Domestic abuse survivors angered by federal funding for couples counselling

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Women’s groups says no experts believe the sessions work, and they may put those experiencing family violence in danger

The Morrison government has outraged family violence support service providers and advocates by confirming it will go ahead with plans to potentially fund couples counselling for abuse perpetrators and their victims.

Critics – including abuse survivors – have urged the government to rethink a $10m domestic violence package to fund services including “counselling and dispute resolution to individuals or couples”.

In a letter to the social services minister, Anne Ruston, women’s safety groups said counselling where domestic violence was a factor was unsafe and “not recommended by any representative specialist domestic and family violence service peak body, practitioner group, or research organisation nationally”.

The peak body for men’s behaviour change organisations, No To Violence, has said it “cannot stress enough the real danger this type of funding creates”. The Australian Women Against Violence Alliance, which is funded by the federal government to provide advice on women’s safety, said it had not been consulted about the plan.

The alliance’s program manager, Merrindahl Andrew, told Guardian Australia it was a “major concern”.

The chief executive of the family violence charity the Lokahi Foundation, Rachael Natoli, said women might not be able to be honest about the abuse they were experiencing in couples counselling sessions.

“Either way it’s a lose-lose situation, because if we go to those sessions and we are not honest, we’re not going to achieve anything from it.

“And if we go, and the counsellor says something that leads to us being in any way honest about the state of the relationship, we are completely in danger when we leave that situation.”

A spokeswoman for Ruston said the expanded family violence services package was “primarily focused on providing additional services for children who witness or experience violence”.

The spokeswoman said the government would not “fund activities that do not demonstrate strong safety practices”.

“There was no money in the budget specifically earmarked for ‘couples counselling’,” the spokeswoman said.

The extra funding will also pay for behaviour change programs, and support for victims and their children. Only invited organisations are allowed to apply for the funding and almost half are religious-based groups.

Labor’s social services spokeswoman, Linda Burney, said the women’s groups had raised “legitimate concerns about women seeking support with family violence being placed in situations where they are not safe.

“The Government should urgently listen to these groups.”

The government has stressed that the sessions will be voluntary, but critics say this ignores the dynamics of an abusive relationship.

“There are many women who agree to doing couples counselling, but they do so under duress because they are fearful or intimidated,” said Hayley Foster, the chief executive of Women’s Safety NSW.

Other victims would engage in couples counselling willingly because “they have the idea that they are in some way responsible for the abuse and need to fix it”, Foster said.

“If somebody wants to approach a family and relationships centre and domestic violence was picked up, the best-practice response would be to refer each of the parties off to specialist domestic and family violence services,” she said.

Natoli said: “I can’t imagine, you know, being recommended to go to those sessions when you’re going to a support service for help and for support.

“And I can’t imagine anybody recommending that the best way for me to deal with being in an abusive relationship is to go and talk it through with that abuser.”

In Australia, the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732.

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