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‘False hope’: family violence program could be putting women at greater risk, critics say

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP</span>
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The federal project offers women up to $5,000 to help escape violence, but workers say getting the money is too onerous and complex


Vulnerable women attempting to escape domestic violence are being offered “false hope” by a government program that potentially could be putting them at greater risk, frontline service workers say.

The two-year $145m escaping violence payment trial was billed as a one-off payment of up to $5,000 to “help women establish a life free of violence”. It was announced as part of the government’s “landmark $1.1bn women’s safety package” in the May budget.

In reality, the program offers eligible people up to $1500 in cash, with the remainder paid in vouchers or direct payments to schools or rental bond agencies. In the month the trial has been running, frontline services are already pleading for clarity over who is eligible and how the payment works.

Sally Stevenson, the general manager of the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre, said the “extremely onerous and time consuming program” risked leaving survivors worse off.

Related: Australian businesses lead way in paid family and domestic violence leave

“If anything, this program offers false hope that practical support is available, but in reality it does nothing to truly support women to escape violence,” Stevenson said.

“In some circumstances it may in fact put women and children in danger. If women are under the misapprehension they will be provided adequate support and leave on this basis, and the expected support is not provided, they may well be worse off, or indeed in greater danger – because as we know, leaving is the one of the most dangerous times in a violent relationship, especially when there is little or no support.”

More than 120 providers wrote to the women’s safety minister, Anne Ruston, earlier this month to raise serious concerns. They asked for changes to the “inappropriate” eligibility requirements, which include limiting the payments to those who have already left their home, and those who have experienced violence from an intimate partner in the past 12 weeks.

Temporary visa holders are excluded and those applying need to show evidence of their experience from either police or a service provider as part of the eight-page application.

UnitingCare/Wesley was chosen as the facilitator of the program after a “closed competitive process”. Stevenson said more consultation was needed with those on the frontline to make the program workable.

“We know how to support women escaping violence: we know what they need – they need fast, flexible and liquid support,” she said.

“As such, the number of barriers within this program mean it’s extremely difficult to access any support. Certainly not enough to make escape a viable option.”

Ruston defended the program, but left the door open to changes saying the government was “absolutely committed to getting it right”.

We have openly and constructively engaged with the sector since the program was established last month to make sure the right information is out on the ground as well as considering feedback to inform the rollout,” she said.

“We will also conduct an independent evaluation of the program to make sure the settings meet the needs of women and anyone else escaping violent relationships.”

Ruston said she had heard positive stories of women who had been helped by the trial.

“We are hearing that people who have never accessed government support or other support services are reaching out to UnitingCare Network,” she said.

“While this is sobering, it is also positive to know that the program is reaching a cohort of victim-survivors who have not previously found appropriate support and is giving them the confidence to work toward a life free of violence.”

Related: ‘Denied a voice’: how Australia fails migrant victims of domestic violence

Labor senator Jenny McAllister said the government needed to listen to those at the coalface, given the seriousness of the issue at hand.

“This program shows the fingerprints of a government that doesn’t understand the experiences of victim-survivors and is more concerned about rushing out a media release than getting it right,” she said.

The escaping violence payment trial was part of a flurry of announcements made in the wake of claims the Morrison government was not doing enough to ensure women’s safety after allegations of rape and sexual assault were raised within parliament.

Announcements included increased funding for frontline legal centres and domestic and family violence support work, but months after it was promised, frontline workers were still waiting for the funds, with the government forced to “clarify” some of the headline figures it released.

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