Why is the government funding couples counselling putting women at risk?

Why is the government funding couples counselling that experts say puts women at risk?

couples counselling
As of 10.30am on Monday morning police will have dealt with around 320 domestic violence related matters in Australia.

As of today, the 22nd of July 2019, 28 women have been violently killed in this country this year. The most recent victim is an 82 year old retired teacher who was found dead in her home in Logan in Queensland on Sunday. Her husband has been charged with her murder.

By the end of today an estimated 18 women and girls will be hospitalised around the country due to assault and 60% of those individuals will have been assaulted by their partner.

These numbers raise many questions but one cannot be ignored.

Why, against this backdrop, is the Federal government allocating $10 million to a program that front line experts say will compromise the safety of women and children?

In March this year the Federal Government announced a $10 million funding package for Specialist Family Violence Services, including couples counselling, as part of a broader domestic violence initiative.

It prompted a swift and unambiguous display of public fear and outrage from survivors, advocates, professionals and frontline experts alike.

“Couples counselling in the context of domestic and family violence is contraindicated for victim safety and is not recommended by any representative specialist domestic and family violence service peak body, practitioner group, or research organisation nationally,” Hayley Foster, CEO of Women’s Safety NSW, wrote in a letter to Anne Ruston, the minister for families and social services. “Dispute resolution in the context of domestic and family violence should only ever be undertaken in highly controlled environments, with specialist practitioners, legal assistance, and safety mechanisms in place.”

Foster was ‘horrified’ when she first learned of the funding. “It wasn’t what needed to be funded,” she told Women’s Agenda. “A lot of us in the sector had never heard of these services – they’re certainly not highly integrated with front line services in state and territories.”

Within the context of funding frontline services for domestic violence Foster says there are two areas that have the capacity to improve the safety of women and children. The first is specialist women’s services and the second is accredited men’s behavioural change programs.

The fact there are plenty of gaps in the provision of these services makes the allocation of $10million in funding for an entirely “inappropriate intervention” likes couples counselling, which can and will put victims of violence further at risk, insulting.

“To see these untested models involving couples counselling being funded under the national Action Plan is disappointing when we have made it really clear if we want to make women and children safer we need to invest in services that do that effectively and we have clearly articulated what they are.”

Despite initially hoping the funding earmarked for couples counselling might be reallocated after some positive meetings with the government, Foster accepted that wouldn’t happen after the services went out to tender. In June she wrote to the minister and offered to work ‘positively and collaboratively with the Morrison Government’ on this important issue.

Foster wrote that she was optimistic that ‘with a refreshed team and a willingness to listen to the experts we will be able to achieve a safer outcome for women, children and families on this issue’.

“To this end, we would welcome the opportunity to meet with you to discuss alternative options for this funding and/or amendments which could be made to the grant guidelines to ensure it meets the requirements of good practice in identifying and responding to domestic and family violence in accordance with the current evidence base.”

The minister’s reply acknowledged the concerns raised but ultimately declined to work with Women’s Safety NSW on the matter.

Ruston’s letter concluded that “the Department of Social Services had established an Expert Advisory Group’ to provide advice to the Selection Panel about the suitability of services.”

Foster says despite making enquiries it is still not known among the sector who these experts are. If these experts are not known to the women and men running frontline services for victims of domestic violence where exactly is their ‘expertise’ derived? And the question remains: why is the government spending $10million funding a service that experts agree puts women and children at risk?

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