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9 June 2023
‘Safe at Home’ The ultimate goal for women, but still an oxymoron for many.
A Service Perspective by Deirdre Flynn, Catherine House Manager Client Services
Catherine House is an Adelaide-based accommodation and support provider for women experiencing homelessness and has been delivering services to women for 35 years. Family and domestic violence is consistently reported as the presenting issue for over 45-50% of our referrals. Client assessments after entry reveal significantly more women report childhood and or adult histories of family and domestic violence. Our views expressed in this article are based on accumulated practice knowledge, client observations and reports and our involvement in supporting women in the housing, homelessness and domestic violence service systems, which also intersect with legal and justice system responses. Based on our experience, we put forward a number of barriers and obstacles to the implementation of “Safe at Home” from our service perspective and make suggestions as to what we can do in the interim to keep women safe from current and future domestic and family violence.
Many of our service users left their homes before they came to our service, as they did not feel safe, with few reporting to have accessed a “Safe at Home” program. In our assessments, while delivering services to thousands of women over the years, they reported that they also stayed in their homes for long periods of time while unsafe – sometimes for decades. They stayed while being abused, with many women entering our service for the first time in their fifties, sixties, seventies and even eighties – no longer able to tolerate the violence. Sadly, women also report their adult sons became violent towards them after their abusive husband or partner died. Women report histories of violence from as far back as they can recall, from brothers, uncles, fathers, grandfathers – and then in their intimate partner relationships.
Catherine House considers “Safe at Home”, as a policy and program response to women experiencing violence, to be a credible paradigm shift aligned with what should be a universal right, vision and outcome for all people. However, judging by the increasing numbers of women leaving homes because they are not safe and the current surge in grants for a national housing build for more emergency shelters and housing for women and their children, with domestic violence being the biggest driver of women’s homelessness, it feels like “Safe at Home” is an oxymoron.
Home as the site of the trauma from violence is a psychological barrier for many of our clients. Home was where they had their children removed because they could not stop the violence and where they were sexually and physically abused by a family member or their partner. Home had become the source of intolerable grief, pain and loss. “Safe at Home”, as a concept, is not something they can relate to and it may never have been their reality. ”Safe at Home” are words that can trigger trauma, as home has been the place where they have been violated, injured, trapped, isolated and degraded. The idea that a woman and her children would wish to remain in the house which has been a battle ground, the site of torture, humiliation and fear, is at odds with a trauma-informed response, where one of the key tenets is psychological and physical safety and trust. Ironically, it is very common for our clients to report feeling safe “at home” – in our service, for the first time in their lives.
Internalised perceptions of who owns or is entitled to the home and themes of male power and control are narratives that many of our clients struggle to overcome. The concept of home as a ‘man’s castle’ still resonates strongly in the Australian vernacular. Marital or spousal rape was only made illegal in every state in 1993. Notions of a home belonging to the man in the relationship still plays out today in the family courts, where well-resourced men will use their knowledge, power and privilege to keep women tied up in legal processes lasting for years. Hundreds of women who have used our service are home owners and have reported these experiences. They arrive to our service battle-weary and ready to give up their legal share of assets as they can no longer withstand the pressure, threats and stalling tactics. This leaves women in very precarious circumstances when they are trying to apply for income benefits or community housing. This historical context clouds both parties’ feelings of entitlement to the family home, which mostly does not serve women. In our experience, without our intervention and advocacy, hundreds of women would have given up their share of assets, as they reported they just “want or need to move on” to find peace.
Significant property law reform to affordably and quickly mediate the division of the home, along with support provided to rehouse either or both parties without a period of homelessness, would change this dynamic – but sadly we are a long way from such a scenario.
Women live with a pervasive feeling that they are not safe anywhere. Women as a group of people are not safe at home, not in the streets, not at work or public places, not in the courts, not as people receiving professional psychological services, not in our armed forces, not while using their devices. Women who use our services report sexual violence and harassment in multiple service systems, including workplaces. The digital age has also meant perpetrators have more potential access to women than ever before for surveillance and harassment. The words “Safe at Home” can be intimidating or even harmful, as so often the reality is incongruent with the lives of women who remain in abusive relationships for all the reasons we well understand. This cognitive dissonance can potentially increase the burden on women to acquiesce to the demands of their abusive partner or to internally minimise the violence to make staying more tolerable.
Not being believed about the violence occurring at home, the minimisation done by perpetrators and often internally by women themselves, due to fear, the inconsistent responses by police – all can lead to a lack of confidence in getting a timely response when a woman’s security and safety is threatened. I remember a client refusing to name a perpetrator of significant violence to her, saying, “You will go there and he will be able to convince you it was all my fault, it always happens”. Nothing the police officers said could change her mind. This belief was formed from her previous experiences of police attending her home.
When women remain in the home, in the same community, with the same routine, it makes it very easy for a perpetrator who has been removed but is not in jail to stalk his former partner. Women and children have been killed by perpetrators in the weeks and months after they left, even where Intervention Orders were in place. The fear and constant anxiety this causes is a reason many women report they do not feel safe to remain. Even with extra safety measures installed on the perimeter areas of a home, surveillance by perpetrators can occur as women come and go from their daily activities.
The absence of a national zero tolerance response to all forms of violence against women, that can be tangibly seen and felt by all in the community, is a major obstacle to “Safe at Home” programs. If there are no clear, non-discretionary requirements from the first act of violence, even for “low level offences”, we are missing out on timely opportunities to reinforce the behaviour that is required. This increases the likelihood of further acts of violence being committed before behaviour change occurs or the perpetrator is incarcerated or eventually mandated to attend behaviour change programs.
The lack of availability of timely housing and support responses for perpetrators also acts as a barrier. It is in everyone’s interests that perpetrators are housed, gain or maintain employment and are offered rehabilitation programs. Very few women who use Catherine House services report partners being involved in behaviour change programs. In a most recent example, a client’s perpetrator was only mandated to attend a behaviour change program after a short period of incarceration, which had followed multiple instances of serious violence against his partner. Our laws need to support our front line responders – usually police.
Lack of recovery and healing support services as part of an integrated allied health response to women impacted by experiences of domestic and family violence leaves women at great risk. By the time women affected by experiences of violence arrive at our service they have multiple physical health and mental health concerns, active financial and legal issues and report and are observed to be drained from their efforts to remain safe. Many have exhausted all the usual avenues of support from friends, family and other networks. In many instances they have left children behind in their home with their perpetrator. They are at risk of waiving some of their rights due to exhaustion, reduced confidence and holding onto very fixed narratives that they are somehow to blame for the situation they are in. Many women have experienced several adult relationships where they have experienced violence and have never accessed domestic violence support, nor had an opportunity to recover, or to learn about their right to expect non-violent relationships.
Catherine House has years of expertise in addressing the recovery and healing needs of women who have experienced domestic and family violence who, without this type of intervention, were at risk of further violence from old and new perpetrators in the future. Until women can expect to stay safe at home, more safe spaces in the community are required. Safe spaces, like Catherine House, are places that actively attend to the recovery needs of women, plan for their housing, health and education and any ongoing support needs.
Integral to our service response is an onsite Women’s Centre and an Education and Employment Program, where three carefully designed Adult Community Education courses are delivered, with employment support on completion. Social, health and wellbeing activities are available to support the development of a new life narrative, self-concept, knowledge and self-advocacy skills. Women receive individual mentoring to assist them to formulate a plan for the future, with implementation commenced before a woman leaves our service.
Developing and beginning a recovery plan with a woman impacted by domestic violence usually takes three to six months, sometimes longer, and depends on the extent of trauma they are living with. Women need to feel safe within themselves first, in order to feel safe again living in the community, whether that’s the home they left and are returning to or another home.
Women often report leaving Catherine House in a position of renewed strength and hope; they regularly report feeling more in control of their lives and future than ever before. We believe this level of support should be available to all women who have experienced domestic violence, until such time that responses to all violence are swift, consistently administered, with evidenced-based deterrents and supports to improve the options of women feeling safe to remain in their homes.
It is hoped that past and current efforts on the prevention of violence against women, strong and effective frameworks for widespread respectful relationships education, property law reform, and a supply of housing immediately accessible to either party in a relationship breakdowns will move us to a point in the future when we can with confidence, know that a “Safe at Home” approach is a viable option for all but a few.