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Navigating the service system

Navigating the family violence and related systems remains a challenge for victim survivors, but there are some good examples of coordination

As acknowledged in the new case management program requirements, victim survivors may need support across a range of domains, spanning:

  • housing
  • education and employment
  • health and wellbeing
  • justice and legal
  • financial, material and transport
  • family, social and community connections.

Based on our consultations, it is very difficult for victim survivors to navigate the range of systems they need or are required to engage with. A victim survivor also explained how interrelated their needs can be, saying that:

… you need housing to even think about looking for a job, but if you don’t have money, you can’t get housing – you get stuck in this loop.

There is some good local practice that aims to support victim survivors in a more holistic and joined-up way to meet their needs, but this is not supported systemically due to narrow funding streams and reporting requirements.

Service system navigators

Following the Royal Commission, and in response to victim survivors saying they wanted someone to help guide them through the system, the Victorian Government stated through its 10-year family violence plan that:

Victim survivors will not have to navigate the complex legal and community services systems by themselves. Service navigators will be highly skilled specialist workers that will have the flexibility and capacity to support people from crisis through to recovery, and ensure they are supported in a simple, timely and coordinated way that works for them.

It acknowledged that there are highly skilled case managers providing this kind of support, but there are not enough of them and ‘funding and program constraints … get in the way of providing the support women and children need’. Service navigators were intended to be highly skilled specialist workers who could support women and children from crisis through to recovery, working in strong collaboration across community and justice services [relates to action 12].

“Ultimately, every case of family violence needs a qualified case worker with the ability to work with the survivor in navigating their path away from violence, including an authority to act (where survivors have given consent) to enable the case worker to ‘do’ some of the work and lighten the survivor’s unrealistic and unbearable load."

Lily, victim survivor

While service system navigator positions do exist in The Orange Door model, they are more strategically focused on service pathways within the local area and not the direct client support roles as envisioned in the 10-year plan. While there may have been pragmatic reasons to make these roles more strategic, victim survivors still see the need for practical, guiding support, and other stakeholders reiterated that the system remains difficult to navigate. For example, the Statewide Family Violence Integration Advisory Committee noted in an internal presentation that ‘our service system is complex and opaque, especially to service users. Clients should not be made responsible for navigating this complexity when they need our services.’ Similarly, a community legal centre told us that ‘navigating the service delivery system is a full-time job in itself, (and) putting (that) responsibility on the victim survivor is not right’.

Victim survivors spoke of not being able to think clearly when trying to get themselves out of a family violence situation. They noted that they are often provided with information about where to go for support but don’t necessarily have the headspace to pursue these things on their own. They wanted help with the ‘doing’, such as engaging with Centrelink.

We suggest there must be clarity around whose role it is to lead coordination and navigation work for a victim survivor, whether practitioners at The Orange Door or case managers at specialist family violence services or others.

“Peer support is often the best support. Victim-survivors have a different way of ‘knowing’ and understanding what their peers are navigating."

Lily, victim survivor

Building on the discussion from the previous chapter about strengthening a lived experience workforce in the family violence sector, there may be the opportunity for lived experience practitioners to support victim survivors with system navigation.

“With fellow survivors/peer supports, frustrations and feelings can be heard without judgement but can also help guide survivors through the system."

Kelly, victim survivor

Specific navigation challenges for victim survivors

The challenges victim survivors face in navigating the service system can relate to the sheer number of services required, the various eligibility criteria they may need to meet and the range of processes for accessing services. It can also relate to the limited capacity of services, resulting in victim survivors facing long waitlists and unsure where to turn next (specific capacity issues across services are discussed in the next chapter). Some systems, though, were raised as not adequately responding to family violence, and which are substantially affecting their recovery. These are discussed below.

Child Protection

Stakeholders have consistently raised their concerns about Child Protection practices in respect to responding to family violence over recent years. The Commission for Children and Young People advised us that family violence continues to be a common theme in the child death inquiries it conducts for children who were known to Child Protection in the 12 months prior to their death. It also advised that it continues to see evidence in Child Protection responses of inadequate understanding of the impact of family violence on children, inadequate assessment of family violence risk to children, and that sufficient safeguards and supports are not always being put in place for child victim survivors or their families (including adult victim survivors and perpetrators), particularly at the point of case closure. This can mean children (and protective parents) continue to face family violence risk, often resulting in further reports to Child Protection. This is a major barrier to recovery, especially when children and families are not linked to therapeutic supports.

We recognise the complexity of child protection work and the substantial efforts made to support this demanding area. Stakeholders said Child Protection policies are strong on paper but are not necessarily implemented consistently on the ground. This aligns with what we previously found in our fourth report to parliament and our Accurate Identification of the Predominant Aggressor report. We acknowledge the dedicated, ongoing work of the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing to improve the family violence capability of the Child Protection workforce and the workforce challenges this sector faces. This report doesn’t explore Child Protection practice in detail, but stakeholders have repeatedly expressed what they perceive as key issues with Child Protection practice, including:

  • the need for a stronger focus on holding the person using violence to account rather than the protective parent
  • protective parents (usually women) being expected to leave a relationship in order to keep their children
  • the need for further work to align with MARAM.

Stakeholders provided a range of examples emphasising the need for the Child Protection workforce to improve its understanding of the complexities of family violence dynamics and improve the way this understanding is used to drive decision making and practice.

Victoria Legal Aid said that Child Protection frequently recommends withdrawing protection applications on the condition that women make a family law application. It highlighted that, particularly because there is no guarantee that the family law outcome will limit or prevent contact with the perpetrator, this can be counterproductive and exacerbate family violence risk if the perpetrator had not been pursuing contact with the children.

Women’s Legal Service Victoria raised concerns about inadequate support for mothers whose children are permanently removed, or temporarily removed and then returned. For example, Child Protection is no longer involved once a child is returned to parental care, yet there is no system-wide response to ensure the family receives the ongoing, integrated support needed to address the underlying issues. Similarly, the Statewide Family Violence Integration Advisory Committee suggested the need for improved referrals to family violence services, with Child Protection at times encouraging women to self-refer into family violence counselling when they clearly require case management.

While early legal advice is vital for all victim survivors, particularly where Child Protection has become involved, it was raised as essential for Aboriginal victim survivors, given the history of over-representation of Aboriginal children in out-of-home care. Where victim survivors of family violence are seeking specialist family violence support and also navigating the Child Protection system, they need to be supported with culturally appropriate services and legal advice. We were told that without this, the confidence of Aboriginal mothers to report family violence and access the services they need to keep themselves and their children safe will be diminished. Djirra has proposed a notification system whereby an Aboriginal service is directly notified when a report to Child Protection involves an Aboriginal child, to help activate early legal assistance. The Department of Families, Fairness and Housing has advised that this idea has been explored previously and has been found to be unfeasible. It pointed to existing safeguards, such as a requirement to consult with the Aboriginal Child Specialist Advice and Support Service regarding decisions for Aboriginal children, and the provision of legal support at the Children’s Court of Victoria, where Child Protection matters are heard. We are unable to comment on the sufficiency of these safeguards or the feasibility of Djirra's proposed notification system, but we encourage ongoing work between the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing and Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations to ensure Aboriginal families can more easily access the range of services they need.

Commonwealth Government systems

While Commonwealth efforts go beyond the scope of our analysis, we cannot ignore the numerous stakeholders, including victim survivors, who passionately told us about the need for improvement in a range of spaces for which the Australian Government has direct responsibility. These spaces particularly include:

  • the family law system
  • the immigration system, and temporary visas
  • income support through Centrelink.

The Victorian Government urged the Australian Government to specify and call out what action will be taken for women vulnerable to victimisation because of their visa status, such as women on temporary visas. It suggested there needs to be structural reform of the legal, migration and welfare systems to ensure women and children on the full range of temporary visas who are at risk of or have experienced family or sexual violence have access to the supports they need. Similarly, Safe and Equal called for action around immigration laws and eligibility criteria to ensure women and children on temporary visas can access appropriate supports, including through Medicare. It also called for:

  • ‘increasing income support payment levels to improve women’s economic security and ability to leave relationships without being at risk of poverty.
  • holistic reform of the family law system to ensure safety of victim-survivors is prioritised and to reduce opportunities for systems abuse.’

[In family law matters] "...a father’s right to parent trumps everything else – it’s the one area where we’re going backwards."

Jess, victim survivor

Issues around the family law system were very frequently raised during our consultations as being major barriers to recovery. There was some acknowledgement by legal services that family law courts are gradually improving. But victim survivors were particularly clear about the trauma of having to regularly hand children over to their perpetrator over many years as a result of a parenting order being made by the Federal Circuit and Family Court of Australia. Victim survivors in this situation are fearful for their children’s safety and wellbeing and are often themselves subjected to ongoing emotional and systems abuses at the hands of the perpetrator.

"When a survivor is forced to share parenting with a perpetrator, it is near impossible to recover. Perpetrators do not co-parent, they counter-parent. Survivors need ongoing, long-term supports in navigating endless coercively controlling behaviour."

Lily, victim survivor

The National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children 2022–2032 acknowledges some of these issues. It commits to acting on the recommendations made by two recent reviews of the family law system to make it safer and easier to use and to ensure safer outcomes for women and children. It acknowledges the need to ‘break down the systemic barriers that directly impact women from migrant and refugee backgrounds’. We also note that the national Meeting of Attorneys-General Family Violence Working Group, formed in 2017, is ‘developing measures to improve the interaction between the family law, child protection and family violence systems’.

We encourage the Australian Government to pursue strong action in these areas, focusing on improving victim survivor experiences of these systems. We also suggest further consideration of whether Centrelink processes could be improved, as victim survivors commonly identified Centrelink as being difficult to navigate and a source of stress during times of crisis [relates to action 4].

Importance of service coordination

Victim survivors’ range of needs and challenges are highly inter-related, and many stakeholders spoke about the interconnectedness of family violence, mental health and AOD issues, in particular. The value of a coordinated approach seems self-evident; however, we understand that services are usually not well coordinated. We commonly received feedback that funding is siloed and service requirements can be very narrow, and that these can be barriers to organisations providing more holistic victim survivor responses. Additionally, Aboriginal family violence services are known to provide holistic responses, working with whole families to address their wide-ranging needs; however, Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations commonly raised short-term and insufficient funding as a barrier to strong, community-led service delivery [relates to action 12].

The Statewide Family Violence Integration Advisory Committee spoke about a lack of coordination between the mental health, AOD, housing and family violence systems. They said that each of these systems is often overwhelmed with demand, so if one service opens a case for a victim survivor, the others will close theirs, unless it is an exceptionally high-risk case.

The specialist family violence capacity-building roles located within mental health and AOD services were very highly regarded and were seen to be improving the way these services respond to family violence. However, due to a lack of clarity and embedded practice around collaboration, information sharing and secondary consultation across service systems, an unintended consequence was said to be that these services are less likely to reach out to specialist family violence services and more likely to rely on their internal specialist role, leading to further siloing between systems [relates to action 1].

Stakeholders raised various examples of the need for further co-location of services to improve the way victim survivor needs are identified and met [relates to action 2]. One duty lawyer at a specialist family violence court said that having, for example, a practitioner from inTouch Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence or The Orange Door in court was a highly effective way to directly connect the victim survivor with support. Since COVID-19, however, we understand some of this co-location in court has been lost. Another suggestion is that financial and legal support should be integrated into The Orange Door service model to ensure victim survivors can get prompt advice and support to prevent legal and financial damage from accruing [relates to action 5]. We are aware that legal services are being piloted at one of The Orange Door locations and suggest a broader rollout based on lessons from the pilot is seriously considered.

Mechanisms for greater coordination are needed to ensure victim survivors’ needs are being met. These could include:

  • a clear model around secondary consultation, collaboration and referrals
  • increased use of the Family Violence Information Sharing Scheme to better coordinate services for victim survivors and reduce the need for them to re-tell their story
  • increased co-location of services.

We also note some existing enablers of coordination and good local practice to provide more holistic responses.

Over recent years, stakeholders have consistently told us about the value of Family Violence Flexible Support Packages (FSPs) in being able to promptly provide tailored support to meet the needs of victim survivors. This is one way more coordinated and victim-centred support can be provided. FSPs aim to support a victim survivor’s safety and security, health and wellbeing, capabilities to participate, and connections to community and culture. Their use ‘must represent the most cost-effective, timely and appropriate response to meet the outcomes identified in a victim survivor’s case management/support plan’. Some of the supports allowed are represented in Figure 11. While the maximum allowed FSP is $10,000 for a support period, the average cost of an FSP is $3,400. To be eligible for an FSP, the victim survivor must have left the perpetrator, be planning to leave or have the perpetrator removed from the home, although an exception is made for Aboriginal victim survivors. Where a victim survivor is still living with the person using violence, the focus must be on ‘responses that will minimise risk to victim survivors, ensuring that responses do not escalate, reward or reinforce abusive behaviours’.

Figure 11: Possible uses of Flexible Support Packages

Family Safety Victoria (2021): Family Violence Flexible Support Packages (FSPs): Program guidelines.

  • Download' Figure 11: Possible uses of Flexible Support Packages'

Organisations we met with that deliver multiple services spoke of the profound benefit of being able to easily connect a victim survivor with the services they need within the one organisation. Organisations like The Salvation Army, Nexus Primary Health, VincentCare, Mallee Family Care and many Aboriginal Community Controlled Organisations all offer some combination of services such as specialist family violence services, financial counselling, legal support, homelessness services, AOD support, disaster and emergency relief, employment services and counselling, among others. See Box 3 for one example.

Box 3: An integrated service response from McAuley Community Services for Women

Following a two-week stay in a McAuley refuge, Julia and her three children were transferred to McAuley’s supported accommodation. McAuley case workers supported Julia and her children in identifying their priorities, individual needs and lasting solutions to individual goals. Julia and her children also accessed the onsite counselling services.

Julia’s children’s needs were assessed and resulted in liaison with a National Disability Insurance Scheme worker to secure support for one child. A school pack was provided to a primary school–aged child and toys provided for all the children. They also received material aid including bed linen, pyjamas and food vouchers.

Through McAuley Works, Julia was supported into employment. She started her new job four months after being referred into McAuley Works.

Julia was also referred to WEstJustice through McAuley’s partnership and received legal advice to support her situation.

Transitional housing was offered, but Julia declined this, instead finding rental accommodation on her own. Working with another service provider, McAuley ensured the cost of moving house was covered and that there was adequate furniture. McAuley also worked with Julia to ensure a comprehensive safety plan was put in place, including emergency contacts and processes.

Both Julia and one of her children were connected to specialist counselling services to support them following their interaction with McAuley.

While Julia was not ready to join a community group at the time, McAuley provided Julia with resources to support her linking in with her new community when she is ready.

The integrated service model allowed Julia to move safely to a new home, identify a new income source through employment and link with new legal and counselling services, all while reducing the impact on her three children.

Source: Based on a case study from the 2021 McAuley Community Services for Women Annual Evaluation Report.

There are also promising examples of regional efforts to integrate local practice. One example is the Ovens Murray Integrated Response Panel, which was created as part of a broader regional effort to increase systemic coordination between the family violence, AOD and mental health sectors within the Ovens Murray catchment. The panel applies a collaborative approach to achieve better outcomes for clients who have cross-sector needs. The monthly panel consists of case managers from agencies within the family violence, mental health and AOD sectors. Senior staff from Child Protection and Albury Wodonga Aboriginal Health Service also attend where required. With the consent of the victim survivor, a case can be presented to the panel to generate joint responses to complex cases that have not been improved by initial interventions. It also improves cross-sectoral connections and clarifies referral pathways for practitioners. The initiative was evaluated in 2021, demonstrating clear value and potential as a forum for facilitating cross-sector practice discussions for complex cases. Through the evaluation, practitioners advised that the panel provides a space for different services to share their expertise and interpretation of the presenting issues to inform case planning, and encourages collaborative and client-centred practice. However, the evaluation identified that refinements were needed to address low referral numbers and to further enhance outcomes. An example of a case supported by the panel is provided in Box 4.

Box 4: Ovens Murray Integrated Response Panel

Vicky is a 37-year-old female enrolled in a 12-month AOD recovery program and family violence counselling.

Vicky experienced a highly traumatic and stressful period, including the death of a child and a new relationship with a family violence perpetrator who bought her alcohol, but she remained engaged with services. Over this stressful period, a referral had been made to a mental health service, but service had not begun.

Vicky tried to take her life and was in hospital when she contacted her AOD worker. It seemed she would be discharged to her home where the perpetrator was still living and where she faced an ongoing family violence and alcohol abuse risk.

A shared system response was needed and so Vicky consented to a referral to the Ovens Murray Integrated Response Panel. Using the panel structure, case managers from the family violence, AOD and mental health sectors were able to:

  • use clear and timely communication about the current situation, risks and safety
  • identify a rapid response to use the mental health system to support Vicky through an admission that also made time for court processes (to seek a family violence intervention order)
  • facilitate the removal of the perpetrator from her home and activate other safety measures before she was released from hospital
  • use the space to advocate for Vicky’s needs by sharing information, which supported a shared understanding of her situation and collaborative work.

Vicky has remained engaged and supported. Practitioners report that, having used the panel, benefits continue as they all work together to meet Vicky’s needs.

Source: Based on a case study in Ovens Murray Family Violence Capacity Building Project, Evaluation Report (January 2021).

Reforms underway that respond to recommendations from the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System may also support improved cross-sector collaboration and coordination. For example, it recommended establishing Regional Multi-agency Panels. These panels’ membership and functions aim to support better cross-sector coordination, collaboration and accountability between the mental health service systems and other sectors, which could include family violence services.