A Journey to Recovery: shifts in thinking about women’s refuges (part 1)

blog | Words Claire Dodd | 19 Oct 2020


Innovation Unit has worked closely with the Department of Communities (Communities) in Western Australia since November 2019 to co-design two new family and domestic violence (FDV) refuges for women and children.

The two refuges – located in the Peel and Kwinana areas – were among key initiatives in the State Government’s Stopping Family and Domestic Violence policy. The Kwinana Refuge fills a service gap for FDV, particularly in the southern metropolitan corridor of Perth, while the Peel Refuge is a therapeutic refuge with specific support for women who have co-occurring mental health concerns and/or harm from alcohol and other drugs. The therapeutic service model is a first for WA, so it was critical to co-design the new service with women with lived experience, decision makers, funders and service providers.

Through a rapid and iterative process, the therapeutic service was co-designed by 125 participants across 5 workshops, 14 interviews, an intensive 3-day symposium, and through a service user survey. The resulting recommended service model design for the Peel Refuge included 5 Guiding Principles, 7 Enabling Conditions and 10 Service Components, which have all been accepted by Communities and will form the basis for identifying a service provider to operate the refuge.

This blog series explores some of the key insights on how we can work collectively to address FDV. But first, it introduces the Guiding Principles that resulted from the co-design process, which may also be relevant in other contexts. A number of other outputs from the design process are available online in order for you to explore deeper insights gained from the co-design process, including the Service Model Blueprint, Journey Maps, and Enablers & Barriers.

Culturally Safe. Cultural safety is a way of being and a way to be safe. It means everybody feels respected and that they belong. We adopted the recently published definition from The National Scheme’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health and Cultural Safety Strategy 2020-2025 as culturally safe practice being “the ongoing critical reflection of practitioner knowledge, skills, attitudes, practicing behaviours and power differentials in delivering safe, accessible and responsive [support] free of racism”. In practice, cultural safety can look like support for cultural healing and staying connected to community, and an authentic commitment from services to employing an Aboriginal workforce.

Trauma-Informed. Being trauma-informed means embodying the principles of safety, trust, choice, collaboration, humility and empowerment. This approach requires awareness, sensitivity and responsiveness to women and children’s trauma when supporting and interacting with them. In practice, being trauma-informed means being flexible and responsive, which includes working with partner organisations to support each individual’s healing process for as long as they need. Women and children need to be able to access services, answer questions, and create safety plans only when they are ready. It also means avoiding situations that may result in vicarious trauma or re-traumatisation, like asking people to repeat their ‘story’ and relive their experiences.

Voice. Each woman and child has a voice and these voices need to be listened to, respected and believed.. Women and children who have experienced long term violence and oppression are often accustomed to not having choice or the ability to express their voice and therefore need to be in an environment where they feel safe to speak. They need the space and time to build relationships with staff, based on mutual trust and respect.

Person-Driven. Women and children need to have autonomy and choice in leading and designing their experience. A person-driven approach privileges the experiences, voice and agency of women and children. This asks services and other external parties to question any biases or assumptions they may have when supporting women and children, and place service users at the centre of the service. In practice, this means having flexibility in the approaches to supporting women and children and adopting shared and accessible language in order to ensure equity between staff service users.

Collaborative. Services need to work in genuine collaboration with women and children, staff, other service providers, key stakeholders, and the broader community towards shared outcomes. This results in the ‘whole being greater than the sum of all parts’ and reduces a siloed approach. It ensures responsiveness to the many diverse needs of different women and children and the ability to provide continuous support to service users for their whole healing journey; before, during and after their stay in a refuge. In practice, this means investing time in building relationships and possibly creating multi-discipline teams across different organisations.


Some people may find parts of this content confronting or distressing. Recommended support services include:

  • 1800 Respect – 1800 737 732
  • Lifeline – 13 11 14
  • Women’s Domestic Violence Helpline – 1800 007 339
  • Men’s Domestic Violence Helpline – 1800 000 599

Acknowledgement of Country

Innovation Unit acknowledges the Whadjuk and Bindjareb Noongar people as the Traditional Owners of the country upon which this project was conducted. We acknowledge the importance of paying respect to their land, their Elders past, present, and emerging, and the continuing cultural and spiritual practices of Aboriginal people.

Project design team

Keren Caple, Ayshah Aziz (IU UK), Alison Gibson (Associate; Aboriginal Co-Designer), Claire Dodd (Associate), and Sash Milne; with additional support from Sarah Ward (IU UK), Jethro Sercombe (Associate), Martin James, and Gareth Durrant (Associate).