Voices of hope urge others to seek support
“It was like I left and went to a different planet — the building was like my safe fortress.”
This is how Jess, a mother-of-three who once experienced domestic abuse, described the Narrogin women’s refuge.
“I didn’t want to leave because I felt so safe here,” she said.
“And at the same time the liberation — that feeling of freedom was just incredible.”
Along with Jess, Charlotte, Tanya and Tess — not their real names — have all escaped abusive relationships.
Some were locals, others had to travel from a different corner of WA to get away, but they all found the help and support they needed at the town’s refuge
Now living independent, normal lives, the four women have bravely come forward with their stories to raise awareness about family and domestic violence and let others know the support is there if they need it.
Jess said her relationship lasted more than 15 years. “I was experiencing domestic violence for the whole duration of that pretty much, but it escalated when we’d have a child — his abuse would just go through the roof,” she said.
Jess saw a counsellor at the Northam Share and Care Refuge but was too terrified to leave.
She gathered the courage to leave her partner when he turned on their young children.
“He started to smack the kids, really hard, and that’s when I mustered up the courage,” she said.
“So I rang them (the Northam refuge) up and I said ‘You have to come get me — now’.”
“They sent a taxi and then brought me to the Northam refuge, but I think it was full, so I came here.”
Jess spent four months living at the refuge while staff helped her find accommodation, furnish it, put her children in school, set up a bank account and even get a birth certificate.
“I had to pretty much start from scratch,” she said.
“But my message to the world is, gosh, if you are stuck in a situation like I was, don’t be afraid.
“I know the fear — it was the reason I stayed so long, but all it took in the end was a lady here saying I was free and safe.”
“Stuff that my ex-partner did to me, I didn’t expect it,” Tanya said.
“He abused me for many years and I’m still recovering from that.”
Tanya was in a long-term relationship, and said when things got bad, she was too scared to get help.
It wasn’t until an incident a fewyears ago that she connected with the refuge.
She said she was relieved someone called the police, who found her hiding behind a cupboard.
Tanya was brought to the refuge by the police, where she stayed for the weekend, while her partner was arrested and taken to jail.
Since then, Tanya has had regular counselling and said she was glad to meet other women with similar experiences at the refuge workshops.
“It happens more than you think,” she said.
“My cousin died from domestic violence after her partner abused her for a full weekend.”
Charlotte said she heard about Narrogin’s Outreach and Support Counselling Service through a friend who had used the service.
“She was in a really bad, physically violent relationship,” Charlotte said.
“And I didn’t think it related to my relationship issues because mine were more emotional and mental. It wasn’t until I came here and started talking to the ladies when I realised that this man, my ex-partner, also sort of fit into that category.”
Charlotte moved to a nearby Wheatbelt town when she got pregnant to live with her partner, but he emotionally, financially and mentally manipulated and abused her.
“I just want to make sure that other women in those sorts of situations don’t tell themselves that ‘This service isn’t for me because I haven’t been bashed up physically’, or ‘It’s not that bad’,” she said.
“This centre is for any sort of physical or emotional violence and it should be used by more than just what you think your stereotype situation is.”
Charlotte said the support she received from the refuge to become independent was invaluable.
“I don’t know if I would have had the courage to leave if it wasn’t for this kind of support,” she said.
Tess lived on WA’s south coast before she came to Narrogin two years ago.
She said her partner, whom she had a child with, was heavily addicted to drugs, which made him abusive.
“After I lost Mum to cancer, I started seeing a social worker and opened up about what was happening at home,” she said.
Tess said she felt she needed to move to a new area, so her social worker directed her to the refuge.
“I was pregnant at the time when I first met Rachel, one of the support workers here, so I was dealing with the pregnancy, along with another young child and I was very mentally unstable,” she said.
“I’m a single mum and I don’t have a lot of family here, so to be able to get that kind of support and help with my children or to know if I did get scared there was somewhere to go — Rachel really helped me through all that.
“It does slowly start to get better; it just takes time. When you think your walls are closing in and there’s no help or no one around, this place will be there.”
“Major health and welfare issue”
Narrogin recently recorded the highest rate of family assault offences in the past decade.
A recent WA Police crime statistics report showed assaults against immediate family increased by nearly 70 per cent, with 125 offences recorded in the 2018-19 financial year, compared with 74 in 2017-18.
But WA Women’s Council policy officer Kedy Kristal said the data did not necessarily represent the reality.
“Police numbers — in terms of the police responding to domestic and family violence incidents — definitely increase each year,” she said.
“But we also know that only 20 per cent of women that experience FDV actually call the police, so we know the numbers are way bigger than what the police statistics show. This is a huge worry because the data is already quite significant.
“On average, the police attend a domestic violence (incident) every 10 minutes in WA.”
Earlier this year, Narrogin police appealed to domestic violence victims in the region to seek help after three Narrogin men were sentenced to prison in April alone for severe cases of domestic violence against their partners.
But a recent University of WA and Safe as Houses Evaluation Report indicated while keeping women and children safe from FDV was a high priority, the reality was even when women left violent relationships, they could be left with a litany of other stresses and challenges relating to financial insecurity, legal issues and the risk of homelessness.
Fortunately, Narrogin has a centre which can provide that vital, holistic support.
Part of the Share & Care Community Services Group, the centre in Narrogin provides crisis and support accommodation for women, with or without children, escaping family or domestic violence across the upper Great Southern region.
Along with safe accommodation, the centre provides referrals for financial assistance, legal matters, child support, mental health and medical aid — all aspects of life that may be affected by family and domestic violence.
The refuge has received 185 female and 74 male victims in the past two financial years, with about half of the victims being Aboriginal.
The Narrogin Outreach and Support Counselling Service saw 408 female victims, 28 male victims and 99 children, in the same period. During that time, the refuge has received 453 referrals from either external or internal agencies or self-referrals, while the NOSCS received 712.
Ms Kristal said the Great Southern region needed more support services for women once they had left crisis accommodation.
“Whether it’s more counsellors, more perpetrator programs, or more outreach services, women need substantial support after they have walked away from their relationship,” she said.
Refuge manager Kristy King said the refuge focused only on victims, but things such as perpetrator programs, and other educational and preventative programs would be great if funding was available.
Regional refuge reaches for funds
Refuge support worker Katerina Ranieri said being one of the few women’s refuge centres in the region had its difficulties.
“There is limited funding, resources and staff,” she said.
Ms Kristal said regional women experiencing FDV found it more difficult to get help.
“It’s really difficult for women in rural areas because they often know their local community and they are afraid if they seek help it’ll make their situation public. Often women have to relocate to a whole different town to get away, and that’s a huge thing to do,” she said.
Ms King said FDV was a major health and welfare issue and funding was essential to achieving a consistent approach.
Extra funding allowed the provision of more beds for women and children in the refuge, FDV education of community members and at schools, and the ability to set aside emergency relief to assist clients returnto their homes or set up new homes.
“There is a high reliance on our organisation to provide a vital and life-saving service, and without increased funding our service cannot continue to run as is expected contractually,” she said.
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