A connection to hope in a world of violence

MIRACLES and hope happen here, but this is no church and it is not a hospital.

Inside this unassuming single-storey office, lives are saved 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Here security is paramount - only a privileged few may pass the tinted and locked front door.

Just a few minutes from Brisbane's CBD sits the headquarters of Australia's biggest domestic violence support service.

From Longreach to the Torres Strait, DVConnect is the first place thousands of Queensland women turn to when domestic terrorists strike.

In the 2013-2014 financial year, DVConnect's small army of social workers answered about 64,000 calls for help.

DVConnect operates Womensline, Mensline, Pets in Crisis and the Sexual Assault Line.

Womensline is the most used service, taking pleas for help from about 200 women daily.

The service, which relies on government, business and community funding, arranged emergency accommodation for 9000 women and children in 2013-14 and transported 8000 victims to safety using planes, taxis and police.

Womensline employs 30 counsellors over multiple shifts to get victims out of desperate situations and start the ball rolling on their new lives.

The organisation's CEO, Dianne Mangan said the counsellors handled ever-increasing cases of extreme violence and emotional abuse.

>>SIGN THE PETITION TO HELP END DOMESTIC VIOLENCE

"It's not only the demand that is increasing, the level of violence is more sadistic," Ms Mangan said.

"We are seeing a high number of women being strangled and a high number of women living in total fear.

"About 30% of the women we got to safety last year were not talking about physical violence - they were talking about psychological terror and threats around that terror."

When a call comes in, the counsellor must first determine what sort of support the client needs.

If the situation is dangerous, police are notified and the women and children are moved to safety.

Where a bed is available, the clients are transported to one of 45 emergency refuges across the state.

When bed numbers are running low, the women are given shelter in "in-transit" accommodation and receive a care-pack containing shampoo, soap and other personal items.

"A lot of the women who call us have been experiencing domestic violence for many years," Ms Mangan said.

"Some are agitated, some are distressed and some are quite calm."

About 25% of the calls are from women who want to leave immediately.

Getting them out of the family home is not easy, with many refusing to leave without their children or pets regardless of the danger.

"Some of the women phone and they want to go before their partner gets home from work, some want to prepare to take the children from school and go, some want to go right now," Ms Mangan said.

Women from ethnic, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander backgrounds face particular hardships when leaving violent relationships.

Often the communities are so small the victims suffer backlashes from families and friends.

DVConnect has had cases in which interpreters brought in to translate for the counsellors have used the veil of their languages to urge the women to stay in the family home.

"We're very aware a lot of them are quite terrified of interpreters and we're also very concerned with certain backgrounds as to whether the interpreters are related to the client and telling them to stay," Ms Mangan said.

"With some languages there is only one interpreter in Australia and if that person has a connection then you're completely at their mercy."

For indigenous women the situation gets harder, as they often refuse to enter hostels not located on their traditional land.

DVConnect continually trains its staff to cope with the special needs of people from diverse backgrounds and regularly flies counsellors to remote areas to liaise with communities about their needs.

Ms Mangan said misinformation, misunderstanding and dangerous perceptions were the main barriers to ending domestic violence.

"There appears to be a disconnect between the reality of what we know about this increasing violence towards women and what many Australians think about the perpetration of domestic violence," she said.

"Surveys are showing that while most people accept that domestic violence is prevalent within the community and that the authorities have to do something about it, they are quite confused as to who the victim is and who the perpetrator is."

She said some people blamed victims, not the perpetrators.

"This is not a time for the community to be uninformed and even deliberately confused about this most preventable of family crimes," Ms Mangan said.

Ms Mangan said it was time for people to take a stand against violence - especially men.

"Those living in fear need non-violent men to speak out and to intervene, instead of staying on the sidelines or excusing another man's violence as the result of pressure, stress or incitement from the victim," she said.

"If we don't have the community on board ... then it will be almost impossible to maintain an effective response to this family nightmare and services like ours will continue to battle this increasing trend of suffering."

DVConnect counsellor Dayle Marino. Photo Sherele Moody / APN NewsDesk
DVConnect counsellor Dayle Marino. Photo Sherele Moody / APN NewsDesk Sherele Moody

Challenge to stay calm amid violence

DAYLE Marino is surrounded by violence.

When the world around her is imploding, the softly-spoken, articulate and well-educated 42-year-old rarely falters from her commitment to provide a calm oasis in a sea of terror.

Ms Marino speaks to countless female victims of domestic violence five days a week, offering support, help and hope as their lives fall apart.

From extreme physical violence to moments of unimaginable psychological terror, the DVConnect counsellor's only aim is to ensure her clients don't add to Australia's shocking family violence statistics.

One of 30 DVConnect Womensline telephone support staff, Ms Marino's career included stints in mental health services.

Her passion is partially fuelled by memories of watching her mother suffer at the hands of violent partners.

"As a woman it touches me personally," she said.

"I grew up in a home where I witnessed very severe domestic violence ... so I guess I have that understanding and awareness of the impact on children that growing up in that environment has on them."

When the job becomes too much, Ms Marino finds strength in her colleagues, friends, family and the two dogs she rescued through the organisation's Pets in Crisis program.

"There is certainly an element of vicarious trauma that happens with this work," Ms Marino said.

"I think the longer you've been in it, the better strategies you develop in managing the stress."

Every now and then, though, the anger and sadness hit hard.

"I feel distressed a lot of the time at the horrific horrible things that I see men do to women and children and then say that they love them," Ms Marino said.

"I get incredibly frustrated and angry at the systems that don't seem to understand or support women and children who are experiencing domestic violence."

Ms Marino said Christmas Day 2013 was particularly traumatic for her.

"It was probably one of the saddest days in my working career," she said.

"When I walked into the office, all of the counsellors were on the phone and by midday we had done nine crisis interventions.

"We had a young woman staying in housing by herself on Christmas Day after she was stabbed the night before.

"Of all days you just hope that on this day maybe people are going to behave themselves - it was awful."

So how does she keep going when the walls are closing in and the rays of hope are fading?

"It's the belief that every woman and child has the right to feel safe in their own home," Ms Marino said.

"It's the women that I talk to - it never ceases to amaze me the strength and the courage these women have in the face of some horrific violence.

"They're still able to maintain the sense of compassion, humour and dignity.

"I'm inspired by the women who call our service and feel very humbled and privileged that they call us and that they trust us enough to share their story with us." 

COMMENT: Crisis on a daily basis

IF YOU don't understand the depth of Australia's domestic violence, an afternoon at DVConnect will open your eyes.

The country's biggest family violence support organisation fields hundreds of calls a day from Queensland women desperate to leave their abusive and controlling partners.

The phones rarely stop ringing and the counsellors - regardless of the pressure - respond professionally, sympathetically and with an incredible sense of purpose.

Seated behind a bank of computers, the DVConnect staff use what little downtime they have to share a joke and relieve some stress playing with the dogs and cats they are encouraged to bring to work.

They take the chance to breathe deeply, because they know the next time the phone rings they will hear stories of shocking violence and emotional chaos.

As they pick up the phone, their eyes move to a nearby whiteboard listing every women's refuge in the state and the number of beds available.

The hours tick by and the bed-count gets lower - soon there is no choice but to send people in dire straits to top-secret, in-transit housing.

From police help to transport and material aid, the counsellors organise everything a victim needs to begin their new life.

Every now and then a perpetrator calls, desperate to find where his spouse is.

Often these men present themselves as victims, hoping to unearth the addresses where their partners might be seeking safety from the storm.

But at the heart of what DVConnect counsellors do, every minute of every day, is to do their best to keep their clients safe.

-APN NEWSDESK


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