A Journey to Recovery: shifts in thinking about women’s refuges (part 2)

blog | Words Claire Dodd | 19 Oct 2020


Earlier this week, we released the first blog in this series ‘A Journey to Recovery – shifts in thinking about women’s refuges’ which focused on the co-designed Guiding Principles for refuges. This second blog in the series explores some of the key insights on how we can work collectively to address family and domestic violence (FDV).

Listed below are the major insights from the co-design process, most of which outline ways in which FDV services could change to better support women and children. In acknowledging the changes that we collectively seek, we must also acknowledge the hard work and good outcomes that are already happening. So many staff were praised by service users, from saying the staff “save my life” to talking about them like they are family. We can also see signs of the system shifting to support women and children in an even better, more holistic way. The insights that resulted from the co-design process can help us understand how the system is currently working and the direction in which we should be heading in order to provide an even better response to the needs of women and children impacted by FDV.

From ‘case management’ to ‘a healing journey’

One of the biggest ‘a-ha’ moments throughout the co-design process was the shift in thinking from the traditional ‘case management’ mindset to supporting a woman’s or child’s ‘healing journey to recovery’. While some practical aspects of traditional case management remain, the language and mindset represent a significant shift. The focus shifts from a ‘case’ to a person. The action shifts from management to healing. And the timeframe shifts from a moment in time to acknowledging the ongoing journey. It means taking a more trauma-informed approach and includes meeting not only immediate and physical needs, but also mental health, social and cultural needs. It accepts that every person will have different aspirations and will make progress in different ways. It’s relational and strengths based; it considers the ‘whole’ woman or child, their networks, skills, and choices. It acknowledges the tension around supporting each family to transition out of a refuge while always recognising vulnerability and risk on the road to recovery.

Cultural representation at all levels

The need for better representation of Aboriginal and culturally diverse people at all levels of the FDV service system was a strong theme. The Specialist Homelessness Services (SHS) data from 2018-19 states that of all Australian SHS clients who experienced FDV, approximately 30% were Aboriginal. And of the Aboriginal clients, about 3 in 10 were less than 10 years of age. There is also a substantial number of people from culturally and linguistically diverse (CaLD) backgrounds who experience FDV, with the SHS data demonstrating around 10% of all clients need immigration or cultural services. Given this representation and in order to work in culturally intelligent ways, it is critical for organisations and agencies to ensure sufficient representation of Aboriginal people and those from CaLD backgrounds in the service workforce and amongst those with decision-making power.

Being safe, feeling safe

Many women told us how their experience with a ‘good’ refuge – that met their needs – saved their life. This was a good reminder that, above all, refuges are about keeping women and children safe. However, we also heard that being objectively safe is different to feeling safe and both need to be ensured for women and children escaping FDV. Just because there are 24/7 staff and CCTV surveillance at a refuge, does not mean that the people inside actually feel safe. Feeling safe might also include a sense of belonging, trust in staff and others, having choice, being able to stay with all children and pets, and maintaining connections to family and community outside the refuge.

A refuge is just one part of a journey, and one part of the FDV service system

People escaping FDV experience a journey that might last years, if not decades, and extends far beyond a stay in a refuge and beyond the current service system. As one service user explained, “I had no after care support and was living in a town where we knew no one.” Staying in a refuge is just one part of a journey and therefore refuges need to work in partnership with many other services to ensure continuous support; including smooth referrals and long-lasting positive outcomes for women and children after they leave a refuge.

We also cannot expect refuges to do everything. We heard that many refuges feel stretched and often extend their support to providing practical support in terms of money and goods, providing assistance in navigating school and higher education systems, and helping women and children who return (sometimes multiple times) after their first stay. The FDV service system and broader systems that impact funding and housing, for example, need to work together effectively to ensure women and children transition successfully into long term housing (domestic violence is the most common reason for seeking homelessness assistance in Australia, see the AIHW Specialist Homelessness Services Annual Report).

A whole-of-family response

To truly address FDV, the service system as a whole should be able to respond to the needs of the whole family, not just women. Given the scope of this project was based on refuges, the focus was mainly on women and children, however it is acknowledged that perpetrators are largely hidden from view. Outside refuges, other services are required for the people using violence against women and children; without this, the issue cannot be properly addressed.

Children as individual service users

It was loud and clear throughout the co-design process that children staying in refuges need to be considered individual service users, not an extension of their mother. As part of this, we must recognise the significant differences between the needs of children of different ages and different genders (the latter in particular is also linked to cultural needs). For example, boys need appropriate activities as well as positive male role models. As one service user explained, “I didn’t have any male role models… Teachers stepped in and filled the void… my teacher taught me how to shave.”

Children also need to be supported with counselling and not put into situations that might be traumatic. As one service user explained, “I was forced to see dad to prove it wasn’t working.” Others explained how children were asked to play the role of language interpreter for their mother during counselling.

We also heard that, while being supported for their individual needs, children need the chance to be children. Older siblings, in particular, often take on caring roles. But if sufficient support, choice, and space is provided, children can have the freedom to be themselves and do ‘normal’ childhood things like play, attend school, and make friends.

A service is only as good as its people

This is not a new insight, but it was a strong theme that emerged throughout the co-design process. While establishing a new refuge includes a new building and fit-out, we heard over and over again that the most critical factor to a good experience is the staff. Some of the service users told us: “Staff were like family”, “I think she [one of the staff members] is the best person in the world”, and “the women working at the refuge were like my grandmothers”.

Supporting more people with lived experience to take up roles as peer workers and mentors was a common thread throughout. Furthermore, sufficient resourcing for training and support for the wellbeing of the workforce, particularly for those staff with lived experience, is critical; vicarious trauma can impact staff as well as service users.

Addressing FDV requires the whole community

A large, systemic theme that kept emerging throughout the co-design process was the need for non-FDV services and the broader community to be more informed about the realities of FDV. For some women, it was clear that they did not have enough understanding about the issue even when it was impacting them; that it took a long time to understand what was happening. One service user explained, “I didn’t know what was happening… but then the police came and tried to warn me about ‘red flags’”. It was also made clear – from almost everyone involved in the co-design process – that the FDV service system is hard to navigate. In this context, there are additional challenges for people new to Perth, for whom English is a second language, and for people living with a disability.

Services and institutions from other sectors, such as schools, can support people impacted by FDV but only if they have an understanding of the complexities and impacts of FDV and are able to respond with supports. For example, a service user who stayed in a refuge as a child said “I told people at school that dad was dead”; as this was easier than trying to explain the truth because nobody understood the situation. Teachers, other school staff, and the students themselves can all play an important role in supporting others in need and helping to address FDV.

An immediate and positive sign that we are already shifting to a whole of community response to FDV was the diverse participation in this co-design process. Across several sessions we had representation from schools, police, child nurses, mental health agencies, homelessness agencies, family support services, youth services, and local governments. We thank all of the stakeholders involved in this process, whether experts by experience, service providers, peak bodies, or government representatives. Only with your collective efforts was this project possible.

The outputs of the FDV refuge service design project – including the service model blueprint, journey maps, enablers and barriers, and the Department’s response to Innovation Unit’s recommendations – can be found at https://www.wa.gov.au/government/document-collections/two-new-family-and-domestic-violence-womens-refuges-co-design-findings


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).