Reinstating control and personal agency to survivors

SUPPORT: Jodi Cooper of Centre Against Violence says her work is about reinstating power and control to survivors of family violence Picture: MARK JESSER
SUPPORT: Jodi Cooper of Centre Against Violence says her work is about reinstating power and control to survivors of family violence Picture: MARK JESSER

If Jodi Cooper didn’t get to see her clients standing in the light at the end of the tunnel, she would struggle coming to work at the Centre Against Violence.

There’s a constant dance between supporting clients – overwhelmingly women – experiencing abuse, and protecting their safety.

Even more so when they have left a violent partner, the most risky time of all.

“It’s a myth that women are safe when they leave,” Ms Cooper said.

“Because it’s a crime of power and control, and it’s the moment he has the least control, he might move over and above his usual behaviours to reassert his power.”

For safety reasons the Wodonga CAV office is discretely signed and its location not promoted.

If we can look back and say we inched somebody even a little bit closer to safety, what we did was successful

CAV chief operations officer Jodi Cooper

They’re not just dealing with what you see in White Ribbon television campaigns, but extremely violent and concerning threats to life.

On this day in particular, Ms Cooper is working with a women preparing to take her kids and leave.

“Today’s the day, and she might not go through with it, but we’ll choose another day and we’ll keep going,” she said.

“If we can look back and say we inched somebody even a little bit closer to safety, what we did was successful.

“That might just be a conversation that shifted her thinking about something better.”

Every morning, four sexual assault counsellors, three family violence crisis care workers and Ms Cooper – chief operations officer – sit down to triage.

“With any police call-outs from the night before, we will have a report waiting in the morning and we will make contact,” she said.

“It’s not uncommon to come in on a Monday and have 30 family violence referrals from the police for the region.

“We have an after-hours roster to connect into services and while we’ve got statewide responses to this crime there’s a uniqueness about Ovens-Murray.

“If you’re leaving a home in the country, you might be leaving with 10 horses.”

For this reason CAV has relationships with accommodation providers and boarding kennels across the region, and a plan A, B and C for families in trouble.

“Gone are the days of that idea that women and children have to flee in the middle of the night and leave everything,” Ms Cooper said.

“Sometimes they do, but more and more we’re trying to zoom the focus in on the person that’s using the violence to hold them accountable, rather than create this position of victims needing to up and flee.

“Because of changes as a result of the royal commission, more and more we’ve got resources that might secure a woman in her current accommodation.

“Police can remove the person using violence in the home, to keep things as settled as possible, particularly for children.”

Whether Ms Cooper and her colleagues become involved when clients are still transitioning to safety, or during the confusion and relief that follows, the goal is the same.

“The crime takes away their sense of personal agency and your main role is to reinstate that, to give them some kind of control back,” she said.

“If you look at the statistics – one in three – people are amazing.

“I would not be still doing this if I did not see people’s recovery.”

It’s this transformation that also motivates Rachel Seath, a counsellor at the Women’s Centre for Health and Well-being in Albury.

She provides generalist counselling at the Olive Street service, which has an over-arching focus on health but deals daily with survivors of family violence.

“These people come in shaking and nervous about everything around them, and you see them start to blossom – it’s really wonderful,” Ms Seath said.

“They don’t realise how strong they have been.

“If they’re hearing everyday that they’re useless and worthless, they start to believe it.

“It’s really important to start building up their self confidence and let them know they are a really strong person.”

At the moment Ms Seath has 33 active clients from Albury and five from Wodonga, but often she had to drop what she’s doing and address an emergency.

Rachel Seath provides generalist and specialist family violence counselling at the Women's Centre on Olive Street. Pictures: JAMES WILTSHIRE

Rachel Seath provides generalist and specialist family violence counselling at the Women's Centre on Olive Street. Pictures: JAMES WILTSHIRE

“Sometimes it’s people who have travelled quite a way to escape the violence – we had one lady that had driven from Western Australia and had ended up here – she’d come here to see if she could have a shower and we were able to make her comfortable and then give her the referrals she needed.”

The centre is not a crisis service and Carol Clearwater, who picks up the phone and answers the front door, often sends people straight to places like CAV.

“I ask if they feel safe and if the answer is no, I say ‘I’m going to hang up; you have to call the police right now, and once you’ve done that you can call me again and we’ll walk through this’,” she said.

“That probably happens once a week.

“The referral depends on whether they are from Wodonga or Albury, but generally it’s to The HUB with Betty’s Place, and we have a range of other options.

“Nobody says the words ‘domestic violence’ straight away – they say, they’re feeling anxious, or depressed, and often it comes out later.”

Many of Ms Seath’s clients don’t realise what they’ve been experiencing is violence.

“It’s really amazing the amount of women that think it’s part of married life,” she said.

“They go through a grief process, because although some of them may have experienced some horrific things, they were still with someone that they initially loved.

“Some women have been able to repair their relationship because they’ve been able to recognise it, point it out to their partner, and their partner has changed.

“For other women the lightbulb moment is ‘Wow, I shouldn’t be accepting this’.

“It’s about pointing out it really doesn’t matter what they did or what they didn’t do, nothing warrants violence.”

Carol Clearwater is the first point of contact at the centre

Carol Clearwater is the first point of contact at the centre

The Women’s Centre – which for a long time people confused for Betty’s Place – is about what comes after crisis point, when survivors are trying to find their feet.

They run things like trauma-sensitive yoga, court advisory services, no-interest loans and the KNOTS program.

Chief executive Lil Beamish is working to have KNOTS, which helps women understand the nature of family violence, nationally recognised so it can be rolled out within other organisations.

“We also want to set up a children’s group through the Australian Childhood Foundation to run alongside while the women are participating,” she said.

“That growth has to be together – there’s no use working with one member of the family and not the others.

“We want to provide much more holistic services for women’s health in general in the future.”

SAFETY NET: Women’s Centre for Health and Wellbeing workers Rachel Seath, Margie Tickner, Joanna Spiers, Lil Beamish and Carol Clearwater provide support for women who have experienced violence and work on improving women's health in general. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

SAFETY NET: Women’s Centre for Health and Wellbeing workers Rachel Seath, Margie Tickner, Joanna Spiers, Lil Beamish and Carol Clearwater provide support for women who have experienced violence and work on improving women's health in general. Picture: JAMES WILTSHIRE

A person experiencing violence will seek support about eight times on average before they are in a position of readiness, and safety, to exit a relationship.

It’s why Jodi Cooper wants people to remember not to give up if they do reach out to a friend, colleague or family member they think is at risk.

“One of the key findings out of interviews with women that have left violence, about why they didn’t talk about it, is that nobody asked,” she said.

“I think people might not ask because they don’t know what to do with the answer.

“If you’re worried, it’s okay to ask somebody if they’re okay – and to extend that to, ‘Are you safe?’

“If they don’t feel safe, it's important that you know where they can go, and that once they have talked about it, that you follow-up with them.”

And if they say there’s not an issue, and you know there is?

“The most important thing is to keep checking, because they will know when it’s the right time for them,” Ms Cooper said.

“The idea for them of seeking something different may seem overwhelming, but it is there and it’s an option.

“It’s very important that when they are ready, they know there is someone there.”

If you or someone you know needs support, contact 1800 RESPECT, or CAV Ovens-Murray on (03) 5722 2203.