THE idea for a cluster women’s refuge in Bendigo has been around for 15 years.
Annie North chief executive officer Julie Oberin first saw the model operating in Adelaide and could immediately see the benefits it could bring to central Victoria.
What she could not foresee was the drawn-out community campaign required to receive funding and – ultimately – the amount of groups that got behind the plan to bring it to fruition.
On Friday, Ms Oberin was proud to officially open the refuge with Premier Daniel Andrews.
“There’s been amazing support, completely unprecedented,” she said.
The “core and cluster” refuge is the first of its kind in Victoria. A further four are now under construction.
It consists of six fully-furnished units which can be modified to allow for two, three or four bedrooms, depending on the size of the family.
They are built around a central playground, with a common main building with shared kitchen and soundproof counselling room.
The playground lets children bond with one another to understand that they are not alone.
The refuge also has a video link room so women can give evidence to court remotely, and a computer lab for children to continue their school work and women can upskill or undertake training.
A kitchen garden sits alongside the units.
But the most important aspect is the security it provides to women and children seeking shelter from abusive partners. The cluster is in a secure location in Bendigo with high fencing, an electronic security door for entry and 11 high-resolution CCTV cameras.
It allows women to remain in their community without having to relocate elsewhere when they flee an abusive partner.
Ms Oberin said this was an important feature.
“Annie North’s been operating in Bendigo since about 1989, and we hid away for a long time because we had to,” she said.
“The traditional model was that they have to move out of their area to be safe.
“We knew that we couldn’t completely hide this place.
“We also knew that local women needed a refuge to come to and stay in their own community.
“What we can do is engage the community because most people in the community are very good people, and they will help us keep this safe and help us keep this beautiful.”
It was a long and at-times arduous campaign to secure funding, which came from the previous state government.
Women in Bendigo were regularly being sent back to dangerous situations in the home because there were simply not enough refuges to meet demand. Annie North operates eight houses in the community – nowhere near enough for the amount of women seeking help.
Plans for the cluster refuge were put forward and land was set aside in 2011, but funding did not flow from the state government.
A range of community groups got behind the campaign through fundraising and by raising awareness of the scourge of family violence.
Annie North campaigners were left devastated when there was no funding in the 2014 state budget with an election looming. It seemed like the idea – and the safety of central Victorian women – had been placed in the too-hard basket once again.
Then, a few weeks later, the Napthine government responded to the community campaign and delivered $3 million.
Since then, further funding has been added and more measures will be put in place as the Andrews state government implements 227 recommendations from the Family Violence Royal Commission.
Annie North supports between 100 and 110 families each year, but demand for services continues to grow, particularly as women seek help earlier due to increasing community awareness.
Premier Daniel Andrews said family violence was “the number one law and order issue in our state and our nation”, and projects like the Annie North refuge were needed across the state.
“As so many in this sector have told me so many times, if we just settle for more of the same then that’s what will in fact occur,” he said.
“We will continue to see a woman a week, her life taken by a current or former partner.
“We will continue to see an MCG’s worth of family violence victims and survivors every single year.
“I don’t want to settle for that. I know you don’t, and I know all the team here at this fantastic facility (don’t).”
Annie North first offered refuge for Bendigo women in 1989 and has steadily built on its range of facilities.
Joolee Hughes was part of the campaign to originally bring Annie North to Bendigo in the late 1980s.
She was delighted to see the quality of the cluster refuge, but said even as Annie North opened more refuges, the demand never seemed to reduce.
“It’s actually quite demoralising that it seems to have grown rather than reduced,” Ms Hughes said.
“Our aim was always the need to reduce (the demand), but as everyone knows it’s just gotten bigger and bigger.”
She hoped more cluster refuges could be opened across the state.
“It’s a fantastic difference, just the relief for those women that are escaping some fairly dreadful circumstances, to have somewhere they can just sit and relax and not have that stress, not be worried about their kids or their safety,” Ms Hughes said.
Annie North Women’s Refuge will now look to expand its therapeutic services for teenagers and older children when they are brought to the cluster refuge.
It is just one of a number of measures that Ms Oberin hopes can be put in place in the coming years, with more to come as recommendations are met from the Family Violence Royal Commission.
Women will be able to access the refuge from next week, via the Safe Steps Family Violence Response Centre.