Acting on the Warning Signs – Melbourne partnership targets family violence

Violence against women is a major health, legal, social and economic issue for the community. A partnership between North Melbourne Legal Service, a not-for-profit community legal centre and the Royal Women’s Hospital (the Women’s), Australia’s largest specialist hospital dedicated to improving the health of women of all ages and newborn babies, has the capacity to empower and protect a significant number of Victorian women by providing legal assistance and training within the hospital context.

North Melbourne Legal Service has been providing a legal assistance outreach service at the Women’s since 2009. The Acting on the Warning Signs project came about through recognition  that an increasing numbers of clients accessing the service were seeking advice in relation to matters involving family violence. Accordingly, funding was sought from the Legal Services Board (Victoria) to establish a health-legal partnership.  This partnership assists health professionals at the Women’s identify family violence and provide basic information to patients on family violence complemented by a range of health, legal and social welfare assistance available at the hospital site.

 

Khoi Cao-Lam, Executive Officer of North Melbourne Legal Service, and Tanya Farrell, Director Maternity Services, Royal Women’s Hospital at the first stakeholder workshop for the Acting on the Warning Signs project

For Victorian women aged between 15-44 years of age, intimate partner violence has been found to be the leading preventable contributor to death, disability and illness and to contribute 8 percent to the total disease burden.[1] Intimate partner violence is responsible for more of the disease burden for Victorian women aged between 15-44 years of age than other risk factors such as high blood pressure, smoking and obesity.[2]

Despite years of advocacy to shift community attitudes from viewing family violence as a private matter to an issue of public concern, women continue to experience significant barriers to disclosing family violence and to receiving an effective professional response which aims to provide them with appropriate referrals and protection.

 

 

Participants in the first stakeholder workshop for the Acting on the Warning Signs project brainstorming the best approaches to implementing the project

Community legal education and outreach assistance provided by North Melbourne Legal Service has consistently found high levels of family violence in the community but low levels of understanding about behaviour constituting family violence and the legal remedies available to victims/survivors. Australian research suggests that many people with legal issues seek advice from non-legal sources and often from services with which they are already in contact.[3] This places health professionals at the forefront of efforts to improve the wellbeing of women experiencing family violence.  Health professionals can be a catalyst for increasing the uptake of coordinated assistance. 

The Acting on the Warning Signs project has built on existing research by implementing a health-legal alliance which aims to provide training to health professionals to identify signs of family violence and to provide appropriate information as well as legal, health and social referral pathways with a view to protecting Victorian women. The project revolves around the hospital site as a safe and accessible hub for women to obtain a range of coordinated support services to address family violence. The project will assist in empowering Victorian women to feel confident that their safety will be protected and their choices will be respected if they report family violence and seek professional assistance.

The weekly legal assistance outreach service at the Women’s will continue to be provided by North Melbourne Legal Service each Tuesday afternoon. This will allow women to obtain free help from a lawyer while visiting the hospital. The outreach lawyer is based in Women’s Social Support Services and hospital staff can refer patients to a lawyer by contacting Women’s Social Support Services.  

Through a holistic and multi-disciplinary approach to family violence based on best-practice identified in research, the project provides the opportunity to develop a model for increasing the rates of early identification of family violence and uptake of assistance.

A high-level, multi-disciplinary team from the University of Melbourne comprising Professor Cathy Humphreys, Associate Professor Kelsey Hegarty, Dr Stuart Ross, Kirsty Forsdike and Dr Kristin Diemer will evaluate the extent to which the project achieves its goals and the effectiveness of the model.

The project will also draw upon the collective experience and expertise of a multidisciplinary reference group comprising members from the project partner organisations as well as the Judiciary, The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, The Federation of Community Legal Centres (Victoria), The Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, Victoria Police, La Trobe University and Herbert Smith Freehills.

The project is funded by the Legal Services Board (Victoria)major grants program with additional generous financial and in-kind support from Herbert Smith Freehills.

The project will be profiled at the inaugural symposium on Advocacy-Health Alliances on Friday 16th November 2012.

 For further information about the project, please contact Linda Gyorki, project manager,

 E: Linda.Gyorki@nmls.org.au or Linda.Gyorki@thewomens.org.au T: (03) 9328 1885 or (03) 8345 2916


[1] VicHealth, The health costs of violence: measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence: a summary of findings, DHS 2004 (reprinted 2010), p10.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Noone, M.A, Towards an integrated service response to the link between legal and health issues, Australian Journal of Primary Health, 2009, 15, 203-211

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