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Changemaker  |  Social Affairs

Providing A Place of Refuge

9 March 2018 at 4:57 pm
Wendy Williams
Robyn Martin is the manager of Beryl Women's Refuge, an Indigenous leader and anti-violence campaigner. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Wendy Williams | 9 March 2018 at 4:57 pm


Providing A Place of Refuge
9 March 2018 at 4:57 pm

Robyn Martin is the manager of Beryl Women’s Refuge, an Indigenous leader and anti-violence campaigner. She is this week’s Changemaker.

Beryl Women Inc. is Australia’s longest running women’s domestic violence refuge, and one of only two specialist domestic violence (DV) accommodation services in the ACT region.

Since 1975, it has provided safe, specialist, and high quality support for women and children escaping domestic violence.

Beryl is unique due to its extensive experience working with women from diverse backgrounds, with the service seeing a high proportion of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children.

Martin, a Kamilaroi woman from Collarenebri, North Western NSW, has worked at the refuge for 18 years.

She has dedicated herself to the support of thousands of women and girls escaping domestic and family violence in the Canberra region, and was a key advocate for the partnership between Beryl Women, Toora Women and the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre in developing the Coming Home program which supports women exiting custody.

In recognition of her work, Martin was named the ACT Woman of the Year in 2015.

The award recognised her as a strong voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and women from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in the territory.

In this week’s Changemaker, Martin talks about the challenges CALD women face, the impact funding cuts have had on the refuge, and how her family keeps her grounded.

Robyn Martin headshotWhat drew you to work in the not-for-profit sector?

Well I’ve been working in the not-for-profit sector since 2000, it was after I had a child actually. So I was working in the public sector full time at the time in the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission. I had a baby and didn’t want to work full time and didn’t want to continue working in the public service either. So I just applied for a job that I thought was part time with the Women’s Housing Program in Queanbeyan and it just went from there.

What does a typical day look like for you as manager of Beryl Women’s Refuge?

That’s an interesting question, because no two days are the same. You come in in the morning you have a plan in your head about the things that you are going to do, the things that you need to accomplish for the day. And very quickly that changes. So, you get distracted with a whole lot of other things and that includes phone calls, following up emails that might take you half a day to respond to because there are certain things that you need to do in order to respond to an email. There are always clients. We’re on site at the refuge, so if we’re short staffed and clients need support then you just drop whatever you doing to do that as well. There are maintenance issues, so if there is no one around to deal with that then you pick up that as well.

So I do a lot of filling in the gaps because we are such a small organisation. There’s only six of us that work here and the demand on what we do from clients has increased, from the sector has increased, and we’re just busy constantly. There’s no down time. So if there’s a spare minute good and well, but generally you are just going at it.

What are Beryl’s current priorities?

Obviously trying to attract more funding, because with more funding we can employ more staff which would ease the pressure that the existing staff are feeling. Things have changed in the sector quite substantially in terms of what domestic violence looks like now. We’re dealing with women, and children, because we accommodate children here as well, but we are dealing with women who have layers and layers and layers of trauma as a result of DV and other things that they’ve experienced in their life as well. So that’s our priority.

But, it’s not just around the physical violence anymore. We’re seeing women entering the service who haven’t necessarily had that experience around physical violence, it is more being controlled, and emotional, verbal, financial [abuse]. So a whole range of different things.

And the system seems to be the biggest barrier for us really, trying to navigate our way through that. I don’t know how women who are not getting support, who are in the community and experiencing the impacts of DV, how they manage that because we really struggle with it. It’s really disempowering for staff. You can imagine what that feels like for a woman who doesn’t know what the system looks like.

Beryl sees a high proportion of culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children. How does that differ from other shelters? What challenges does that present?

I’ll just talk about last year, but 41 per cent of our clients were from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. So a lot of those women obviously have English as a second language. So we are dealing with interpreters all the time. It’s really difficult to have a really basic conversation with someone when they don’t have English, or an understanding or comprehension of what a short sentence might mean. We are constantly accessing [interpreters] to ensure that those clients get the same level of support and care that English speaking women get as well. Because if you don’t do that then those women simply don’t get the same level of information, they don’t get the same level of service and it’s vital. For them to make an informed choice they need to have a clear understanding of what’s going on. It’s difficult.

A lot of those women are really isolated and have no connection to the community because depending on what community they come from, it could be a very small community and confidentiality and privacy and safety is difficult to maintain when you’re still involved in that community. So a lot of women are really completely isolated from their own communities. I guess Beryl becomes their community in a sense. The other women and the other staff here become family, and we maintain, or they maintain connection with us, years after they have left the service.

We have a lot of Aboriginal women who access the service as well and depending on where they’re coming from, because we do get a lot of women from outside the ACT, we can become family for them as well. It can be hard because we need to maintain our boundaries. But we do the best that we can and if they want to stay connected to the organisation then that’s okay as long as they want to, we don’t cut any ties with them, we leave that up to them.

What impact have the funding cuts had on the shelter and the people you support?

Well we had the funding cuts in 2013 and 2014. As a result of that, in order to remain viable for a three period and continuing now as well, we had to make some really harsh decisions. We made two positions redundant because we couldn’t maintain the same level of staffing and remain viable. Salaries are always the biggest cost within any organisation. And then there were a whole lot of other things that we had to do. At the time we were off site, we weren’t on site with the clients. So we were paying rent elsewhere. That had to stop. We moved back on the site, so that was a cost saving exercise.

The level of practical support that we did with women, we also had to let that go and make some really harsh decisions on how we were going to support women. And our focus was around the trauma informed casework that we were doing. So a lot of the practical work that we were doing with women around legal skills and transporting clients to various things, depending on what those appointments were, we still do provide transport to client but we have had to be really selective in the types of appointments that we were going to support women in. That sounds terrible but we just didn’t have the time, to start with, because the workload had increased and to make sure that everyone in the service was getting some level of support we had to cut some of those things out that we were doing previously.

What would you like to see happen?

Well it would be great if we could attract philanthropic funding. We’re still fully funded by the ACT government but ideally what we would like to see happen, is for the funding cut we received [to be given back] – even that level of funding now would make a huge difference. We have been advocating for that to happen but again, nothing.

What does the future look like for Beryl?

Well I hope that we continue. We are the oldest women’s refuge here in the ACT. We were the second in Australia, following Elsie’s refuge, but my understanding is that when the New South Wales government did their funding reform two years ago, maybe three years ago, a lot of the refuge and women’s services were unsuccessful in their tendering and Elsie’s was one of those services. So by default, we’re now the oldest women’s refuge in Australia. We have a good brand. We have a really good reputation in the community and a good reputation with government. We’re doing the things and well and truly above the things that we are contracted to do. So I hope that the service will continue.

How do you stay motivated?

That’s a good question. In April it will be 18 years that I have worked here. There are moments definitely when you don’t feel motivated and you just think “oh my god, this is just so hard, I just don’t know that I can drag myself into work today” because it is all so overwhelming at times. But you get up and you jump in the car and you come to work. The minute you walk in the door it’s like all systems go. There’s no time to sit around and do nothing because there’s so many things that need to be done. So I guess, the women and the children that access the service are the ones that keep you motivated because that’s why you’ve made such a huge commitment to continue working in this field of work.

Through your work what is your ultimate goal?

We always say that we would like to work ourselves out of a job. But the reality is I don’t think that’s ever going to happen.

I would like to see more funding around prevention and intervention for children. We’ve got families that come to the refuge, and the kids have no idea why they are here. Having access to counselling for kids because it’s difficult to get access to that. I’d like to see a whole range of things available for women and children who, whether they are in a refuge or whether the’re at home, that there are services available to support them whichever way they choose to go and what I’d like is for there to be choice for women and their kids to have that available in the community because it isn’t at the moment.

How do you find time for yourself?

Oh well, I have a family. I’m the oldest of seven kids. I have all my siblings, except for one sister, that live in and around here. I have a child obviously, and I have five grandkids. I spend time with my grandkids and my siblings we always get together, and friends. And I never talk about work outside of work, it needs to stay here, I don’t want it to spread over into my home life if I can help it. So that’s pretty much it. I try to do things in the community, be involved, attend various functions that are happening in my community and just spending time with family. They are the ones that keep me grounded.

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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