(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)
Operators of services for domestic violence victims say Australia is facing a critical shortage of emergency accommodation for women and children.
In some cases, women seeking refuge are being turned away, forced to return home and face further violence.
And among the worst affected are women from migrant and refugee communities.
All names in this story have been changed to protect identities.
Naomi Selvaratnam with this report which see her as a finalist in the radio category of this year’s Young Walkley Awards.
(Click on the audio tab above to hear the full report)
The two young boys in today’s class at a women’s refuge in inner Melbourne include Nathan, from a country in South Asia.
Nathan arrived at the refuge with his mother overnight, not the first time they’ve used crisis accommodation for domestic violence victims.
He’s quiet at first.
The teacher, Lauren, tries to get him to speak.
“Do you feel lonely at school as well? Yeah. A little bit lonely at school and lonely at home? ‘Yeah’.”
During his one day at the refuge — after which he and his mother are moved to make room for another family — Nathan begins to speak about his fears in the classroom.
“So what I’m hearing you say is that you’re worried that mum’s going to get really sick from dad’s bullying and then she might die? Yeah. That’s what your worry is? Yeah, that’s what. And you’re trying to stop your dad? Yeah, from bullying. Mum? Yeah. And that is the reason you don’t want to go to school? Yeah, that’s why. Why’s that? If my dad’s kicked out, if the police take him out and my dad’s at the brother’s place then someone can kill my mum at nightâ¦ yeahâ¦ because we are all alone. We got out on Saturday. Because all the neighbours looked at us. The neighbours have run through inside the house. So you sound like you’ve had some scary things happen for a 12 year old? They’re like they’re scared of us. The neighbours, they’re getting frightened. I used to play with a neighbour like two children, but they stopped. This year they stopped. Because they didn’t want to open the door. Because of the problems.”
As she does with every child who enters her classroom, Lauren invites Nathan to place a cutout of his handprint on a wall.
She writes his age, and asks him to provide some words about what he wants to be when he grows up, as something to look forward to.
“Alright, so what do you want to do when you finish school? What do you see yourself doing when you’re 18 or 20? What’s the picture of you up there when he’s 20? What can you see? What do you see yourself as a grownup? Mmm nothing much. Nothing much? Yeah nothing. Empty.”
Lauren seems upset by his comments.
She later explains why.
“This boy just seems soâ¦he just seems like a shell. Just seems like a shell of a person. And he’s only 12â¦ So I think I feel sad about it because he’s a boy who has very little resilience and very little that he seems to be able to protect himself and manage. And he’s just so sad. He’s just so sad.”
Children like Nathan are common at the refuge.
“There’s been a few children like that. There was a 15 year old girl who stood between her mum and her partner and had to support her when she was 12. And they witnessed horrific violence to their mother, which was pretty tragic. So this girl at 15 now, she said it’s easier for me to go and drink and wipe myself off and substance abuse. She said, it’s easier for me to go and zombify myself than to deal with it. And I said is that because the pain goes? Yep.”
The children who arrive at the school often struggle to pay attention to lessons.
“I often ask the children how are you sleeping here because it’s so quiet and they’re often woken up in the middle of the night, which is what this boy said, he’s woken up in the middle of the night and he gets up to listen to make sure mum will stay- mum will be okay. So he’s protecting mum. I worked with one girl who hadn’t gone to school for nine months because she just couldn’t leave mum.”
Grace from South Korea met her future husband at a mutual friend’s party, just a few months after arriving in Australia.
She spoke very little English, but he impressed her.
After marrying, for a time she remained impressed.
“He was very kind and gentle, he was good friend, he was good colleague, he was good son, he was good brother. So, I didn’t know.”
But two years into the marriage, everything changed.
Grace fell pregnant.
“He didn’t want to keep the baby. He want me to have abortion, but I said no.”
At the time, Grace was living with her husband’s parents.
She says they would watch while he beat her.
“He hit my body around my tummy. First they wanted to stop him but I think they gave up on him after too many hitting. So they didn’t do anything.”
Despite the beatings, Grace didn’t lose the baby.
But things got worse once her daughter was born.
She called the police several times, but says her husband would tell them to leave.
“As you know, my English not perfect but his English perfect. He’s born here so he’s native so they talk about the situation and he told to police officer of we’re going to fix this relationship. You can just go, this is nothing. And police left. And I was shaking as well. I was scared.”
The police offered her some options, including gaining an Apprehended Violence Order against him.
But she couldn’t understand.
“They asked me AVO? But I didn’t know what was AVO. I have been in Australia only for around four, five years. I don’t know what is AVO. I never heard AVO so they ask me whether charge him or not but I wanted to be just protected by police. I didn’t want to send him to jail. I just wanted to make him stop.”
Finally, after a particularly violent incident, Grace called the police again.
“I just needed protection by police. But they just took me to a motel with my baby and they left. And they didn’t even call me back. I had no family, I had nowhere to go, I had no money. I didn’t even have clothes. I didn’t even have food. I didn’t even have visa.”
But Grace’s husband found her at the motel and brought her home.
And the violence got worse.
“I thought it’s like culture problem. I think normally Asian people, women, think they have to endure, they have to put up with. They don’t fight with. And also, I had nowhere to go and I thought I have to deal with the situation, and as he always told me, I thought that was my problem.”
Grace’s story is one being repeated across Australia.
Those working in the field of domestic violence say there’s a critical shortage of accommodation for victims.
Refuges across the country that provide emergency shelter are usually full.
There’s also a shortage of medium-term accommodation where women moving out of refuges can go, while they try to establish new lives without an abusive partner.
Often, those hit worst by the accommodation shortage are migrant or refugee women with limited English, and lack of back-up support networks of friends or relatives.
Lauren Burt is an outreach worker at the Penrith Women’s Refuge in Sydney.
She says many women don’t know their visa rights, and wrongly believe that if they leave their partners, they will be deported.
“Their visas are usually dangled in front of them like a carrot. If you don’t follow the rules, then you’re out of this country. If they’ve got children, I’ll keep the child, you’ll have to go back home. You won’t see your child ever again, threats like that. And it’s a very real fear because they don’t know what the law is, what the rules are. All they’ve got to go by is what their partner is saying.”
Anna from the Philippines met her husband through an online dating service.
He first brought her to Australia on a tourist visa, and after she agreed to marry him, on a spouse visa.
But her optimistic visions about her new life in Australia were swiftly crushed.
Anna says her husband would push and control her, choosing everything fromwhich clothes she could wear, to who she was allowed to spend time with.
After a year, Anna tried to leave.
Anna says he threatened to have her removed from the country… and because she didn’t know the law, she believed him.
“I didn’t know what was happening. He said to me, Sorry. And then that’s why he wanted to kick me out this country because he’s scared. He said to me, it’s better that I kick you out of this country. That’s why he did everything to kick me out of this country. I was really scared, I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, thinking what is going to happen?”
Lauren Burt at the Penrith Women’s Refuge says when migrant and refugee women do leave abusive relationships, often there are visa difficulties to sort out.
“Lots of the time, women won’t be Australian residents yet and they’ll be here on spousal visas and to do that the process is that you have to stay in a relationship or a marriage for two years to be able to get permanent residency and so many women won’t have permanent residency by the time they have to leave a relationship due to violence. So there’s a lot of stuff in regards to supporting them with visa things. And they often don’t have a lot of connections with the community. Quite often they’ve been isolated from any sense of community so they’ve got to sort of learn to be independent.”
Lina Louis is a support worker at the Beryl refuge in Canberra.
She says a majority of the women seeking a place at the refuge are from migrant or refugee communities – and often they’re disappointed.
“We do have women where we can’t accept them because we’re full. In some cases, the women have to just go back to their DV situation. When they go back to their partners it grows, I mean it’s a cycle of DV. And at times it gets worse. Every time they leave it gets worse and worse and worse and worse.”
Lina Louis cites the case of an Egyptian woman stuck in an abusive relationship.
“She was brought here after getting married in Egypt. Her family knew his family so they felt comfortable about her going back with him to Australia. When she came here she was given minimal finances, sometimes nothing. She’s supposed to stay at home and do what she has to do with him. When she had a child, the abuse started. Sometimes she would beg for food for the baby. She left but the only friends she’s got are his friends. There was nowhere she could go. So of course the abuse just continued. And she didn’t have any family, she didn’t have any friends. In March last year she was admitted to Canberra hospital with broken legs. It was the social worker who found out later that it was the husband who did it. He actually kicked her legs. But prior to this he had been saying to her that if she doesn’t listen to him, he’ll send her back to Egypt without the child. So she had no choice but to comply with everything he wants.”
The ACT government last year cut funding to homelessness services, which funds domestic violence crisis accommodation.
Lina Louis says her refuge has been significantly affected.
“I actually don’t know what’s going to happen to a lot of women.The resources have been cut back and that means services will minimize the support. As far as we’re concerned, we’re at crisis.”
And it’s a struggle to turn people away.
“It is really hard but if you haven’t got the space, you haven’t got the space. There were times where we actually end up putting women in a motel. We have to spend money to put them in a motel because they haven’t got anywhere to go.”
The Safe Futures Foundation, which works with domestic violence victims in Victoria, says the use of motels has become a common fall-back option for overcrowded refuges.
Janine Mahoney is the Foundation’s CEO.
“We never have a vacancy. We often have to say that we’re at capacity, and that’s why there’s such a huge number of women sitting in motels with their children every night. Because every other service in the state, and from what I gather, across Australia. This is a common occurrence and every service is at capacity. The number of family violence callouts for police in Victoria alone last year were over 61,000. So when you look at how many days there are in a year and you put that into 61,000 you can imagine how many callouts — and that’s only the women experiencing family violence who have had a physical assault, or are at risk of physical assault. So they are the tip of the iceberg. There are thousands upon thousands more women in our community experiencing violence and fear in their home every day who are not at that point of needing to call the police. So the demand for service is beyond what most people can even imagine.”
Janine Mahoney says often women who end up in motels have no other option than to eventually return home.
“It is too challenging to be in a motel for extended periods of time. You can imagine with young families or if you’ve come from another culture and English is not your first language. If you have a disability, if you have a mental health challenge or a physical health challenge and you’re needing to have that support from the health sector. There’s a whole range of reasons why it’s challenging for someone to stay in a motel without very much support and yep so there are many women who return home.”
Providers of emergency accommodation for domestic violence victims across Australia say refuges are meant to be for relatively short-term use – perhaps a few weeks – for women and their children.
But because of the shortage of medium-term accommodation to move to, it’s not uncommon for women who manage to get into a refuge to stay for many months.
Outreach worker at the Penrith Women’s Refuge, Lauren Burt says whenever a room does become available, it’s soon filled by the next woman who has just left an abusive partner – often accompanied by children.
“We’ll always have a full house. If someone moves out, it might be empty for a few days– one or two days– but it will fill up very quickly and maybe we’ll have someone call if we have a room that is suitable for a mum and one and a woman calls and she’s got three kids or two kids, then that’s not appropriate for her.”
Shakti is an organization that operates four refuges and 15 drop in centres across New Zealand-catering to women from African, Middle Eastern and Asian communities.
It has recently established centres in Melbourne and Sydney to help victims of domestic violence.
Shakti New Zealand’s founder, Farida Sultana, says finding emergency accommodation for abused women is a huge problem in Australia.
And she says women from migrant and refugee communities struggle to get services that acknowledge they have particular cultural needs.
“Domestic violence is domestic violence, but we have a whole lot of issues on top of that. Like dowry is a huge issue in New Zealand. I’m sure it’s a huge issue in Australia and underage forced marriage. And women from Asia, Africa, Middle East, cultural upbringing is different. Our community, how they see women and women’s status is different, how they treat marriages are different. There’s a whole chain of things (that) are differe