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Domestic violence experts imagine a nation, 10 years from now, which is keeping more women safe from harm

August 2 2021

Illawarra Mercury

Ten more are planned over the following decade, yet after that the demand slows – due to a national decline in inter-generational domestic and family violence.

It’s a vision for Australia imagined in a recent, futuristic webinar – and it’s a future that can be realised says Illawarra Women’s Centre general manager Sally Stevenson.

Ms Stevenson was one of four experts who took part in the national webinar which explored the country’s ‘shadow pandemic’ of domestic and family violence – and what it would take to effect change.

Government investment in social housing, universal childcare, a living wage for all Australians and other social initiatives were part of the solution she foretold. As was the establishment of the Illawarra Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre (now in the planning phase).

Service: Illawarra Women's Health Centre general manager Sally Stevenson is lobbying for a women's trauma recovery centre. Picture: Sylvia Liber

 Service: Illawarra Women’s Health Centre general manager Sally Stevenson is lobbying for a women’s trauma recovery centre. Picture: Sylvia Liber

“First established in the Illawarra, it was community-led, community-based and a dedicated, specialised, wrap-around, one-stop-shop that supported women to recover from the trauma of violence and abuse,” she predicted.

“It was based on the healing framework of First Nations people and it was a centre that was trauma and violence informed. It did not judge women but authentically listened to them and truly believed them and supported them across all aspects of recovery – medical, mental health, legal, parenting – for as long as it took.

“It supported them also through the systems they needed to navigate, negotiate and fight against, thereby preventing retraumatisation.”

Ms Stevenson foresaw a “groundswell of demand” for such centres across the nation – with access to trauma recovery a necessary and cost-effective way of helping those in need.

Wollongong-based psychiatrist Dr Karen Williams and First Nations frontline domestic violence worker Ash Johnstone also shared their views on how DFV could be eased in the webinar, along with Accountability Matters Project’s Lula Dembele.

Training: Dr Karen Williams wants mandatory trauma-informed training for all those who respond to domestic and family violence. Picture: Sylvia Liber

 Training: Dr Karen Williams wants mandatory trauma-informed training for all those who respond to domestic and family violence. Picture: Sylvia Liber

Dr Williams highlighted the lack of medical training in focusing on domestic violence in 2021 – despite it being the biggest cause of mortality and morbidity in women.

“(In 2021) I was seeing women who had been strangled, had head injuries, who had been made to eat dog food, who were raped, who had been held hostage, who were stalked and monitored, who were made to kneel for hours on gravel – and none of them were getting adequate care for PTSD,” she said.

In the future, she predicted, all those who responded to DFV – emergency and healthcare workers, teachers and lawyers – would have mandatory trauma-informed training.

First Nations Dunghutti woman, Ms Johnstone, envisaged a world where First Nations healing knowledge was used to address family, domestic and sexual violence.

“We actually have the power to build for ourselves communities that work for us, that are safe and sustainable, that provide equal opportunities and that support all of our people to achieve healthy and happy lives,” she said.

And Ms Dembele said the national approach to DFV needed to shift from a reactive one to a proactive one “focused on targeted prevention and early intervention against abusive behaviours”.

The webinar, supported by the NSW Branch of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, attracted more than 300 registrations and was followed by a range of workshops.

Through these a range of recommendations were put forward to inform the next National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Children.

These included calling on government to fund mandatory trauma education and training programs for all health and justice qualifications, and to embrace First Nations healing knowledge to address trauma.

They also included the need to fund Women’s Trauma Recovery Centres – starting with a multi-site five-year community-based pilot project, then rolling out the successful model nationally.

Meantime Ms Stevenson said the Illawarra health centre had recently submitted a business case for a Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre to the NSW Government. Such a centre would require a $25 million investment over five years to run.

A collaboration between the health centre and the Mercury has helped to raise awareness of the need for such a centre. The Mercury’s award-winning photographer Sylvia Liber’s striking images of local women featured in A Photographic Exhibition of Resilience and Resistance which highlighted the issue of DFV in the region.

Let’s hope the vision for an Illawarra centre becomes a reality way before 2031.

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