Women’s Health West has managed a refuge for women and children in Melbourne’s west since 1982. ‘Joan’s Place’ is named after the late Joan Kirner, former Victorian Premier and staunch women’s rights advocate, and is one of two women’s refuges in the west.
There is growing demand for access with more than 120 women and children staying at Joan’s Place each year. At the refuge, women and children can access specialist services that support families to create a new life free from violence.
Petra and her three children* experienced family violence for more than ten years. Recently she and her children found refuge at Joan’s Place. She spoke to Christine, our Communications Manager, about how staying at the refuge helped her and her children start again.
This story was originally written for whw news Edition 2 2016.
Christine: How did you feel when you arrived at the refuge?
Petra: I was scared and stressed, but I felt we were safe. The kids were confused, and after I spoke to them and they saw the environment they understood this was going to be a safe house. It took a while for them to be happy.
Christine: Can you describe your life at the refuge?
Petra: I was there for about two months. I shared one room with the kids. There were bunk beds for the kids and it was hard to put them to sleep. Sometimes they didn’t want to go to bed, because they had fear in them, they wondered if everything is going to be okay. My kids tended to act out, rather than talk about it. They would be really silly and screaming. Sometimes I had to bribe them to go to bed because there were three other families living in the rooms next door.
There are four families living together in one house. It is very difficult to share a house at a time when we all have our own personal stress.
It would be great if we had access to a separate unit, even a one bedroom unit, with your own small kitchen. It would allow you to have privacy and not worry that you are disturbing anyone. I was the one with the most kids and so we created a lot of noise. Sometimes my children kept people up because they would not go to bed. Sharing the bathroom was hard. My youngest daughter didn’t want to go; I would bribe her just to have a shower.
I did use a lot of services available at the refuge and through Women’s Health West. It was easy to access support that helped me deal with my situation.
Christine: How did having access to specialist family violence staff help you and your children?
Petra: Mishelle, the children’s support worker, was a very good help. They have a room for the kids at the refuge where they can do after school activities. She spent time with them and did a lot of activities there. This really made them happy. You can see they feel safe.
I would talk to my social worker, Amanda, about the kids. They didn’t want to go to school because they worried something would happen to me while they were gone. Having access to people like Amanda, and counsellors, makes you feel stronger, because you know there is support for you. You feel like you can get somewhere.
I did seek counselling for my children while at the refuge and after we moved out. They were happy to see the counsellors at Women’s Health West. Sometimes they couldn’t wait to be there. It took a couple weeks to make a difference, but they were happy. The children’s counsellors also helped if I was having trouble with the kids. They gave me some ideas.
Christine: How did you change while you were in refuge?
Petra: For me as a mother of three, waking up and sending them to school and coming back to the refuge, I could start seeing myself. I could brush my teeth, brush my hair, look in the mirror. Before, I could not even look at myself, because I was with the violence and dealing with that. You remember you are a human too, so it was time to look after myself. I felt I was alive again.
Christine: How did Women’s Health West family violence staff prepare you for life outside the refuge?
Petra: When I was at the refuge I started thinking about things I could do. I had a conversation with Amanda saying I wanted more from my life. When I left the refuge I started a course in children’s services.
They helped me find a house. It’s tough to figure out where you are going to go and you have no money. But with my social worker’s help it became possible. We have been living in the same house now for eight months.
Christine: How is life for you and your family now?
Petra: When I got married I had confidence, but then living with him I lost it, because he always cut me down. I was blank, I had no answers. My family would try and tell me what to do and ways they can help, but I wasn’t all there. It was like I had nothing to say. Now I’m out there telling people what I’m doing, what I need.
You think your ex might not find you but one time he did. I went to the police station straight away. I learnt that there are services, you don’t have to live with it. I worked with my social worker and I have a safety plan, I know what I need to do.
Sometimes I look in the mirror and I am proud. I think about where I was and where I am now. I am doing a course, I have a home, I am moving on with the kids.
*Some details have been changed for safety reasons.
Click here for more stories on our programs, services and sector and the latest Women’s Health West news.
Find our more information about our family violence response and support services.