First of its kind: Western Sydney’s Westmead Sexual Assault Service turns 40

Westmead Sexual Assault Service counsellors (from left) Elizabeth May, Lauren Dunn, Charlotte Wilson, Zual Hakim, Caitlin Grainger, Minh Thi Le, administration officer Seema Hussain and clinical senior Batoul El Hussein.

It’s been 40 years since Westmead Hospital became one of the first in the world to provide a 24/7 service for victims of sexual assault.

The Westmead Sexual Assault Service commenced in 1981 as a NSW Health-funded ‘Help Centre’ – the result of sustained efforts by the Sydney Woman’s Liberation Movement to shine a light on sexual assault, move discussion into the public domain, raise consciousness and lobby for reforms.

The feminist movement helped challenge victim-blaming attitudes and highlight the need for an organised and coordinated policy approach, which culminated in significant government funding for sexual assault services under NSW Premier Neville Wran.

Clinical senior Batoul El Hussein and sexual assault counsellor Charlotte Wilson.

With the endorsement of Westmead Hospital’s then-deputy director of medical services Dr Freda Webb, the service led by Eileen Graham would become a model that changed the way hospitals across NSW responded to sexual assault.

The journalist Jess Hill, author of See What You Made Me Do, commented: “It’s hard to imagine now just how ground-breaking this service was when it was established 40 years ago.

Author and advocate Jess Hill

“To think of all those lives whose trajectories were changed by this service – the healing so many people got, that would otherwise have been denied.

It was then, and remains now, an absolute lifeline for people whose lives and psyches can be brought to the edge of ruin by sexual assault and domestic abuse.

“You help them find their way back to life – and the whole community is in your debt.”

Eileen stated that she and her team were determined to provide education to all the services within the hospital system and community, noting: “the correct response goes a long way”.

They worked to develop a multidisciplinary approach that educated doctors, nurses and social workers on how to respond to disclosures of sexual assault, creating awareness to improve the patient experience and promote supports that were available to victims.

Eileen acknowledges the strong support that the ‘Help Centre’ received from Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) and remains very proud of the service today.

The current manager of the Westmead Sexual Assault Service, Batoul El-Husseini, notes that Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that 1 in 6 women experience sexual assault and 1 in 4 women have experienced violence by an intimate partner.

The landmark service has been hailed as leading the way for subsequent services around the world.

Intimate partner violence causes more illness, disability and deaths than any other risk factor for woman aged from 25 to 45.

“Violence prevention services remain important in addressing this ongoing social and systemic issue and the statistics continue to reflect a need for services to provide support,” Batoul said.

WSLHD’s sexual assault service sits within the Integrated Violence Prevention Response Service (IVPRS) within Integrated & Community Health.

“The support offered to victims now expands across all types of violence abuse and neglect, including domestic violence, child protection and sexual assault,” program lead Jo Fuller said.

IVPRS has a strong focus on capacity building and community education, and continues to advocate and lobby on all issues related to violence and violence prevention.

IVPRS work alongside the WSLHD Forensic Medical Unit (FMU) to provide forensic support to victims of sexual assault. In 2013 the FMU established a new service at Blacktown Hospital that documents and collects evidence for victims who have experienced domestic violence – another first of its kind.

To access support at any time, call the Domestic Violence Helpline on 1800 656 463 or call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732).