“Not a service to use & abuse”: Why domestic violence victims in Australia are in grave danger - Women's Agenda

“Not a service to use & abuse”: Why domestic violence victims in Australia are in grave danger

A women’s only refuge in Broken Hill has begun turning away women and children who cannot afford to pay for its services.

The management of Catherine Haven, a refuge for women and children fleeing domestic violence in Broken Hill, was taken over two months ago by husband and wife Lieutenant Phillip Sutcliffe and Donna Sutcliffe.

Catherine Haven is considered a particularly crucial service because domestic violence rates in Broken Hill are among the highest in Australia.

Unfortunately, the service is doing little to accommodate the vast and rising demand, nor to protect the countless victims requiring safety and support.

Deep state and federal funding cuts have recently forced Catherine Haven to cut its hours from 24 hours a day, seven days a week to 9-5, Monday to Friday.

The cuts are largely a result of the NSW Government’s recent Going Home Staying Home reforms, which slashed funding to women’s only refuges and forced domestic violence support services to generalise and cater to all causes of homelessness and, in some cases, even forced them to cater to men as well as women.

This new generalist approach to domestic violence services is reflected by the fact that Lieutenant Sutcliffe has admitted he has no experience in the domestic violence sector whatsoever.  

On top of harsh funding cuts, Phillip Sutcliffe and his wife have decided to implement their own means of saving money for the service.

They have introduced a compulsory fee for the use of the service, and have introduced a policy stating that any woman or child unable to pay the fee will be turned away.

Catherine Haven, designed to be a government-funded, free crisis service for any all victims of violence in need of support, now charges victims $20 per night for its services. The fee itself has been in place for some time, but in the past the Salvation Army would clear any debts for women and children who were unable to pay it.

The Sutcliffes new regime for Catherine Haven has put a stop to that. Lieutenant Sutcliffe told ABC’s Background Briefing, in no uncertain terms, that if a woman turned up to the facility who couldn’t pay, she would not be allowed in.

“So they can’t come back unless they pay off their debts?” ABC reporter Hager Cohen asked Sutcliffe on Background Briefing.

“Yes,” he replied.

“We don’t charge much per night here, yet if you go to the private rental market you’re paying probably 200 times what we’re charging a night. So if they’re not paying their nightly allowance here, we as an organisation can’t really write them a reference to say that they’re on-time payers,” Sutcliffe continued.

But what caused the strongest backlash was the egregious language Sutcliffe used when justifying his new strict payment regulations for victims of domestic violence.

He said he was clamping down on women who “abuse” the system.

“It’s not simply a service that they can come and use and abuse,” he said.

He also implied his new regime would teach victims of domestic violence to be more “responsible”.

“There’s actually responsibilities about them coming here now. We follow up on making sure they are making their payments for their accommodation, that they’ve come to stay here,” he said.

“It’s not just a free service that they can just come in and go as they want.”

“It’s not just a use and abuse type service,” Sutcliffe repeated.

In audible disbelief, the reporter questioned Sutcliffe further:

“Have you actually had to turn women away because of debt?” Cohen asked.

“Not recently, but yeah… it has happened in the past,” Sutcliffe replied.

“It must be gut wrenching for you to have to turn women away when they need you,” Cohen responded.

“I’ve not had to deal with that myself…” Sutcliffe trails off.

Sutcliffe’s comments caused an immediate and widespread backlash on social media. The pushback was so strong that the Salvation Army has been forced to issue a formal apology for Sutcliffe’s comments.

“The Salvation Army would like to sincerely apologise for the comments made in an interview with a Salvation Army officer which was featured on the ABC Background Briefing program,” the organisation said in a statement.

“The comments made on the program do not reflect the policies and procedures of The Salvation Army when it comes to working with women and children escaping domestic violence. The Salvation Army works with women and children escaping domestic violence on an individual basis, and their welfare has and always will be our priority.”

The statement went on to say that it will work with the management of Catherine Haven to ensure that the policies in place at the refuge serve the best interests of victims.

A spokesperson for the Department of Family and Communicty Services told Women’s Agenda the department has met with the Salvation Army to discuss the issue.

“Senior FACS Officers today met with Salvation Army management to discuss concerns that women escaping domestic violence are being refused assistance if they have an unpaid accommodation debt,” the spokesperson said.

“The Salvation Army advised that no clients have been turned away from the refuge. The Salvation Army has been providing specialist homelessness services in Broken Hill, including services for women and children escaping domestic and family violence, for many years.”

“FACS has requested that the Salvation Army provide formal written assurance within the week of its capabilities and capacity to deliver an effective client centred specialist homelessness service in Broken Hill.”

Although this story refers to just one refuge out of many hundreds, sadly, it perfectly captures the essence of the dangerous approach to domestic violence services we are witnessing in Australia.

The idea that a refuge originally designed to provide specialist, round-the-clock crisis care to victims of domestic violence is now only open during business hours, being run by a man who openly admits he has no experience with domestic violence care and turning away women who can’t pay – women who need the support the most – reflects just how far we have fallen when it comes to supporting these victims.

The Catherine Haven story as a whole captures the tragedy of our government’s approach to domestic violence, but you really only need to read one small fragment of the story to appreciate the danger domestic violence victims are now in.

The fragment is this: “It’s not just a free service that they can just come in and go as they want.”

This gets to the very heart of the problem because Sutcliffe could not be more mistaken. Domestic violence refuges, by their very design, are free services to which women and children can come and go as they require. They are a “refuge”. The fact that a man in charge of providing this service is describing it as precisely the opposite of the safe, supportive, free service it needs to be in order to be effective shows just how much danger the sector is in.

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000

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