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Finance and Public Administration References Committee
Domestic violence in Australia

AVDIBEGOVIC, Ms Maya, Chief Executive Officer, inTouch, Multicultural Centre against Family Violence

BECKER, Ms Elizabeth, Principal Lawyer, inTouch, Multicultural Centre against Family Violence


CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees I know has been provided to you. Do you have an opening statement?

Ms Avdibegovic : In preparation for this submission, we had a very short time frame and it probably should have been a lot longer and in a lot more detail than this. But we tried to cover as much as possible in such a short time frame. It is around giving another view of inTouch and some current statistics that support our submission. We developed it around five main headings: family violence in CALD communities, barriers to legal services, support for CALD children experiencing family violence, access and equity for women without permanent residency, and tailored responses versus the one-size-fits-all approach. Under all of these headings, we have also come up with some recommendations for further actions.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. Are you happy to go to questions now? If there are any issues that emerge either during the course of the inquiry, you are able to make a supplementary submission or correspond with the committee as those ideas or observations come to you.

Senator WATERS: Thanks, ladies, for coming along today and for the work that you do. I am particularly interested in the recommendations about women who lack permanent residency status and whether you have any recommendations for how we can assist those women to get the assistance they need, particularly, given their entitlement to be in Australia depends on the abuser in terms of visas. Can you just go through that conundrum and talk about the current problem and what you see as some potential solutions?

Ms Avdibegovic : It has been an issue for our service in particular, because I think we are in the very rare position where we are a family violence service and we have a registered migration agent on board who has specific knowledge of migration issues but also of family violence. We have had a lot of referrals to our agency, and that is why we have such high numbers of clients who come to see us about this particular issue.

Out of the total number of clients that we see annually, anywhere between one-third and a quarter are clients do not have permanent residency and most of them are on spousal visas. The particular service that is offered by our agency is almost self-funded and it has been like that for the last 12 years. It is very hard to attract any interest or secure any funding for that particular position, because immigration issues are seen as the responsibility of the federal government's; but family violence is seen as the state government's responsibility. We have never been able to secure any funding.

Let me tell you: it is an enormous amount of work for one person to see 250 clients a year and have at least one face-to-face interview with all of them. We have the luxury of caseworkers who are mainly from the same cultural and linguistic backgrounds as the clients so they can support the registered migration agent's work in preparing the necessary documentation and evidence, lodging that with the department, liaising with the department, and following up on any additional documents.

Those women are in extremely vulnerable positions and at very high risk of experiencing family violence. If you can imagine being on your own in a country where you do not know anyone; you don't have any family or friends; you don't have any support; no language; no knowledge about systems; and there is only one person you know—that is your abusive partner.

I can give you so many case studies and examples of the difficulties that our clients experience. One of the most memorable is a woman from Lebanon who was here on a spousal visa. She was married overseas then came here. She was already pregnant with one child and gave birth to a second within a period of a year. She was physically abused throughout the whole relationship, and it was only when she ended up in hospital with physical injuries that she was able to speak to someone about her issues. She could not speak a word of English and was illiterate in her own language.

She was taken away and provided with crisis accommodation—in a regional part of Victoria. That particular service had trouble communicating with her and addressing her needs. One day she was just dropped off in front of the general homelessness service here in Melbourne and the accommodation that was given to her was in the general homelessness accommodation with a lot of men who suffered from mental health issues, alcohol and drug abuse.

She was given a room that had no windows and she had no food, clothes or anything for her babies. When she managed to phone us, we sent two workers who took some photos of the accommodation that she was in. They brought her back to our office and we had her there for a day until we managed to find accommodation for her. And that is not the end of the journey for those women. For them, the post-crisis response is actually as important as that immediate crisis intervention.

Senator BERNARDI: Who dropped her off there at the general homeless centre?

Ms Avdibegovic : It was a regional crisis accommodation service that found it quite difficult. They did not have the capacity to meet her needs. Also, her permanent residency application process was just at the beginning. That whole process puts a lot of pressure on refuges. Refuges are planned to be a very short crisis accommodation option, for six to eight weeks, and then you should have an exit plan. Because the whole process can take up to a year for women without permanent residency, there is no exit plan in place and they actually block the system by staying in a refuge for too long.

Senator BERNARDI: Sorry, Senator Waters. Can you explain to me why the system does not take women in that circumstance directly to your resource, rather than just depositing them—

Ms Avdibegovic : Yes, they do. But we do not provide crisis accommodation; we provide all other support and linkages—immigration support, family violence support and cultural support. But we do not have resources—

Senator BERNARDI: Okay. I am horrified by what you have just told me and I cannot understand why any department or organisation would deposit someone where they cannot communicate with anyone else in a circumstance which seems unreasonable—I accept what you tell me—rather than to an organisation which is better placed to provide some support. You might not be able to provide the accommodation but at least you can provide some language support or some cultural support which goes with that.

Ms Avdibegovic : They could not deal with that; they were trying to secure some further accommodation because they just could not provide further service to her.

Senator BERNARDI: They should have gone to you directly, though. Anyway—sorry about that, Senator Waters; I did not want to take over!

Senator WATERS: No, it was a good line of questioning. You started to touch there on the length of time that it takes for a permanent residency to be granted and where these women go in the meantime, given that refuges are meant to be short-term crisis accommodation and that they are already in great demand and that there is not enough room. Then you talked about the importance, therefore, of post-crisis accommodation. So there are two related issues there: there is the bottleneck problem of the crisis accommodation not having enough capacity and then there is not enough capacity in post-crisis accommodation either. Do you have any recommendations from your expertise and experience on how we should address that issue?

Ms Avdibegovic : I think that it is speeding up the process of assessing the applications. I know that a lot of changes have been made in terms of the evidence required when you submit the applications. We welcome those decisions and they have been great. But I think that from our perspective, again, where we only have one specialist worker who can do that, it makes it really hard.

Apart from that, there is only a small number of other services that can provide that support, but they do not specialise in family violence issues. Otherwise, there are only private lawyers that can help and those women do not have funds to access private migration agents.

Ms Becker : They do not have the money.

Ms Avdibegovic : So it puts a lot of pressure on one point in the system that can support them. So it starts from there and then goes to the refuges. And I want to emphasise that refuges have done extremely good work with women without permanent residency. This is in no way a criticism of the way they work—most of them. It is about the system; it just does not have the capacity to meet all of the needs.

So making the process of the application even faster would be much better because that means that once they secure permanent residency status they then have access to other kinds of support, which would make things easier.

Senator WATERS: I will just ask one question—and it is from general ignorance: how do we identify the risk early on and then support women who have come on spouse visas, so that they do know where to go and that they have a point of contact—even if it is just someone who can then refer them on to somebody more appropriate? How do we capture them in the system so that it does not get to the end point where they have already had to suffer abuse and they are clearly not being supported by the system? Does that happen currently? Or, if not, how could we support those women from the outset so that they know what to do and where to go when they start to experience violence?

Ms Avdibegovic : I think there are a few issues with that. I know that the federal government has been doing something—providing some information and translating materials for those women before they come into the country. It is part of the welcome pack.

You have to be aware of one thing. When you migrate to a new country you are bombarded with information. It is about how much you can take at that point and whether that is an interest of yours at that stage. When you are migrating to a new country, you come in with big hopes and your hopes are about positive things in your life; you do not expect at that time to become a victim of family violence. You are really very selective about what you take in from all of that information that is given to you at the beginning.

The other issue for women without permanent residency is that they are not treated the same way as other migrants—for example, humanitarian entrants. People who come here as refugees, for example, as soon as they arrive in the country they are eligible for settlement services, which include free language classes and support through settlement programs. Women without permanent residency are not eligible for that. So I think, if there was a program in place similar to settlement programs that are provided to other refugees, that can address a lot of things.

Settlement services, such as adult migrant educational services or the migrant resource centre, do fantastic work with newly arrived migrants. They have a lot of bilingual workers, workers who can establish trust and a relationship with those families and those clients; it is really important to have someone you feel comfortable going to. You might not be experiencing family violence then, but, if six months down the track you start experiencing that, you know where to go. Those women are very isolated because there is not a specific program in place to support their settlement process.

Senator WATERS: Food for thought there. Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Moore?

Senator MOORE: I want to ask you about your role in consultation around the development of the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children. Did you as an organisation have a role in terms of the consultation and meetings around that; and in particular about the focus in the plan on women from non-English speaking backgrounds? What is your expectation of your ongoing involvement in that plan?

Ms Avdibegovic : We have been part of the consultations.

Senator MOORE: The roundtables?

Ms Avdibegovic : Yes, we went to the roundtables, and also consultations about the second action plan, and we welcome the focus on issues around CALD communities that are part of the second action plan. But, when I think about it, it is really the tip of the iceberg; because we really only have three or four issues and that are selected there and that is: women without permanent residency, forced marriages and female genital mutilation. They are really such a tiny part of that whole complex issue around women from CALD backgrounds and their experiences of family violence. My concern—

Senator MOORE: (inaudible) understanding of the role.

Ms Avdibegovic : No, I am just saying that, with the second action plan being the focus, from our perspective, during the consultations—and obviously it is a result of the consultation—and I am a bit surprised that there were only three or four of those issues that came up to the surface and that were identified as the major issues for CALD women, when there is a whole complexity on the basic level that I think needs to be addressed first.

Senator MOORE: So you do not expect that everything to do with violence against women should be looked at through the lens of women from multicultural backgrounds? I am interested—in terms of the roles—certainly in the plan, we said, in particular we had these groups that were not identified in the first plan. My hope was that that meant that all the issues around violence—the issues you are describing about homelessness and language, and all of the things that are general issues of violence—would then be looked at in the plan from the perspective of women from a CALD background. But you believe that, from your understanding, it will be those issues that are well known that have been highlighted by the minister—female genital mutilation, forced marriage and women with—

Ms Avdibegovic : Women on spousal visas.

Senator MOORE: Did you give a submission to the consultations about the plan? Because some people gave written submissions.

Ms Avdibegovic : I do not think we provided a written submission, but we were part of the consultations.

Senator MOORE: The information you provided to us in your submission to this inquiry is just so valuable in terms of across-the-board issues about community, legal rights and all those things, that that would our hope. Is your intent that you will continue feeding information through the system from the perspective of this work over 30 years of community engagement?

Ms Avdibegovic : We have been doing that all this time, and we are doing it through different avenues. We are a fairly small statewide service. We have at this stage about 19 staff members. Most of them are in the direct service team, working directly with the clients. As a statewide service, and within the current family violence system in Victoria, where we have regional family violence partnerships, we are trying to stay across the board as much as we can and be involved with all of them. We are members of all the major groups such as the statewide forum and that is where we provide our feedback—

Senator MOORE: Domestic Violence Victoria and all that.

Ms Avdibegovic : Yes.

Senator MOORE: Do you have sister organisations in other states?

Ms Avdibegovic : There are similar organisations in other states but they all have different capacity. I do not think that there is consistency in the service provision model. There is Speakout, the immigrant women's support service in New South Wales, and I think they just lost a major chunk of their funding and they are currently struggling to recover from that. There is the Immigrant Women's Support Service in Queensland. I think they operate on a smaller scale than us and they focus on women with immigration issues, but I visited the service a couple of times. With the South Australian service the purpose has changed dependent on the funding a couple of years ago.

Senator MOORE: The range of your service seems to be across the board—women's support particularly in crisis. My own knowledge of the Queensland service is that it does not come close to the range of support. It is there as a contact but in terms of providing direct counselling and the kinds of things linked in your document, it does not have that. Do you get funding from the Victorian government to support your work?

Ms Avdibegovic : Yes. Most of our funding is from the Department of Human Services here in Victoria. That has been our strategic direction for the last five years, to build that multidisciplinary holistic service model, where we tackle issues of family violence from prevention and early intervention all the way through crisis and post-crisis response and then research and advocacy but also building up a service model to meet the needs of our clients on different levels. It has been a journey, and it is not an easy one. And we are not targeting all our clients with that kind of model. That model is for the most vulnerable ones that we fear we will lose in the referral process. In terms of that, that is also where the legal centre comes in. It is the first legal centre of its kind in Australia, where a family violence service has an in-house legal centre.

Senator MOORE: We certainly do not have that in Queensland—where your work is, Ms Becker. I will finish up, Chair, but it is fascinating. In terms of the legal work, what do you do?

Ms Becker : We established the legal centre through the Legal Services Board. I think the grant was made in 2012.

Senator MOORE: You finally got the funding quite recently.

Ms Becker : Yes. It was a brand new legal service and we had to set it up from the ground up. We opened our doors to clients in 2013 and we have seen over 200 clients since that time.

Senator MOORE: What are their needs? What do they come to see you for?

Ms Becker : It is not an open-door policy so our clients are only clients of the In Touch service generally.

Senator MOORE: Internal referral.

Ms Becker : Exactly. It is all internal referral. They have all got caseworkers allocated to them before they come and see me. And we are really dealing with the most vulnerable of our clients. We do not see all of the In Touch clients that require legal assistance. We see the most vulnerable. We only deal with family violence and family law issues.

Senator MOORE: You do not do FGM or early marriage?

Ms Becker : We assist them if we can and we refer them on, but there is very limited scope to our capacity. At the moment I am five days a week and I have one other lawyer who is two days a week, but effectively it is two part-time positions.

Senator MOORE: You are family law specialists, in effect. Are you part of the community legal network we have heard from?

Ms Becker : We are. We have just been accredited through the federation as a community legal centre.

Senator MOORE: On notice, could we get a little bit more about your case load? That would be very useful in terms of building up your newly stated capacity—what your caseload and your expectations are; some information from you. You have actually identified the need in the service and you have now established it; 'one year on', that kind of snapshot. I do not want you to do too much work because I can imagine what your workload is like but it would be really—

Ms Becker : I am happy to give that further information.

Senator MOORE: I do think this is unprecedented. I am not aware of anything else of this kind.

Ms Becker : It is. The general nature of our client base is that we see clients for approximately two hours at an admission appointment. If they need further follow-up appointments they are given as much time as possible, which is a rarity in the community legal sector.

Senator MOORE: Where are you located?

Ms Becker : In Richmond.

Senator MOORE: In the heart of where people are.

Senator RICE: Thank you very much for your submission, particularly the information on women on temporary visas. It was just such a shock to me to see the situation they are in. Thank you also for your summary of the barriers faced by culturally and linguistically diverse women. I thought it was terrific.

One of your recommendations was for further Commonwealth and state funding for inTouch and the expansion of your model nationally. I am wondering how much extra funding you think you would need to meet that need in Victoria? How much do you think would be needed to do that nationally? In terms of making the case for that to occur, has there been an evaluation of your model in Victoria? Could you say, 'This has been really effective so this is why our model should be expanded nationally'?

Ms Avdibegovic : I will send you that document. I will be able to provide you with all of that information after the 12th of this month, when we actually have a big session planned for the board and some consultants to take us through the process of expanding that model to other similar services in other states and what the cost of doing that would be. It is on 12 November—this month—and I am happy to provide you with that information.

Senator RICE: In terms of the work you are doing in Victoria at the moment, how much of the need do you feel you are meeting?

Ms Avdibegovic : A tiny bit; a fraction—because we receive very little funding for the establishment of the legal centres. As Elizabeth said, it is only in total just over one FTE. We piloted that in one particular region in the western suburbs where we have a high CALD population; that funding has finished now. We have been lucky to receive another lot of funding. Expanding the model in a different region and also establishing a so-called medical/legal partnership model, which is a US based and very successful model, is very exciting; but at the same time we have not received ongoing funding to continue the operation in the western region. It is a constant struggle to keep the work going.

Senator BERNARDI: There are hundreds of different cultural and ethnic backgrounds in Australia. How do you manage to provide this service to all of them? Are you available to deal with all of the language incarnations and different circumstances?

Ms Avdibegovic : In terms of a language service and all of that, of course not. But we identify the top groups through our work. We make sure our recruitment is quite targeted to meet the needs of those top groups which demand our service. We have a direct service team which has 12 caseworkers. Most of them—almost all of them—are migrants or refugees themselves, so there is that added understanding of the issues those women face. They speak more than 25 different languages. On top of that, about 80 per cent of our other staff members are first-generation migrants and bilingual. It is a crucial part of what we do; that is how we operate. We constantly exchange information with each other. We operate from the basis of the cultural context, looking into the issue within that cultural context. So even if we cannot provide service in the language, where we stand as an organisation having the understanding of issues for migrant women in general and then really good knowledge about family violence issues, we can support—

Ms Becker : Cultural competency.

Senator BERNARDI: You mentioned top groups. Is that done on a demographic profiling—there are X number of Greek or Italian migrants in the country, or whatever, so we want to provide a service to that—or is it done based on the preponderance of need, I guess? You do not say, 'These communities are particularly vulnerable, so we need to have someone who is there'?

Ms Avdibegovic : It is based on the number of clients who access our services. We keep those statistics and that is all we can do at this stage. If I give you an example: our three top groups have been in the last 10 years always Vietnamese, Chinese and Indian. When you look at the total demographics and the population in Victoria that is really what you would expect. You have two establish communities that are very large communities; therefore, we have a large number of Vietnamese and Chinese clients who arrived here quite a while ago, are very established now at this stage and are accessing services. So they are aware of the support system in place. They are aware of services and they are aware of what constitutes family violence, so they access services. For the Indian community, we have seen a large increase in that. But it was not a surprise. That is a community that has doubled in size in the last five years. I think that has never happened before in the history—and no-one expected that. In five years, it increased by 110 per cent. So you can imagine then the increase in demand for different services for that community.

Senator BERNARDI: I am not sure whether you did mention this earlier, but are you able to tell me how many or what percentage of your clients have permanent residency or citizenship here in Australia?

Ms Avdibegovic : Anywhere between one-quarter or one-third of the total number of our clients would be—

Senator BERNARDI: Are not permanent residents or citizens?

Ms Avdibegovic : Yes.

Senator BERNARDI: So two-thirds are permanent residents or citizens?

Ms Avdibegovic : No, one-third are not—

Senator BERNARDI: Yes, so two-thirds are?

Ms Avdibegovic : Permanent residents and two-thirds are.

Senator BERNARDI: Thank you. I may have some other specific questions and if you are happy I might but those on notice for you.

Ms Avdibegovic : Yes.

CHAIR: There any no further questions, so I would like to thank you very much for your time this morning and for your submission. You have brought a perspective that is essential part of this committee's deliberations on this matter and we appreciate your time.

Proceedings suspended from 11 : 58 to 12 : 59