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beryl women feature

A Hidden Truth: ACT becoming a domestic violence ‘hot spot’

HerCanberra Team

Trigger warning: this post deals with domestic and family violence and may be disturbing for some readers.

Mandy* stared up towards the fluorescent light globe buzzing away in the centre of her small flat’s modest kitchen, through the sting of broken blood vessels and the pulsing ache of a smashed eye socket, and wondered whether she could get through another night of it…the pain, the betrayal, the self-loathing and humiliation.

Her hands were slippery with blood and shaking from shock as she dragged herself from the floor. She stood up and inhaled a phlegmy, cracked breath as she assessed her ribs for fractures and bruises. She was reminded by the dull throbbing in her abdomen and pelvis, of last night’s punishment.

Mandy heard the frightened whimpers of her little boy staring through the crack of her kids’ bedroom door and felt that all too familiar bowling ball of guilt and shame creep into the pit of her stomach. “How could I let him do it again?” she growled at herself, clinging with a sense of hope to the idea that she could somehow control the senseless beating he had inflicted on her yet again, simply because he could.

Mandy is a proud 40-year-old Wiradjuri Mum of three. She is a teacher, a carer and a student. And for now at least, she is a survivor of domestic and family violence.

Mandy had suffered repeated, unspeakable acts of violence and emotional cruelty at the hands of the father of her two youngest children, for what seemed like decades. And then – to rub salt in the wound – she had been blamed and ostracised by her tight-knit community, and alienated from her extended family.

When the violence inflicted upon Mandy by these once trusted individuals began to include death threats against her youngest daughter, Mandy knew that for the sake of her babies, she had to escape. And so one still, icy night, Mandy took one of the most courageous but daunting steps a woman suffering the torture of domestic and family violence can take: she sought help.

Mandy packed up her three traumatised children and moved across the border to the ACT.

It was like stepping onto a different planet. Away from what she had known and taken a level of comfort in her whole life – the hazardous, anxious normality of abuse. Mandy instantly feared that she had made a horrible mistake. “What if he finds us?”… “What if they don’t believe me?”. 

These and tens of other doubts and questions nagged at her as she turned out of her street towards an uncertain future, with no one there to tell her what to do and how to do it. No one controlling her movements and interactions and finances.

Mandy had never filled up her car with petrol. She had never set foot on her children’s schoolyards. She had never even seen an ATM card before. Whilst free from violence and rape, the unpredictability of her next few steps was almost more frightening than the uncertainty of making it through another blood-stained night.

When Mandy and her kids first reached out for housing support through FirstPoint – a free service for Canberrans who are homeless or at risk of being homeless – they not only needed a place to sleep, but also help with rebuilding their community. Mandy needed assistance with getting connected to health and other community services.

She required mental health care and education, and guidance on developing healthy community and family connections.

Mandy needed to re-learn the valuable life skills her cruel, tyrannical ex-partner had deliberately shut her off from. She needed to re-learn how to engage with the community, and essentially, to re-envisage her identity and her place in the world.

It took Beryl Women Inc months of tailored, culturally-sensitive one-on-one case management to get Mandy and her children out of this crisis zone. This intensive, long-term process started with allowing Mandy the safety, time and space to share her story. She slowly learned about the impacts of trauma, and how it had affected her sense of self, her physical health, and her mental wellbeing.

Beryl Henderson

Beryl Henderson

After the support workers at Beryl had set these important steps in place for Mandy, they assisted her with providing a life for her distraught children. When Mandy was in a safe and stable place to reassume the many responsibilities associated with raising her young family, under a philosophy of self-determination and empowerment, Beryl provided support and information to assist her with implementing further changes in her life.

With this stability, support, information and empowerment, what Beryl offered Mandy was more than a helping hand. Beryl provided Mandy and her kids a second chance at life.

Had Mandy not known about or accessed Beryl’s services, she could well have become an addition to the ACT’s already appalling statistics on domestic violence and/or family violence.

It is estimated that as many as one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence, and almost one in five Australian women have experienced sexual violence, from the age of 15 years.[1]

The 2012 National Personal Safety Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that in the ACT, in the previous 12 months, 6.3% of women (8,900 individuals) had experienced violence. Data gathered by the Australian Federal Police from 2013-2014 shows that of the 274 incidents of sexual assault, 55 (20%) occurred in a domestic and family violence context. These statistics only represent reported incidents of abuse.

Domestic and family violence is the number one reason why women turn to homelessness services like Beryl.

With the rates of domestic violence rising, and the ACT – that’s right, the nation’s capital and democratic hub – now being viewed as a domestic and family violence ‘hot spot’, Beryl’s Manager, Robyn Martin, holds grave concerns for the service’s ability to continue to provide the amazing supports it is renowned for.

In 2013-14 alone, Beryl supported 141 clients with accommodation and or preventative and maintenance outreach support. This included 51 ‘presenting units’, which consisted of 49 women and children, one 21-year-old woman, and one fourteen-year-old girl. Beryl provided crisis and medium term accommodation to 115 clients – 42 women and 73 children. Accommodation was provided to 41 presenting units, with 42 stays of accommodation.[2]

Former client with staff member

Former client with staff member

Contrary to the dangerous views expressed by Miranda Devine, the services provided by Beryl are a living, breathing example of how domestic and family violence affects women and children from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds in the community.

Robyn explains: “Beryl has cared for wives of prominent politicians, women with property portfolios, women with numerous tertiary qualifications, public servants, business owners, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, and women from tens of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds.”

In 2013, the ACT Government announced a 32% cut to Beryl’s funding, to be spread over a three year period.

Since this announcement, Beryl has continued to deliver the high quality outcomes provided for Mandy and her family, for hundreds of affected families, but with less funding and reduced staffing.

Due to a lack of funds and consequent reduction in staff, and in focusing on its core business (that is, provision of specialist support for victims of domestic and/and or family violence) within a trauma informed framework, Robyn states that Beryl has been less able to provide practical support to clients, including setting up homes with furniture and providing clothing and linen for families.

Despite the fact that the media spotlight has recently been very much focused on violence against women, and regardless of the community’s increased awareness of the widespread and insidious nature of domestic and family violence, Beryl will struggle to continue to meet the significant needs it currently does in the ACT community.

Notwithstanding the many accolades the service has received as Australia’s oldest and most reputable women’s refuge, and with 2015’s ACT Woman of the Year at its helm, Beryl received no further funding under the Federal Government’s recent funding package for domestic violence.

'Presentation of the refrigerator' to the Beryl Inc's Kingston's women's shelter in 1979

‘Presentation of the refrigerator’ to the Beryl Inc’s Kingston’s women’s shelter in 1979

Robyn laments: “if Beryl receives another funding cut, the ongoing sustainability of the service will be in jeopardy.”

Beryl is currently funded as a homelessness service. While homelessness is a direct consequence and inextricably linked to domestic and family violence, the homelessness funding system does not meet the needs of women and children escaping violence. Robyn states: “the current funding system is not trauma-informed, and the length of time and intensity of care required for bringing clients like Mandy back from the brink, is not adequately catered for”.

Working within the current (limited) funding model, with the same pressures to deliver high quality, tailored outcomes to a diverse array of clients with complex needs; Beryl’s staff are required to go above and beyond.

That is precisely what Robyn and her talented and resourceful team does, on a daily basis.

And in the midst of this pressured, underfunded and understaffed environment, Beryl also manages to provide a working culture which would be the envy of most government agencies.

Robyn explains: “one of the many things I love about Beryl is that it operates through the lens of reconciliation. Beryl is welcoming, inclusive and flexible. Beryl has always provided support for women of any cultural background, and employs staff on the same basis, and in that way demonstrates the principles of reconciliation on a daily basis.”

Robyn – a proud Kamilaroi woman born in the small NSW country town of Collarenebri – thinks that Beryl “lives and breathes” reconciliation. Robyn explains that Beryl embodies reconciliation not only through various awareness raising and commemorative events, but also through its day to day operations.

“For Beryl, reconciliation is about recognition of the people before us, and appreciating the diversity of different experiences over time.”

“It’s about acknowledging that my life is better than my mother’s, hers was better than her mother’s, and so on. Yes it’s about appreciating the depth, beauty and resilience of a culture which has outlasted many other civilisations, but it’s also about having hope for the future”.

robyn beryl inc

Robyn Martin, proud Kamilaroi woman, Manager of Beryl Women Inc. and 2015 ACT Woman of the Year

From a personal perspective, Robyn views Beryl as a place which has respected, valued and honoured her as an Aboriginal woman, and as a place which does not view or treat her as a minority. Robyn explains that the sector is crying out for more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees.

Robyn stresses that it is vital that homelessness and crisis services do as Beryl does and make themselves ‘Aboriginal-ready’, by adopting a workplace environment which is adaptive, and which recognises the complexity of the Aboriginal experience.

Robyn asserts that services need to be more understanding of the important balance which Aboriginal people need to strike between cultural and community obligations and their work life.

Robyn feels that the sector could enhance its capacity to attract and retain Aboriginal workers, and suggests that the current lack of Aboriginal workers places additional pressures on the few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander workers in the sector, to be spokespeople for all things related to that culture.

Robyn’s view is that this, and the lack of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims reporting domestic and family violence and seeking help due to an insufficient number of tailored and culturally-sensitive services, is unsustainable.

Beryl Women Inc. wants to unveil the hidden reality of domestic and family violence in the ACT, and the huge improvements we can make as a community, to ensure that the vulnerable amongst us receive the best possible support in times of crisis.

The women of Beryl want to highlight the significant needs they meet in providing a specialist domestic and family violence service, and how integral this work is, to ensuring the safety of victims and their children.

Some men perpetrate violence against women and children in the home because they can. This is happening – probably as you read this – in your neighbourhood. It is our responsibility as citizens of this great community and in the spirit of reconciliation, to ensure that services like Beryl, which provide refuge and support for victims of domestic and family violence, receive the recognition and funding they deserve.

If you would like to make a monetary donation to Beryl Women Inc. to ensure that it can continue its amazing work, please click here

RESOURCES

If you have experienced or are at risk of domestic and/or family violence, please use the following contact details to access the support you need:

Beryl Women Inc (website includes a ‘quick exit’ function) or call 6230 6900 (8.30am-5.30pm Mon-Fri)

Police: 000

Domestic Violence Crisis Service: 6280 0900

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre: 6247 2525

Women’s Legal Service: 6257 4499

1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732): the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service

MORE READING

Magazine – The Hidden Issue is out now. You can read more about how local women are leading the charge against the big issues facing our community—homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, suicide and more—inside this free publication. Find a stockist near you.

HC_Magazine_Issue_03_web

* Names in this article have been changed for privacy and personal safety reasons.

[1] Violence Against Women in the ACT – Information Sheet: communityservices.act.gov.au/women/violence-against-women-in-the-act

[2] Beryl Women Inc. Annual Report 2013-14.

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