Highly skilled and underpaid workers on the front line of family violence have never felt more stretched or undervalued. By Kathleen Maltzahn .

Home truths on domestic violence

In the 12 months to June 30 last year, almost half of the more than 50,000 women who rang family violence response centre Safe Steps reported death threats by their partner or former partner. Two in five had been choked or almost choked. A fifth of the perpetrators had access to weapons and almost one in 10 had used a weapon in his most recent act of violence against the woman he once, and perhaps still, said he loved.

The staff at Safe Steps know because, every day and night, they ask strangers things that their CEO, Annette Gillespie, calls “the most intimate that they could ever be asked”. The expectation, consistently realised, is that the callers answer “honestly without really knowing us at all”.

Over the course of an hour and a half – less if the woman (for the caller is almost always a woman) is in immediate danger – Safe Steps workers aim to find out what level of risk the caller is at. Has the perpetrator been controlling or jealous, has he stalked her, has he tried to kill himself or has she, has he sexually assaulted her? Do either of them have mental health issues, has he threatened to harm or kill the kids, has he breached an intervention order? Is she pregnant or does she have a new baby? Together, information about these risk factors – 18 in all – will help form a picture of the level of risk of the caller, and her children. Equally crucial will be the woman’s own assessment of the level of risk the perpetrator poses. And that’s just the beginning of the work.

Before that is possible, however, the caller has to know it’s worth talking. “We have to convey very, very quickly to a woman that we understand her situation and that we believe her,” says Gillespie, “probably within a minute.” The conversation will be on the phone, perhaps with an interpreter, the children may be in the same room, the perpetrator may have just left or be due home. The woman may be taking a huge risk in making the call.

The work of family violence services and workers is sophisticated and highly skilled. It is also hidden, underpaid, often distressing and, largely, undervalued. At a time when politician after politician proclaims their commitment to ending family violence, workers say they’ve never felt more stretched and less supported, and almost every service is threatened with funding cuts. Workers see how “fraught and flawed” the justice system is for the women they help, and they know there are thousands more who get no response at all. For this work, they typically get paid $55,000 a year.

“What we’ve got is a system absolutely groaning under the weight of demand,” says Domestic Violence Victoria CEO Fiona McCormack. Police family violence incident reports have risen 183 per cent in the past five years. At Inner Melbourne Community Legal, the number of women seeking legal help who have experienced family violence has more than quadrupled in the past two years. At Safe Steps, in the three months to January alone, the number of women ringing rose by 23 per cent. In addition, the callers were at greater risk – in the past two years, there has been a 16 per cent increase in the average number of risk factors of women calling. As public awareness has grown and women have had more information about rights and help, violent men have responded by intensifying their controlling behaviour.

Workers passionately welcome the rising number of women seeking help to get safe. But the human impact on workers tells a disturbing story about how few resources are still put into tackling family violence, despite often-stated political and community concern.

Why this contradiction?

From the beginning in the 1970s, work with women escaping family violence was hidden. Safe Steps CEO Annette Gillespie learnt about family violence from the pioneers of the refuge movement. As a stay-at-home mum looking for some work experience, she started volunteering at a New Zealand refuge 20 years ago. Before long, she had a master’s in education specialising in trauma, and began working as a therapist with children whose mother or sibling had been murdered. She has the understated but direct manner of someone used to dealing, gently, in hard facts.

‘Twenty, 30 years ago, the community didn’t want to participate, in fact they actively drove us out,” she says. Police and the courts were at best indifferent, often hostile. The safest option was to get women and their kids away. Refuges were necessarily invisible. That history has shaped the family violence system and sector, and how government funds this work.

“Our whole system is set up to remove women to keep them safe, and keep them silent and invisible,” says Gillespie. “It also means we don’t have to resource it, because no one gets to see the struggle that we’re working within.”

It’s reinforced at a personal level. “If you want to be alone at a party, start talking about rape,” says domestic violence advocate Ann Raouf. She laughs. “Can I clear the room any faster?” At Friday night drinks, when other people talk about a day at the office, she has spent the day in court. “I would have worked with women who have been physically assaulted, sexually assaulted, who are completely traumatised, and if you bring that up at the dinner table, what an instant party killer that is. So what happens is you tend to remain silent.”

The result is community ignorance about the skills and role of family violence workers. “I think people still have this notion, including other workers in services like legal services and police, that we’re very much, ‘There, there, dear, let me get you a cup of tea,’” she says.

Raouf talks with the precision of a lawyer, but there is a warmth and calmness that suggests something else. She’s worked on family violence for 16 years, more than half that as a specialist court worker. As a domestic violence advocate, she’s used to seeing her expertise dismissed. Many magistrates see little value in listening to family violence workers. According to Ann, “We’re like the flies they want to get rid of.”

The view of family violence workers as well-meaning handholders is reflected in their pay. Government funding for community-based family violence workers starts at $51,584. The top rate is $56,000. While some services pay more than that, many don’t. Specialist family violence lawyers in community legal centres (CLC) are on comparable rates. Most family violence specialist lawyers earn $80,000 and below, says Federation of Community Legal Centres CEO Liana Buchanan. CLC family violence duty lawyers commonly earn $55,000 a year. 

The result of high demand, low wages, low status and undervalued work is a sector under profound stress. Turnover and rates of sick leave are high. Younger women weren’t coming in, “because if they wanted to do something crazy like buy a house or have a child”, Fiona McCormack says, “it wasn’t really going to be a very attractive package”. Where there is new government funding, it goes into new programs, rather than into addressing issues for the current workers.

The stress is intensified by defunding. In recent years, funding has been slashed from the crucial Coroners Court Victorian Systemic Review of Family Violence Deaths and family violence prevention work. It was only this week that the Abbott government announced that the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness that funds front-line family violence services such as Safe Steps would be re-funded beyond June 30. Until late this week, CLCs were set to lose $19.618m starting on July 1. While immediate cuts to family violence legal services have now been reversed, funding uncertainty remains and CLC lawyers are clear that, even before cuts, they are unable to help many of the women who need it.

“This is the biggest concern for the lawyers I speak to,” says Buchanan, “that despite their hard work there are still women unable to access legal help and who have to face court and navigate the system alone. That is incredibly distressing.”

“I’ve never seen it so bad,” says Ann Raouf. The cuts to women’s services in New South Wales have shaken workers and sector leaders. “It is very scary what is happening in NSW,” says Gillespie, “and even here [in Victoria] there’s a sense of the generic response, that any social worker can do family violence work.” They can’t, she says – family violence work requires specialisation. “I know people think we’re just trying to hold on to being specialised. It’s not about holding the job, it’s about keeping women safe.”

Lisa Darmanin, executive president of the Australian Services Union’s Victorian and Tasmanian Authorities and Services branch, is struck by how little, in fact, family violence workers focus on their own conditions and pay. “They’re more driven by the delivering on the policy objectives and principles of the work than looking after themselves,” she says. “The way the system is set up, it’s almost like it makes workers feel like it’s a choice between one or the other.” Raouf puts it in workaday terms: “I think in the end, to be honest, the workers are just bloody exhausted.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 28, 2015 as "Home truths".

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Kathleen Maltzahn is a Melbourne human rights campaigner who has worked extensively on violence against women.

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