Supporting Survivors of Bushfires & Increased Violence

Supporting Survivors of Bushfires & Increased Violence

Monday, 27 January 2020

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It has been a difficult start of the year for many Victorians as catastrophic bushfires continue to burn across the State.

The fires have had traumatic, far-reaching impacts on individuals, families and communities. Homes and livelihoods have been destroyed. Communities have been uprooted. And violence against women is likely to surface and intensify in affected regions.

Several studies have found a link between disasters and the incidence of family violence. Some women’s services have also observed the interconnection, with Domestic Violence NSW confirming last week “reports have emerged of a noticeable, emerging “uptick” in violent incidents.”

To ensure all Victorians survive this bushfire season with their health and wellbeing intact, community-facing workers must be equipped with the skills and knowledge to effectively respond to family violence in the disaster context.

So, what can you do to help? Here’s a list of some things to consider when working with those from bushfire-affected regions: 

“Are you safe at home?” 

If you aren’t already, take the time to ask women if they feel safe at home. Ensure questions about risk and safety are included in your service’s intake form.

Listen to any concerns women and their children are expressing and validate their experiences. Although these conversations can be difficult to have, ultimately, they could save someone’s life.

“What unique risks are you facing?” 

Disaster compounds experiences of family violence, creating unique risks and vulnerabilities for women and children. It’s important you are aware of these so you can assess and manage risk more effectively. See 1800RESPECT’s website for an overview of some key considerations.

“Violence is never okay.”

Research suggests that some members of the community (including service providers or family members) may excuse or downplay abuse that’s occurred during or after disasters.

After the fires, some women may also feel hesitant to report violence; internalising that others affected by the fires, including their abusive partners, are ‘worse off’ than they are.

If someone discloses family violence to you, it’s crucial you label the behaviour for what it is. Convey that family violence is a choice and is never acceptable, no matter the circumstances that surround it.

“Document it.” 

We know that family violence is already extremely under-reported. In the disaster context, even more incidents go unreported and unnoticed than usual due to additional barriers to accessing support.

Accurate data collection is important to advocate for appropriate funding and policy development. Ensure you document all violence disclosures you hear and introduce procedures that can help collect accurate family violence data. This could include encouraging your clients to use the Arc mobile app to document and track behaviours that make them feel scared, threatened or unsafe. You can download the Arc app here.

Train staff and co-workers in the importance of accurate recording and contribute to information sharing where relevant.

“What other services can help?” 

It is important to understand the limits of your role. Sometimes the best thing you can do for someone experiencing violence is to refer to specialist support services. The Lookout’s service directory can help you find relevant services across Victoria.

If you are unsure whether or where to refer your clients, speak with your supervisor or reach out to 1800RESPECT for advice and secondary consultation.

“Can I provide additional support?” 

Once a referral has been made, follow up with your client and determine its effectiveness. This check in also provides an invaluable opportunity to offer any additional support or referrals they may need.

“Can I build my skills and knowledge?” 

To build your skills and knowledge in identifying and responding to family violence after natural disasters, The Gender and Disaster Pod have developed a tailored, face-to-face training program called “Gendered Violence and Lessons in Disaster.” For further details see or contact

To support your practice, Women’s Health Goulburn North East has produced a list of practical ways to support women affected by disaster, Women and Disaster, which includes a Checklist to Keep Women and Children Safe after Natural Disasters.

The Gender & Disaster Pod have also developed a fact sheet on How to ask whether someone is experiencing violence during a disaster. This can be easily distributed to your networks and inform all responses to bushfire-affected communities.

If you are experiencing violence, require support, or know someone who does, contact 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732) or Safe Steps (1800 015 188). 

Page last updated Monday, January 27 2020


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Too many women in prisons, scant wisdom in the system

Too many women in prisons, scant wisdom in the system

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More women than ever are in Victorian prisons. Housing insecurity, tough bail laws and a system women no longer trust are just the start of a systemic failure that Flat Out's Family Violence Justice Pilot Project is beginning work to fix.

Between 2012 and 2017, the Victorian female prison population doubled. Believe it or not, this makes it one of the fastest-growing incarceration rates for women in the Western world. At the moment, the government’s response is focused on building more prisons in Victoria, when a more effective response would be ensuring that women are not being adversely impacted by bail laws that imprison them unnecessarily and that they have access to more secure housing and specialised services which are delivered with a high level of trust and a gender-sensitive lens.

These issues are compounded by entrenched, systemic racism that sees Aboriginal women account for the largest growth in the prison population. Although only 0.8 per cent of Victoria’s population, Aboriginal women are 11 per cent of its prison numbers. Flat Out’s Project Lead, Rei Alphonso, sums it up like this:

“To see more Aboriginal women in a block of cells at Dame Phyllis Frost Centre than you’d see walking free down Swanston Street is a racist disgrace.”

When we see more First Nations women in prison than we would see on a main street it begs the question: why is the system increasingly failing them?

This is the challenge for Flat Out; to consider how to engage with a broken system without further victimising those already traumatised by family violence? Given that an estimated 80 per cent of criminalised women have experienced intimate partner and family violence (and that this figure is likely underreported) why are they so underserviced in terms of support? The recommendations from the Royal Commission into Family Violence recognised this urgency. As a specialised service that has been working with and advocating alongside criminalised women for decades, Flat Out have the foundations crucial to bridging the gaps in the service sector and are best placed to begin this restorative work.

One of the biggest barriers to accessing support services is women’s lack of trust which leads to disengagement with family violence services. In order to protect themselves and their families, women self-exclude from services. As Rei explains: ‘this comes from a conscious or unconscious belief that services won’t be able to respond to them.’ She goes on to say that: ‘we know women [who are experiencing family violence] are experts in how risk operates in their relationships, and they know how to respond to that.’ Many women prefer the known and familiar risk of staying in a violent relationship to an inconsistent, unknowable service system that can exacerbate their trauma.

For women who have been convicted with a criminal offence, however minor, the risk of engaging with services can be huge. Perpetrators are often fluent in using the criminal justice system to their advantage by leveraging it as an effective measure of power and control against women. Women with children fear child protection services becoming involved because of the real risk of losing their children. And when police become involved women can easily become incriminated. Women, especially Aboriginal women, can be misidentified as the primary aggressor which then sets off a chain of detrimental events leading to them being imprisoned. Such victim blaming only adds further insult to their injury and needs to be replaced with a genuine understanding and awareness of the barriers oppressing criminalised women.

This is where Flat Out’s expertise and specialised approach can improve criminalised women’s access to family violence services and response. To date, their focus has centred on training and capacity building in four specific actions for change:

  • delivering tailored workshops and presentations
  • facilitating two practice forums
  • presenting at panel discussions
  • producing best practice guidelines and an advocacy handbook.

In addition to these education and capability building activities, Flat Out is currently sitting on the Police Accountability Project (PAP) working group. Led by Flemington & Kensington Community Legal Centre, this partnership not only focuses on research and capacity building but also offers referrals and response to women seeking police accountability for duty breaches in responding to family violence.

This is only the beginning of the inroads being made into the breadth of reform needed. While Flat Out’s Family Violence Justice Pilot Project is due to finish in early 2020, there is still a lot of work to be done.

Contingent on securing funding for a second phase, plans are in place to implement a specialised Community of Practice (CoP) to respond to an identified need for more specialised support. Flat Out envisions the CoP being a foundation for two working groups — one focused on systemic advocacy and another on developing a specialised assessment tool for criminalised women experiencing barriers to service access.

To ensure women and children are safe, these initiatives need a long-term commitment by government, mainstream services, police and the criminal justice system.

‘We’re fighting an uphill battle,’ implores Rei, ‘until the government puts more money into housing than prison expansion, women and children will continue to remain unsafe.’

The evidence backs her claim, showing that more prisons do not automatically create a safer community, but what does is more specialised services, more active compassion and more than anything else, secure homes.

This article originally appeared in the Advocate, Victoria’s industry magazine providing news, interviews, articles and expert review for family violence specialists, prevention practitioners and allied professionals. Read about the December issue of the Advocate.  


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