With one woman on average being murdered by their partner each week in Australia, the government’s decision to fund couples counselling causes concern among experts (Image Source: Women’s Agenda)
By Giorgina McKay | @ggmckay11
Women and children’s safety advocates have expressed their dismay over the Australian Government’s decision to move forward with its “Specialised Family Violence Services” (SFVS) despite experts’ disapproval.
The government announced as part of its 2019-20 Federal Budget that it would fund $10 million towards expanding “whole of family” approaches to domestic violence under the National Action Plan.
However, much to the horror of the women’s safety sector, the range of services provided as part of these approaches included couples counselling and mediation for victims of abuse.
In addition, couples counselling by nature attempts to understand both perspectives, and as a result, often fails to hold the perpetrator accountable for their actions and places blame on the victim.
Dr Karen Williams is the leader of Doctors against Violence towards Women (DAVTW) and has seen firsthand the negative impact couples counselling has on victims.
She said among concerns from women’s safety advocates is a lack of transparency from the government on how these family support services will work and what will be discussed.
“It’s important to remember that by the time a woman is seeking help, she’s usually been in a violent situation for a number of years…she’s already been making excuses for the behaviour and trying to minimise and justify why she should stay in that relationship,” Dr Williams said.
“The most important thing to do is make sure they’re safe and get them out of that situation rather than suggest that she and the perpetrator should go to therapy and have some sort of counselling, which is only going to further delay her leaving and provide more excuses for her to stay.
“So if you have a counsellor saying ‘yes, let’s work together over these next few months…because it’s a relationship problem’, then that woman is just going to stay and potentially be exposed to more violence.”
Another concern echoed among the sector is that any organisation can apply for this funding, with no specifications or requirements for experience or expertise with domestic and family violence outlined in the SFVS guidelines.
This includes the faith-based organisations which have already applied or been deemed eligible to deliver these family relationship services.
“When you look at the requirements, it doesn’t say these groups must have qualified psychologists, these groups must have adequate expertise in the area,” Dr Williams said.
“The only things they’ve said were essential criteria that the groups must have working with children checks and working with vulnerable populations registrations – those aren’t adequate.
“The kinds of things we need are people who have adequate training in family violence because it really is a specialised field.
“None of them have any real expertise in the area, and in fact, it’s concerning that they’re religious organisations, because most religious organisations will promote not divorcing, not separating, but maintaining the family unit rather than maintaining safety.
“There’s no transparency about how they chose each one of these organisations.”
Having organisations or individuals lacking in domestic and family violence knowledge or experience can have detrimental impacts on the safety and wellbeing of victims in these cases.
“I’ve had patients as well who have described being tortured after sessions where they said too much or they’ve made the perpetrator look bad,” Dr Williams said.
“We’ve had people in parking lots get killed by their partners after these sessions, and that’s not an exaggeration; that’s a reality of what can happen.
“And then of course for the woman, if that doesn’t happen, there’s that worsening sense of isolation, worsening shame, worsening mental illness, depression and anxiety.
“And what you’re really risking is that the woman will never leave, and she ends up going ‘okay even this counsellor thought I should try and stay, and even this counsellor thought I had a role to play, so I just need to keep just working harder and harder to make this stop rather than trying to leave’.”
For 61-year-old *Sharon, this was a reality.
Sharon’s ex-husband used to be aggressive and sexually abusive towards her, so she sought counselling to deal with these issues and save her marriage.
However, this only worsened the situation as, after certain sessions, he would be screaming, yelling, and abusive towards her for daring to bring up subjects and topics about his behaviour.
In addition, Sharon said the counsellor didn’t even pick up that there was domestic violence present in the first place.
Altogether, this took a heavy toll on her mental and physical health and wellbeing.
“I wasn’t travelling particularly well by this stage because this was towards the end of a 28-year relationship,” Sharon said.
“So by this stage, I was probably a bit fragile and I had gone there with the great hope that it would save my marriage, and then I realised that it wasn’t going to and it had made it worse.
“I think it was between counselling session four or five when I realised I was in an abusive relationship. I hadn’t before that; I just thought he was a really nasty person.
“I spoke to my counsellor at that stage, saying ‘I can’t do this anymore’, and my counsellor and I worked out a strategy for me.
“[We] then proceeded to go into the last counselling session and I told my ex-husband that I no longer wanted to be married to him anymore because if I did it that way, I would be safe; there would be someone else who would be a witness and the verbal abuse was likely to be less.”
Overall, Dr Williams and Sharon both agree that women’s safety should be at the forefront of the discussion.
““My big concern is that we do know abusive men are very good at putting on this charming façade and evidence will show that those people can fool police officers, they can fool judges and doctors, and comeacross as really lovely people,” Dr Williams said.
“It’s really important that the people that are involved in giving them help are really well trained because when they come across as really lovely and the therapist is saying ‘oh he just really cares about you and I think he really loves you’, that really invalidates the woman who goes home and gets smashed by him.”
Statistics from White Ribbon Australia show that on average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.
And while Sharon is one of the lucky survivors, there are others who were not so lucky.
But despite these concerns raised, the government has continued to ignore recommendations and issues expressed by domestic and family violence and women’s safety experts.
In response to a joint letter from Dr Williams and Dr Anita Hutchison from DAVTW, and Hayley Foster, Women’s Safety NSW CEO, the Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston said, “the Australian Government is committed to the elimination of all violence towards women and children, and ensuring that all government funded services are appropriate, effective and above all, safe”.
Ms Ruston also said “where counselling services are provided through SFVS, counsellors are required to support a victim of violence to navigate the complexity of their personal safety decisions in a supported, rights-based, and autonomous fashion. All funded services need to be tailored to an individual’s personal circumstances and must apply robust safety planning, risk management practices and safety-first principles.”
In Dr Williams and Sharon’s minds, these approaches aren’t enough.
“The issue with domestic violence is that it’s a very complex issue,” Sharon said.
“People think that we will just take the woman away or we will fix it; there seems to be a real ‘we will fix it’ mentality. You can’t just go along and do a couple of counselling sessions and it’s going to fix it.
“So for me, I think there should be, from talking other people in the general community, a lot more education just in the normal community about what is an abusive relationship.
“There are so many gaps in terms of managing domestic violence,” Dr Willlams said.
“We’re talking about basic things even like emergency housing. I’ve got patients where they’re in domestic violence situations and I’ve got nowhere to send them, there’s nowhere for them to go, or the only available emergency accommodation is way out of their local community, so they’re being forced to move a very long way away from anyone who might be able to support them.
“And if you really think about it, in which other situation would it be acceptable? When someone is being violent towards another, that you would say ‘hey, how about we go get counselling?’. But the narrative in society is very much relationship violence is different from violence outside the home. We shouldn’t be tolerated it and giving it airtime that it could be a relationship issue; it’s a clinical issue.”
The Department of Social Services declined repeated requests for comment.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, we strongly encourage you to seek professional help or contact 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732.
*Names of people and places have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.