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Why Is The Government Funding Couples Counselling In Domestic Violence Cases?

As Natalia Esdaile-Watts waited in a room where she was supposed to sit across from her former husband, she feared their knees might touch. 

It was a tiny, "intimate" room, and the now mother-of-four felt forced by her lawyers to come to the table for mediation, or risk "looking bad" in family court.

"I thought the walls were closing in on me," she told 10 daily.

I sat in the room waiting for the ground to swallow me whole. I felt like I would pass out the moment he'd walk in.

It was going to be the first time Esdaile-Watts sat across from her former husband -- and father of her three children -- since he bashed and stabbed her with a knife. Then, the door opened.

"Someone walked in and said he wasn't coming. I broke down," she said.

Natalia Esdaile-Watts. Image: Supplied

Unlike many survivors of domestic violence, Esdaile-Watts saw justice: in 2011, her former husband was sentenced to five years in prison for the brutal attack --  three-and-a-half years which he served after an appeal.

But it was a years-long "torment" through the criminal and family courts to get there, she said, part of which required her to almost attend several mediation sessions with her abuser.

Now, the Morrison government is reportedly funding couples counselling and mediation as part of its $328 million domestic and family violence package -- and Esdaile-Watts is furious.

"It's infuriating that the money is going towards something we already know is not going to work," she said.

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In grant documents released on Saturday, days after the Coalition's Budget announcement, $10 million was earmarked to expand 'Specialised Family Violence Services' under the government's National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children (the National Plan).

Minister for Family and Social Services Paul Fletcher told 10 daily the investment provides "voluntary support" for children who experience family violence and counselling support for "other priority cohorts". 

"Support includes counselling, child and youth focus groups, education, family relationship building, advocacy and support, and relies on a safety first approach," Fletcher said in a statement. 

Minister for Family and Social Services Paul Fletcher. Photo: AAP.

Women and children's safety advocates, who advise the government on its National Plan, claim couples counselling and mediation is included in the list of services offered by family relationship organisations that could receive the funding.

Hayley Foster, Director of the Women's Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service NSW (WDVCAS NSW), told 10 daily the approach is "highly concerning".

We're playing with fire when we're talking about putting two people into a room and asking them to talk it out. In the context of family and domestic violence, the stakes are way too high.

Foster's team was made aware of the government's investment in specialist women's services prior to the Budget, at which point they raised concerns over a "number of service gaps".

"The next I hear was last Saturday when the grant came through. I was really concerned when I looked through the detail," she said.

Foster said the funding flies in the face of years of consultation with experts and survivors of domestic and family violence, which have found counselling or mediation to be unsuitable in this context.

"The very premise of it is that there is something that needs to be mediated, or something that both parties are responsible for and can come to the table and negotiate," she said.

We have long moved past the point of victim blaming and placing any level of responsibility for violence and abuse upon the person being abused.

Foster said counselling and mediation can work to entrench an abuser's control.

"It can be used as a form of system abuse where, in most cases, a male who is using violence may use that forum to further control the woman, or to further perpetrate the abuse," Foster said.

"It can be extremely dangerous and damaging."

Foster has heard from hundreds of domestic and family violence survivors sharing their experience online.

For Esdaille-Watts, mediation can work to restart the "nightmare all over again".

Image: Supplied

She remembers sitting on a fence with her perpetrator, minutes before he attacked her.

"I said to him, 'just because you and I don't get along, it doesn't mean we can't be good parents.' Maybe through parenting we would find our relationship again," she said.

"He sat there and nodded. A few minutes later, he was attacking me with a knife, bashing me and stabbing me."

If that was a person who was open to mediation and reconciliation of a relationship, he would have done something there and then.

While there are select instances where such a forum might be necessary (for example, a highly specialised family dispute resolution for family law matters), Foster said these require a highly supported environment with suitable legal protection mechanisms in place.

She is concerned the government's funding lacks sufficient detail on the screening and intake processes, necessary qualifications and safety mechanisms.

In a statement, Fletcher said priority will be given to those organisations which "demonstrate they can provide more specialised support to children who have witnessed or experienced family violence". 

"Funding applicants will be required to demonstrate their ability to meet the needs of diverse cohorts in a safe and culturally appropriate way ... this includes Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children, those from culturally and linguistically diverse communities, women and children with disability and people with diverse sex, sexuality and gender."

At this point, with the grant still subject to review, Foster is urging the government to reconsider the funding.

"This funding is not in line with the expert advice they have received," she said.

"We'd like the government to reallocate the funds to the frontline services that the experts and survivors of domestic and family violence have alerted them to."

Esdaile-Watts whole-heatedly agrees.

"Decision makers cannot decide what is best for us if they've never been in that situation themselves," she said.

"Ask us where the money should go and we'll tell you."

​If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, dial 000. If you need help and advice, call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732, or Lifeline on 13 11 14. A range of domestic and family violence resources based around the country can be found here

Featured image: Supplied

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au