As established in the previous chapter, the range of services victim survivors need are often not well coordinated and can be very difficult to navigate. This chapter goes into further detail about four types of support that are critical for victim survivor recovery but that often struggle to keep pace with demand and to reach victim survivors:
- housing assistance
- financial support
- legal and court supports
- therapeutic services.
As one stakeholder explained, without somewhere consistent to live, it is virtually impossible to get back on track. As well as being a fundamental need, stable housing is also inextricably linked to employment, income support and financial independence. The Royal Commission was clear about the importance of victim survivors being able to access safe, stable and affordable housing:
A lack of housing options can exacerbate the trauma and dislocation of the violence, disrupting social and economic participation and education and adversely affecting health and wellbeing. In some cases it forces women to choose to return to a violent partner. Once women and children who have experienced such violence are housed in a safe place, they can begin to rebuild their lives and plan for the future.
There is a clear relationship between family violence and homelessness, with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare identifying that of clients commencing support with a homelessness service in Victoria in 2020–21, approximately 47 per cent identified family violence as a reason for seeking support.
We looked closely at this issue as part of our fourth report to parliament. We found there were chronic housing shortages, particularly in the availability of social and affordable housing, and that it was often very difficult for victim survivors to safely remain in their own homes. We found that these housing shortages were creating major blockages for victim survivors trying to move from crisis towards recovery and stability.
There have been major investments in social and affordable housing in recent years. For example:
- The $5.3 billion Big Housing Build, announced in 2020, includes delivery of 9,300 new social housing homes (up to 1,000 of which are for victim survivors of family violence) and $50 million for new housing projects for young people experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness.
- As part of a COVID-19 housing economic stimulus package, $500 million was directed to building and upgrading more than 23,000 social housing dwellings; $10 million of this is to increase support options for women and children escaping family violence.
- Through both the From Homelessness to a Home program and the Homes for Families investment, approximately $232 million has been provided to help move people living in emergency hotel accommodation due to COVID-19 into long-term stable housing.
Based on our consultations, we understand that these issues remain; when we asked stakeholders to identify the main areas for system improvement to support victim survivor recovery, they very commonly raised housing. Figure 12 depicts some of the ongoing shortages of housing support for all clients (including victim survivors), with glaring gaps in the availability of long-term housing for those who need it.
While not all victim survivors need social housing, for some it may be the only way for them to achieve long-term housing stability. Social housing bottlenecks also create upstream bottlenecks in crisis accommodation and refuge. As shown in Figure 13, there is far greater demand for social housing than can be met, with only about 10 per cent of applicants on the Victorian Housing Register being allocated social housing in a given year.1 Victim survivors of family violence face an average wait time of 17 months to access social housing.
We echo what is stated in the Establishing a 10 Year Strategy for Social and Affordable Housing discussion paper:
A fundamental step change in policy and delivery is needed to embed the foundations for growth and sustainability of social and affordable housing in Victoria … the social and affordable housing challenge will require ongoing effort over many years, extending beyond the Big Housing Build.
Given the seemingly intractable housing issues that remain, we can only encourage ongoing investment across the housing spectrum from crisis to long-term social and affordable housing, and the pursuit of other options to support victim survivors to maintain rent and mortgages [relates to action 13].
"The scariest thing about leaving or preparing to leave is not having somewhere to go. Homelessness services are underfunded … so people are faced with either returning to unsafe situations or sleeping rough either by themselves or with children."
Kelly, victim survivor
Through consultations with stakeholders such as the Department of Justice and Community Safety, Financial Counselling Victoria and the Economic Abuse Reference Group, we were struck by how important it is that victim survivors have access to support that promotes their economic security, in the context of a range of forms of financial abuse that victim survivors are experiencing. Some examples of financial abuse that were raised with us include:
- perpetrators making a victim survivor a company director without their knowledge
- perpetrators selling a victim survivor’s property and keeping the money
- perpetrators withdrawing or forcing a victim survivor to withdraw large sums of money
- perpetrators accruing debts and fines in the victim survivor’s name.
Financial counselling can be an essential service to disrupt and stop the suffocating financial pressure and abuse a victim survivor may be experiencing, and to support recovery.
“Referrals to financial counsellors or living skills workers would be amazing for people who have escaped but are trying to get their life in order."
Kelly, victim survivor
The Department of Justice and Community Safety advised us that through the Financial Counselling Program, Consumer Affairs Victoria funds the equivalent of 21 full-time family violence financial counsellors across the state, which are located locally in a range of community services. These are in addition to the more than 300 generalist financial counsellors located across the state, who also work with clients impacted by family violence. The family violence financial counsellors provide specialist support to victim survivors to address financial abuse, improve the financial wellbeing of victim survivors, and provide expert advice to family violence services to improve financial outcomes for more victim survivors. Victim survivors can connect with the program through the National Debt Helpline, or they can be referred directly from other services. An example of how financial counselling can assist is demonstrated in Box 5.
Box 5: Case example demonstrating the importance of financial counselling
Around the time of the Royal Commission into Family Violence, Sally’s partner burnt her house to the ground. She was physically unharmed but was left homeless with her two children. Sally was connected with a financial counsellor through the local family violence service where the financial counsellor was co-located. The financial counsellor worked with a trauma-informed and client-centred approach with Sally’s housing worker, case worker and counsellor advocate to fully understand her situation and needs.
In order to allow Sally to focus on her immediate housing and court needs, the financial counsellor advocated to put Sally’s debt issues on hold to allow time for Sally to work through her immediate priorities (housing, court, counselling). After providing Sally with options in relation to her debts, she was successful in having the debts waived. Once Sally’s debts had been addressed and her insurance issues resolved, she decided her goal was to have her home rebuilt.
Insurance companies did not have a good understanding of family violence at that time. Sally’s insurance company interviewed her for more than three hours and she was made to feel like she was the one who burnt down the house. The financial counsellor worked closely with community legal services to advocate for changes to this approach and to support Sally’s claim, which was eventually settled. Through continued advocacy by many community groups, there have been changes and reforms in the insurance industry since that time.
The financial counsellor advocated for pro bono legal services for Sally, allowing for property orders to be completed while the perpetrator was in prison to ensure he could never receive financial benefit from proceeds that Sally would receive. The financial counsellor also advocated to the bank to waive more than $120,000 of debt, enabling her to afford to rebuild her family home.
Sally was able to move back into her house within two years.
Source: Based on a case described by Financial Counselling Victoria.
There are some key challenges and areas of improvement, though. For example:
- Financial Counselling Victoria explained to us that financial counselling is not currently an integrated part of the family violence service model [relates to action 5]. There is not a strong understanding of what financial counsellors can offer – for example, among staff at The Orange Door and specialist family violence services – except where there are existing relationships. Given the importance of financial security in supporting victim survivor recovery, we suggest further consideration should be given to how to embed this service within the model. We encourage active engagement and collaboration between Family Safety Victoria, Safe and Equal and Financial Counselling Victoria in working to embed financial counselling into the family violence response model.
- Consumer Affairs Victoria advised that the complexity of family violence cases means that many cases are taking longer, which reduces the number of clients a service can see and puts pressure on workers to take on more cases than they can manage [relates to action 13]. With only 21 full-time equivalent family violence financial counsellors statewide (10 of whom have no guaranteed funding after June 2023), this is a very limited resource. Furthermore, Financial Counselling Victoria spoke of capacity challenges for the 300+ generalist financial counsellors in Victoria, who face increasingly unmanageable caseloads. They suggest that to address this in the long term, funding models for family violence services need to incorporate provision for financial counselling as a matter of course. In the short term, funding certainty for the existing group of family violence financial counsellors is required, and adding more positions would help to alleviate the growing demand pressure.
The financial counselling sector also plays an important systemic advocacy role – for example, by advocating as a profession to banks, debt collectors and creditors around family violence policies and practices, and sharing experiences with the Economic Abuse Reference Group. This reference group, which is an informal, national network of nearly 30 community organisations (such as family violence services, community legal services and financial counselling services), works to influence government and industry responses to reduce the financial impact of family violence. Some key changes the group has influenced are captured in Figure 14.
For victim survivors who have suffered injuries through a violent crime, there is a process for accessing financial assistance to meet the costs associated with those injuries through the Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal (VOCAT). Each year around a third of applications to VOCAT relate to family violence. Following the Royal Commission and a subsequent review by the Victorian Law Reform Commission, the government is replacing VOCAT with a new Victims of Crime Financial Assistance Scheme, which is expected to commence in late 2023. The new scheme will have a simpler and more victim friendly process, longer timeframes within which victim survivors of family or sexual violence can make an application (up to 10 years), and will be complemented by a new Victims Legal Service to assist people making applications under the scheme.
Legal and court supports
The court system is a common part of the victim survivor journey, with many victim survivors going through the process of securing family violence intervention orders (FVIOs) through the Magistrates’ Court of Victoria. Acknowledging that the intersection with courts can be very brief, there are some initiatives within courts that aim to improve the experience for victim survivors (see Figure 15). These are in addition to support available through police court liaison officers and community legal centres or duty lawyer services.
These are widely seen to be important initiatives to improve the victim survivor experience in court and beyond; however, there are some challenges and areas for improvement. For example:
- In 2020–21 only a small proportion of finalised FVIO applications were heard in a specialist family violence court, meaning most victim survivors were not receiving a specialist response. With 12 specialist family violence courts now operational, and more to come, we have been advised that a growing majority of family violence matters will be heard in specialists courts.
- Pre-court engagement is an important way of connecting victim survivors with appropriate supports in the lead-up to their court appearance, but the full pre-court engagement model is currently only available in seven courts, and the program is only funded until 30 June 2023. An online portal has been created to allow The Orange Door and Victoria Police to directly provide to the court information relevant to the victim survivor’s needs, and this allows all specialist family violence courts to gain some advantage from pre-court engagement. However, the proactive engagement feature of the full model is a vital element, and we suggest that to realise the benefits of the model for both victim survivors and the court system, there would be value in ensuring pre-court engagement becomes an integrated and funded component of the specialist family violence court model.
- Victoria Legal Aid has provided strong feedback that the distinct needs of child victim survivors are not appropriately met in the court system, stating that children are not recognised independently of adult victims and do not participate in Magistrates’ Court FVIO hearings. Indeed, the Family Violence Protection Act 2008 mitigates against children’s voices being heard, stating that, for example, ‘a child, other than a child who is an applicant for a family violence intervention order or a respondent, must not give evidence for the purposes of a proceeding under this Act or a litigation restraint order proceeding unless the court grants leave for the child to do so’. While we understand the desire to protect children from harm associated with participating in the court system, we suggest further consideration must be given to ensuring the needs and wishes of children are independently assessed and considered [relates to action 3].
“As a child … I felt really excluded from court proceedings … Therefore a recommendation would be to check with what the child knows and what they want during key moments throughout the process. They may not want to know/care and that’s fine too – but providing some sense of autonomy and control would have been great."
Heshani, victim survivor
- The capacity of practitioners, duty lawyers and police liaison officers to attend court was also raised as a substantial challenge. These professionals have multiple cases to attend to every day and must therefore prioritise high-risk cases when managing their time. Duty lawyers will not have time to make referrals to relevant services for all clients and may instead provide pamphlets to clients who are deemed to be at lower risk. Similarly, family violence practitioners do not have the capacity to see every victim survivor who wants to see them on any given day. Furthermore, these practitioners are not available in every court, and concerns were raised with us about insufficient support for child victim survivors in all courts (children only have access to a child-specific family violence practitioner if they attend the Melbourne Children’s Court) [relates to action 3].
- Victoria Police expressed concern about victim survivors being encouraged by private legal practitioners, usually in cases where police are not involved, to agree to an Undertaking (‘a formal written promise’ from the respondent to the applicant). There was particular concern about some Undertakings including conditions that are counterintuitive, such as allowing the perpetrator to attend the victim survivor’s property for certain reasons. An Undertaking results in the FVIO application being withdrawn and is not enforceable by police.
- Further, while it is positive that victim survivors have more choice in how they engage with the court process, Victoria Legal Aid raised a concern that if victim survivors are not present in court, their opportunity to engage with a duty lawyer is reduced. This is problematic because the duty lawyer can help ensure the terms of the FVIO are workable for the victim survivor and refer them for broader legal support, including for any child protection or family law matters. However, where pre-court engagement is occurring, there is an ability to refer people to legal support before their court date, which means they don’t need to be in court to be connected with legal representation.
Victoria Legal Aid and the range of community legal services we met with were clear about the importance of victim survivors receiving early legal advice and expressed some frustration that legal support is not yet an integrated part of the family violence service system. Referrals can be made to legal services – for example, from The Orange Door or a specialist family violence service – but we understand that local arrangements for, and use of, such referrals vary. They also told us of substantial unmet demand, but they were constrained in their ability to address this due to their limited capacity and level of funding [relates to action 5].
“Being fairly and adequately represented is hard and we’re talking about access to justice to ensure you and your children are safe. It’s not a ‘nice to have’."
Jasmine, victim survivor
The structure of funding for duty services and other streams of legal assistance was also raised as a barrier for achieving continuity of legal support (or any legal support) across all client matters, which, as well as family violence matters, may include related legal areas such as family law, child protection, migration, criminal law and tenancy matters [relates to action 12]. The legal assistance sector is, therefore, forced to provide a very short term service, and victim survivors are then ‘bounced around the system as there is no capacity to get ongoing legal assistance’, as one stakeholder told us. Additionally, the Federation of Community Legal Centres and Victoria Legal Aid noted that legal services have not been provided any additional funding to support the newest seven specialist family violence courts (established in October 2022). This will limit their ability to implement the specialist family violence court legal practice model developed by Victoria Legal Aid in consultation with lived experience groups and other stakeholders.
The Department of Justice and Community Safety and Family Safety Victoria have recently begun a pilot that connects clients of The Orange Door network with legal services that meet their needs and ensures clients of legal services are effectively connected to The Orange Door for family violence and child wellbeing support. The pilot will run for 12 months and is being delivered at an Orange Door location. The pilot is guided by a service design model developed in close consultation with people with lived experience, The Orange Door network representatives and a broad range of legal services. This is an important project, and we suggest it will need to be closely monitored and evaluated to inform the broader inclusion of legal support within The Orange Door model [relates to action 12].
Therapeutic services for victim survivors have an explicit focus on supporting victim survivors to recover from the trauma of family violence.
The outcome of therapeutic interventions is to assist long-term recovery and wellbeing by rebuilding confidence, self-esteem and reducing social isolation.
Such interventions are supported through two funding streams:
- Family violence counselling for women and children, which has been a funded part of the family violence response for many years. Thirty per cent of funds must be allocated to services for children and young people.
- Family violence therapeutic interventions, which have been offered since 2019 by selected service providers in each of the 17 Department of Families, Fairness and Housing areas, building on lessons learnt from the 26 therapeutic intervention demonstration projects. We understand these interventions are now an ongoing feature of the system and can take a range of forms such as one-on-one counselling, coaching, family work, group work and ongoing peer support. The format depends on client and local needs and provider expertise. Forty per cent of funds must be allocated to services for children and young people.
Given the close relationship between the two streams, Family Safety Victoria has identified an opportunity to streamline the funding and to create an overarching framework for therapeutic services for victim survivors in Victoria. It would seem timely to generate such a framework, given that the latest guidelines for family violence counselling are from 2008, and that the only overarching information about therapeutic interventions is the 2019 call for funding submissions for the ongoing delivery of therapeutic family violence services to victim survivors.
Our fourth report to parliament noted that funding for therapeutic services for family violence victim survivors in 2019–20 ($32 million) represented a 366 per cent increase on the pre-Royal Commission level of investment ($7 million in 2014-15).70 We also note investments in recent years to expand services for adolescents who use violence at home, many of whom are also victim survivors.
Nevertheless, services are not meeting demand [relates to action 13]. While we have not seen any system-wide data, stakeholders consistently raised the issue of very long waitlists for therapeutic services, with some areas experiencing delays of six to 10 months for family violence counselling [relates to action 14]. One service provider said that over the course of these extended waiting periods, clients’ situations can dramatically change, sometimes declining to a point where, for example, a mother has lost housing and children have been removed from her care. Another service provider said they manage waitlists by restricting the number of family violence referrals they accept, and instead refer them back to The Orange Door or a specialist family violence service because it is too risky to have them sitting on a waitlist with no support. The wait time at this service was said to be four weeks.
For some groups, there are further delays and access barriers. For example, refugee and migrant women may need a counsellor who speaks a language other than English, which can be difficult to find. Thorne Harbour Health indicated that GBTQ male victim survivors who are referred to a Centre Against Sexual Assault have reflected a sense of being misunderstood and seen as too complex by sexual assault services. They have observed a lack of literacy around intimate partner sexual violence within the LGBTIQ+ community. We note that the need to improve the inclusiveness of services and to increase capability around diverse experiences of abuse are common themes across the family violence and sexual assault sectors. Sexual Assault Services Victoria explained that it, along with its members, continues to work to improve inclusive, culturally safe practices in delivering sexual assault services. For example, it now employs dedicated LGBTIQ+ and disability-focused inclusion officers to help strengthen inclusive practice across the specialist sexual assault sector.
Many stakeholders, ranging from victim survivors to legal services and peak bodies, despaired at the lack of targeted and easily accessible therapeutic services for children. The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare told us that even mothers who have the means to pay for private support for their children do not know where to go for help. Some stakeholders also raised questions about whether the therapeutic interventions that were being provided to children were sufficiently targeted at children’s unique needs, with a common belief that ‘if Mum is ok, the kids are ok’. We are not aware of any monitoring of the services provided using the counselling and therapeutic interventions funding but suggest this may be an area for further investigation [relates to action 14]. The Royal Commission was clear about the need for child victim survivors to have access to such support and noted ‘if we do not provide this support, the effects of family violence suffered by children may be carried on to the next generation’.
In some cases, because of the known delays in accessing the free therapeutic supports designed for victim survivors, Flexible Support Packages are being used to access private psychologists. This may or may not at times be suitable, but stakeholders told us that this practice may not represent an efficient use of response system funding, particularly because the private system is more expensive, suggesting instead that the supply of funded therapeutic services needs to increase [relates to action 13].
- Note: This is based on the 2019–20 figure for social housing allocations (5,414) and the December and March 2021 number of applications on the Victorian Housing Register. We have not seen more recent figures for the number of social housing allocations but suggest the number may be even lower, given the statement in the Department of Families, Fairness and Housing’s most recent annual report that there has been a ‘decrease in tenants moving out of public housing which has provided fewer opportunities to allocate properties to people on the register’. See Department of Families, Fairness and Housing (2022): Annual Report 2021–22, p. 50.