Women's Policy Action Tank: Women experiencing domestic violence need expert first contact

Scorecard on Women and Policy provided by Yvonne Lay, Development Lead – Safety & Resilience, Good Shepherd Australia New Zealand

Topic:  Federal Domestic Violence Policy

Sub-topic: 1800RESPECT Hotline Service Provision

 Both the acknowledgement that domestic violence occurs at high rates in Australia and the increased Federal funding for tackling this issue are to be lauded.  In today’s post, a distinction is made between adequate funding and supporting best practice. For women experiencing violence, the choice of service model is critical.  Funding must support best practice to ensure the safety of women and children. 

Increased Federal funding coming at the cost of best-practice service provision

In September 2015 the Federal Government announced a $100 million “Women’s Safety Package” which included measures to improve frontline support and services, to provide a safety net for women and children at high risk of experiencing violence. Specifically, the package included $5 million to expand 1800RESPECT, the national telephone and online counselling and information service, to ensure more women can get support.

The Turnbull Government understands that family violence is a serious issue in Australia, with the Prime Minister himself articulating in a joint media release that “we must elevate this issue to our national consciousness, and make it clear that domestic, family and sexual violence is unacceptable in any circumstance,” and recognising “the need for urgent action.”

Since then, it has been reported that this $5 million for expansion will be used to change the1800RESPECT’s service model to adopt a triage-type response. This means callers will no longer speak directly to an experienced trauma counsellor in the first instance. 

Since its commencement in 2010, Medibank Health Solutions (MHS) has held the contract to manage the operations of the national hotline.  As part of MHS funding, they were required to subcontract Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia (R&DVSA) to provide the specialist telephone and online counselling and support.

Service demand for all domestic violence services is skyrocketing

Due to an increased level of demand over recent years, call volumes to 1800RESPECT have grown from an average of 1,000 calls per month to over 6,000 calls in peak periods. In 2014 – 2015 the national hotline received 44,914 contacts, a 113.39% increase since 2011 – 2012.

In light of the recent attention on family violence, and violence against women more broadly, it comes as no surprise that services like 1800RESPECT have seen a surge in the number of people seeking support. Every component of the broader family violence service system has experienced this increase, including police, child protection authorities, and state-based family violence service providers, and it can be expected that services will continue to see an increase.

There is no doubt that vital support services like 1800RESPECT aim to answer and respond to each and every call they receive. Before a senate estimates committee in June 2015, the Department of Social Services was grilled about 18,631 unanswered calls, representing approximately 25% of the total call load. The Department of Social Services attributes this to callers being ‘interrupted by a child or a violent partner’ and therefore unable to follow through with the call.

Indeed, not every woman who contacts a service like 1800RESPECT requires immediate specialist counselling – some are seeking information. According to reports submitted to the Department of Social Security, however, less than 1% of the calls, or 2628 callers, were classified as ‘non-counselling calls’.  Most women call at a time of crisis.

The question is whether or not a triage-based model will be able to deliver the same high level quality response, as well as ensure that every call received is answered.

The change in the model will see all calls being initially answered by ‘experienced counsellors that have received comprehensive face-to-face training and have a degree in a relevant discipline…or tertiary degree and post graduate or diploma in a relevant discipline’.[i] Callers who require information or a referral will be supported with this, and those who need counselling will be transferred to a trauma specialist service - delivered by R&DVSA – for more intensive support and management.

Women need first-call access to experienced trauma counsellors

A better response is to increase the number of experienced trauma counsellors, to ensure a quality first-line response for every caller; sometimes there is no second call.  Women who have experienced sexual, domestic or family violence are often traumatised, scared, and feel disempowered due to the perpetrator’s power and controlling behaviours. Witness statements provided by women who have experienced family violence, as heard by the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence, often expressed confusion and frustration with a siloed and fragmented system. This often left women feeling unsure of where to go and what to do.

When women call services like 1800RESPECT they expect an informed response, someone who understands the nature of violence against women, who can pick up on the subtle signs of coercive control, who can validate her and her experience, and who can then support her in the way she needs and wants that support. The new 1800RESPECT triage model effectively requires women to “navigate an additional layer of service”.

Triage models may not be effective for women experiencing violence

Triage-based models have informally been implemented in many other family violence services. The increase in demand to already struggling services has required organisations to rethink their own staffing levels, resources and capacity – often overstretching resources and staff – in order to try to meet demand. However, there are concerns that triage-based models may not be effective for engagement and outcomes when it comes to victims of sexual, domestic and family violence.

Until prevention measures start to disrupt family violence on a broad scale, services will continue to see an increase in demand. It is time to assess and determine what pressures this will then put on services that have triage-based models in place – analyses of wait lists, wait list periods, and risk. Without more of an evidence-based understanding of how triage-based models work in this context, it is difficult to determine whether or not new models, like the one to be implemented at 1800RESPECT, will be effective in answering or responding to all calls for support and in the provision of quality, specialised, timely responses. The second element of ‘effectiveness’ can really only be answered by the women who use the service, which is a reminder that the voices and experiences of victim/survivors of sexual, domestic or family violence are critical in service design and implementation.

The success of the Federal Government’s National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 - 2022 depends on implementation. Policy is more than a road map. It includes the resources, bi-partisan political will, and sustained effort to raise the policy vision. The implementation of the new 1800RESPECT model seems to lack these three requirements despite the stated intentions of the Federal Government.

This analysis is a contribution to the Scorecard on Women and Policy project, initiated by the Women's Policy Action Tank.  We invite policy specialists in all areas to provide analysis of public policy using a gender lens:  womenspolicy@goodshep.org.au  Follow us on Twitter: @PolicyforWomen


[i] Personal communication, received 31 May 2016.