Women’s Safety NSW has today released its submission on the proposed reforms to the Victims Support Scheme in an open plea to the Victims Services Commissioner not to put up barriers to victims of domestic, family and sexual violence seeking to access trauma counselling and compensation for injury.
The submission, which is based upon the responses of forty-eight (48) frontline domestic and family violence specialists across metropolitan, regional, rural and remote NSW, was positive across a number of measures in the reform package such as the streamlining of the Victims Assistance Line and Aboriginal Contact Line and providing an up-to-date list of approved counsellors on the Victims Services website from which to choose. However, the central change of requiring victims of domestic, family and sexual violence to proactively gather all their own medical evidence in order to access the compensation scheme did not enjoy broad-ranging support with just 52% of respondents in support of the change.
“The main sticking point for frontline domestic and family violence specialists is that Victims Services is now seeking to put the onus on women, many of whom are in a vulnerable and traumatised state, to go through the often overwhelming process of gathering evidence in order to apply for recognition payments and economic loss”says Hayley Foster, Chief Executive Officer for Women’s Safety NSW.
Frontline domestic and family violence specialists spoke of the specific barriers facing particular groups of women when attempting to access support through the scheme:
“There are many vulnerabilities that need to be considered in women accessing their own records and reports. Women with a disability, culturally and linguistically diverse women, Indigenous women, young women, women with trauma – we can’t expect these women to have to navigate a system they know little about to get a report that Victims Services could get for them. Asking women in trauma to gather their own evidence is appalling. It can be retraumatising in so many ways and is definitely an extra barrier.” says Tanya Whitehouse OAM, Coordinator of Macarthur Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service.
Frontline domestic and family violence specialists were asked if they preferred the alternative proposal put forward by Women’s Legal Service NSW which involved creating this new streamlined pathway for claims to be efficiently processed when lodged with all documentary evidence, whilst also continuing to provide a safety net for victims who needed to lodge their claim without all the evidence and to be supported in gathering this as needed. An overwhelming 93% of respondents were in support.
“Sometimes there are barriers to accessing certain documents (e.g. medical reports – particularly for mental health-based admissions) as well as having to engage with systems that haven’t always been trauma informed, supportive or have retraumatised [the victim]’ – Domestic and Family Violence Specialist, Inner Metropolitan Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service
The other proposed change which did not garner comprehensive support from frontline domestic and family violence specialists, was that clients be required to choose a counsellor that best suits them from the Victims Services website. Whilst 66% of respondents supported victims being able to choose a counsellor that best suits them from the Victims Services website, 100% agreed with Women’s Legal Service NSW that victims should not have to proactively choose their own counsellor in circumstances where they were happy to have one simply allocated to them.
“Many of the women we work with are overwhelmed, in survival mode and often juggling their own and children’s safety… [so] it can be difficult for women to prioritise their own needs. Adding steps like finding your own counsellor can add barriers to self-care.” – Domestic and Family Violence Specialist, Inner Metropolitan Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service
“I feel the majority of my clients would be deterred by this process, particularly if there seemed to be no counsellors available to help them. I worry they might feel overwhelmed’ – Domestic and Family Violence Specialist, Regional Women’s Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service
Women’s Safety NSW acknowledges the fundamental role that Victims Services plays for victims of domestic and family violence. The recent achievements within Victims Services NSW, including the implementation of the Immediate Needs Support Payment (INSP), which provides timely support to victims of domestic and family violence seeking safety, are to be commended. Additionally, there are many positive aspects to the reform proposal which Women’s Safety NSW believe will have significant benefits to victims of domestic and family violence in their safety and recovery including the streamlining of Victims Services phone lines and upgrading the website with timely and relevant information about counsellors.
However, it is important that the voices and concerns of specialists supporting victims of domestic and family violence are being listened to with regards to the areas of proposed reforms which do not enjoy full support, namely the requirement that all claims for recognition payments and economic loss be lodged with complete documentary evidence and that all victims be required to proactively choose their own counsellor in order to access the counselling scheme.
“Victims Services provides such an important safety net for victims of domestic and family violence. We don’t want to reduce access to this safety net in the name of efficiency”, says Foster The reality is, victims of domestic, family and sexual violence will likely be experiencing a high degree of trauma and as such, we need to be doing everything we can to reduce the barriers they face to accessing the support they need to recover – not put up more of them.”