Agency and choice are key to recovery from family violence

Tuesday 18 April 2023

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This op-ed was published in Council to Homeless Persons’ Parity: “Safe at Home” March 2023 Edition.

Author: Louise Simms, Executive Director – Policy, Communications and Engagement

Safe at Home responses – centred around supporting victim survivors of family violence to remain in their current home – are critical in our efforts to ensuring the family violence service system can meet the unique needs of every person experiencing abuse and can promote autonomy and choice on the road to recovery. 

Family violence is unique in the community services context. It is the only social issue whereby the agent of risk is another person; someone who is actively making choices to cause others to experience fear and danger. Perpetrators use violence to gain and maintain power and control, and they adapt their tactics based on the strategies victim survivors put in place to protect themselves. 

This is the operating context for family violence services – we call it ‘dynamic risk’. The role of the family violence system is to identify, assess and manage family violence risk. To do this effectively, our systemic responses should be just as dynamic.

Safe at Home, as a principle and a commitment, can be a powerful driver of flexible responses aimed at achieving whatever ‘safe at home’ means for each victim survivor.

With no two individual experiences of family violence the same, service responses – including Safe at Home responses – must be flexible to meet people wherever they are on their journey to safety. This flexibility, and the restoration of agency and choice, is critical for victim survivors’ long-term recovery. 

But what does it mean to truly meet a victim survivor where they are? 

While all experiences of family violence are different, something all victim survivors can relate to is the erosion of their sense of self. This kind of abuse chips away at a person’s autonomy and their ability to make decisions – something that can take years to rebuild, long after the immediate threat has been resolved. Many victim survivors talk about the experience of having a perpetrator tightly control or remove every possible freedom in their lives, and the impact this has on their confidence and their capacity to leave an abusive relationship and regain independence. When a service system is inflexible and unable to provide choice or autonomy for its users, it mimics the power and control of family violence and can make it very difficult for victim survivors to feel safe and secure. 

In many ways, this replication of a ‘power over’ dynamic and removal of individual agency is embedded in the way our family violence system is structured and funded. The system is focused on minimising risk and is not set up to restore choice and autonomy as a priority. Most policymakers have never accessed the systems they design, and the result is a system that does not respond to victim survivors as experts in their own needs and safety – something we must consistently challenge if we want to see change. 

One of the ways we can do this is by expanding the approaches available to enable victim survivors to remain safe in their own homes, if this is what they want to do. How we do this can look incredibly different – it can mean safety and security adaptations and so much more. For example, it could be creating opportunities for financial literacy and supporting access to employment, because, as we know, financial and economic stability is crucial for a victim survivor’s recovery from abuse. It could be ongoing, long-term counselling, or increased access to legal support. 

With family violence the number one driver of homelessness among women and children in Australia, this is not only about offering flexibility and choice, but about preventing homelessness in an already over-stretched housing system. 

Systemic and structural barriers exist across the family violence service landscape, including within Safe at Home responses. Programs can only do so much to keep victim survivors safe and hold perpetrators accountable without a whole-of-system effort to bring together a wide range of community services, as well as police and justice responses all working towards a common goal. Part of this is the recognition that what enables a Safe at Home response looks different for everybody. 

Anything the service system can do to restore a victim survivor’s sense of agency in their safety and recovery is valuable and should be prioritised. Much of this can be supported by meaningful engagement with people’s lived experiences of family violence and of accessing support services. By embedding lived expertise in system and service design, we can shift to a ‘power with’ approach, remain accountable and identify areas for improvement, while also creating opportunities for victim survivors to engage with the system as consultants, advocates and leaders. 

Agency, autonomy and choice are key elements in someone’s recovery from family violence. When, at its core, a family violence system does not view those who use it as the experts in their own safety needs, it renders victim survivors unable to make decisions about their lives and hinders an integral component of their recovery. 

Family violence is complex, and the way we respond to it requires nuance and a long-term, concerted effort from our service system via a wide range of responses. Safe at Home responses are an integral part of this, though they are by no means the only response. We need to view being ‘safe at home’ as a guiding principle that informs the structure of our family violence system, one that is equipped to provide flexible and tailored responses that centre the expertise and agency of all victim survivors. 

Page last updated Tuesday, April 18 2023


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