Opinion: Jocelyn Bignold

Four years ago 11-year-old Luke Batty was murdered by his father. His mother Rosie, who did so much to transform our community conversations about family violence, recently announced that she will stand aside from public advocacy. In announcing her decision she said: "It is unrelenting and overwhelming what still needs to change.

“There is only so much one person is able to do – governments need to do so much more.”

Heightened community awareness about family violence, a trail-blazing Royal Commission, steps taken by the Victorian government to implement its far-reaching recommendations: there has been genuine progress and new optimism that family violence can be eradicated. Yet Rosie is, sadly, correct in saying that much more needs to be done.

Other complex societal and community factors cause, and flow on from, family violence — it cannot be tackled in isolation. We must be vigilant in ensuring that service gaps and funding decisions in relation to these other issues do not counteract the progress we are making in addressing family violence.

The inadequacy of homelessness responses is one example. Fear of homelessness traps many women in violent relationships, yet while Royal Commission recommendations to deal with family violence are being rolled out, homelessness trends in Victoria are moving in a different direction. In 2016-2017, one in 56 Victorians received homelessness assistance, much higher than the national rate (1 in 84), and in 44% of cases, family violence was the reason; again, depressingly, the proportion in Victoria was much higher than other states.

Nationally, for the first time, women needing help outnumbered men, and 13 per cent of requests for homelessness support in Victoria last year involved children aged under 10. Family violence, we know, has devastating effects on children’s health, well-being and learning capacity; combining this with early experiences of couch-surfing, school disruption and homelessness will compound the risk that family violence becomes entrenched and generational.

Mental health is another area where short-sighted funding decisions are sharply at odds with efforts to address family violence. In Victoria, vital community mental health services are rapidly disappearing since we became the only state to transfer our entire funding allocation to the Commonwealth. This was based on mistaken assumptions that the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) would fill the void, yet less than 10% of those with the most severe and enduring mental health conditions will be eligible. Meanwhile, for the overwhelming majority, community-based services are being withdrawn.

The disappearance of community mental health services will have profound effects on people affected by family violence. We know women who have experienced trauma and family violence are at risk of developing mental health disorders; 70 per cent of women using our crisis and refuge services last year reported mental health concerns. Without community support, mental health disorders will not be treated early and effectively, and it makes it much more likely conditions will escalate in severity and impact. The implications for perpetrators are equally disturbing; support with underlying mental health issues can play a role in stabilising their propensity to violent behaviour and linking them to other services.

A final area in which our efforts to address family violence are hampered is the lack of ongoing, predictable and sustainable funding. Over the past 10 years, our 24/7 crisis service, the only one of its kind in Victoria, has been solely dependent on fundraising. We have had to pin our hopes on the efforts of our special events committee to bring in the necessary dollars, so that when a woman and her children are escaping family violence at 3am, they can arrive at a welcoming safe haven instead of an impersonal hotel room. Though we are delighted that in 2018 we will at last receive Victorian Government funding to continue and expand this service, again our funding agreement is only for 12 months, making it difficult to plan and ensure continuity of service. Overall, the funding model needs simplification. We currently report outcomes under 12 different funding streams, each with their own targets. This fragmentation is not only cumbersome and time consuming but can frustrate our ability to organise support that is personalised and flexible for each women, a holistic approach of which we are justifiably proud.

More information

This article first featured in Parity, the national journal of the Council to Homeless Persons, March 2018. The edition was devoted to discussion of The Future of Women's Refuges.

Artwork accompanying this story was produced by a woman who was staying in our safe house and is called 'Out of the flames.'

She said: 'I took away her mouth. She has no voice. It's not really there, it has disappeared.'

The artwork featured in; 'Smarty pants,kitty or tiger? Children and women give voice to their experience of family violence' which can be ordered here.