Position paper - "More than just a bed. The contribution of women's refuges in QLD.

Combined Women's Refuge Group (SE QLD), October 22nd, 2015

AN in-depth report into the work of specialist women’s refuges throughout South-East Queensland, including a “snapshot day’’ survey of the work they do and the women they assist, has been released. To download your copy of the full report, please click the download button.


Executive Summary

In Queensland alone, approximately 23 women are killed by their intimate partner each year.  The most dangerous time for women and children attempting to leave a violent situation is during, or immediately after, the time of separation.  Approximately 30% of Australian women killed by male partners are killed after separation.


The vast majority of domestic and family violence (DFV) involves violence perpetrated by men against women.  Many women in Queensland are living in terror, being persecuted by persistent violence, and threats of violence.  The DVConnect Womensline receives over 4,000 calls every month from women who are in fear of, or in immediate threat of danger from, DFV. 


An understanding of the gendered nature of DFV is therefore essential to the design of an effective response.  DFV is not a series of one-off violent incidents: it generally reflects a sustained, systematic pattern of controlling behaviour and coercion.   Over many years, refuge workers have learnt from the women and children who have used services that men who perpetrate domestic violence can be highly manipulative and persistent.   As a result, women and children often present at women’s refuges with multiple and complex needs.  


Women’s refuges provide the immediate security and safety which saves lives.   Many women have survived DFV for long periods and have exhausted their options with family and friends.  Women’s refuges provide a critical pathway out of a violent setting – often, well-distant from the geographical location of the perpetrator. 


However, women and children escaping DFV need refuge in its widest sense, rather than temporary accommodation alone.  Permanently leaving a violent relationship and constructing a sustainable, violence-free life is complex and difficult for most.  Women’s refuges in Queensland provide more than just a safe place for women and children who are at immediate risk of violence to go: they provide practical, emotional and specialised support and advocacy for women, and dedicated services for children, who are trying to rebuild their lives.  Provision of this case management is critical to sustained outcomes. 


The contribution of women’s refuges to reducing DFV over the past 40 years has been widely documented – within Queensland, Australia and internationally.  This position paper explores the critical success factors which drive the design and implementation of women’s refuges, and examines the relationship between women’s refuges in Queensland and recognised best practice.   It draws together evidence from national and international literature, 2 surveys of Queensland women’s refuges conducted during 2014, and the documented experiences of women who have used these services; and recognition of the veracity of this data through government reports, policies, protocols and practical resources. 


The evidence overwhelmingly recognises that women are not an homogenous group, therefore a one size fits all approach cannot effectively address the complex and varied needs of women and children escaping from DFV, recovering from DFV and establishing a violence-free life.  This is addressed, in part, through the variations seen in women’s refuges nationally, and internationally, which are reflected across services in Queensland.   However, some principles are common to best practice in provision of refuge services.  Key principles which have been consistently supported by the literature over many years are:

  1. Provision of accommodation alone is an inefficient and ineffective means of responding to the needs of women and children escaping DFV. 

  2. Specialist women’s refuges are a particularly efficient and effective immediate response to women and children survivors of DFV.

  3. A holistic, customised approach to support service provision is essential to effective practice with women and children recovering from DFV. 

  4. Financial and housing security is a critical determinant of women and children’s capacity build an independent, violence-free life.

  5. Continuing support for women and children optimises their capacity to build a violence-free life.

  6. Dedicated support for children reduces the risk of multigenerational harm as a result of DFV.


Women’s refuges and refuge workers have listened to and supported many women over many years.  As a result, they have an intimate knowledge and understanding of the realities of the nature of DFV.  Workers are acutely aware of the inherent dangers that these women and children face every day.  Women’s refuges in Queensland understand the many and varied barriers to living a life free of violence, and have the specialist competencies required to support women to overcome these multi-faceted issues.  Refuge workers have a unique capacity to understand the specialist services required to enable women and children to re-establish their lives. 


Women typically leave violent settings with a variety of practical needs such as transport, money, medical assistance and food, and are at risk of returning to DFV if these are not met.   All require emotional support to overcome the psychological impacts of violence, including access to refuge workers at times of crisis (whether or not this occurs during business hours), and many gain strength through group work alongside other women escaping DFV.  Each woman faces her own specific challenges and may need assistance to access legal services, housing, interpreters, safety planning, specialist cultural or spiritual support, immigration support, financial counselling, mental health support, substance abuse services and/or help dealing with child protection authorities.  Children’s lives, too, are highly disrupted and a failure to provide direct support for children, and assistance with accessing childcare or education, can cause long term harm. 


Without this specialist DFV support, women and children are less likely to leave abusive relationships and far more likely to return to situations of violence.   Consistent with the findings of the Special Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence, we call on the Queensland Government to invest in women’s refuges which have a specialised focus on DFV and the varied services required to meet women and children’s diverse needs.   Women and children need services with a sophisticated understanding of the nature and impact of violence – in particular, the gendered nature of DFV.   They need refuge workers who are able to respond in a tailored way to the specific and often complex and changing physical, practical and emotional difficulties they face, through a coherent case management approach.  


It has been estimated that DFV costs the Queensland economy between $2.7 and $3.2 billion annually.  In this context, the progressive funding reduction (in real terms) for women’s refuges over recent years does not make economic sense.   There continue to be insufficient places available in women’s refuges in Queensland to meet demand.  As a result, too many women and children are forced to stay in motels, without access to the emotional, practical and specialised support essential to recovering from DFV and building a new life.  Too many women and children return to violent settings, because they cannot access the integrated accommodation and case management services they need.  Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander, immigrant and refugee clients have been particularly impacted by this reduced funding.   


Women’s refuges in Queensland already make a significant economic contribution.  Studies have estimated the return on investment in women’s refuges as between 1:3 and 1:18.  Increased expenditure on women’s refuges in Queensland could be expected to achieve an impressive social and economic return.  Conversely, failure to meet clients’ immediate needs leaves some women with little choice but to return (with their children) to violent settings – resulting on both short and long term cost pressures on other budget areas such as the police, criminal justice, housing, child protection and health systems.


Funding should be increased to women’s refuges as a matter of urgency – and economic good sense. 


Women’s refuges have stood the test of time, in Queensland, nationally and internationally.  In recent years developments such as perpetrator removal and outreach support programs, have provided home-based alternatives for women facing DFV.  However, until rates of male violence are reduced, many women and children in crisis will continue to need move away from unsafe settings to the safety and support which can only be provided by specialist women’s refuges.  Regardless of funding levels, the benefits of investment in DFV should be optimised through allocation of funds to evidence-based, effective services.  Women’s refuges in Queensland reflect world best practice.  In particular, this paper demonstrates their capacity to closely align services to the complex needs of women and children recovering from DFV.   Provision of accessible, flexible, responsive, customised, women-centred support services beyond accommodation alone is critical to these families’ long term prognosis.  It is essential that funding is not reallocated to large generic providers who focus on short term beds alone, without the specialist knowledge, skills and experience to provide the requisite support services.


Retention and further enhancement of existing effective women’s refuges is essential to achieving a significant reduction in DFV against women and children in Queensland, and the associated savings in human and economic costs.