Report explores victim-survivor needs for longer-term support

Fri 04 Sep 2020

The Backbone Collective has released a new report on the types of long-term support needed to help victim-survivors get safe, recover and rebuild their lives after experiencing violence and abuse.

The report, Victim-Survivor Perspectives on Longer-Term Support After Experiencing Violence and Abuse (2020), was commissioned by the Ministry of Social Development to inform the Whānau Resilience work programme. It calls for urgent change to service design and implementation, saying:

"Victim-survivors described an incredibly long, complex, dangerous and difficult struggle to get safe in which they had very little access to resources or safe and appropriate support and often found they were powerless to stop the abuse even after they separated from the abuser."

The report is based on findings from a survey of more than 500 women the Backbone Collective conducted in November 2019. The survey asked women victim-survivors about their wellbeing and safety, their experiences of accessing support and what kinds of support would make a difference to long-term safety, recovery and wellbeing. 

Participants reported they had accessed a range of informal and formal support services. They were more likely to use informal support networks (such as friends, family or whānau, neighbours and work colleagues) than formal support services.

When accessing formal support services, victim-survivors were more likely to access generalist services such as health providers, counsellors or police compared to specialist family and sexual violence services. However, the report notes "Services more often used are not necessarily the most helpful to victim-survivors." Overwhelmingly, victim-survivors reported that specialist family or sexual violence services were the most helpful.

Victim-survivors reported many barriers to getting safe and recovering. Many women said they were too scared to talk to people about the abuse and didn't feel safe reaching out to support services. Many reported negative experiences from both formal and informal supports when they did reach out. These included: a lack of understanding of abuse and the tactics abusers use, victim blaming, not believing victim-survivors, siding with the abuser, judging victim-survivors or putting them down, and making their situation worse.

Specific to formal services, more than half reported that services told them there was nothing more they could do to help even though the victim-survivor needed more help. 41% said the service did not help them get safe and 40% said the service made their situation worse. In addition, 22% of women who reported they were no longer in an intimate relationship with the person who abused them, did not receive help to leave the relationship. 

An key barrier to safety and recovery was dealing with ongoing abuse even after separation. Many women said the responses from the system contributed to their experience of ongoing abuse:

"Most importantly, participants explained that if the abuse did not stop, they were unable to get safe which meant they could not recover. For many of the women, the responses from the system and those working in it enabled ongoing contact and therefore ongoing abuse. Therefore, unless structural system issues are remedied, having more longer-term support available will not improve the safety or recovery for these victim-survivors."

Victim-survivors reported specific challenges with responses. This included Family Court responses that allow abusers to use care and contact of children to maintain contact and continue abuse, as well as negative or ineffective responses from Police, Work and Income and the Ministry for Children - Oranga Tamariki.

A range of practical barriers impacted access to services, including not qualifying for services, not being able to get time off work, not having support to access services, not being able to pay for services, and fears that services would not be confidential. Wider barriers to safety and recovery included poor responses and lack of understanding and support from informal networks and wider society. In addition, victim-survivors shared internalised negative feelings from psychological abuse and impacts such as a loss of self-esteem or confidence, a loss of trust in others and feelings of guilt and shame.

The report highlights that recovery is a long-term goal, with only 5% of victim-survivors reporting they were fully recovered from their experiences. Specific groups were less likely to report they were recovered, including women who had been separated from the abusive person for less than five years, had a disability, identified as rainbow/LGBTQI, or had children. 

The report states:

"Wellbeing can be achieved by the right support and services being available at the right time and for as long as it takes to be safe and recover. Survey participants want to be safe from the abuser and for most of them that means having their children live with them somewhere safe where they have people supporting them who are safe and who they feel connected to, who also understand family violence and where practical support is available, with enough money to live on so that they can lead full lives without barriers imposed on them."

The victim-survivors identified a range of supports needed for safety, recovery and wellbeing. Specifically, victim-survivors identified a need for "... safe and specialist support that is ongoing and responsive to what the victim-survivor needs." They identified a need for structure and system changes to remove barriers to safety and recovery. This included Family Court reforms, education for people who work with victim-survivors to understand the dynamics of family violence (in particular psychological and emotional abuse) and education for wider society about family and sexual violence.

The report concludes with the following 13 recommendations. For each recommendation, the report outlines key points on how the recommendations can be achieved.

"1. Ensure support services keep victim-survivors and their children safe.

2. Remove barriers to safety and recovery by ensuring all parts of the response system work to enable victim-survivors to access and use longer-term support and in particular, the Family Court, Work and Income, and Housing NZ.

3. Have a specialist family violence work force (including health professionals, supervision centre workers, Family Court professionals as well as family violence agencies and frontline staff).

4. Improve the understanding of family violence by people who deliver support and services to victim-survivors to include information about trauma, risks to children and that abuse can be ongoing and victim-survivors may have little control over contact with the abuse.

5. Urgently provide longer term support and services to enable women and their children to get safe (early and easily) that are free, ongoing, flexible, culturally appropriate and responsive to the particular needs of victim-survivors.

Implement suggested types of support and services throughout New Zealand as part of the Whānau Resilience programme including, counselling and trauma therapy, independent advocacy services for Family Court and Oranga Tamariki proceedings, navigators, support and educational groups for women and children, a specialist confidential information service for mothers and cultural support and education programmes for children impacted by abuse.

7. Investigate how to implement new types of support and services throughout New Zealand as part of the Whānau Resilience programme including, specialist financial support for victim-survivors, housing support, free healthcare, subsidised transport and education-based family violence resources for children.

8. Improve the understanding by general society of family violence so that informal support responses are safe and effective.

9. Aim to require that services to victims, children and abusers should be set up as separate services and should not be provided by the same agency. If they are provided by the same agency, ensure safety practices are in place to protect the victim-survivor and her children.

10. Help victim-survivors find out about support and services and what family violence is by providing information in a range of ways.

11. Establish an independent body that can manage victim-survivor complaints regarding services they use that don’t help them get safe, recover and rebuild their lives.

12. Continue to build service-user voices into the design and development of policy and programmes.

13. Undertake follow up activities as a result of the Backbone survey and report including providing regular updates about how ideas gathered from the survey are being built into the Whānau Resilience Programme via the MSD website."

The report notes that many of the supports victim-survivors want to access do not currently exist and will require planning, funding and development.

The Backbone Collective notes that their survey is "only one of the ways MSD have said they will be gathering whānau voices to inform the development of their Whānau Resilience work programme. Backbone recommended to MSD from the outset that further specialist consultation be undertaken to gather the voices and experiences of Māori, the LGTBQI+ community, disabled women and male victim-survivors."

Related media

Working from home not for everyone, RNZ, 29.03.2021

Strategy to transform family violence written off as 'too Māori', Stuff, 27.09.2020

Abuse victims are urged to get police protection. They're left with debt, Stuff, 25.09.2020

When the Family Court sees no evil, Newsroom, 28.08.2020

Study on how difficult it is for domestic violence victims to leave, RNZ, 24.08.2020

'I was a shell of a human': Why family violence victims don't just leave, Stuff, 23.08.2020

Leaving the ‘battered woman’ trope behind, Newsroom, 12.08.2020

Image: Pixabay

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