As the NSW and Commonwealth Governments consider their budgets for 2021/22, Women's Safety NSW is calling for more funding support for frontline domestic, family and sexual violence services noting record numbers of victims are coming forward to seek safety and support.
The COVID pandemic was associated with the worst year on record for domestic violence victims in Australia and around the world. And demand for services is not abating.
"Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Services (WDVCASs) provided 286,722 occasions of service to women experiencing domestic and family violence in NSW last year; 73,863 more than the year before. That's a 35% increase" says Hayley Foster, Chief Executive Officer of Women's Safety NSW. "And client demand isn't letting up. Frontline domestic and family violence specialists in both metropolitan and regional areas report being 'slammed' by the onslaught."
Women's Safety NSW points to a confluence of factors which have led to this increase in demand for domestic and family violence services.
"First we had lock-down conditions which resulted in victims being trapped at home with their abuser 24/7. Then we had the economic impacts of COVID throwing fuel on the fire as families came under increasing financial pressure and women had reduced resources to escape violent and abusive situations." explains Ms Foster. "At the same time, we've had national and state-based campaigns to raise awareness of domestic and family violence, and to encourage people to reach out for safety and support."
Amina* is a frontline women's domestic and family violence specialist working in a regional safe at home service - Staying Home Leaving Violence Service (SHLV). She says it plainly:
"Client [presentations have] nearly doubled over this year compared to last."
Samantha*, a frontline women's domestic and family violence specialist working in both a WDVCAS and a SHLV notes what she is seeing every day in her regional NSW service:
"[We're seeing] escalating domestic and family violence, financial hardship, homelessness, [and] services at capacity only able to provide limited assistance."
Jacinta*, a frontline women's domestic and family violence specialist working in an inner metropolitan WDVCAS notes the lack of referral options for women and their children for case management and accommodation support:
"[T]here are still not enough services to refer clients to for support in the [local] area[s] due to a lack of funds, a loss of services due to funds, not enough funds to keep services operating."
"Where do we refer our clients and their children after experiencing domestic violence [if we] have no safe places to send them?"
Women's Safety NSW notes frontline services such as WDVCASs and SHLVs have not received increases in their core funding in recent years despite the continuous increases in both client numbers and the complexity of client need.
The only relief came last year with NSW's allocation of the $150 million Commonwealth COVID supplementation for frontline domestic and family violence services and the matched funding from the NSW Government.
These funds are, however, temporary, and due to run out in just a couple of months' time.
"The reality is we've never seen more victim-survivors of domestic and sexual violence coming forward" says Ms Foster. "This is a good thing. We've been sending a clear message to the community that there's no excuse for violence and abuse and we've been encouraging those impacted by such abuse to reach out for safety and support."
"But we can't expect frontline domestic, family and sexual violence services to cope with this additional demand without supplementary funding."
Ms Foster says she expects client demand to increase in the short-to-medium term as governments invest in primary prevention initiatives like the Commonwealth Government's Stop It at the Start campaign and the NSW Government's Speak Out campaign, and begin to tackle the most insidious aspects of domestic and sexual violence, such as coercive control and technology-facilitated abuse.
"Our measure of success shouldn't be a reduction in women coming forward to seek safety and support. It should be a reduction in domestic-related homicides, hospitalisations and physical, mental and financial health impacts."
"If we get this right," continues Ms Foster, "we will see more women coming forward for safety and support in the immediate future, and earlier. And, after a time, as our primary prevention efforts make an impact, and less families are trapped in intergenerational cycles of violence and abuse, we will start to see a reduction in need for crisis support services."
Women's Safety NSW notes there is a need to address both core and supplementary funding in this year's state and federal budgets.
"We need to address the service system gaps which pre-existed COVID, such as case management and accommodation support, and specialist supports for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, culturally and linguistically diverse women, women with disability, and LGBTIQA+ people, as well as targeted support for children, and behaviour change programs for people using violence in their relationships" says Foster.
"But we also need continued COVID supplementary funding to assist with the increased demand associated with the pandemic."
"If we ever needed more help for women's safety. Now is the time."