Organisations in Focus

Annie North Inc

Image of Annie North Inc. staff with award

Annie North Inc. – Russell Renhard Scholarship Recipient – As recipients of the 2017 QIP Russell Renhard Scholarship, Annie North has successfully used their funding to support a vital community project.

In April 2018 the Hon. Daniel Andrews MP, Premier of Victoria, officially opened Annie North’s new ‘core and cluster’ Secure Women’s Refuge Facility in Bendigo, Victoria. The creation of this facility has been a dream held by Annie North CEO Julie Oberin for many years and although a frustrating 16 months overdue, this vision has now finally come to fruition with the service becoming fully operational in May 2018.

It is the establishment of this facility and new service model that resulted in Annie North being awarded the 2017 QIP Russell Renhard Scholarship, which granted them with $5000 in funding toward their community project. Annie North has put in a mammoth amount of effort, time and thought into the planning and creation of this innovative service model, which is truly a one-of-a-kind worldwide, and its implementation offers immensely improved facilities and opportunities for the women and children the service supports.

This new model of women’s refuge revolves around a ‘core’ building which houses staff and client support spaces, and a ‘cluster’ of fully self-contained units on the same site.

Having operated a traditional high-security women’s refuge in Bendigo since 1989, the ‘core and cluster’ model brings many changes, challenges and opportunities to Annie North. Although only newly implemented, Annie North has already identified quality improvements they would make if they were to do it again.

Formulating part of Annie North’s project plan, an evaluation framework, linked to the facility and service model, has been established to ensure monitoring, measurement, replication and improvements of the unique model. It was a recommendation from the Royal Commission into Family Violence (Victoria) that more ‘core and clusters’ be built. The sharing of Annie North’s learnings and experiences will assist in the creation of future facilities, while also better supporting other service providers to improve their own facilities, systems and processes to help those who need it most. It is clear that the heart-felt planning, research and care undertaken in creating Annie North’s new facility will support their aim of creating a place for women and children which emanates a sense of peace, dignity and hope for now and into the future.

The ‘high security’ models that arose in the 1970s usually hid as a relatively normal house in a street. Refuge providers did not take women local to the area due to concerns for their safety, and they went to great lengths to masquerade the refuge identity. The new ‘core and cluster’ model is designed for local women. It is secure rather than high security, with high fences and CCTV cameras on all perimeters recording high-quality footage, which can be used as evidence in courts if a perpetrator with an Intervention Order against them comes close to the facility.

While moving away from ones local community can be safer, it also brings with it a sense of isolation and punishment, that the victim has been the one sent away. It usually means that even with phones and internet, they may feel disconnected from family, friends, community and ‘home’. Inevitably it also means having to start again with all of the professionals and services which they may have had a connection to in their old community. Accessing this new facility allows women and children to keep their professional supports and services because the facility is designed to bring these services on-site to the women and children until the perpetrator is held to account and it is deemed safe for her to leave the facility. Even though she is in refuge, she is still in her community.

Extensive engagement with local and regional individuals, community clubs and groups that have tirelessly fund-raised to enhance the new facility has been a deliberate strategy. The aim was for the local community to support and invest in it, and to engage on the broader issues of gender and social inequality, and the attitudinal change needed to prevent systemic gender-based violence against women. Clubs such as Rotary and Zonta have committed to volunteer time to assist with a range of activities to support the services being provided to
women and children in this facility.

When designing this new model, Annie North sought input from women who had been in the high-security refuge or had used the counselling or court support programs. The women wanted it to be safe; they didn’t want to leave and go somewhere else away from their community.

They wanted support workers and other women and children around while having their own personal space and privacy. The new facility is open and staffed around the clock, with six fully self-contained two bedroom units across three duplexes, each with a private backyard and a fully enclosed infant yard. These spaces are flexibly designed, so depending on which internal passage door is locked, the units can transform into two, three or four bedroom units. This accommodates the varying sizes and configurations of families that come to Annie North.

Women with lived experience of violence stated to members of the Annie North team that they wanted to feel happy and protected. They wanted their children to laugh and they didn’t want to feel ashamed. They talked about how the years of abuse, belittling, gas lighting and put-downs had eroded their sense of self, interrupted their work or education and damaged their confidence. They said they would like to become stronger and start learning new skills which would help them increase their confidence and likelihood of becoming socially and economically independent.

After hearing that many of the women would sometimes like to share cooking experiences and to learn new ways to cook, a double teaching kitchen with two of everything was built within the facility. To further support this activity, Annie North plan to bring in the Stephanie Alexander cooking program where children are taught numeracy, literacy and geography through the growing, cooking and eating of herbs and vegetables. A qualified gardener, experienced in working with disenfranchised youth has been engaged and will work with the children and young people through the garden.

Annie North Playground

Annie North Playground

A beautiful playground has been built in the middle of the refuge facility which caters to a variety of ages, along with a double electric barbeque for the women to share.

Fruit trees have been planted to espalier and plants with nectar and flowers have been specifically picked to attract butterflies and birds. The majestic ironbark trees nod and whisper gently above the fence lines and a sensory garden has been planned for meditation, retreat, reflection and solitude. Plants and a water feature have been chosen to see, hear, smell, taste and touch. Once the plants have matured, the garden will be a post-trauma sensory healing place.

Staff offices are located in the support building, with many multi-purpose spaces. Women said they were too scared to go to court; so a soundproofed counselling room with video conferencing facilities, enabling women to give evidence in court without leaving the facility, has been included. Women said they wanted to write a résumé and learn a new skill; so a small computer lab has been included, which houses gaming equipment for teenagers to encourage their engagement and positive interactions. People will be brought in to help women develop resumes and other skills, and they are provided with the opportunity to access online learning.

The children will be able to have remedial teaching if needed due to falling behind their schooling due to the violence and abuse and shifting home and schools.

Plans to bring a teacher in to do tutoring are underway so that children can have school inside the refuge until it is safe for them to go back to their own school. Discussions are in place to bring in kinder and a playgroup to the facility. There are case management and therapeutic support teams, one-on-one counselling and group work activities available on-site along with other modalities of therapeutic work. Planning has ensured that all residential units and the support building are disability accessible and one unit is fully accessible with low benches.

The barbeque allows a wheelchair to pull up under the bench rather than being fully enclosed, to ensure the spaces throughout the facility can be easily used by all. Women said that if they had to give evidence to court or if they had to make a statement to police it would be nice if they knew someone was right outside watching that they were okay. They said that if professionals were working with their children they would like to discretely observe and thought the children would be more comfortable sometimes knowing mum was just through the glass. The room will have speakers and wireless headphones so that, with the woman’s permission, a supervisor can coach a new worker through an ear set when she gets stuck or challenged in a counselling or support session, and training for staff by observing interviews and counselling sessions can also occur. Child Protection Services will be able to observe children’s interactions without being in the room and multi-disciplinary teams of students on placement will be able to observe experienced staff, supporting professional development of these future support workers.

While it is too early for formal data collection around the impact and outcomes of this new model, at this initial stage the Annie North team believes many of their project goals have already been achieved. Evaluation of the work the Annie North team continue to do will help shape improvements across this essential service sector, in what is hoped to impact at both a localised and global level.

Having created a space which provides protection, safety and support for women and children in need, Annie North have already made a significant difference to their lives and we look forward to learning more about the further accomplishments this project brings in the months and years to come.

QIP congratulates Annie North on all their significant efforts and success achieved in officially opening their facility that is vital for members of their community. To find out more visit the Annie North Facebook page.