Madam Speaker, today I am tabling the fourth annual Safer Families Statement during a time of unprecedented challenges resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The format for my statement today is slightly different as a reflection of the difficult times and environment we have faced this year.
While I will highlight some of the significant achievements the ACT Government and community have made over the past twelve months, I will firstly focus on the actions taken to respond to domestic and family violence during the pandemic.
Responding to domestic and family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic
The first half of this year saw unprecedented challenges both locally and globally, firstly with the horrific bushfire season, followed sharply by the outbreak of COVID-19. We know from the growing body of evidence that during and after crisis and disasters, the risk, prevalence and severity of domestic and family violence increases.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought some additional challenges for families as the Australian and ACT Governments put measures in place to halt the spread of the virus by requiring people to quarantine or self-isolate at home. For some people their homes are not safe places to be. Isolating at home and continuous contact with a perpetrator of violence exacerbated the risks for women and children. This risk was compounded as health and economic stressors increased and impacts were felt across our community.
The pandemic also brought significant challenges for the service system as essential government and community organisations worked hard to transition to different ways of providing support.
The challenges and demands placed on our human services sector, particularly on our community partners, was unprecedented. Canberrans met these challenges by working together in positive and collaborative partnerships to make sure our essential services were open and operating to keep families safe during ‘lock-down’.
The hard work, creativity and flexibility to find different ways of working has been astounding. I thank our community sector partners for their dedication and incredible effort to support people experiencing considerable vulnerability during this difficult period.
I would also like to thank the many public servants who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to support the specialist service providers and the sector. Their efforts to learn from the sector about the profound impact the pandemic was having on families and services was instrumental in framing how the ACT and Australian Governments could best respond.
The regular meetings of the domestic and family violence sector roundtable provided the local mechanism for identifying and prioritising sector wide issues. This roundtable was also important for facilitating planning, coordination and responses, including getting accurate and consistent communication out across the community.
In April, I announced the details of $3 million in community support funding, which included $1.7 million to support people facing homelessness or domestic and family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic.
community support package provided immediate financial support for community providers. Five hundred and fifty thousand dollars was allocated to respond to an increase in demand for domestic and family violence and sexual assault services and provide emergency accommodation to women, children and families experiencing domestic and family violence, including boosting the safer families assistance grants by $125,000 and funding for the Domestic Violence Crisis Service and Canberra Rape Crisis Centre. These frontline services received $350,000 and $75,000 respectively.
Some of the accommodation and homelessness funding which will support those escaping family violence include initiatives aimed at addressing increased demand and providing more temporary accommodation options. These provide $832,000 for both emergency and long-term accommodation for men, women and children who face the challenge of physical distancing in shelters, self-isolation when needed and potential quarantine. This money was provided to establish and operate Mackillop House and increase OneLink’s capacity.
The ACT Government also announced a Provider Support Fund – $1 million in grant funding to support community services organisations adopt innovative ways to conduct essential business so providers could continue operations remotely.
Progress on the reform of the Safer Families Package
There has been significant progress on reforming the Safer Families Package which I spoke about in last year’s Ministerial Statement. The ACT Government created the Safer Families Levy to provide an ongoing revenue base to fund system reform and service improvements.
Funds were set aside to:
• build whole-of-Government and multi-agency domestic and family violence capacity, capability and infrastructure;
• improve capacity of front-line domestic and family violence services to meet increased demand; and
• support the testing of new approaches for preventing and addressing domestic and family violence, particularly those generated through the Family Safety Hub.
The point of the levy is to provide momentum so successful trialled initiatives could move into recurrent funding for Directorates as they became ongoing core business.
For example, in the Justice and Community Safety Directorate, the government is strengthening legal and court support for vulnerable young people and families affected by domestic and family violence. For ACT Courts, this means a Legal Registrar dedicated to hearing interim applications and facilitating cross-examination in family violence matters. It also supports the important work of Legal Aid’s Family Violence Unit, based at the ACT Magistrates Court, to provide legal services to victims of violence seeking protection for themselves and their children.
Another example is the Education Directorate’s new partnership with Legal Aid in a 12-month pilot program to provide young people access to legal services within schools. A lawyer hosts drop-in sessions at ACT colleges on a rotational basis and provides legal education sessions for high and college students. Students and families will also be able to receive individual advice via a text or phone service.
Progress on Safer Families Package initiatives
I would now like to share progress made on other Safer Families Package initiatives over the last 12 months.
Family Safety Hub
The Family Safety Hub continues to co-design and test new approaches to domestic and family violence services and supports. The hub gathers insights from people with lived experience and draws on research to understand the barriers, gaps and opportunities for improving service systems.
Since the Family Safety Hub was launched it has focussed on three areas of need. The first is early support for pregnant women and parents – because this is a time when violence is more likely. Secondly, avoiding housing and financial crisis – because being in control of your finances and having a home supports independence and recovery, and lastly, supporting our children and young people – because their voice is rarely heard when there is violence in their home.
Health Justice Partnership
We know pregnant women are at greater risk of domestic and family violence.
We know it is a time when violence can start or get worse.
We know intervening early can make a significant difference for those at risk of violence.
And we also know people are more likely to seek help through someone they trust, or where they feel safe and comfortable.
We have created new ways to get help by putting amazing specialist lawyers at three Canberra locations – two hospitals and a Child and Family Centre.
Our health justice partnerships, between legal and healthcare staff, provides legal, non-legal and wrap-around coordinated care for some in our community who are experiencing the most vulnerability. Taking the time to build trusted relationships has paid off. Together, healthcare and legal professionals are helping prevent a crisis such as homelessness, physical injury or psychological harm for women and their children.
The most common legal issues for clients were related to domestic and family violence, parenting and child protection, and housing and financial problems. When support services are provided early and in a coordinated way, it can significantly improve the legal and health outcomes for those affected by domestic and family violence.
The partnerships have also greatly improved the ability of staff to identify the warning signs of domestic and family violence and provide the trusted support women need.
Avoiding housing and financial crisis
Domestic and family violence is the leading cause of homelessness in Australia and concerns about money and housing weigh heavily on women who are deciding whether to leave a violent relationship.
Finding safety should not mean that women lose their home or financial stability.
The Family Safety Hub brought representatives from financial, legal, crisis and housing services who together generated ideas to prevent these crises occurring.
From this the Family Safety Hub has begun work on a response to the hidden issue of financial abuse.
Financial abuse can be subtle. It can be gradual. It is controlling.
Financial abuse is not easily recognised by those who are experiencing it, or by the services that support them.
The Hub is testing a program with Care Financial Counselling and our community and support workers to provide the information and tools they need to recognise and respond to financial abuse.
Hearing the missing voices of children and young people
Children and young people seeing and experiencing domestic and family violence are affected differently than the adults around them.
This year the Family Safety Hub and ACT Children and Young People Commissioner partnered to listen to young people’s experience of domestic and family violence. Experienced child-safe practitioners led the project, ensuring that young people were safe, set the project priorities, and advised on engagement methods.
Consulting with young people and gaining their insights provide strong messages for policy, system and service reform. Children’s experiences and needs are different to adults, and we need supports that meet their unique needs.
These insights will enable government, services and the community to improve support for children and young people affected by domestic and family violence. The Family Safety Hub will draw on these insights to co-design child-centred solutions in the second half of 2020.
ACT Government Domestic and Family Violence Training Strategy
Our commitment in 2019-20 budget of $2.476 million over four years to continue the delivery domestic and family violence training to all our 21,000 government staff is progressing well.
You may remember from my previous Ministerial Statements about the importance of this training to equip staff with the skills they need to recognise and respond to clients and colleagues experiencing domestic and family violence. From June 2019 to March 2020, over 1,400 staff participated in the Foundation eLearn and over 580 participated in the Foundation Manager face to face training.
Those seeking help for family violence will turn to those they trust, so we need to make sure no matter where or who they turn to, our staff are ready and skilled to respond.
The suite of training modules and delivery methods have become very sophisticated to meet the diverse needs of all the professionals and business units across government, including ACT Policing.
With the assistance of a whole of government community of practice and our community partners, we are proud to have developed and to be delivering such high quality and targeted training, from our online foundation training, through to the face-to-face intensive and managers training modules.
With the challenge of COVID-19 restrictions, training is being delivered in other ways – for example, blended learning options for online learning, interaction and webinars.
Finally, our evaluation framework and our new panel of specialist training providers will ensure that we continue to improve and deliver training that meets best practice standards and evidence.
Canberra Health Services
In 2019 Canberra Health Services started implementing a Victorian award-winning Strengthening Hospital Responses to Family Violence program.
This organisational-wide approach has involved establishing governance and working groups, developing policy and workplace procedures and importantly, delivering face-to-face and online training.
Before COVID-19 halted all face-to-face delivery of training, Canberra Health Services was able to train 545 staff through e-learning and 142 managers face-to-face. With a network of workplace champions to assist, Canberra Health Services is continuing to strengthen its organisational response to consumers experiencing family violence.
We Don’t Shoot Our Wounded
In last year’s statement I spoke about the compelling need for action to address family violence in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community. On 22 October 2019, with many members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community present, I presented a Ministerial Statement on We Don’t Shoot Our Wounded to the Legislative Assembly.
While this statement was an initial step, it was an important one. It ended the long wait the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community had to get a response from government to these landmark reports. It was also an important step towards rebuilding trust and partnerships with community.
The $354,000 over 4 years we committed in last year’s budget has been invested in providing start-up support to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Reference Group of the Domestic Violence Prevention Council, ably assisted by Coolamon Advisors. A new Aboriginal project officer has also begun with the Office of the Coordinator-General for Family Safety. I look forward to being able to report the achievements of this work in future statements to this Assembly.
ACT Domestic and Family Violence Risk Assessment and Management Framework
The ACT Domestic and Family Violence Risk Assessment and Management Framework has been gaining momentum this year. The framework with its practice guides and tools will develop a territory-wide understanding and practice of screening and risk assessment for domestic violence. Assisting staff and the broader service system towards a conscious and planned approach to identifying, prioritising, and responding to domestic and family violence risk is fundamental to keeping victims safe while holding perpetrators to account.
The framework will also be used as the foundation for reworking the Family Violence Intervention Program (FVIP) case tracking as a consistent and integrated domestic violence service model for the ACT. The ACT Government Domestic and Family Violence Training complements the messages and approach of the Risk Assessment and Management Framework.
Domestic and Family Violence Death Review
Understanding the circumstances leading up to a death resulting from domestic and family violence is vital for preventing the likelihood of similar deaths occurring in the future.
The Office of the Coordinator-General for Family Safety is leading the development of an ACT Domestic and Family Violence Death Review mechanism to be established in the ACT.
Once operational in 2020-21, all deaths resulting from domestic and family violence will be reviewed, make recommendations for system-wide reform, including changes to policy, services and legislation.
Having this death review mechanism will allow for more robust data collection and informed public awareness campaigns.
Understandably much effort and resources have been invested in supporting those who are impacted by violence against them. However, if there is no focus on perpetrators we will only be responding to each crisis after it has happened rather than preventing violence from occurring in the first place.
The ACT Government continues to fund Domestic Violence Crisis Service to run Room4Change, a therapeutic residential men’s behaviour change program that commenced in 2017. Room4Change helps men make their own lives better by stopping their use of violence and assisting them to explore what is important for them and their current and future relationships.
The program also supports partners and children to stay safely in the home while men are engaged in the six-month therapeutic program which includes group work, one-on-one case management, and accommodation.
Room4Change is an important program for the ACT as it has the capacity to support the whole family. It is one of a small number of residential behaviour change programs nationally.
In the first phase of the Safer Families package, the ACT Government committed $964,000 over four years to establish the program. In 2019-20 the ACT Government committed an additional $4.243 million over 4 years to fund the Room4Change program, allowing for a full evaluation of this program after two years and ongoing service delivery.
In partnership with the ACT Victims of Crime Commissioner, two forums were convened to discuss best practice approaches to people who use coercion, control and violence in their intimate relationships and their families.
The two forums had representatives and senior executives from across the sectors that respond to family violence, including direct service providers in health, housing, justice and community services.
Work is continuing to pull together all these learnings to determine the most appropriate steps forward to both hold perpetrators to account for their violence and to assist them get the help they need to stop their violence.
ACT Government Response to JACS Standing Committee Inquiry into Domestic and Family Violence
The Standing Committee on Justice and Community Safety Inquiry into Domestic and Family Violence released its report late last year, and it inquired into the adequacy and effectiveness of current policy approaches and responses in preventing and responding to domestic and family violence in the ACT.
In February 2020, the ACT Government responded to the Inquiry into Domestic and Family Violence – policy approaches and responses. I am proud to advise that initiatives funded through the Safer Families package, including other initiatives from the ACT Government Response to Family Violence, meant that we have already addressed most of the sixty recommendations from the inquiry.
Fourth Action Plan under the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children 2010-22
We are continuing our shared commitment and work with other governments across Australia to implement the National Plan to Reduce Violence Against Women and Children 2010-22. The 2019-20 financial year saw several major milestones such as the development and launch of the national Fourth Action Plan and complementary local implementation plans for each jurisdiction. This time also saw the elevation of the Women’s Safety Ministers meeting to a new dedicated Council of Australian Governments’ (COAG) Women’s Safety Council.
Madam Speaker, as I have detailed today the volume and complexity of work over the last 12 months to keep families safe and reduce and prevent domestic and family violence has been significant. Not only have we been able to flexibly respond to the unexpected and unprecedent impacts of the bushfires and COVID-19, but we have also continued to build upon the important foundations from five years of implementing the Safer Families Package across the Territory.
I present a copy of the statement and move that the Assembly take note of the paper.