UPDATED: The Gutting And Gagging Of Feminist Women's Refuges


Teminya Smith-Fernando is a Dunghutti woman from Kempsey in the Macleay Valley on the NSW Mid North Coast.

While living in Sydney and working for Indigenous education and employment services, she became a victim of domestic violence.

Smith-Fernando moved home with her small boy to Kempsey, where she became an outreach client of the Kempsey Women’s Refuge.

The workers at the refuge including another Dunghutti woman who understood the issues she was facing, and helped her rebuild her life.

But Smith-Fernando knows she is not alone.

“If I had a dollar for every time an Aboriginal woman walks up to me and says I wouldn’t have been able to rebuild my life if it was not for the refuge helping me to restart life again after DV, I would be a millionaire,” she tells New Matilda .

Now, the women who offered her this service are facing the grim task of winding up their service.

The secure refuge, which has been offering specialist domestic violence services for 25 years, is closing and is currently accepting no new clients for its bedrooms, which can house up to four families and children.

Under the NSW government’s new ‘Going Home Staying Home’ program, the NSW Family and Community Services will transfer the building to the Samaritans of Newcastle to run homelessness services, including a general homeless shelter for women.

Kempsey provides a case study of what is happening to women’s refuges across the state – it is not the only refuge used by Aboriginal woman to have lost its funding.

Warlga Ngurra (Women’s Camp) Women and Children’s refuge at Wallsend in the Hunter Valley has been offering an Aboriginal-run service to women for 30 years.

It was told it did not qualify to tender. But when the Hunter tender results were announced, two Aboriginal homelessnes projects had not been allocated at all, and will be re-tendered.

The Bourke Women’s Safe House will also be handed over to the local branch of the Catholic Centacare Agency next week.

The Bourke Refuge could not provide comment, but an Aboriginal woman in Bourke who preferred not to be named said the Aboriginal community was not consulted, and that because religious agencies were involved in the Stolen Generation removal of children, the community is concerned women may avoid seeking help.

Like all publicly funded refuges, up until now, Kempsey has received recurrent funding from the NSW government.

It was locally managed until, as part of its preparation for tendering out homelessness services, the government encouraged organisations to go into partnerships.

Like scores of other services, Kempsey Women’s Refuge decided to partner with services offering the same speciality, and joined other feminist refuges under the management company Domestic Violence Service Management Inc (DVMSI).

This turned out to be the wrong move.

When the tender was finally released earlier this year, it was unexpectedly based only on regions. As reported by New Matilda, DVSMI lost all but one of its 11 refuges.

When the decision was first announced, the long-term Kempsey manager June Wilson told the ABC, “…the first words would be ‘shocked’ and ‘disbelief’. Quite deep grief, ongoing from there for our community and clients and, of course, the staff.”

Since a campaign began to save refuges, some services have been invited to tender for 18 months transition funding. Kempsey is not one of them. 

Last week, DVSMI delivered redundancy notices to its Kempsey staff via a Skype call.

Between them, they have 45-years domestic violence services.

When New Matilda visited the refuge a few days later, the shock and sense of loss amongst refuge staff was palpable. But like women at a number of other refuges, staff have been instructed not to talk to the media.

There is, however, no shortage of Kempsey people who will speak up for them.

Smith-Fernando and other Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal women are organising a protest rally in Kempsey on August 8.

“We are trying to save the refuge and the amazing work they are doing. There is a lot of support because it is going to affect the whole community,” says Smith-Fernando.

There are also professional domestic violence workers who work with the refuge closely.

Natalie Smee, who has extensive domestic violence experience across courts, child abuse and family support services in Kempsey and interstate, says she was confident that the service would be funded and was ‘floored’ when she heard it was not.

Natalie Smee, Rachel Laird and Chris Robertson pictured in the Kempsey Women's Refuge garden.

She claims that the refuge would emerge well from any external evaluation, but that was neither requested nor offered by the NSW government.

Smee works with Speak out 4 Kids, which is run in partnership with Kempsey Family Support Services as well as the refuge.

It provides self-esteem and resilience building courses for women and children who have been victims of violence.

Speak Out 4 Kids also delivers a prevention child abuse project in schools throughout the Macleay Valley.

Small flags raising awareness of child abuse were produced by school children and displayed in local shops.

The project receives funding from the Benevolent Society, but is housed at the refuge, which provides people who can visit schools for domestic violence workshops.

The Speakout 4kids project is underpinned by a huge amount of research evidence that shows the impact of abuse on children’s development, but also the likelihood of those who witness abuse as children becoming abusers as adults.

It is based on early intervention policies and seems to fit well with the NSW’s government’s claim that its policy is to focus on prevention of violence, as well as crisis services.

Smee says this is just one of around a dozen joint domestic violence projects that are run out of the centre.

“The women’s refuge has become a pivotal part of the domestic violence sector which has developed a monitoring committee of up to 50 people from other services including the police and courts,” says Smee.

“This has been established through their professionalism and inclusiveness.”

So why weren’t these partnerships not taken into account for the Kempsey tender? Why was the Kempsey community not consulted?

A FACS spokesperson told New Matilda that the Department won’t comment on specific tenders.

“Preferred providers under Going Home Staying Home were determined by a comprehensive tender process,” he said.

“It is not a question of targeting any previous provider to ‘defund’ them. Rather, the process was about choosing the provider who could best demonstrate an ability to deliver outcomes to combat homelessness at a local level.

“For probity reasons there was no community or provider consultation during the tender package assessment process.

“In order to preserve the confidentiality of all tender applicants, Family and Community Services cannot discuss the specifics of any submission.”

This lack of specific focus is probably why so many refuges bitterly complain that the information they received during the pre-tender meetings with the Department was contradictory and lacking in detail.

The tender process was driven by the requirements of commercial confidentiality rather than community needs for information.

Nevertheless, one is still left wondering how the Samaritans, run by the Newcastle Anglicans, came out of tender process for a women’s homelessness project focused on ‘crisis response’ and ‘early prevention’ better than the Kempsey Womens Refuge.

No-one from the Samaritans, which is still in discussions with FACS about the nature of its service, was available for interview. But a spokesperson said a media release would be issued in a few days.

The Samaritans have not met with the women at the refuge.

FACS local director Sue West was also not available for interview but was concerned enough to write to the local paper, the Macleay Argus, assuring the community that there would still be a safe place included in the ‘Kempsey Homelessness Support Service for Women.’ 

Smee says she is concerned that domestic violence victims will be housed in the same accommodation as other homeless women who do not have the same security needs or problems.

West’s letter also recognised the “valuable work Kempsey Women’s Refuge has done over a long period” but also assured the community that the Samaritans have a long standing reputation for delivering a range of quality services on the Mid North Coast.

That may well be true but it does not include domestic violence. The Samaritans current online job board does not include the Macleay and its categories do not mention women, gender or domestic violence.

West finished her letter with an assurance that once the contract is signed, the Samaritans will ‘progress a model for community engagement” which suggests that rather than being entrenched in the community, they are starting from scratch.

For some Kempsey women, West’s assurances are not enough.

Chris Robertson is an ex-policeman and a horticulturalist who has done extensive work in the refuge garden, creating safe places for children to play and encouraging vegetable growing.

As a young policeman in the Mid North Coast of NSW, she remembers terrified women and children waiting in police stations for extended family to come and pick them up, which often turned out to be a solution that would lead them back to their dangerous home.

Like many feminists, she thought those bad old days were gone.

Robertson rejects the idea that you can provide the intensive services needed by women and children who are seeking refuge from those who intimidate and abuse them in the same place as women are homeless through lack of financial support, drug and alcohol problems, or who are coming out of prison.

She understands that all homeless women need a service, but says that the only one that could safely work is if there was 24-hour staffing, which will not happen.

“Someone will get hurt,” she says.

“My word”, Robertson adds when New Matilda asks her if she will be attending the rally organised by Smith-Fernando and other women. 

“They have lost the confidence of the Aboriginal community… a whole bunch of strangers are coming in and taking over.

“I believe they will be reluctant to use the service. They need a safe place to go. Someone is going to have to compromise – either it needs to be a designated domestic violence service or a general homelessness shelter.

“You cannot mix the two together.”

The door to the Kempsey refuge is secure. As an outsider , you can’t just walk in and out.

Once inside, it feels like a large home with friendly internal spaces.

It was designed that way to meet the needs of those who are often running for their lives.

The building is staffed by women with specialist knowledge of the courage and resilience it takes to Leave Home and Find a New Home.

As the women who have put in many long years to develop this refuge start looking for new jobs, it is not at all clear that future women fleeing for their lives in Kempsey will have a refuge.

UPDATE: As New Matilda was about to publish this story, we received news that DVMSI Sydney managers visited Kempsey for the first time today and ‘exited’ the refuge manager, June Wilson, a month before she was due to finish. Wilson was escorted from the building. A nasty end to her ‘valuable and lengthy service’ to the people of Kempsey.

FURTHER UPDATE: Late yesterday, the  Domestic Violence Service Management Inc manager Gillian Cohen who had never previously visited the refuge and had delivered the notice of redundancies by Skype last week, escorted June Wilson out of the refuge, one month before her redundancy date.

About an hour later the Samaritans, who were meant to do a handover with Wilson in the last week of August, arrived. A Samaritans Manager from Taree has taken over.

With their own manager out of the way, the staff were instructed to cooperate in the hand over of the refuge.  They have been instructed not to speak about the refuge to the media. 

According to Kempsey sources, an Aboriginal worker asked if there was to be a replacement Aboriginal worker, she was told 'no'.

The women were accused of spreading misinformation about the Going Home Staying Home project and were told that they had been observed attending a 'political' rally organised by the Taree Women's refuge which has also been taken over by the Samaritans.

The remaining workers have been instructed to teach the Samaritans how to run the refuge until August 29th and have to get pre-approval if they wish to look for work. 

For the first time in quarter of a century, Kempsey refuge is currently empty.

Some women in its outreach program have declined to be transferred to the Samaritans. One woman who has previous experience with  the refuge said, it's "absolutely disgusting. It's wrong."

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