Rape & Domestic Violence Services Australia (R&DVSA) have withdrawn from the 1800RESPECT trauma counselling service.
The decision was made by the board and announced on Wednesday after negotiations with Medibank Health Solutions, an offshoot of Medibank Private, which is responsible for operating the hotline, broke down irretrievably.
Being asked to hand over all existing 1800RESPECT client files to MHS was a condition that would have undermined and disrespected the trust and confidence clients had placed in R&DVSA.
“We couldn’t put our signature on a contract that would allow our client notes and calls to be retained and recorded and used god knows where,” R&DVSA chair Jane Gold says. “That was the biggest stumbling block – there were no negotiations to resolve that issue. Ethically and morally we couldn’t sign.”
Gold says the decision they reached is “crushing” but there was no way around it.
“We thrashed it around and around and it’s a terrible position. We had the backing of the workers too – they knew they couldn’t work that way without the trust of clients who use the service.”
These concerns were raised repeatedly with MHS but they wouldn’t budge which led the board to determine on Tuesday evening that it would withdraw from the service.
“We are now in the process of making 70 committed, passionate, professional women redundant which is devastating,” Willis says. “I have no doubt the remaining service providers will do their very best but they don’t have the skills, knowledge and experience that we do. We have grave concerns about how the service can be delivered.”
“The other providers offer excellent services but they don’t have the expertise we do. I am sure they will do their very best but to handle these calls day in and day out takes a lot of skill,” Gold says.
MHS have held the contract for providing the phone hotline, also known as the National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling Service, since 2010 but were required to subcontract the operations to R&DVSA until August of last year.
Since then MHS first responders have answered calls which are triaged, before being directed to an information website, a trauma counsellor or state-based family violence services, most of which are stretched beyond capacity. Complaints have skyrocketed ever since.
“The great thing about this hotline when it was introduced in 2010 was that it was recognised as a trauma counselling service to assist women who are experiencing violence and/or sexual assault in real time,” Willis says. “It required a high quality service and that was our focus.”
Rating the success of such a service by the number of calls answered and moved on is problematic.
“Picking up 80% of calls in the first 60 seconds is a component of service quality but what you say when you answer, and how you respond to the person on the end of the line is an important part of the quality equation,” she says. “The 1800 RESPECT hotline will become an information and referral service, which it was never set up to be.”
The most obvious problem is the fact there simply aren’t enough services on the ground to refer people to. Willis is doubtful this service ought to be undertaken by a provider whose primary objective is profit.
“This is basically a privatisation of 1800RESPECT and we don’t think this work should be done by private providers,” she says.
A very pressing concern for the organisation right now, is whether the federal government will fund the redundancies of the 70 counsellors.
“We haven’t got the money to pay the entitlements to these employees so we are hoping the federal government will step in and ensure those workers are treated fairly,” Gold says. “If they don’t and we follow through with those payments we will go under. We’ll become insolvent and won’t be able to operate.”