Breaking point: Pressure builds on family violence support

LIKE most people, Bernadette stresses if she doesn't get all her work done in a day.

But - unlike everyone else - people's safety could be at risk if she doesn't.

WRISC executive officer Jacinta Wainwright

WRISC executive officer Jacinta Wainwright

Bernadette is the intake officer for family violence organisation WRISC and is one of the first contacts for women and children desperate to escape abusive relationships.

"I try to get to everyone in a day but it's not always possible and I always think 'what's going to happen'? We're under-funded and under-staffed," she said.

Case worker Bree agrees.

"It's an endless thing you feel guilty about. With what some of these women have been through, it takes time to build trust," she said.

"But we have to put a time limit on it. I'm just hitting my stride with them and I have to close them down and many women tell me this happens to them repeatedly at different services.

"There is so much more effective work I could do if I had the time."

WRISC receives Department of Human Services funding but it falls far short of the money needed to help women change their whole lives.

WRISC executive officer Jacinta Wainwright said the organisation had to turn away 80 women seeking help since last July because of funding difficulties.

"Demand outstrips funded capacity for organisations like ours," she said.

Ms Wainwright said they had been able to help some of the women with short-term solutions but "others just give up".

"It's not good enough and it goes so against our culture.

"We're raising awareness of family violence and saying 'this is not okay' but we still have to turn some women away."

WRISC's range of services include a women and children's outreach program, which in 2012-13 provided 24 clients with short-term or emergency accommodation, supported 35 clients at the Ballarat Family Violence Court, helped 21 women find private rental and asasisted another 49 with lock changes or other security measures through the Safe at Home program.

Through WRISC's indigenous program, 41 Aboriginal women and children have also been given help.

However, the 2012-13 WRISC annual report showed there was 32 per cent higher demand for the support program than funded capacity.

Ms Wainwright said family violence was the leading cause of homelessness for women and children, with housing affordability and availability major issues.

"So sometimes leaving is not so easy," she said.

The women's and children's counselling program now has two children's counsellors and has expanded its creative arts and play therapy services through converting an old storage shed into a children's therapy room.

The women's counselling group - Women for Safety and Justice - has been reviewed, leading to a stronger focus on the many ways women resist violence and abuse for their  own dignity, and the safety of themselves and their children.

"It's human nature to maintain your dignity in the face of it (violence)," Ms Wainwright said.

"People fail to realise that, even when you're being abused, you will resist it in any ways within your means.

"Men using violence anticipate the resistance which highlights the deliberate nature of the violence.

"We're working with the community to recognise the complexity of the situation and ensure it's not invisible. When children are involved, it's even harder."

Ms Wainwright said the relationship between a mother and child had also often been undermined by the violence.

"We work on repairing and restoring relationships. We're helping put families back together," she said.

Facilitator Kristen said the group also allowed women to reflect on the "amazing things they do to stay safe".

"Women spend months putting on a face in public, attempting to ensure they stay safe," she said.

"They receive these mixed messages from the community. For example, not being believed, or being believed but not getting help, or telling them 'they've made their bed, now lie in it'.

"These responses made a massive difference to them."

Case workers Gayle and Nici both agree a lack of funding is hindering their work with women and children.

"If there can be effective advocacy, there will be much better outcomes," Gayle said.

But again, demand for the Women for Safety and Justice group and children's counselling is 75 per cent higher than its funding.

"We can sit in a room with a woman and she can tell us what she needs and we can't always give it to her," Kristen said.

Volunteer Melissa works a couple of days at WRISC while completing her Masters of Social Work and is often the first face women encounter when they walk through the door.

"It's about making them feel as comfortable as they can when they walk in the door. The biggest move for them is to walk in the door," she said.

"But it's hard to tell clients to come back tomorrow or the next day - that's our biggest issue these days.'

Ms Wainwright said the service system needed both a financial and cultural overhaul.

"We need to respond to what women and children need, not ask them to fit into our hoops. We need to genuinely meet their needs," she said.

"If we're going to turn the situation around, it's a whole culture thing. We're all part of that picture of ensuring women and children get the help they need when they ask for it.

"That whole idea of 'she hasn't left so she deserves it' just supports it. The only way to change it is to change our thinking."

Ms Wainwright said any extra support WRISC could receive would be welcome.

"Our goal is to raise enough funds to ensure every woman and child seeking our help will get that help.

"Any little bit helps. It's not always about money, sometimes it's just about people's time. 

"Across the whole sector, no service is fully funded to meet demand.

"Other things get fully funded while women and children remain at risk and I do take issue with that. We have to lobby harder to say it's unacceptable. We have to review our priorities.

"We want strong government direction. We're overstretched and under resourced."

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