EXCLUSIVE: Rare insight into Coast’s secret women’s shelter

10th October 2020 5:00 AM
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It's 9am on a Wednesday. Sunny Kids staff have just been sent a referral for a woman to be sent to their secret refuge on the Sunshine Coast.

The woman, from Brisbane, was in emergency accommodation and needed a temporary home for herself and her children.

Days earlier, she and her eight-year-old daughter had been strangled.

As Sunny Kids general manager Kathleen Hope and Alex Comino read through the woman's case, they're disgusted at the content.

But they're not surprised.

Time to listen: Women share horrendous tales of violence

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The woman's partner had assaulted her and her daughter, even leaving handprints around the little girl's neck.

She had fled with her children and contacted police but despite the horrific assault, her partner was let free.

He had filed a cross-application for domestic violence offences against her, resulting in the case being adjourned until February.

He was released on bail, and he knew where his family was.

Ms Hope and Ms Comino are visibly astounded authorities would release a dangerous man.

The family's safety was now at risk for at least another five months.

Frustrated, exhausted and worried for the woman and her children, the pair swallowed their disappointment and got on with the job.

While it seems extreme to those on the outside, this is just another day at the office for the charity.

HerStory: What goes on behind closed doors: One in four women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner
HerStory: What goes on behind closed doors: One in four women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner

 

A HOME AWAY FROM HOME

The Sunshine Coast Daily spent two days inside the refuge as part of the HerStory campaign for exclusive access to the inner workings of domestic and family violence support.

As October marks sexual violence awareness month, the Daily is shining a spotlight on what goes on behind closed doors right here in our own backyard.

While inside the refuge the Daily shadowed support workers, interviewed women who were either still living in one of the apartments or who had come out the other side.

Sunny Kids' refuge for women fleeing domestic violence looks like any other building.

But once inside, you realise the extensive measures workers go to in order to keep those inside safe.

The Sunshine Coast Daily was given exclusive access inside a secret refuge for women escaping domestic violence. Photo: Ashley Carter
The Sunshine Coast Daily was given exclusive access inside a secret refuge for women escaping domestic violence. Photo: Ashley Carter

Despite the high fences and vigilant security system, the refuge allows its temporary residents to feel at home.

Its counselling rooms are littered with children's toys and empowering quotes. There's a playground in the shared yard where kids' toys can be seen hiding in the bushes.

There's always a cup of tea to be shared, a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on.

Equipped with six individual apartments for one adult and their children, plus an office that's manned by Sunny Kids staff, the refuge is buzzing with activity.

In the mornings, mums are busily preparing for school drop off and staff are going through any events which happened overnight.

Until you hear the story from each apartment and the critical information communicated between staff, it's just a group of women going about their daily routines.

The refuge looks like any other building until you hear the harrowing stories from the people inside. Photo: Ashley Carter
The refuge looks like any other building until you hear the harrowing stories from the people inside. Photo: Ashley Carter

 

PEOPLE MATTER

Domestic and family violence case workers are faced with some of the most complex issues in society.

They're the friendly face for women and kids fleeing a violent home. They're the voice of reason, the ones in your corner and the people who, at times, must make the difficult decisions.

But in the face of so much adversity, the Sunny Kids women helping women are a pillar of strength and positivity.

Ms Hope told the Daily she had never planned to work in the domestic violence sector, but "once you're in, you can never leave".

"Every now and then some cases can kind of blend into others, but there are some that you just never forget, and you know that for the rest of your life you'll remember them," she said.

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She said after working at the charity for most of her adult life, she'd learnt most people were simply doing their best with what they had available.

"I don't think that anybody chooses to be vulnerable, and I certainly don't think that anybody would choose to be in refuge," she said.

"When people come to this space, often they have tried just about everything they can with the capacity that they've got at the time.

"What we do is support people to build their capacity to make choices that are different than what they're used to."

Sunny Kids general manager Kathleen Hope. Picture: Patrick Woods
Sunny Kids general manager Kathleen Hope. Picture: Patrick Woods

Ms Hope took over as general manager from former Sunny Kids chief executive Chris Turner earlier this year.

She leads a dedicated team of case workers and volunteers, and manages the charity's other community programs.

When I arrived for the first day at the refuge, I was welcomed by a group of women wearing fascinators and having morning tea to celebrate a colleague's upcoming wedding.

The women kicked off their meeting by going around the group and praising each other for hard work, nominating colleagues for the "daisy" award.

But after an upbeat start, a critical sharing of information about each case living at the refuge began.

From residents stealing items from the apartments, to having to make the tough decision to move families on, the conversation had common goals: helping women make the most of their situations, and protecting the children.

 

OUR 'STAGGERING' STATISTICS

According to the Federal Goverment's 2016 Personal Safety Survey, one in four women has experienced emotional abuse by a current or former partner, and one in five women has experienced sexual violence since the age of 15.

More than 1 million Australian children are affected by domestic and family violence.

In February, the brutal murders of Hannah Clarke and her three children Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey rocked the country.

Hannah's estranged husband and the children's father, Rowan Baxter, doused the family in petrol and set them alight before killing himself on a street in the Brisbane suburb of Camp Hill.

Sunny Kids staff work around the clock to ensure the safety of women and children at the refuge. Photo: Ashley Carter
Sunny Kids staff work around the clock to ensure the safety of women and children at the refuge. Photo: Ashley Carter

Both Ms Hope and Sunshine Coast Police prosecutions officer-in-charge Dave Bradley said the region's domestic violence statistics were "staggering" too.

According to Queensland Police crime statistics, there were 1364 breach of domestic violence order offences in the Sunshine Coast Police District from October 2019 to July this year.

When speaking about the growing numbers, Kathleen's passion and determination for change was clear.

"Violence against women is a global issue … it's so multifaceted that we can't just focus on one element," she said.

"In domestic violence, women are by far marginalised and more likely to be more at risk of harm.

"We can't ignore those stats, and it's disrespectful to ignore those stats. It doesn't always have to be a gender debate.

"We have to acknowledge that it is what it is and the statistics tell us that women are more likely to be at risk of harm."

 

THE ISSUES NEEDING IMMEDIATE ATTENTION

Ms Hope said a lasting change had to start from the top down.

"To break the cycle, we have to start with children, invest in adults and change full patterns of behaviour within communities," she said.

"It's not going to happen without the investment from the top."

The refuge boasts a special counselling room just for children. Photo: Ashley Carter
The refuge boasts a special counselling room just for children. Photo: Ashley Carter

Staff at Sunny Kids aren't alone when they vent their frustrations about red tape within the sector.

While Ms Hope said each person and each department was doing the best they could, a lack of collaboration between departments meant people were constantly slipping through the cracks.

"Each department in and of itself can do amazing work and fulfil the purpose of which they're intended," she said.

"They all do what they're designed to do as a department, but there are so many gaps between those departments. They don't communicate or collaborate enough."

She said there was also a wide gap between those making decisions and those on the ground.

"I don't necessarily know what the answer is, I just know that what we're doing isn't working," she said.

That statement was echoed by Senior Sergeant Bradley, who was instrumental in establishing the region's Vulnerable Persons Unit.

"The (domestic violence protection) orders are flooding in but equally are the breaches, which represent in my view our failure," he said.

Ms Hope said a "full gap analysis" of the system was needed because, in her view, money was being spent in the wrong areas.

 

HOW WE CAN MAKE A CHANGE

Sunny Kids invited the Daily into their world for one purpose.

The charity is terrified of the growing domestic and family violence numbers and is desperate for change.

Kathleen Hope and Alex Comino at Sunny Kids’ Nambour headquarters. Photo: Patrick Woods
Kathleen Hope and Alex Comino at Sunny Kids’ Nambour headquarters. Photo: Patrick Woods

Ms Hope said it was also up to the people, as individuals, to change the culture surrounding violence.

"We need to stop being afraid to talk about what domestic violence really looks like before we end up with cases like Hannah Clarke and her children," she said.

"We need to stop waiting for the high-profile explosions to occur that shock this nation, and start talking about this every single day."

She said we needed to start talking to children about what healthy relationships looked like, start investing in meaningful programs to rehabilitate perpetrators and work harder to empower women.

In the meantime, she said, people could help others who might be in trouble.

"Get involved when you see something happening. Report it when you're not sure if something's happening," Ms Hope said.

"Don't make judgments about what you think is right and wrong, just know that what you're seeing is not OK.

"And stop acting like we're doing a great job, because as a society we're not doing a great job."