Providing safety and support for criminalised victim survivors

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The tip sheet is accompanied by a poster that you can display in your service. The poster is aimed at criminalised women and seeks to empower them to access the tip sheet and provide it to a service or practitioner they are working with.

Victim survivors who have been criminalised experience high rates of family violence and trauma, and the severity and impacts of this violence and trauma can be significant. The term ‘criminalised women’ is used to encompass women, sistergirls, intersex, transgender and/or gender diverse women (women) who have been imprisoned, have had contact with police for other matters, and/or who engage in criminalised activities such as illicit drug use or sex work.

Victim survivors whose experiences of family violence interrelate with a range of complex issues such as criminalised backgrounds (including experiences of incarceration), mental health issues, alcohol and/ or drug issues, disability, housing and economic insecurity, child protection concerns, and temporary residency status may experience discrimination in the family violence response system. This can increase their risk and impact their access to safety and support.


Systemic Harm
Harm that someone experiences because of rules, laws, regulations, policies and practices.

Systemic abuse
When one person exploits systemic harm to gain power and control over another person.

Systemic collusion
When someone supports, enables, or compounds a person’s experience of systemic harm and/or systemic abuse.

The risks and barriers criminalised women experience may include:

  • Social stigma and discrimination from police, government-funded services such as Child Protection, and family violence services. This may take the form of focusing on the victim survivor’s criminal behaviour and background, rather than the violence they are experiencing or the risk they are managing. Because of real or perceived discrimination, many criminalised women never report family violence or attempt to access specialised family violence services.
  • Police bias, misconduct, and inaction in responding to criminalised women’s reports of family violence may worsen their situation overall. This can include being mis-identified as the primary aggressor or being charged with unrelated offences when police are called out on a family violence matter.
  • Access to specialised support remains limited and difficult for criminalised women, whether in accessing housing, mental health services, or advocacy and support, etc. Criminalised women can be refused support based on the assumption that they are too difficult, pose a threat to other clients, or present with a complex range of support needs to which services feel unable to appropriately respond.
  • Increased threat of child removal by Child Protection, and often means that they are unable or unwilling to access support or services for family violence.
  • Criminalised women are often housed in various types of accommodation that may expose them to further violence, such as rooming houses.
  • Periods of incarceration and imprisonment create major disruption in the lives of victim survivors and their children, creating increased risk and disadvantage. This can include loss of safe housing, loss of employment and barriers to re-employment, and loss of custody. It can also compound or create new risks such as mental ill-health, substance dependence and/or physical ill-health.
  • Fear of retribution from partners, who may themselves be criminalised, connected to criminal activity and/or have access to weapons.

It is critical that specialist family violence services use an intersectional feminist lens to proactively consider how they respond to women who have been criminalised

To prevent discrimination and support safe and just outcomes for all victim survivors, there are many things for practitioners to consider when supporting a criminalised victim survivor.

  • Recognising the strength and resilience demonstrated by the victim survivor, partner with them as the expert of their experience. Talk to the victim survivor about the systemic harm, systemic abuse and systemic collusion they have experienced.
  • Using a trauma-informed approach, consider the victim survivor as a whole person and work with them to understand the circumstances, experiences and risks that might be informing their decision making and behaviours. This means identifying the structural inequalities, oppression, and discrimination the victim survivor may be experiencing because of their criminalisation as a risk factor in and of itself.
  • Adopting anti-oppressive practice, challenge social inequality and systemic power imbalances affecting clients. This also requires a commitment to reflective practice at organisational and practitioner levels to examine and disrupt the biases, beliefs and structures that perpetuate systemic power imbalances both externally and within the organisation itself.
  • Understand what services and systems are safe/unsafe for them, and explore options to create safety that do not rely on police intervention or other statutory agency interventions.

Tools and resources

To support services and practitioners to provide safe and inclusive responses to criminalised women, Safe and Equal have partnered with Flat Out to develop a tip sheet to help family violence practitioners understand systemic harm and violence and resist systemic collusion. Criminalised women informed and shaped this resource, and we thank them for generously sharing their knowledge and experiences.

Flat Out is a state-wide homelessness support and advocacy service for women who have had contact with the criminal justice and/or prison system in Victoria. We are an independent, not for profit, community-based organisation that is managed by and for women. Flat Out is committed to co-creating safer spaces, fostering support and self-determination for people who identify as sistergirls, intersex, transgender and/or gender diverse women.


You can contact Flat Out for more information about their support services, advocacy, training and secondary consultation services.

255 Ballarat Road, Footscray VIC 3011

P: (03) 9372 6155

Organisational email:

Referrals & client intake:

Resource details

Resource type: Booklet
Download file type: 5-page PDF
Best print size: A4