pro­vided with safe emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion. Th­ese are usu­ally peo­ple at high risk, with other vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties that mean they are not able to safely re­lo­cate (for ex­am­ple, women with­out per­ma­nent res­i­dency are over-rep­re­sented in this group). Gille­spie says the

short­age of refuge places is enor­mous. “There are very few en­try op­tions for women [into refuge] and there’s even fewer exit op­tions [into tran­si­tional or per­ma­nent hous­ing].” Safe Steps’ risk as­sess­ments also show that the fre­quency and sever­ity of fam­ily vi­o­lence have in­creased. “There’ll al­ways be a need for refuges,” says Oberin, “but hope­fully not as many. Hope­fully there will be a shift so that the per­pe­tra­tor is held to ac­count.” Oberin has worked in the sec­tor for 27 years, and has been try­ing to get the new fa­cil­ity built for 15 years. She is still look­ing for fund­ing for things like the CCTV cameras and elec­tronic locks, and re­fuses to hold an open­ing un­til all the spe­cial fa­cil­i­ties are in, “be­cause oth­er­wise it’s just a build­ing”.

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