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Friday, 20 November 2020

Research tells us that domestic violence and abuse statistics worsen during a crisis – and COVID-19 has presented extra challenges for agencies tasked with keeping women at risk safe.

Three of our partners – Hunter Women’s Centre, Housing Plus and RizeUp – continued to provide face-to-face services during the pandemic at a time when many agencies could not. And they’ve all been developing innovative DV support services for women and children, needed now more than ever.

In fact, COVID -19 has enabled Hunter Women’s Centre to provide services differently for women experiencing trauma, including domestic violence and abuse.

“We’ve seen a 30-35 percent rise in demand for our services during Covid, but those numbers in my opinion are conservative because so much of domestic violence and abuse still remains hidden,” says Kate Saint, manager at Hunter Women’s Centre. The agency offers education and counselling from a trauma informed care approach.

“It’s a strength-based framework that focuses on empowering women to take back control, rather than re-traumatising them,” explains Kate. “You can’t cure trauma, but you can equip women with the skills, knowledge and the resilience to cope with it better.”

A grant from Charitable Foundation is enabling the Centre to develop and trial tele-health counselling – a need that arose during Covid. “We know there’s a demand for services in regional and rural areas of NSW, but we don’t have the resources to physically go and help in this areas,” she says. “So setting up an online counselling service could give women from other areas access to the help they need – and we have big plans for this new model to expand and be scaled."

Kate says she’d love to see a women’s trauma recovery centre that’s focused on education and prevention rather than bandaid solutions. “We need systematic, wraparound services that draw on partnerships with the legal and justice system, the housing service, employment services and other essential services,” she says. "And these services need to be inclusive of children, otherwise we’re just repeating history.”

In Orange, Housing Plus has just opened the doors to its purpose-built domestic violence refuge, The Orchard. This is the first purpose-built, state-of-the-art domestic violence centre to be built in NSW in a region where demand is high. Orange has twice the state average of DV victims, says Penny Dordoy, Head of Community Services.

“We’ve never had a refuge in Orange and this has been in the works for four years,” she says. “The Orchard has been designed and built with a trauma-informed approach. It’s a one-stop shop for women escaping domestic violence – you can come and spend the day here, you can access services here, and we offer self-contained apartments for women and children needing crisis accommodation too."

The Orchard’s been made possible through Federal and State funding and local community organisations including Charitable Foundation, who supplied the play equipment. “We’re very grateful as play is everything for kids recovering from trauma,” she explains. “To see the extent of the play equipment we have here, and the spaces to climb and run and interact with other kids, will hopefully help them forget what they’ve been through and aid in their recovery, too."

But what about when women and children are escaping domestic violence with just the clothes on their back? That’s where organisations like RizeUp come in. “We’ve helped over 1000 families in the five years we’ve been running, but it’s bittersweet because we’ve probably had to turn away double that number,” says founder Nicolle Edwards.

RizeUp are ‘super connectors’, says Nicolle – its national network of 578 volunteers and extensive social media-driven reach enables them to support the largely invisible frontline DV workers. “Our busiest program is for families who are starting again, so if a woman is coming out of refuge into, say, social housing, we’ll go in and furnish the home for her, stock the shelves and set it all up,” says Nicolle.

It’s all about providing a safe space for traumatised women and children to heal and make decisions. “The homes we create are anchors for trauma recovery – she doesn’t have to go back to a place of violence because of lack of resources. She can focus on the next part of her life."

Nicolle is big on educating not just her volunteers but the community at large about the magnitude of domestic violence. “Charitable Foundation’s grant has helped us create a series of online videos that’ll help deepen the knowledge of our volunteers, but also create confident community advocates – that’s where systemic, long-term change will come.”

While Kate, Penny and Nicolle hear many sad stories, all three say that watching women rebuild their lives with support from their agencies is hugely rewarding to witness.

“Every day we watch women take the tiny bit of support we can offer them and go out to salvage their lives,” says Kate. “It’s amazing to see, and it’s what keeps us coming to work.”

For Penny, the most rewarding part of the work she does is watching women recover and ask to come back to The Orchard as volunteers, to help others through their DV journey. “The kind of knowledge and connection they bring is invaluable,” she says.

Reaching more people and raising awareness of DV is something Nicolle will continue to work towards. “We’re seeing a lot more people starting to engage with the issue,” she says, “and that’s a step towards changing the ending for so many more families.”

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