Leaving violent relationships and avoiding homelessness – providing a choice for women and their children

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Leaving violent relationships and avoiding homelessness – providing a choice for women and their children

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  90 | Vol.18(5–6) NSW Public Health Bulletin The literature frequently assumes that leaving a domesticviolence relationship requires that women and their chil-dren leave the family home. Certainly for many women,leaving their home as a way of leaving the violent rela-tionship is the only option that ensures their safety. Thisoption, however, can be problematic for some women. For a proportion, despite leaving both their relationship and their home, the violence continues 1 or can escalate. 2 Moreover, there are other consequences of leaving thefamily home, which may result in some women feelingthat they have no choice but to remain in, or subsequentlyreturn to, a violent relationship. 3 These include homeless-ness or ongoing housing difficulties, 4,5  poverty, 6 lack of ongoing police assistance to prevent postseparation vio-lence 7,8 and ongoing difficulties with child contactarrangements and Family Court matters. 9 It would seemthat notwithstanding the limited successes of public policyinitiatives, such as refuges and supported accommodation Leaving violent relationships and avoidinghomelessness – providing a choice forwomenand their children Abstract: The report Staying Home/Leaving Violence describes a research study that exploreshow women, leaving a relationship where theyexperience domestic violence, can remain safely intheir own homes with their children, with theviolent offender being removed. In this qualitativestudy, 29 women were interviewed about their experiences of leaving a violent relationship. Of these 29 women, nine remained in their own home.This article describes the factors that enabled thesenine women to remain in their homes and com-ments on the policy and practice implications for health workers.  Jan Breckenridge A,B,D and Jane Mulroney C A School of Social Sciences and International Studies,Universityof New South Wales B Centre for Gender-Related Violence Studies, University of  NewSouth Wales C  Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse,University of New South Wales D Corresponding author. Email: j.breckenridge@unsw.edu.au schemes, 10 and criminal justice responses, such as appre-hended violence orders (AVO), 8,11 many women experi-ence a reduced quality of life and sense of well-being after leaving the family home – although they are safer in manyinstances.More recently, researchers and practitioners have begun toexplore other options that may potentially increase awoman’s safety without necessitating her leaving her home. Edwards’ 12 study on the use of exclusion provisionsin AVOs in NSW is indicative of a move to eliminate vio-lence from the home by excluding the offender rather thanthe victim(s). This genre of inquiry reorients researchquestions away from barriers to women leaving their homeand towards the possibility of women and their childrenremaining in the family home while the offender leaves or is assisted to find alternative accommodation. The report Staying Home/Leaving Violence comprehensively extendsthis theme in its presentation of a study conducted by theAustralian Domestic and Family Violence Clearinghousein partnership with the Centre for Gender-Related Violence Studies, UNSW. 13 Staying Home/Leaving Violence explicitly focused on how women leaving violentrelationships could potentially remain safely in their homes with their children, with the violent partner beingremoved.This article presents a summary of aspects of this researchand outlines implications for health policy and practice. The Staying Home/Leaving Violencestudy The Staying Home/Leaving Violence study is a retrospec-tive qualitative research study that was conducted betweenOctober 2002 and December 2003. The geographic areas in NSW chosen for inclusion in the study were the AreaHealth Services of South Eastern Sydney, Western Sydneyand Southern. Fourteen domestic violence services fromthese areas facilitated the participation of 29 women inface-to-face, in-depth interviews that primarily focused ontheir experiences of leaving violent relationships. Approvalto conduct the research was provided by the HumanResearch Ethics Committee of the University of NSW.All participants had left a relationship involving domesticviolence and were living in safe situations at the time of interview. Fourteen of the women were from Anglo- 10.1071/NB07064  Vol.18(5–6) NSW Public Health Bulletin | 91 Australian backgrounds, nine from culturally and linguis-tically diverse backgrounds, five women were Absrcinaland one woman was Maori. The participants were aged  between 22 and 63 years (approximately two thirds of thewomen were aged between 22–39 years). Twenty-seven of the women had a total of 78 children between them, withages ranging from two months to adulthood. At the time of interview, most women could be described as being of lowsocio-economic status. Nineteen women were in receipt of a Centrelink pension, benefit or allowance, although manyof the women combined this with part-time work or TAFEstudies. The 10 remaining participants were in either partor full time paid employment.Twenty women had long-term (longer than five years)relationships with their violent partner and twenty-two participants had sought some legal protection or had contact with the criminal justice system. On leaving their violent relationship, nine remained in their home and 20left. The focus of this article is the experiences of thegroup of nine women who remained. A discussion of thereasons that the other participants left the family home isavailable in the project report.Interviews were taped and transcribed in all but four situ-ations, in which detailed notes were taken during the inter-views. The data collected were thematically analysed for the participant’s experiences, ideas and beliefs aboutleaving the violent relationship. To ensure that thewomen’s stories are integral to this article, the participant’sexact words will be presented in italics. Factors underpinning women’s choices to remainin the home Three factors were identified that enabled these women toremain in their homes. An additional factor, related to thecharacteristics of the perpetrator, was critical in some, butnot all, cases. The women had a strong attachment to their home and felt they had a right to remain. In direct contrast to many of the participants who lefthome, these women spoke about their attachment to their home; one stated, ‘ this was my home forever  ’. Another echoed this sentiment stating, ‘  you’ve got your whole lifehere ’. The practicalities of leaving were also of concern assuggested by one woman: ‘  I really need that  security … ’cause I didn’t want to be running around lost  ’.Another women’s attachment to her home was more prag-matic and related to the needs of her physically disabled son. Her home had been modified and was located near thespecial school he was attending. To leave the home would  jeopardise his well-being.Closely related to the women’s attachment to the homewas their sense that they had a right to remain there. In thewords of one, ‘  you make it your home and he shouldn’t beable to force me out  ’. Other women commented on thefairness of women being forced to leave. For example,‘  Idon’t believe that a woman has to be chucked out of her own home and she’s the one that’s the victim, she’s thevictim ’. Other participants believed that they had beenresponsible for paying the mortgage or rent and that, there-fore, they had paid for their home, ‘ every hard-working cent  ’. The violent partner was removed by the authorities(police and/or courts) or went voluntarily because he had other housing options Five partners left voluntarily and four were removed by the police and/or by order of the court (family and local).Where the perpetrator left voluntarily, the woman had  been able to ‘stand her ground’and force them to leave – often due to her having some leverage such as knowledgeof other criminal or antisocial activities, or by demandingthat the man repay bond and any other money owed. Menleft more readily if they had somewhere or someone elseto go to. One woman describes the offender as beingrelieved not to have to pay her back the bond and leavingtheir home voluntarily to live in a boarding house where,‘ he’s just as happy as Larry ’ . Equally, the significance of police removing the violent partner combined with a Telephone Interim Order (with anexclusion condition), and then an AVO (with exclusioncondition) cannot be over-emphasised. This processensures that the violent partner is not only removed fromthe premises initially but is also kept away from the home.One woman believed that her experience with a proactiveofficer had been a turning point. Police had attended her home many times and on this final occasion had takenaction by arresting her violent partner, taking him awayand charging him with assault. Generally the women inthis study identified police response as a critical factor indeciding to leave the violence. While the women had concerns for their safety,they werenot overwhelmed by fear,and had developed a range of safety measures to help them feel safer at home While at least six of the nine women experienced extremelevels of physical violence from their partner, all nine believed that they had made choices or utilised strategiesthat contributed to an increased sense of empowermentand greater safety. Women identified the importance of (i)using existing criminal justice provisions and person-nel, ‘ taking out an AVO has made me feel secure ’;(ii)making the house more secure and using availabletechnology, ‘  Ireally think that it’s essential to have a phone on … and also change the locks on your house ’; and (iii) reporting breaches of AVOs and dealing with theoffender away from the home for child contact visits, assuccessful safety strategies. Leaving violent relationships and avoiding homelessness  92 | Vol.18(5–6) NSW Public Health Bulletin The importance of developing these strategies is also thatthey allowed the women to no longer feel paralysed withfear and responsible for the violence. Moreover one par-ticipant articulated that developing safety strategies facili-tated a shift in the dynamics of power and control, ‘  I had moved beyond fear  ’ . It also appeared that the women’semotional attachment to their partner changed signifi-cantly. They no longer respected or wanted to be in a rela-tionship with their partner. As one woman stated, ‘ he spends most of his time at the pub so he may as well livethere ’ . While further research is required, it did appear thatthe women’s growing empowerment coincided with adeepening dysfunction in their partner’s lives. Of the nineex-partners, only one did not have gambling and/or drugand alcohol problems. 13 The perpetrator was intimidated by the police and courtsand/or felt a duty to abide by legal rulings An unanticipated finding was the partner’s attitude and  behaviour towards the law. Many of the 20 women who lefttheir home described how their partners did not respect the police or the courts, disregarded AVOs and were not scared of going to gaol. However, for some but not all of the ninewomen who remained in their home, the perpetrator wasintimidated by the police and the courts and felt a duty toabide by legal rulings. One participant encapsulated thefear this select group of offenders feel in relation to thecriminal justice system, describing that her violent partner ‘ went to jelly ’in court and ‘ couldn’t speak  ’when con-fronted by police and the magistrate. The reaction of theseoffenders underscores both the importance and potentialeffectiveness of a coordinated criminal justice response. Enhancing practice The following strategies were identified from the findingsas pertinent for health and welfare workers to consider inorder for them to better assist women and their children toremain safely in their homes:(1)removal of the violent partner from the home,(2)keeping the violent partner out of the home over time,(3)provision of immediate and longer-term safety for the woman and her children (including both physicaland psychological well being) and (4)longer-term support for the woman and children, and  prevention of further violence.The study also recommended several changes in relevant NSW government agencies with the aim of promoting a‘whole of government’policy and practice framework. 13 To further test practices that enabled women to stay in their homes on ending a violent relationship, it was envisaged that pilot service delivery models would be established inthe three Area Health Services that participated in the src-inal study. Two pilots have been established in the SouthEastern Sydney Area Health Service and Southern AreaHealth Service. Several other regional areas have plans toestablish similar models in their community. The evalua-tion of the pilot studies will provide information to thegovernment and community sector on innovativeresponses to domestic violence. Policy and practice implications for health workers The recognition of domestic violence as a serious global public health problem by the World Health Organization’sreport on violence 14 underscores the importance of thisissue for health workers. This is consistent with findings inthe literature that domestic violence can result in post trau-matic stress disorder for victims and children, 15 and other health issues such as depression, anxiety and phobias,suicide attempts, substance abuse, chronic pain syn-dromes, psychosomatic disorders, physical injury, gas-trointestinal disorders, irritable bowel syndrome and avariety of reproductive consequences. 16 Children maysuffer several adverse health consequences; for example,child abuse is more likely to occur in families experienc-ing domestic violence. 17 The effects of homelessness or diminished life circum-stances after leaving the family home compound the pos-sible psychological, social and emotional after-effects of living with domestic violence. Health workers who seewomen and children at the time of crisis for medical serv-ices or for later follow-up in counselling and support serv-ices need to be aware that a lack of housing optionscontributes to a longer term negative impact on women’sefforts to establish a safe, secure and appropriate familyenvironment. The findings provide different practicestrategies and postseparation choices, which healthworkers could incorporate into their existing practice and which may enhance the quality of life for women and chil-dren who leave a domestic violence relationship. Conclusion Enabling women and children to remain in their home also brings several wider social, economic and health benefitsto the whole community, such as reducing women’s home-lessness and potential poverty; keeping children out of thechild protection system and with their non-violent parent;minimising the trauma in women and children’s lives and holding the perpetrator accountable for the violence. Seenfrom this perspective, supporting women and their childrento remain in their homes is likely to be a cost-effective strat-egy, but more importantly it is a socially responsible solu-tion that seeks to prioritise victims’needs and improve thehealth and well-being of women and children. References 1.Health Outcomes International.  Improving women’s safety, partnerships against domestic violence . Canberra: Office of the Status of Women, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2004.  Vol.18(5–6) NSW Public Health Bulletin | 93 2.Mouzos J, Segrave M.  Homicide in Australia: 2002–2003national homicide monitoring program (NHMP) annual report  .Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology, 2004.3.Anderson MA, Gillig PM, Sitaker M, McCloskey K, MalloyK, Grigsby N. Why doesn't she just leave? A descriptive studyof victim reported impediments to her safety.  J Fam Violence 2003; 18(3): 151–5. doi:10.1023/A:10235644047734.Casey S. Snakes and ladders: women’s pathways into and outof homelessness. In: Eardley T, Bradbury B, editors. Competing visions: refereed proceedings of the National Social  Policy Conference ; 2001 July 4–6. Sydney: Social PolicyResearch Centre, UNSW, 2002. pp. 75–90.5.AIHW (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare).  Homeless people in SAAP: SAAP National Data Collection annual report 2003–2004 Australia . Canberra: AIHW (SAAP NDCAreport series 9), 2005.6.Baker CK, Cook SL, Norris FH. Domestic violence and housing problems: a contextual analysis of women's help-seeking, received informal support, and formal systemresponse. Violence Against Women 2003; 9(7): 754–83.doi:10.1177/10778012030090070027.Johnson J, Luna Y, Stein J. Victim protection orders and thestake in conformity thesis.  J Fam Violence 2003; 18(6):317–23. 8.Hall J. A new family law system – are we prepared? A reportfrom a DVIRC forum.  Domestic Violence & Incest ResourceCentre Newsletter  2005; 2: 19–21. 9.Kaye M, Stubbs J, Tolmie J.  Negotiating child residence and contact arrangements against a background of domesticviolence . Queensland: Griffith University Families, Law and Social Policy Research Unit, 2003.10.Marcolin S.  Female SAAP clients and children escaping domestic and family violence . Canberra: Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2005.11.Coulter ML, Chez RA. Domestic violence victims supportmandatory reporting: for others.  J Fam Violence 1997; 12:349–56. doi:10.1023/A:102285702279212.Edwards R, editor.  Beyond the divide: 3rd National  Homelessness Conference ; 2003 April 6–8; Brisbane,Australia. Canberra, ACT: Australian Federation of Homelessness Organisations (AFHO), 2003.13.Edwards R. Staying home/leaving violence: promoting choices for women leaving abusive partners . Sydney: AustralianDomestic and Family Violence Clearinghouse, 2004.14.Krug EG, Dahlberg LL, Mercy JA, Zwi AB, Lozano R. Worldreport on violence and health . Geneva: World HealthOrganization, 2002.15.Mertin P, Mohr PB. Incidence and correlates of posttraumasymptoms in children from backgrounds of domestic violence. Violence Vict  2002; 17(5): 555–67.doi:10.1891/vivi.17.5.555.3371216.King M. Roads to healing: therapeutic jurisprudence, domesticviolence and restraining order applications.  Brief  2003; 30(7):14–5. 17.Laing L, Bobic N.  Literature review: economic costs of domestic violence . Sydney: Australian Domestic and FamilyViolence Clearinghouse, 2002. Leaving violent relationships and avoiding homelessness
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