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Finance and Public Administration References Committee
05/11/2014
Domestic violence in Australia

BRAYBROOK, Ms Antoinette, Chief Executive Officer, Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Victoria

NEVILLE, Dr Alisoun, Manager National Secretariat, National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum

VINES, Ms Laura, Policy Officer, Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Victoria

[13:51]

CHAIR: I welcome representatives of the Aboriginal Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services of Victoria and the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services Forum. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees has been provided to you. Would any of you like to make an opening statement?

Ms Braybrook : I am going to make an opening statement. I have been told we only have a few minutes to do that.

CHAIR: It lets us have more time for questions.

Ms Braybrook : I am hopeful it will only be a few minutes, but I am speaking in two capacities here.

CHAIR: Please proceed. We are very interested in what you have to say.

Ms Braybrook : Before we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, the people of the Kulin nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. I was born here in Victoria on Wurundjeri country. My grandfather's and grandmother's line is through Kokojelandji in Far North Queensland. I am also speaking as CEO of FVPLS Victoria and in my role as the National Convener of the National Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services program. I would like to thank you for providing us with an opportunity to speak here today.

Speaking first in my capacity as national convenor, we all know that family violence is one of Australia's biggest social issues. A woman is killed every week by a partner or ex-partner and many more are severely injured. KPMG have calculated that violence against women and their children cost the Australian economy US$14.7 billion in 2013. Aboriginal women are disproportionately more likely to be victims of family violence than any other Australian. Aboriginal women are 31 times more likely to be hospitalised and almost 11 times more likely to be killed as the result of a violent assault. The specific annual national cost of violence against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women has been projected to reach $2.2 billion in the next seven years. This does not include the cost of the flow-on impacts on their children.

Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services was established in recognition of the significant gap in access to legal services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander victims of family violence and because of the high number of conflicts within Aboriginal legal services, as well as the increasing rates of family violence in our communities. In recent years the Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services program has been subjected to numerous reviews, including one by the Productivity Commission on access to justice arrangements, and the review of the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance Services. Despite consistent findings supporting the need for continued and increased resourcing of our services, in December last year the federal government cut $3.6 million and the federal government also collapsed the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Service Program into the Indigenous Advancement Strategy through a rationalisation of 150 programs into five.

The tender process announced in August, following our submission to this inquiry, confirmed that this decision effectively defunds or abolishes the National Family Violence Prevention Legal Service Program. So that $21 million that was initially allocated to the program no longer exists. This has subjected our specialist, unique and essential services to open, competitive tendering and market forces. Under the terms of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, it is not just a matter of which provider will deliver these services, it is a question of whether these types of services—individual, family violence prevention, legal services—will exist at all. Yet the reasons for our establishment, as we detailed in our submission, remain unchanged.

Meanwhile, the funding uncertainty continues to have detrimental impacts on our services on the ground. Our funding ceases in June 2015 and we are of the understanding that the success of our applications will not be known until March 2015. Community and client trust, which we have built over many years, is being compromised through this period of uncertainty. We are losing staff, which continues to put enormous pressure on our capacity to meet even our existing demand. Clients tell us that they are really worried about what they will do if our services do not exist.

As the CEO of FVPLS Victoria, I just want to say a few words about our organisation. I have held my position for 12 years. We have been providing front-line legal services to Aboriginal victims of family violence and sexual assault and working with families and communities affected by violence. More than 93 per cent of our clients in Victoria are Aboriginal women and children, and this is almost the same nationally. In 2009 KPMG calculated that violence against women and children cost the Victorian economy $3.4 billion. We also know that reports to police of family violence against Aboriginal people in Victoria have almost tripled over the last few years. In 2013 and 2014, our essential services supported 4,000 people across Victoria. If FVPLS Victoria is not successful in its submission for funding under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, we will lose our core infrastructure established under the national program and we will be forced to close doors. FVPLS Victoria remains a critically important service provider responding to the high levels of family violence in the Victorian Aboriginal community, and to address the significant and persistent gaps in services for Aboriginal victims of family violence. An important aspect of our work is the delivery of our highly successful early intervention, prevention, community, legal, education and community development activities such as our Sisters Day Out and Dilly Bag Program.

Both our national and our Victorian submissions cover many areas of concern, including what we have said about the impacts of family violence in Aboriginal communities, the key role FVPLS has had in addressing these impacts and what we need from the government, particularly the Commonwealth, to make a meaningful and sustainable change. In terms of impacts, family violence has significant, far-reaching and multiple impacts across our communities. For example, the Victorian Commissioner for Children and Young People has reported that family violence is one of the largest drivers of children and young people to out-of-home care. In Victoria, Aboriginal children are 16 times more likely to be on care and protection orders than non-Aboriginal children. Aboriginal children are also 16 times more likely to be out-of-home care. In Victoria, we also recently looked into our case work and discovered that between 150 of our clients there were almost 240 children effected.

The rates of Aboriginal child removal are now higher in Victoria than at any other time since white settlement. Family violence is also the single greatest reason Australians present to homelessness accommodation services. Aboriginal women are 15 times more likely to seek support from crisis homelessness services. We are urging the federal government to make a long-term commitment to the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness. Family violence creates long-term damage to the mental and physical health and wellbeing of victim survivors. It contributes to the high incarceration rates of Aboriginal women, as well as increasing self-harm and self-medication with alcohol and other drugs.

FVPLS Victoria's client centred, holistic, front-line legal service model and high-quality, culturally safe operational practices have been developed to respond to the unique needs of Aboriginal victims of family violence. Access to our services increases the safety and well-being of Aboriginal women in our communities. One of the most significant issues impeding the progress towards reducing and eliminating family violence is a lack of an integrated united government approach. In relation to family violence in Aboriginal communities, now is the time to be investing in existing sector capacity, supporting strong and established relationships in communities and service responses that work—not to defund or abolish them.

Nationally, a much higher investment of resources is required to enable Aboriginal victims of family violence to have access to justice, including legal advice and representation that recognises and addresses their unique circumstances and needs. Family Violence Prevention Legal Services is now set under the Indigenous Advancement Strategy, from which $534.4 million is expected to be cut. We have no security beyond June 2015. We have been calling on an reinstatement of our funding to a national program and for adequate resourcing, which includes ongoing funding for our legal services and support services, as well as our early intervention and prevention activities.

CHAIR: Thank you. Dr Neville or Ms Vines, would you like to add anything briefly?

Ms Vines : No, I think Antoinette has covered that well.

CHAIR: In your capacity as Family Violence Prevention Legal Services, you pose the rhetorical question about what will happen to your clients or what will happen to those clients. Can you tell the committee what you think will happen to those clients if that service does not continue past June 2015?

Ms Braybrook : Nationally, the program assists over 5,000 clients. As I talked about earlier, the reason why the program was established was to address the gaps in legal service provision to Aboriginal victims. We will have to find somewhere to refer our clients to. Given the complexity of the legal matters that we work in—family law, child prevention, compensation for victims of crime and family violence orders—that is going to be really difficult.

CHAIR: The options for those clients will be pre-existing state services? We certainly have heard evidence that they are already under an enormous amount of pressure.

Ms Braybrook : The existing services are under pressure. For Aboriginal women or Aboriginal victims of family violence, there are many barriers to accessing many of those mainstream services. That is why our services are very important.

Ms Vines : A real concern for us at a Victorian level, but I think this reflects nationally, is that the existing clients we have will have to find somewhere to refer. That will be very difficult. But we are also concerned that the clients who we would reach may just have nowhere to go. They may not seek help and they may stay in domestic-violence situations—at great risk to them and their children—without feeling like they have anywhere to go.

Dr Neville : All the research and evidence supports the fact that those barriers are still there, so there are barriers to reporting as well as barriers to accessing, if they do choose to report; yes.

CHAIR: The other question I have about FVPLS Victoria, and you spoke about the potential ending of funding for that organisation. What needs to happen for that funding to continue, for those doors not to close?

Ms Braybrook : We need to be successful in our application under the Indigenous advancement strategy.

CHAIR: Is that the service you mentioned where the decision is in March?

Ms Braybrook : Yes. Nationally, for all of the family-violence prevention legal services, under the program, everyone's funding ends on 30 June. So everyone is in the same position, or doors will close for each service.

CHAIR: I know you mentioned how many people that organisation services, but could you reiterate that and describe what alternative services, if any, will be available to those people if your funding does not continue here in Victoria?

Ms Braybrook : FVPLS Victoria—through our front-line legal services, early intervention and prevention work, community legal education and counselling and support—has touched at least 4,000 people in the Victorian community.

Senator MOORE: There is so much, in terms of where it is going. The services that you offer are the only specialised services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are going through family-law issues at the moment.

Ms Braybrook : Aboriginal legal services do assist with family law matters, but it is important to remember that one of the reasons the Family Violence Prevention and Legal Services program was established was due to the high number of conflicts within Aboriginal legal services. It is because of their major criminal focus. It is important to also say that Aboriginal women remain one of the most legally disadvantaged groups in Australia.

Senator MOORE: Have there been any valuations or reviews of the services? They have been going for 12 or 13 years, have they not? It is longstanding. Have there been any reviews or evaluations of whether it was doing its job or whether the expectations were greater than achieved and all those kind of things? It is like getting a report card. What did your latest report card say?

Ms Braybrook : The national program has been in existence for about 16 years. I have been involved with the program for 12 years. The most recent reports, which are the ones we have already talked about, are the Productivity Commission's Access to Justice Arrangements draft report as well as the National Partnership Agreement on Legal Assistance, both of which highlight the important need for specialist legal services for Aboriginal people, such as FVPLS.

Senator MOORE: The Productivity Commission report has a lot of comments about the need for access and so on. We are waiting for a final one now. In terms of just knowing how your services are operating, the process—the forum there operates across the whole country and I am very familiar with the Roma one—was there anything in discussions with groups along the way that indicated there was a problem, that you were not meeting the requirements, that there were any concerns about the way you operated and all those things that would lead you to say there is something wrong?

Ms Braybrook : In the lead-up to the review of the national partnership agreement, the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department—our funder at the time—did undertake a review of the FVPLS program. That was also done by Allen's Consulting Group. They did the review of the national partnership agreement. That did not point to any failures of the program; it actually talked about some of the successes of the program.

Following that, I believe there was another report done about areas of need on the FVPLS program. Many of our members of the national program from other FVPLS questioned how the information was gathered.

Senator MOORE: Have you seen that report?

Ms Braybrook : We called it the Nous report. I am sorry—there have been so many reports!

Senator MOORE: That is absolutely true!

Ms Braybrook : Yes—I am pretty sure we have seen the Nous report. Do we have a copy of it?

Ms Vines : We could provide a copy on notice.

Senator MOORE: I think it is an important element. As you are well aware, this is not the only time a concern about this particular service has been raised in submissions coming to the committee. And this is the committee that looks after the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, so I suppose it is the appropriate committee all round to get that information anyway. Were you involved in that final report? What does 'Nous' mean?

Ms Braybrook : I think it is just a consulting group.

Senator MOORE: It is the name of a consulting group?

Ms Braybrook : Yes.

Senator MOORE: Fine—so that is the Nous report! I thought it could have stood for 'national something something', but it did not—okay!

Ms Braybrook : I think we just called it the Nous report.

Senator MOORE: So you have seen that report. When was it dated?

Ms Braybrook : I think it was done about 18 months ago, from memory.

Senator MOORE: Okay. If we can get a copy of that it would be useful. The other issue was in terms of Victorian stuff. You had two submissions: there was the Victorian one and the national one. Your first submission indicated the concerns that you were raising about the existing scheme not actually providing support for people in metropolitan and urban areas, that the focus of the other scheme was regional and remote. That is where we know all the members of the forum tend to be—from regional and remote areas.

You made some very telling points about the fact that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are not only in regional and remote areas and that their problems are not always regional and remote. Can you just give us a little bit of information about women who are in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in urban Melbourne, which you probably know better than urban anywhere else? What options do they have? The expectation of the service was that because they are in a large city there would be other options for them to get the kind of personal and appropriate support they would need. Would you just like to put on record something about urban Aboriginal families?

Ms Braybrook : I will say something and then I would invite Laura and Alisoun to say something.

One of the concerns in my 12 years with the program has been around the restriction on rural and remote areas. We have a high population in Victoria and we know from our experience that when you are a victim of family violence that isolation from services has very little to do with geography, especially for Aboriginal women. We talk about all of those barriers to accessing mainstream services—they still exist for women who live in urban areas. The service may not be there in a remote area but you are still isolated as a victim in an urban area.

Laura—did you want to expand on that with some of the case work that you have done?

Ms Vines : Yes, absolutely. Our service provides legal assistance services to urban based Aboriginal women in Victoria. We do that with state government funding.

Senator MOORE: And you never know what is happening with that either?

Ms Vines : Which is also an issue, absolutely.

Ms Braybrook : I might add, too, that the state government has come to the party and provided us with three-year funding for two lawyer positions.

Senator MOORE: Your submission also said that that is not available in other states, that you are actually advantage by the Victorian government's decision?

Ms Braybrook : We do. I think it is due to my longevity in the role. I have been able to establish key relationships in the state government through sitting on major committees. Still, if we lose our federal funding, we cannot be operational—not with just what we get from the state.

Ms Vines : Returning to our experience of working with metropolitan clients here: we do see a lot of the same barriers and disadvantages in that client base as we do in our regional client bases through our regional offices. A lot of the disadvantages—poverty, mental health, housing, risk of child protection involvement, incarceration—are there very strongly in the urban communities as well. The same barriers of lack of confidence in reporting, lack of trust police authorities—all of those barriers that mean that people are more likely not to seek help or remain in violent situations—exist very strongly in urban populations as well. The prevalence of child protection involvement where we see family violence as a root cause—that is also just as high in our case work with urban clients as it is with our regional clients. Indeed, in some cases it may even be more of an issue for urban clients where there are no strong community relationships—child protection authorities having those community relationships already established. Some of the barriers may even be greater for our urban clients.

Senator WATERS: Thank you so much for coming along today when you are so busy and facing so much funding uncertainty. Thank you also for the work you do every day. You said that you will find out in March 2015 about your new funding under the new consolidated blob that somebody else looks after now—and which is going to lose half a billion. Your current funding runs out in July, so you only have three to four months to work out whether you will still exist at that stage. Are you already losing staff because there is no certainty about whether people's jobs will continue to exist?

Ms Braybrook : We are losing staff.

Senator WATERS: How many staff have you lost so far?

Ms Braybrook : Maybe two or three. That is in Victoria only. I do not know what the picture is nationally.

Dr Neville : We have not collected the picture nationally but we have lost one of our CAs.

Senator WATERS: How many staff do you have—not just in Victoria but across the country?

Dr Neville : Can I take that on notice?

Senator WATERS: Yes, sure.

Senator MOORE: Can you give us information about where they are?

Dr Neville : Yes.

Senator WATERS: State by state would be good. At estimates, I tried to ask various departments about the funding situation. I tried to ask the Department of Social Services and the Office for Women given that, I would have thought, it would be relevant to them. But I did not get terribly far. Those agencies did not let me know whether they had briefed their minister on the uncertain funding situation that FVPLS is presented with. Are you aware whether there any internal government decisions and discussions about your future have been or are taking place? Or is it just now in the bag of PM&C IAS?

Ms Braybrook : As I understand it, it is in the bag of PM&C IAS. No-one is talking at the moment due to probity issues.

Dr Neville : The other issue there is that we have still been seeking to meet with the minister but have not been able to do that.

Senator WATERS: That is unfortunate. I am going to move now to a statement that Senator Moore was asking about before. Where will your clients go if the worst happens and your funding is not renewed—because of course the terms of reference no longer have an emphasis on domestic and family violence in Indigenous communities? If worst comes to worst, you said there will be some generalist services. You mentioned the Aboriginal legal service. This is a bit of a technical question. As a legal service, have you had a client who turned out to be a perpetrator and you had given advice to that client? Are there going to be conflict-of-interest problems such that the service will not be able to provide legal services to the victim if they have that pre-existing advice or lawyer-client relationship with the person who is now the perpetrator?

Dr Neville : In Aboriginal legal services?

Ms Vines : Yes.

Senator WATERS: How great a problem do you think that will be? How much of that conflict of interest will there be in terms of lawyer-client conflict of interest between clients with competing—

Ms Braybrook : That is one of the reasons why the FVPLS program was established, because of the high number of conflicts within Aboriginal legal services, so I would think it is high.

Dr Neville : We also know anecdotally that there is a perception of conflict as well as the actual conflict, so the reporting will not occur. We also know that perpetrators will go there quickly because they know that is the reason and that it will prevent the legal assistance being provided.

Senator WATERS: Broadly, still on that theme before we move on: with the new conglomeration of 150 services down to five key themes, there is no longer the specific focus on what was your key and directly funded service. Are you worried that there will be a loss of specialist services in family violence, particularly Indigenous family violence? What do you think would be the effect of generalising and subsuming specialist services into general funding pots?

Ms Braybrook : Leading up to the tender opening, the guidelines made provision to make direct allocations to either individual services or programs. Nationally, we did ask for direct allocation back to our program, and also some of the individual family violence prevention legal services, including FVPLS Victoria, did seek to have a direct allocation of funding. There was criteria that you had to meet in order to request that direct allocation. Probably about 20 minutes before the tender opened on the Monday, we were told that we were unsuccessful in our request both nationally and for our service in Victoria.

Senator WATERS: Were you told why?

Dr Neville : No. We were told that we had the opportunity to apply under the IAS in terms of the formal response. Informally, they also predicted that we would not receive the direct allocation and encouraged us to see the new program as potentially beneficial.

Senator WATERS: Were you given reasons as to why you were not able to get a direct allocation under the new IAS?

Ms Braybrook : We have not because we have just been heads-down doing our tender, but that is something that we should probably look into.

Senator WATERS: Do you know if anybody was successful in getting those direct allocations?

Ms Braybrook : There were some. I think Relationships Australia was successful through the Department of Social Services for a five-year allocation. It is important for us to also say that we did request that the $21 million be allocated back to our national program and that we were happy to participate in a select tender process, but that was even—

Senator WATERS: I will put a few questions on notice.

Dr Neville : Could I quickly add to the question about the reason why. The email said that they were not able to have further correspondence. That was just before the tender opened. Again, we have not been able to meet directly with the minister.

Senator WATERS: I will put some other questions on notice, but to finish on that theme: were you consulted on the original decision about removing your direct funding allocation, your direct appropriation, and being included in the broader Indigenous advancement strategy?

Ms Braybrook : No. We were very shocked to learn that we were moved from the Commonwealth Attorney-General's Department as one of the four legal assistance providers under the national partnership agreement and then under PM&C.

Senator WATERS: Yet the national plan says that we are meant to be having a focus on Indigenous family violence. Now your funding is not guaranteed and you no longer have a specialist funding stream.

Ms Braybrook : When we did go to the senator's office to talk about the national plan and our funding issues, we were told that it was an Indigenous issue and we needed to go to the Prime Minister's office.

Senator WATERS: If there is time I will come back; otherwise I will put some questions on notice for you. Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Rice.

Senator RICE: Thank you for your submission. It is very valuable. I want to continue talking about funding but funding more broadly for the Aboriginal women and children that you represent. In particular you mentioned the impacts of various budget proposals, like the $7 co-payment. I am interested in exploring what impact you think that will have on Aboriginal women and children and on domestic violence rates, and also I am interested in what your thoughts are on income management with relation to domestic violence.

Dr Neville : Both of them link to the evidence around financial security and economic security as being critical factors in either managing or leaving violent relationships. Certainly the $7 co-payment can be an immediate financial deterrent to someone attending a doctor when they do not necessarily have any financial control within a family violence relationship. Similarly with income management, the ability to have control over their own finances can be really critical for someone who does not necessarily have access to the economic resources they need.

Ms Vines : I guess the only thing to add to that in terms of legal representation and access to justice—going back to the gap in legal services and if we were not to be successful and we were not to exist—is that I think impacts like that on disposable income could also have a really significant impact on Aboriginal women's access to justice, because there are a lot of limitations around legal aid funding, for example, for certain family law matters or child protection matters, and those sorts of gaps on disposable income could mean that there are a lot more Aboriginal women falling through that gap where they are not eligible for legal aid but they do not have disposable income to seek alternative legal representation.

Senator WATERS: I understand that you have two staff who are funded under NPA. How are those folk faring now that NPA has been extended by only one year and not four? Is there an expectation that they will be able to stay on, or are they in a holding pattern?

Ms Braybrook : We have two paralegal support workers funded under the homelessness agreement. Our paralegal support workers provide a critical role in supporting the client in court, linking them in to counselling and chasing them up, making sure they get to their appointments. Laura, you might want to expand on this, being the lawyer working with the paralegal.

Ms Vines : That is another thing that needs to be clarified if we were to go and clients had to seek support from other services. Most other services do not have the model that we have with paralegal support workers who work alongside the lawyers and provide all of the additional allied support to ensure that women can access their rights. The paralegal support workers who are funded through the National Partnership Agreement on Homelessness do a lot of that work ensuring that clients are linked into all of the referrals that they need to keep them safe and ensure they have the mental, practical capacity to stay engaged in their legal matter and see it through. That can be particularly important for child protection cases where women are at risk of family violence and there are a whole lot of support services that need to be involved. And those paralegal support workers also play a role in community legal education and informing us of our client's experiences. They are incredibly unique and important positions that we have.

Senator WATERS: So do they have any sort of longevity?

Ms Braybrook : No, the partnership agreement was only signed until June 2015.

CHAIR: Thank you for your evidence here today. If you have been asked to provide more information, as soon as possible would be helpful. You have brought an insight that is incredibly valuable for our deliberations and I thank you wholeheartedly for your time.