How every health worker can respond to domestic violence

Safer Pathways project officer Rhiannon Eves and domestic violence counsellor Thomi Coutsas stand in front of a temporary public art installation designed to increase awareness about family and domestic violence.

Violence in any form is a violation of human rights. Approximately one in four women in Australia have experienced violence by an intimate partner.

As the world retreated inside homes due to the lockdown measures introduced to curb COVID-19, reports showed an alarming increase in the already existing pandemic of violence against women.

This ‘shadow pandemic’ has reached a frightening point: domestic violence shelters and helplines have reached their capacity.

One team who is seeing the effects of this increase is Western Sydney’s Integrated Violence Prevention and Response Service (IVPRS).

IVPRS community development counsellor Jay Pulvirenti said violence against women must be addressed in COVID-19 response and recovery efforts.

“We are seeing an increase in domestic abuse cases, and it’s not just Western Sydney’s problem. It’s worldwide,” Jay said.

“It is everybody’s right to feel safe and be treated with respect and love in a relationship. No one should live in fear.

“Our team provides counselling, advocacy, information and referrals to other services, as well as access to a forensic medical service for documentation of injuries for the police and court.

“Not every victim reports the act of abuse. We would like to send the message out there that our team is always ready to step in and provide help.”

One of the most important interfaces for people who are experiencing domestic violence is with the health service.

Health workers play a crucial role in identifying and supporting people experiencing violence. The way they respond has a big impact on what happens next for victims.

Jay said that it was important for person to feel safe during their initial contact with health service.

“People who present to hospital after a domestic abuse incident have experienced trauma, they may be overwhelmed and distressed. It is our role to identify that they were subjected to violence and provide help,” she said.

This week marks the beginning of 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

Starting on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and running until 10 December, Human Rights Day, it aims to increase awareness, galvanize advocacy efforts and call on everyone to think about how they can make a difference.

“We can all take action, including health workers to help end violence against women – even during a pandemic,” Jay said.

To help health workers assist victims of violence IVPRS has developed a list of helpful tips:

  • Privacy: Where possible, find a private place to speak to the patient.
  • Listen and validate: Let the patient know that you’re here to listen, believe their experience and want to help.
  • Safety: Consider their immediate safety and needs. Do they have somewhere safe to go to? Do they have children in their care? (If yes, consider your Mandatory Reporter requirements). Where is the abuser currently located?
  • Support and refer: Whilst they are in your care, continue providing support to the patient. Seek advice by consulting with Social Work or IVPRS (9881 8787). The NSW DV Line (1800 656 463) can assist with emergency Housing and case management/referrals and 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) can provide crisis counselling. Consider what other services or departments the client is already connected with.

Referrals can also be made to the IVPRS Domestic Violence Counselling Service that provides specialist, long-term and trauma-informed counselling at no cost. It operates at multiple locations across Western Sydney and can assist with referrals for case management.

IVPRS can also arrange documentation of the injuries via the Forensic Medical Unit at Blacktown Hospital for police investigations and legal proceedings.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing domestic violence, when it’s safe to do so, you can contact the following supports:

  • NSW Domestic Violence Line, for crisis counselling, referral or support on 1800 65 64 63
  • 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 for sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling and support services
  • Link2Home on 1800 152 152 who can help refer women experiencing domestic violence to crisis accommodation
  • Child Protection Helpline – 13 21 11
  • Lifeline – 13 11 14
  • IVPRS at Blacktown Community Health Centre – 9881 8700

If you are in immediate danger or in an emergency, always contact Triple Zero (000).