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Domestic violence rates have soared in Australia amid the pandemic. This week another five women were killed, bringing the total number of deaths this year to 50.

Support organisations are dealing with increasingly complex cases and higher demand. Despite a $150 million federal package to support domestic violence services across the country during COVID-19, funding has been slow to hit the ground, with states and territories allocating just a fraction of the money they’ve received.

Where’s the money gone?

The $150 million allocated in this year’s federal budget is just a drop in the bucket, advocates say. By July, 11.6% of Australian women in a relationship had experienced some form of abuse by their partner, while one in 20 women experienced physical or sexual violence. Fifty percent of those subjected to violence said the abuse had become more frequent or severe since the start of the pandemic.

$130 million has been distributed across four payments to states and territories, while the remaining $20 million is being used to “raise awareness” of national helplines 1800RESPECT and MensLine Australia.

NSW received the bulk of the, getting $39.6 million, but has allocated just $18.8 million of that.

Victoria received $31.5 million and has allocated $14 million — most of which went to providing crisis accommodation for perpetrators (so victims could remain at home), along with case management.

Tasmania received $3.6 million, more than half of which has yet to be allocated. Women’s shelters in the state are full, turning away those in crisis. A state government spokesperson told Crikey the funding has been reserved to respond to potential spikes over the Christmas and New Year period.

In Western Australia, just $2.8 million of the $14.2 million in commonwealth funding has been allocated. A spokesperson from the WA Department of Communities told Crikey more would be handed out between December and February.

South Australia received $9.7 million in commonwealth funding and has allocated $5.37 of that.

Spokespeople in the relevant state departments in the Northern Territory and Queensland didn’t respond by deadline to Crikey’s questions about how much money has been allocated.

Slow funding leaves services strained

CEO of women’s housing service WISHIN Jade Blakkarly told Crikey there was a lack of transparency around how the money would be allocated.

“We need that clarity and certainty so we can plan and start to do the work well and not feel like we’re waiting and then reacting,” she said.

“We welcome the investment but it’s the beginning of what we need.”

Blakkarly said a second concern was around a separate pool of funding — the Homes for Homelessness tender.

“We were disappointed to see it didn’t have any reference or understanding to gender and homelessness … it was very generic,” she said.

Homelessness for women, Blakkarly said, often looked very different, with women and their children more likely to move between the houses of friends and family members, sleep in cars, and live in overcrowded conditions rather than sleep in public.

But funding has focused on rough sleepers. Of those in Victoria’s hotel stay program, just 25% were women, despite women making up 43% of the homeless population.

“Over 75% of the women who come to [our housing services] have experienced family violence,” Blakkarly said.

“We’ve had a really large increase from COVID-19 and everyone who comes to us has higher levels of need, so we’re needing to put a lot of support and resources and it puts a lot of pressure on us.”

Major gaps identified

CEO of Women’s Safety NSW Hayley Foster told Crikey that 2020 will be remembered as the worst year for domestic violence.

“Organisations are seeing an increase in demand, as well as case complexity and severity,” she said.

The funding announced, she added, was moderate. “Most services have not been able to employ a new full-time staff member with the funding provided.”

A second issue, Foster added, is that the funding can only be used to increase the capacity of existing services — making the gaps in the system even more apparent.

Gaps include case management services, services in regional and rural areas, as well as Indigenous and culturally diverse services.

CEO of Women’s Health NSW Denele Crozier told Crikey organisations had also struggled to reach women in need during the height of the pandemic.

“When the courts closed, we were unclear about what was happening to the women … everything went underground for a couple of months.”