Changes to rape and domestic violence hotline were 'sorely needed' to meet demand

Melissa Davey
Under the triage system, trained operators answer the calls and redirect callers to state-based crisis lines, online resources or to a specialist trauma counsellor. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Changes introduced to the national rape and domestic violence hotline, 1800-RESPECT, were sorely needed to meet rising demand from women fleeing violence, according to the chief executive of the DV Connect crisis line in Queensland, Diane Mangan.

“No one is asking the statewide crisis lines how we feel,” said Mangan, who has been working in domestic violence and child abuse for four decades.

Her comments come as renewed fears were raised this week by the Australian Services Union about the future of 1800-RESPECT, which is staffed 24 hours a day and managed by Medibank Health Solutions.

MHS subcontracts Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia (RDVSA) to run the specialist trauma counselling component of the service. The union is concerned the quality of responses to women calling the line has diminished since a triage model was introduced in August. They say women are being inappropriately referred onwards, for example to online resources when they need a counsellor.

Under the triage system, trained MHS operators answer the calls first and redirect callers to state-based crisis lines, online resources or to a highly trained specialist trauma counsellor at the RDVSA. According to 1800-RESPECT, the triage model has led a to a 410% increase in the number of calls answered.

But with the RDVSA contract ending in June, MHS has opened the specialist trauma counselling service component of 1800-RESPECT, currently run by RDVSA, to tender.

It has the union and some in the family violence sector concerned that if RDVSA does not win the contract, the quality of the counselling service will be affected, exacerbating issues with the triage system.

But Mangan said she and every other state and territory-based crisis line were united in their view that the triage system was necessary in order to connect with as many women as possible. Before the changes, half of all calls to the service were unanswered and women in crisis faced lengthy hold times, on average 10 minutes.

“All of us, right across the country, support easier and faster access to a support. Because there is only one thing that worries me and every other crisis line in the country, and that is women’s access to a response as fast as possible,” Mangan said.

“We told 1800-RESPECT that if they were going to have their number placed on the bottom of every news article across the country and on billboards and toilet doors, then you can’t have women who call the line going unanswered or waiting for long periods.”

She added that the triage model was a relatively new one, and there would always be a need for improvements along the way. Guardian Australia understands that since it was introduced in August, there had been 62 complaints made about the service by callers, and 31,000 calls made.

Mangan said she was not concerned that MHS was putting the trauma counselling component of the hotline out to tender.

“There will be a major backlash if it doesn’t go to a reputable organisation,” she said.

“I just want the calls answered. I want the women who need information to get it fast. And those who need protection need to be referred back to the state-based lines as quickly as possible. We can not be marking territory, there is enough work to go around for all of us.”

If a woman’s call went unanswered, she may not have the strength or time away from her partner to call again immediately, Mangan said.

In a statement, 1800-RESPECT said a competitive proposal process for the specialist counselling service would allow the service that demonstrated the highest quality service provision to be identified.

Any subcontractor will be required to have specialist counsellors who are highly trained and who have a minimum three years of experience in family and domestic violence and sexual assault counselling with people from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Separate to the specialist trauma counselling component, 1800RESPECT’s counsellors are qualified counsellors with a minimum degree-level qualification in relevant fields, and no less than two years full-time counselling experience.

MHS, who has run the hotline since 2010, will be continue to be required to report to the federal government on how it runs the service and how funding is spent regardless of which provider wins the contract.

The general manager of 1800-RESPECT, Gabrielle Denning-Cotter, said she was committed to ensuring those seeking information, advice, support or counselling received the assistance they need from qualified and experienced counsellors.

“Improvements to the service last year have meant more people get the help they need when they need it,” she said.

“In February 2016, the service was only able to answer to 1,400 calls. In February 2017, once the improved model had been introduced, more than 5,000 calls were answered.”

The human rights campaigner and executive director of Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA), Carolyn Frohmader, said she supported seeing how the triage system developed.

WWDA carried out detailed research along with MHS last year and found that since its inception, the 1800-RESPECT model was failing women and girls with disabilities.

“That was no secret,” she said. “It just wasn’t working well. Women with disability experience significant traumas from violence across a range of settings. Our review examined the whole of the service including online resources and the way information was communicated.”

A number of improvements had been made since, she said.

“What I would say very clearly from our perspective is the critical issue for us is whoever or whatever organisation wins the tender, it must be responsive to all women, and that includes women with disabilities and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women,” Frohmader said.

“We’re not concerned by who is doing what bit. We just want to make sure it is inclusive.”

But the CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, Moo Baulch, said RDVSA offered a “world-class” counselling service and she was not aware of any other service providers who could deliver such a service.

She said she was aware of a number of women who had been inappropriately referred onwards after calling the hotline, including one woman suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder who, instead of being connected with a counsellor, was referred to an online fact sheet.

Before the triage system was introduced, all women would have gone straight to a highly trained counsellor, she added.

But the minister for social services, Christian Porter, said one quarter of calls required specialist trauma counselling, while the rest could be referred elsewhere.

Since the triage system was introduced, 77% of calls were now answered within 20 seconds, while the average wait time was 45 seconds. Data from December shows 92% of calls were now being answered, up from 50%, he said.