The head of a Bendigo women's shelter says the prospect a federal government program could fund couples counselling to address family violence is "outrageous" and something that could put victims at more risk.
The grant document for a $10 million funding round for specialised family violence services lists "individual or couple broad-based counselling and dispute resolution services" among the kinds of services that could be eligible for funding.
Other services include education for perpetrators, support for those affected by family violence, and support for children.
The document states the expansion of specialised family violence services will "contribute to filling the gaps in service provision for victims of domestic and family violence".
But Julie Oberin, the chief executive officer of the Annie North refuge, said this went against expert advice.
Ms Oberin said family violence involved an unequal power relationship.
"Couple counselling under these circumstances is completely opposite to best practice and safety-led and victim empowerment approaches," Ms Oberin said.
"Counselling assumes there is something wrong with the relationship that they can both work on, so therefore the counselling is part of the problem because it implicitly blames the victim for having some responsibility of causing the problem and consequently fixing it."
A Department of Social Services spokesperson said dispute resolution might be offered when safe to do so.
"This ensures that people who choose to stay within relationships that may be affected by violence can access specialist support," they said.
"Counsellors will be required to support a victim of violence in a supported, rights-based, and autonomous fashion, without expectation or preference to any particular outcome."
The spokesperson said funding applicants had to identify risks and provide mitigation strategies for counselling to couples who were at risk of or had experienced family violence.
The expanded services had a particular focus on children, the spokesperson said.
But Ms Oberin expressed concern that counselling would leave victims demoralised and less likely to seek help.
Instead, Ms Oberin said, funding should be directed to specialist women's family violence services to support their work.
"The real gaps in central Victoria is the lack of strengthening specialist women's services and in particular women's refuge services," she said.
Where to seek help
- If you or someone you know is affected by family violence or sexual assault, call safe steps on 1800 015 188 or 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732
- In Bendigo and central Victoria, support is available from the Centre for Non-Violence, which can be reached on 5430 3000 or free call within the Bendigo area on 1800 884 292
- Men looking to end their violent or abusive behaviour can call the Men's Referral Service on 1300 766 491
- Bendigo and District Aboriginal Co-operative provides support to Aboriginal women experiencing family violence; the organisation's phone number is 5442 4947
- In an emergency, call triple zero
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