This week the United Nations wrapped up 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. The initiative calls for the prevention and elimination of violence against women and girls worldwide. ALEX MORRIS interviewed a resident and a case worker from a local domestic violence shelter, Allira House, to learn more about survivors and supporters in our own community.
Allira House was founded 30 years ago by a group of what director Sallyann Price calls "thoughtful community members" who were associated with churches in the Cooranbong area. Price has worked at Allira House for eight years and says she believes society is finally catching up with the epidemic of domestic abuse.
One resident was happy to share her story with me. We'll call her Vanessa. She's a 55-year-old mother and grandmother. She quit school at year 11. She became a mum at 20. She's lived at Allira House for three months.
Everything about living in a refuge is hard. I wouldn't recommend living in a refuge to anyone. Desperate times call for desperate measures; that's that's where we all are.
Domestic violence was a part of Vanessa's life, even as a child. She watched her father beat her mother. Now, one of her adult children is experiencing domestic violence.
"It stemmed from my parents. I always thought that was the norm," she says. "My father was very abusive towards my mother. I thought every average Joe Blogs was like that."
Her mum stayed with her father until he died. "If she had money back in those days, she would have walked out the door. In those days you didn't even get help from Centrelink. She wouldn't have stayed with him. And, she had nowhere to go," Vanessa says.
Her abusive partner was raised in a similar way. "His parents had domestic violence. He saw it as well, watched his father hit his mother and thought it was normal," she says.
For 20 years Vanessa dealt with a husband who beat her. She met him after having a child from a previous relationship, and then she had another with him. Several times he put her into hospital. He used drugs and alcohol; she described that influence on him like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
But she needed a place to live, so she stayed. He put food on the table. It wasn't her house, he owned it. At first their relationship was all "love and flowers". But issues developed over control and commitment. "It didn't turn violent until two years after we married. Probably because he felt like he was trapped because I had my son in the first 12 months," she says.
One time he knocked her out cold and she woke up the next day. "If I had not left, he would've killed me. That was the defining moment," she says. "He hasn't been held accountable. He got another partner and he beats her."
That wasn't the end of it for Vanessa.
"And then after I left my ex, I fell into another domestic violence relationship before I moved to my mother's house. It broke my spirit," she says. "I had to bring back my soul and spirit for myself. Instead of looking after men, I decided to look after me."
She says she now understands she has to break the cycle and stand on her own two feet.
Up until five years ago Allira House was called Southlakes Refuge. The volunteers moved the home from the Southlakes area to a more accessible central location.
"It's always been charity-based. It started with the hard work of fund-raisers, cake stalls, raffles and donations. Over the last 15 years, a number of Allira House op shops started, with all funds going straight to the Allira House refuge. That's how we keep the doors open and pay staff," Price says.
Price is the director and caseworker. She previously worked in the police force. She and two other women run the house three days a week although often it's more like a full-time job. They call themselves the Aunties.
"We're all in our 50s of similar age. We've all raised children, we know what young mums are going through," Price says. "It really helps that we're all mature women; we take a more holistic approach."
The five-bedroom house is full and has a wait list. Thousands of women have passed through their doors. One of the goals is always to get the women moving into independent accommodation. Some women go back.
"They do say 'a woman will leave a domestic violence situation seven times on average before she makes the decision to make it permanent.' We have a lot who make the decision to make it permanent," Price says.
Price uses a toolbox analogy for residents. The Aunties offer them various tools.
"It's their choice how many they pick up in their life and use to build their new life. Some take a minimal amount, and go off and build something different. Some are willing to stay and do the hard yards and collect more tools and build what they want. We don't force the tools upon them, we lay them out on the table and they get to pick them up," Price says.
More than anything, Vanessa wants safety and security without being a burden to her children.
I wanted to do it for myself and my granddaughter; she visits me a lot. If I get my own place I can dictate who comes to my front door," Vanessa says.
Every house she's lived in has belonged to someone else. Her ex controlled the house, the money and what she wore. She never worked, she stayed at home. Now, she just doesn't want anyone else eating out of her fridge.
There's so much shared accommodation, but at 55 years of age, I want to have my own door to allow who I want into my house.
"There's so much shared accommodation, but at 55 years of age, I want to have my own door to allow who I want into my house," she says.
She's been to other shelters, she's also been homeless, living in a car and on the streets.
"You're never alone but you're lonely. Always the homeless people are there," she says.
"The worst thing about being homeless and trying to get a job, my whole body has chronic fatigue. My body's still recovering from trying to sleep in the back of the car," she says.
"You can't stay in a place for too long. I would wait until my payday and then move to a different destination. Until my whole body was saying 'if you don't stop you're going to fall'. That's when I came here. I realised I needed help beyond just me. I was desperate."
Stories like Vanessa's are common at Allira House, but often the residents are younger. The house prioritises women with kids, but they also take singles. Some have grown children, some have had their children removed. "We add that to the toolbox the tools for getting their children back," Price says.
Child protection services refer women to Allira House because they may be close to losing their children or because the household has become violent. The children at Allira House are their priority because of their vulnerability, but, of course, they pour love and support into the mums as well.
"I tell mums to wake up each morning and commit 90 per cent of their day to themselves and raising their children and the other 10 per cent get something done," Price says. "Work with us, attend a medical appointment. Do something because it can quickly get out of balance here. They're trying so hard to do everything at once."
Allira House is Primary Crisis Accommodation, meaning it's for women who have no accommodation or their accommodation is unsafe or unsustainable.
"The only requirement we have is that they come and they know they're coming to communal living. We will respect their independence, but there will be a requirement to engage with Allira House support staff," Price says.
Confidentiality is key, and visitation is on a special circumstance basis. No males visit the house, but women can request a mother or a sister or other female support. The house is alcohol free; it's clean living. And there can still be struggles.
"All women will be affected by each other's behaviour. They get their own rooms, but everything else is communal. We've had women that are emotionally distraught and taking it out on their children. That can trigger another woman; she's here because her kids have been abused by her partner," Price says.
Vanessa hears babies at odd hours of the night. Different people come and go.
"It's hard to not make friends with them, and when they leave it's upsetting. You get attached to them. Everything about living in a refuge is hard. I wouldn't recommend living in a refuge to anyone. Desperate times call for desperate measures; that's where we all are," she says.
Vanessa never expected her life to end up like it has. "I don't like the outcome, and I'm here to fix it. It will never ever happen again," she says.
When she was homeless she had a lot of time to think. "Would I have done things differently? Would I have gotten my beautiful children? My grandchildren? How long is a piece of string? Would I change who my mother was, where I came from?" she asks.
Break the Cycle
Price knows situations like Vanessa's all too well.
"It's a very critical epidemic for Australia. Our culture totally lends itself to domestic violence increasing because we have a cultural mentality of it being someone else's' problem. That's what you have in a place where, although we have a very good social system to support people financially, that brings with it generational dysfunction - for example 'I just wake up and get my Centrelink'" Price says.
She's seen governments throw media campaigns and money at the problem when really what needs to happen is changes in the judicial system. She wants a more transparent approach, a list of penalties and consequences for abusers, just like there is with sex offenders.
"Some progressive countries have a domestic violence offenders' registration, where a woman can make enquiries and can see if that man or woman has ever been involved in domestic abuse," Price says.
Price referenced the Netflix hit series Maid and how, like in the show, financial abuse is very real. While there are services in Australia that can keep women off the street and help them get access to food or petrol, people have to know how to access Centrelink first.
Some of the most valuable conversations happen side by side taking out the garbage bins together or sitting in the lounge room together or helping a child do a jigsaw puzzle on the floor.- Allira House director Sallyann Price
"We all like to think about these women, where quietly over weeks or months they put together a go bag, an escape kit, whatever money they can get," Price says. "They've got that go-bag ready, but some women don't do that or they can't do that."
The staff at Allira House do all they can to help meet their clients' needs for housing, social support, medical assistance and otherwise. They have an open door policy, so staff chat to women in the morning while they're buzzing around in their dressing gowns getting kids' breakfast ready.
"We don't necessarily have our case management meetings in an office, we'll do them in the backyard while the kids are playing," Price says. "We say 'hey would you mind packing up that cot?' Or we say 'hey we're going to weed the gardens today?' They feel included, and some of the most valuable conversations happen side by side taking out the garbage bins together or sitting in the lounge room together or helping a child do a jigsaw puzzle on the floor."
Price finds that's when the real truth and pain comes out, and they'll talk about mistakes they've made. It's when they start to discuss how it's ok to not be ok.
Vanessa says she won't be interested in love for a while. She's working on herself and she's still resting at the moment.
"You can't break your heart wholly. Break my soul and spirit, but not my heart wholly," she says.
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