Illawarra women’s health advocate Sally Stevenson has called changes to a national rape and domestic violence counselling hotline ‘’diabolical’’.
Ms Stevenson, Illawarra Women’s Health Centre general manager, said the 1800 RESPECT hotline had long been a ‘’critical support’’ for vulnerable women, and men, in the Illawarra.
However she said the Illawarra service would no longer be referring women to the 24/7 telephone counselling service after changes to the service model, and service provider.
Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia (RDVA) has historically been sub-contracted to the hotline by private provider Medibank Health Solutions (MHS), who runs the service on behalf of the Federal Government.
However RDVA has announced it will not renew its contract in October, due to new provisions which required it to record all calls and hand all its existing client files to MHS.
Ms Stevenson said she supported RDVA’s decision, sharing its concerns that such moves would impact on client confidentiality.
‘’We unequivocally support RDVA in their stand, but are extremely concerned for what this means for women in general and women in the Illawarra in particular,’’ she said. ‘’There are high and increasing rates of domestic violence in the Illawarra and very few services that provide the type of high quality, trauma informed, free and safe support that RDVA does.
‘’It has been a critical support for women in the Illawarra - not least in the context of the recent report on the incidence and prevalence of sexual assault on university campuses.’’
Ms Stevenson said such ‘’critical counselling services’’ should not be overseen by a private provider who may focus on profits, not people; on the quantity of calls, not quality of service.
‘’When someone makes that decision to call, that first response has to be compassionate, informed, safe and give confidence,’’ she said. ‘’If they are deflected, so more calls can be taken, they won’t feel satisfied and probably will not make contact again.’’
The Warilla-based centre runs a range of services for residents, but Ms Stevenson said the specialised national hotline was an important first contact for many.
Meantime MHS has denied that confidentiality was a concern, saying ‘’callers to 1800 RESPECT place their trust in us, and we take our duty of care to them very seriously’’.
Contracts have been offered to other service providers.
Calls to 1800 RESPECT have more than doubled since 2010. Annual reports show up to 40 per cent of calls went unanswered in 2016.