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Access to services

There is variability in access to services after family violence has been identified

The ability of universal services to identify family violence is an essential component of ensuring victim survivors can be supported earlier. However, support services must be there to respond in a timely way. Victim survivors explained to us that once a victim survivor works up the courage to disclose their situation within a universal service, a lack of corresponding support can be a real disincentive to seek support in the future.

Across all workforces, there seemed to be a clear understanding of what should happen when someone presents in immediate crisis: contact is made with Victoria Police and Safe Steps and, where relevant, a mandatory report to child protection services is made. However, the response for non-crisis situations is less clearly defined, and services can be less readily available.

Many of the matters discussed in this section will be explored in further detail through another monitoring topic later this year when we explore the support available to assist victim survivors in their journey towards recovery.

Specialist family violence services and other therapeutic services

Safe Steps and The Orange Door, where available within a local area, are often listed as the places to call for specialist family violence support for a victim survivor. Safe Steps’ 2020–21 annual report revealed an increase in inbound monthly calls from 5,948 in July 2020 to 9,023 in June 2021, which includes calls from professionals seeking guidance on how to respond to a client. This increase in third-party calls affects the ability of victim survivors seeking immediate support to get through because there is only one line.

Family Safety Victoria has monitored data on referrals from universal services into The Orange Door, and advise that there have not been any manageable demand signals since the phase 2 MARAM commencement. Under The Orange Door service model, every person referred to The Orange Door receives an initial assessment from which they are assigned a priority rating based on risk and need. Those cases that receive a higher priority rating are assigned to a practitioner before those that are assessed as being at lower risk. Many stakeholders we met with, however, indicated that they did not understand the criteria for a case being ‘accepted’ by The Orange Door and felt that access seemed to vary according to demand and capability across sites. However, those we spoke to reflected experiences where victim survivors are referred to The Orange Door but ultimately do not meet the threshold for support, leaving them feeling discouraged and leaving the referring service feeling that the referral did not help.

“Currently, victims of violence are often asked what they need and then told they ‘don’t fit the criteria’, or there are ‘lengthy waiting lists’ or that their case is ‘not a priority’ often because it does not involve physical violence.”

- Lily, victim survivor

We suggest there is a need for clearer communication about how prioritisation of cases at The Orange Door works, clearer criteria for referral to case management, and clearer pathways to other supports to ensure victim survivors and referring services have realistic expectations.

There are also known issues around wait times for therapeutic services more broadly. cohealth explained that there are long waitlists for family violence counselling and that they reluctantly closed their waitlist after it reached 12 months during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. They also indicated that other agencies were forced to stop accepting new clients or to limit eligibility criteria to manage high demand.

Our 2020 monitoring report described the lack of services for children experiencing family violence as a key issue. The Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare and the Department of Education and Training agreed that in some cases there is a lack of referral options (for example, family violence services designed specifically for children and young people, or services for adolescents using violence against family members or intimate partners), and that wait times are a major access barrier for the therapeutic services that do exist. The Department of Education and Training also noted that schools require parental consent to arrange for a child to participate in a therapeutic service, so if the family is not engaged or the perpetrator won’t agree, the support that can be provided is limited.

Service model for universal services’ ongoing support for victim survivors

Where a patient or student does not wish to access family violence services, where waitlists are preventing timely access to services, or where there are other barriers to seeking support, universal services have an ongoing connection with the victim survivor, and therefore an ongoing opportunity to provide support. Family Safety Victoria indicated that the ongoing support of a trusted professional (such as a GP) is sometimes the most suitable response for the victim survivor.

Some hospitals are already doing early intervention work with victim survivors, including safety planning and support from a social worker.

Director of the Safer Families Centre, Kelsey Hegarty, explained to us that while there is some hesitancy from the family violence specialist sector about GPs doing ongoing safety work with victim survivors, many victim survivors do not take up referrals to specialist family violence services. So, it is extremely important for GPs to not just identify family violence and initiate referrals, but to also provide an appropriate trauma-informed response as part of the ongoing doctor–patient relationship, which may span months or even years.

“Frontline workers in universal services are missing addressing the fact of the long effects family violence has on victim survivors and are responding from a crisis response model and not enough support post crisis.”

- Ilona, victim survivor

In the maternal and child health sector, the MABELS program – a Health Justice Partnership in one region – was established to ‘provide an early intervention response to family violence within the Maternal and Child Health … context by improving the responses of [maternal and child health], legal, family violence and support services in a co-ordinated and integrated manner’. The program is both supporting victim survivors to access support earlier than they otherwise would have and supporting maternal and child health services to better identify and respond to family violence.

The Victorian Principals Association said that, ideally, student support services, such as social workers and psychologists, in each area would provide ongoing support to students in the school context, in partnership with any relevant external services. However, student support services are not consistently available across the state. For example, it is more difficult to fill these positions in regional and remote areas.

PROTECT guidance includes Four Critical Actions for Schools in responding to incidents, disclosures and suspicions of child abuse. Action 4 is to ‘provide ongoing support’ to students affected by abuse. This ongoing support must include developing and implementing a student support plan, regular communication between relevant parties and ongoing monitoring of the student’s wellbeing.

We suggest there is scope to be more specific about the types of support children and young people who are victim survivors may need in order to thrive in the school environment (see Table 5 and Box 3 for examples), and that this advice could be co-designed with young people with lived experience (this is also identified in our Reform Governance report).

Principals would likely welcome this advice: of 600 principals responding to the 2021 Term 3 Principals Survey, many requested further development of family violence resources relating to:

  • help with planning support for affected students (372 responses)
  • support for addressing safety issues for affected students (332 responses).

Similarly, all sectors should have guidance about what providing ongoing support for victim survivors within their services could look like, and high-level guidance could be provided within the MARAM suite of resources [relates to action 7].

Table 5: Examples of practical actions schools can take to support students who are victim survivors of family violence, as suggested by Berry Street’s team of Lived Experience Consultants

Allow time to check in individually and chat about how things are going
Regularly provide breakfast in the mornings
Have a freezer stocked with spare lunches and/or provide canteen vouchers
Have a laundry to wash and dry clothes if required, and have spare clothes, socks and shoes available
Allow for extensions on assignment due dates, and for assignments to be changed if they include
triggering content
Make allowances for students to be able to leave the classroom and go outside if needed
Understand that, due to their circumstances, students may miss classes or struggle to arrive on time –
don’t punish them for this
Have dedicated family violence experts within schools

Source: Y-Change Lived Experience Consultants - Berry Street.

“With schools or bigger universal services there should be a lived experience advocate or trained professional hired for advice or be able to consult or approach families and children about family violence.”

- Kelly, victim survivor

Box 3: Ideal school response to a young person experiencing family violence - a young person's perspective

It is known to the school and teachers that Lenny is experiencing family violence at home. An appropriate and immediate response is taken, and Lenny is receiving the supports they need both in and outside of school. The school and staff are also receiving support from a specialist family violence service to ensure the most appropriate care is provided.

  • Lenny has a care plan with the school and is an active part of the decisions that are being made. Lenny is being supported and spoken with in a trauma-informed and child-friendly way, and any revisions to the care plan are made alongside Lenny.
  • Lenny is actively involved in their care team meetings in a way that is accessible and safe to them. During these meetings, a safety plan is discussed and documented with Lenny about who the safe people are to pick them up from school and how they will manage the situation if an unsafe person arrives to pick them up from school.
  • Lenny can become overwhelmed during class and requires support. Lenny’s teacher is fully aware of what supports to give them. They have packed a bag together that discreetly stays in the classroom, and Lenny is welcome to go to their bag when they start to feel overwhelmed. Lenny worked with a support worker to decide what items are in this bag (for example, fidget toys, snacks, vouchers for the school canteen and other items they need).
  • If Lenny needs more help, support staff are available to take Lenny and their bag outside to do some grounding activities together.
  • Lenny is supported to catch up on their schoolwork in ways that are not disciplinary in nature, that take Lenny’s concentration and energy levels into account, and that understand Lenny’s capacity limitations while going through a difficult time.
  • Peer support is offered to Lenny either through the school or an external specialist support service.

The peer support person also receives regular supervision support and any additional training they might require for their peer support role within the classroom.

Source: Y-Change Lived Experience Consultants - Berry Street.

Creating a clearer service system for both victim survivors and services

We suggest many of the issues above could be addressed by a clearer service model that describes service pathways for people with different risk levels and in different circumstances, with clear access criteria for each. We understand there are some practical realities to this, such as heightened demand leading to services having to create stricter criteria. However, a documented map of how the service system should work would be a good starting point [relates to action 3].

One of the victim survivors we met with shared her experience where she had her family violence identified within universal services but then faced major barriers when trying to access support because the perpetrator lived overseas (see Anna’s experience below). She described trying to navigate the family violence and related service systems herself as overwhelming. Another victim survivor had a similar experience, and wished she’d been given a sheet of paper outlining contact details for the various support services available and a clear description of what each service does. This ‘low risk’ cohort, which may not meet the threshold for specialist services, would benefit from an overview of the services they may need to access to ensure they are not forced to blindly navigate the service system. These experiences also suggest that the support for victim survivors in navigating the service system envisioned in Victoria’s 10-year family violence plan has not yet been realised. The plan stated:

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.

“Navigating services post-separation was described to me many years ago as ‘jumping into a safety net full of holes’. This remains true in 2022, where services are often stretched beyond capacity. Circular referrals are a real thing. Victims are referred to a service, but when they call, they are provided with a number for a different service, and another and another. Sometimes they are referred right back to the original service. Victims of violence frequently express being ‘exhausted’ from navigating ‘systems’ and getting nowhere.”

- Lily, victim survivor

Anna's experience

Anna met Ben overseas and the relationship started off like a romantic comedy. But once she found out she was pregnant, everything changed. Ben became very controlling, restricting her movement out of the house and even withholding food and water from her. After about a month, she managed to escape back to Australia, her home country, although he continued to abuse her via her phone, including threatening to take the baby away from her once it was born. She had no idea what her rights were, especially with the added complexity of him living overseas.

Anna never thought of this behaviour as family violence; she just thought she was in a bad relationship. It wasn’t until she confided to her midwife about her situation that she came to see it as family violence. The midwives in the maternity ward were great and put strategies in place to make her feel safe, particularly as she knew Ben was coming to Australia around this time. They also linked Anna up with a social worker, who visited her at the hospital.

Because Ben lives overseas, Anna has struggled to get the support she needs. Anna was referred to The Orange Door, but it was deemed there was no immediate risk, so they couldn’t help her. She also put together a safety plan with Safe Steps for if Ben entered the country, but she never received a copy of this plan, and couldn’t remember most of what was discussed. Anna reached out to Victoria Police and found them unhelpful; however, she has since found out that there are specialist units responding to family violence, but she felt like these units were kept secret. She has also received conflicting advice about applying for a family violence intervention order, with some saying it is not possible because it is unable to be served to Ben because he is living overseas. Anna worries that because there are no legal orders in place, if they end up going to court, she may not be believed.

After that first identification point, Anna wishes that she had been offered early legal advice and had been linked with the appropriate services, who could respond to abuse being perpetrated from outside Australia. This would have made her feel protected and safe.

Source: Family Violence Reform Implementation Monitor, based on a direct victim survivor account.