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Safe at Home: Lessons for Practitioners and Policy Makers
Posted in News

Safe at Home: Lessons for Practitioners and Policy Makers

Tuesday, 11th October 2016

Yesterday, ANROWS spoke with Associate Professor Jan Breckenridge about the “Safe at Home” project, which produced a meta-evaluation of the programs set up by state and territory governments around Australia to mitigate homelessness and safety issues arising from domestic violence. Our discussion focused on the report outcomes for practitioners and policy developers, such as the similarities and differences across Safe at Home programs, how they are conceived and measured by different jurisdictions, and the gaps in delivery.

Professor Breckenridge discussed the need to draw on the working insights of practitioners in shaping policy changes, especially in the often narrow understandings of domestic violence, which focus largely on physical harm. For example, economic security is not uniformly factored into support mechanisms available to women. The justice system is often structured in a way that forces women to leave their family home; while women’s refuge shelters are an important, and under-funded resource, women need other choices.

Professor Breckenridge talked about how diversity should be factored into policy and practice. This fits into ANROWS’s commitment to intersectionality, a framework that helps services think through the cultural and social needs of women from Indigenous and culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds.

Watch our discussion in the video below. See further below for a summary, written by Professor Breckenridge.


Safe at Home

By Associate Professor Jan Breckenridge

Associate Professor Jan Breckenridge is a Senior Lecturer for the School of Social Sciences at the University of New South Wales,and the Co-convenor of the Gendered Violence Research Network.

What is the safe at home project about?

Most jurisdictions in Australia and several other countries have implemented “safe at home” programs or approaches which aim to mitigate the specific homelessness and safety impacts of domestic violence on women and their children. However, many of these SAH programs are relatively new and only some have been evaluated, which ANROWS identified as a research gap/need in the first round of funding after its establishment in 2014.  Our project involved a national (and international) mapping of what is or has been offered in Australia by State and Territory as well as a meta-evaluation of the key features of SAH programs.

For this project we defined SAH in the following way:

SAH programs can be broadly defined as interventions and strategies that aim to keep women and children in their home or in other independent domestic accommodation thereby reducing the risk of the perpetrator being present and using further violence and abuse.

For the purpose of this project, an expanded definition of a SAH response was developed. A SAH response:

  • is funded as a specific initiative;
  • has a designated domestic and family violence focus;
  • is focused on preventing women who have left a violent relationship from entering or remaining longer than necessary in specialist homelessness services or supported accommodation;
  • has a criminal justice focus on women’s safety; and
  • provides support for women to remain safely in independent accommodation of their choice at the time of accessing this service, regardless of whether the women accessing the program have ever used supported accommodation in the past.

The SAH approach – is a social justice response underpinned by two core beliefs:

  • perpetrators should be held accountable for their violence; and
  • there is an historical injustice in the expectation that women should be forced to leave their home to leave the violence.

SAH was never intended to be a universal response, but can be considered a viable alternative for women who leave a violent partner and who cannot or does not wish to specialist homelessness services. It does not and is not intended to replace the need for refuge and SHS. Instead, it is one of a suite of interventions that women may choose according to their circumstances.

How did the project work?

The research was structured into two distinct phases:

  1. The preparation of a state of knowledge paper with a mapping of Australian and select international SAH programs; and
  2. A meta-evaluation of select evidence about Australian SAH responses.

A ‘meta-evaluation’ is a systematic assessment or overarching evaluation of evaluations – in this case, SAH program and strategy evaluations – to ensure that the evidence is sufficiently credible or of an appropriate quality for consideration when planning program improvements, and to enhance the quality of future evaluations. In addition, this particular meta-evaluation has reviewed and analysed the data to identify key features related to SAH responses in Australia.

After applying the inclusion criteria:

Number of evaluations included: n=20         Number of evaluations excluded: n=32

It is important to note that not all SAH responses have been evaluated so a limitation of this methodology is that it only covers evaluated programs.

What did the evaluations show about safety planning and risk assessment?

It is important to remember that evaluation questions asked may determine what is reported and so an evaluation report may not contain all information about the way in which a particular program functions – which may well be the case for safety planning and risk assessments.

While it can be assumed that women’s safety and the assessment of risk are fundamental elements of all SAH responses, the evaluations did not always contain detailed comments on the use of risk assessment tools, or even if tools and protocols were used. It can be hypothesised that safety planning is routinely undertaken as part of all SAH responses, but was not specified as a focus for evaluation. Indeed, the absence of risk assessment discussion in an evaluation report does not mean it did not feature in the program in question.

Safety planning and risk assessment – 12 evaluations noted the use of common risk assessment tools for women; only 2 evaluations noted the program’s use of a risk assessment tool for the perpetrator; and 18 evaluation reports recommended the use of dynamic/on-going assessments of risk.  The concept of dynamic risk assessment is clearly very important – risk and safety may change at different points in time.  In particular there are a number of identified triggers or markers where the perpetrator’s dangerousness can increase.  While not always predictable, markers such as a new partner for the victim, family court decisions, or financial issues can affect perpetrator behaviour and increase risk.

In the SOK report one of the findings from the literature is that integrated service provision at the local level is crucial in that it facilitates the sharing of risk assessment information between services – importantly including perpetrator risk.

Why is it meaningful that only six of the evaluated programs made use of protection orders?

I think the finding you are referring to is program entry criteria of protection orders and ouster/exclusion provisions – only 6 evaluated programs required an exclusion or ouster order for program entry; and another 3 specifically noted in their evaluation report that this inclusion criteria had to be dropped because of the difficulties of obtaining these orders.

I think what is meaningful here is that when some programs started they aimed to ensure that women were safe to stay in their own home or a home of their choice by ensuring a protection order was in place, and preferably with an exclusion or ouster provision meaning that the perpetrator was the one to leave.  However magistrates remain hesitant to grant exclusion/ouster orders in any situation and unless there is overt physical violence magistrates may not even be prepared to grant a protection order.  Hence the programs originally using protection orders as essential for program entry to ensure safety were forced to drop this requirement.

In this meta-evaluation there are a few SAH initiatives where the protection order and court support was the response and so this may not have been specified as one of the entry criteria per se.

There are other means by which responses may seek to ensure client security and safety.  For example, brokerage funds are frequently used to provide security upgrades such as alarms, security doors and window grilles: 6 evaluations noted the use of safety alarms; and 10 evaluations noted the use of safety upgrades to properties.

What did the research identify in terms of the link between economic security and safe at home?

The state of knowledge paper identified four pillars underpinning SAH responses which provide a conceptual platform for developing and implementing SAH strategies:

  • a focus on maximising women’s safety using a combination of criminal justice responses – such as legal provisions to exclude the perpetrator from the home and protect victims from post-separation violence, proactive policing, safety alarms and home security upgrades;
  • a coordinated or integrated response involving partnerships between local services;
  • SAH as a homelessness prevention strategy – which includes ensuring women are informed about their housing options before the time of crisis and at separation, and provides support for women to maintain their housing afterwards; and
  • recognition of the importance of enhancing women’s economic security.

Enhancing women’s economic security is an emerging area of research and practice response that recognises the importance of women being able to mitigate post-separation poverty. Strategies to enhance the economic security of women to enable them to stay in their own home and remain financially independent of their ex-partner were noted in 4 evaluations.  Strategies included the importance of focusing on women’s financial security either by accessing subsidies or promoting women’s employment or return to the workforce or supporting further education/skills development opportunities.

The research found two key ways in which the jurisdictions conceptualised and offered safe at home responses. What are the policy implications of these approaches and how might this impact what is meant by “good practice” for safe at home?

The analysis of SAH responses and their evaluations across Australia have highlighted the diverse approaches and strategies that have been implemented. In summary, while we are able to identify key elements, there is no single model of SAH that operates across jurisdictions. Twenty (20) separate evaluations were analysed for this meta-evaluation, but these involved only 12 different SAH responses.  Of these 12 responses, 6 were assessed by the authors as SAH programs, 4 of the evaluations were of SAH policy/legislative frameworks and the remaining 2 response strategies no longer receive funding.

The four pillars of SAH responses identified in the synthesis of the literature were evident across the 20 included evaluations. However, emphasis on one or more pillars varied among the evaluations and the interventions focused on different pillars at different times.

Maximising women’s safety and homelessness prevention were universally noted and one or the other was reflected as the predominant pillar in the evaluated SAH responses, as follows:

  • Integrated criminal justice strategies focusing on safety by managing perpetrator risk via protection orders and ouster/exclusion provisions. Maintaining independent housing may or may not be an explicit goal in this type of SAH response. Rather, women’s safety is the primary focus and is addressed by managing perpetrator risk and potentially excluding the perpetrator from the home by using criminal justice strategies – primarily protection orders and ouster/exclusion provisions. These SAH strategies may be understood as contributing to crime prevention and ensuring perpetrator accountability. Other identified integrated criminal justice strategies include safety alarms and security upgrades. However, not all of these strategies are exclusively SAH and may be used by any woman leaving domestic and family violence, or any person who is at risk of violence perpetrated by another person.
  • SAH programs focusing explicitly on women staying in accommodation with or without protection orders and ouster/exclusion provisions to address safety concerns. These programs focus on women and their children and usually provide case-management to assess risk, manage safety planning and consider women’s needs over time. There is a tendency for these to be called “stay at home” schemes which reflects the primary aim of remaining in independent accommodation. These programs are housing-focused, but do not necessarily have a narrow definition of housing needs. 

The ubiquity of the descriptor “safe at home” assumes self-evident agreement and that the term is well understood in both policy and practice. However, most of the evaluations did not define what was meant by SAH apart from within the program description and why their program/strategy should be considered as such. In addition, the evaluations indicated limited cross-jurisdictional agreement on the definition of what constitutes a SAH response.  Therefore it is difficult to establish an agreed best practice because while individual strategies/practices may be promising, there is not an agreed service framework or program elements.  Hence identifying what is “good practice” from the included SAH evaluations was not straightforward and can be highly contested.

How does diversity factor into safe at home programs?

One of the most pertinent findings is that further research is required to examine the circumstances in which SAH responses are most useful and for which population groups (e.g. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander clients, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse women, and women with disabilities).  Overall, the available evidence demonstrates that there is currently a reliance on program monitoring data which records diverse identifiers, but rarely links these with specific client outcomes.  It is therefore difficult to draw conclusions regarding the usefulness of SAH responses for women from these different cohorts. Moreover twelve evaluations recommended that future SAH programs be more tailored to cultural needs in particular.

Many, but not all of the evaluations, explicitly considered the needs of diverse client groups when assessing SAH responses. However none of the 20 evaluations reviewed noted that diversity was included in the aims of the respective programs, while only 2 evaluations had diversity-related evaluation goals. Specifically,

  • Fifteen of the evaluation reports included monitoring data documenting the numbers of clients accessing programs who identified as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander.
  • Fourteen evaluations noted the number of CALD (culturally and linguistically diverse) clients accessing each program.
  • The number of clients reporting a disability was recorded in the monitoring data collected for 13 of the evaluations.
  • While 14 evaluations provided monitoring data for rural and/or remote clients, none of the evaluations discussed the effectiveness of SAH for this specific group of clients. Many reports noted that women in rural and remote locations were not always eligible for SAH programs due to the lack of ability to offer a prompt police response in geographically remote areas.

It is possible, however, that some clients did not disclose their disability or cultural background or particular demographic features in the evaluation process.

What can policy makers and practitioners consider for future safe at home programs?

Messages for policy-makers

  • The Council of Australian Governments (COAG)/ANROWS should lead a national conversation focusing on developing a shared cross-jurisdictional understanding and definition of SAH.
  • Each jurisdiction needs to encourage a “culture of evaluation” at both the sector and organisational levels to ensure that evaluation is a priority for all SAH interventions.
  • A shared SAH evaluation framework or strategy should be developed to ensure that evaluations collect standard data and address core questions, thereby building a national evidence base.
  • It is critical that exclusion clauses or ouster orders are consistently granted by magistrates in protection orders across jurisdictions.
  • Residential tenancy laws across all jurisdictions should permit locks to be changed and for a victim of domestic violence to more easily become the sole name on ongoing tenancy agreements where they were previously an occupant and the perpetrator is a tenant. Presently, both a protection order and an application to the equivalent state tribunal are required which can be a lengthy and onerous process for women to pursue.
  • As a key strategy of SAH responses, brokerage should be strengthened by allowing for more flexible use of funds. This would enable tailored and targeted practical support for victims, which – alongside safety upgrades to properties – can have long-term benefits in sustaining a tenancy and/or a safe return to employment.

Messages for practitioners

  • Organisations and funding bodies should facilitate a “culture of inquiry” – for example, through supervision, external consultation, conferences and peer support – so that SAH workers/managers can take advantage of existing research and consider priority areas for future research.
  • Practice informed research is crucial – practitioners have the day to day experience in service provision offering invaluable input about effective processes and measures.
  • Where appropriate, the implementation of a dynamic risk assessment process (i.e. which captures changes to women’s circumstances) is recommended so that additional routes to safety can be offered if risk is heightened.
  • In jurisdictions where a common risk assessment framework is used, it is critical that the assessed risk for SAH clients is able to be shared across agencies, particularly where other agencies have information about the risk of the perpetrator.
  • It is important that safety planning and case management for SAH clients go beyond housing needs by taking into account the material realities of women’s lives and incorporating financial safety strategies.
  • To promote sustainable safety and economic security, it is critical that SAH responses are offered in conjunction with longer-term case management and support.

Notes and further information

Learn more about the Safe at Home project.

The Safe at Home team included Professor Donna Chung, (Curtin University), Dr Angela Spinney (Swinburne University of Technology), Dr Carole Zufferey (University of South Australia) and Ms Paula Bennett (Gendered Violence Research Network, University of New South Wales).



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