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A night at the domestic violence crisis support centre

Most callers to the Women’s Information and Referral Exchange (WIRE) are seeking help in relation to domestic violence and financial abuse. I spent a shift with the phone workers and collated their stories into one ‘as told to’ story:

1pm
We always get a lot more domestic violence related calls following public holidays. The Easter weekend has just passed; I have a stack of messages from women who couldn’t get through yesterday because the lines were so busy. After a cup of tea with the other two phone workers and our team leader, I begin the call-backs.

I return an urgent call from a woman whose domestic violence court date is this afternoon. I’ve clearly called at a bad time. She’s whispering and I hear a clicking sound, possibly someone on the other line. She hangs up.
As volunteers we’ve all gone through a rigorous selection and training process, but still – everyone has triggers, particularly if a call resonates personally. It’s a very supportive environment, and we debrief with our team leader after each call. But some calls are horrendous, and every now and then I’ll see something on the news, like a woman being killed after leaving a violent partner, and I will wonder if that’s somebody I’ve spoken to.

1.20pm

I’m struggling to understand a caller’s broken English. She wants someone to talk to her husband, who gets “very angry”. She’s on a temporary visa, and her partner is using that to assert control. We hear this frequently – husbands threatening their wives with deportation – control is a huge issue. In many cases these women won’t get support from their community because culturally, domestic violence is accepted as a way of life and they fear rejection and shame.

I put her on hold to confer with my team leader. And because of language difficulties I have to ask her to repeat gruelling details of violence; the call has become stressful for both of us. My team leader gets an interpreter online, and within three minutes we’re able to get back on the call, listen to her story and get her the support she needs.

1.40pm

A call comes through from a woman who needs a loan to fix the washing machine. Overwhelmingly women will call about one thing – like a loan, for example, but when you open up the call you find that domestic and financial abuse are the real issues. They often won’t call domestic violence lines because they don’t identify what’s happening as domestic violence. We try to tease out the real issues by listening and reflecting back.

The caller has put all of her own money towards her husband’s new business, and now he controls the finances. He’s now become physically abusive. I tell her “what you are describing to me is domestic violence and it’s illegal”. Some women are baffled when we reflect back to them, because they don’t identify with the battered-woman stereotype. The caller says her husband only hit her a few times because of the money troubles, but the violence would die down once she got their finances sorted.

We work on the premise that the woman is the expert, but we also put a label on it. It’s about empowering them to see a situation for what it is, and come to their own decisions. Crucially, this means they’re more likely to follow through and take action.

Stats from the phone room show that financial abuse is a huge issue, but it’s largely hidden. We run clinics on financial and legal advice, but since the clinic can currently only accommodate two women per week, we desperately need sponsorship. If we can help women get better financial outcomes, they may not have to live for the next 30 – 40 years in poverty. The impact on children, and the benefit to the community is immense.

2.30pm

I’m on the phone to a woman who has just arrived from interstate with her 3-year-old daughter. Her partner routinely pushes and shoves her and she’s concerned it might escalate. Both she and her partner grew up in houses where violence was normalised, and she doesn’t want her daughter to grow up in the same environment.

She’s from a very small community. It’s particularly difficult for women in rural communities because of the lack of services. Also, the police may be friendly with their partner. I’ve had calls where the woman has told me the police came over, patted their partner on the back and joked about the cricket score.

The caller arrived yesterday for a “planned vacation”, but I have a feeling she’s been planning this for a while. She hasn’t told her partner she’s not coming back, which puts her in the category of fleeing. Statistically, the most dangerous time for her will be when her partner expects her back. It’s a control issue. When a relationship is based on equality, women can simply make a choice and leave. But when there’s a power imbalance, when they try to leave the violence increases, to reassert control.

I put her in touch with several services near where she’s staying and tell her to call again if she needs someone to talk to.

3pm

During a break in calls, our acting chief executive officer comes in to tell us the Department of Immigration has cut the funding to our interpreter service. It will end on the 1st of August. She asks our team leader to collate call stats to help seek alternate funding. I think of the caller whose husband said he’d take away her visa. With the interpreter’s help we were able to arrange safe housing for her and her two children.

From an economic perspective, it makes no sense to cut those services. Last year, the repercussions of family violence cost the Australian economy $14.7 billion. Surely any money spent getting women and children out of that cycle is a wise financial investment.

3.45pm

Why don’t women leave? That’s the number one question. Some days you just want to say “grab what you can and run,” but they’re not calling us to be told what to do, and if you shame her, you send her away.

So often the answer is that their self-esteem has broken down to the point where they have difficulty making and following through with decisions. A few weeks ago I took a call from a woman whose partner said she was an unfit mother because she was depressed. I validated her position by saying that if someone is abusing you, of course you’re going to be depressed. What we’re saying is that there’s nothing wrong with them, there’s something wrong with the situation. If she can have a sense of self restored, if you validate her experience, it gives her strength to take control and make decisions. Our call stats back this up – women are more likely to take decisive action when they’ve been heard and believed.

4.45pm

The other main reason women don’t leave is the lack of resources and housing. I take a call from a woman who needs a loan to pay a bond. She’s recently left an abusive relationship, but she can’t take her children with her until she has a house. She has a one-month wait before she can access bond money from a previous house, and in the interim she’s been living in her car. It turns out to be a case of what we call “sexually transmitted debt”. Her partner has run up a debt with the Department of Housing (he said he was paying rent when he wasn’t), and because of this she is now unable to access those services.

The woman has tried all the other housing services, and gotten nowhere. She’s now distressed to the point where I think if she walked into Centrelink, she could easily get someone hostile, which happens a lot when you’re not confident or articulate. We need to explain what questions to ask, and how to push for what they need.

We’ve been speaking for a long time, and the woman is in tears. I have to put her on hold to discuss with my team leader what we can do, but when I go back to the call, she’s hung up.

Usually after a long call the caller has been able to access help and you have that “Yes!” feeling. I’ve only ever been haunted by a call once. The caller had run from her violent partner, taking her kids, and she’d spent the whole day on the phone trying to get help from various services. She’d burnt through all her money on private housing, and now it was quarter to five on a Friday.

She said “I’ve got two loaves of bread and a litre of milk for the whole weekend and three kids. What can I do?” It was the end of the financial year, and most of the usual services had nothing left. There was nothing in her area, but she needed food – now. All I could do was tell her that if she went to the grocery stores at closing time they might give her what they couldn’t sell. As a last resort, I looked up a Catholic church in her area in case they could help. I have never forgotten that call.

More people are calling each passing year. There’s a growing understanding that abuse isn’t always physical; it’s about control. We’re funded as a generalist service, yet we’re often taking crisis calls and doing safety planning. Increasingly we’re being called by women from interstate because our interstate equivalents have been de-funded. We feel lucky just to be operational.

2 Comments

  1. Thank-you so much for sharing this.

    • You’re welcome – it was a privilege to be able to write about it.

      Love your blog btw – do you have a public FB page for your writing, or Twitter?

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