Three days in a refuge: Inside a safe haven from domestic violence.


“I told him we were going to the library, I took Georgia’s bottle and the library books and we never came back.”

Claire retreats to the balcony of her room in a non-descript apartment complex in the outer suburbs of Brisbane. She rolls a cigarette and fidgets with her sleeve. The ashtray is already full.

Getting out

Claire’s quiet apartment in the Chisolm refuge, a sanctuary for women escaping violent relationships, feels a world away from the chaotic household she describes.

“He’d pull me to the ground and strangle me, he’d get on top of me and strangle me. Olivia was standing there screaming, ‘stop daddy stop’…

“Before I met Jack, I thought ‘why do people stay, like just walk out’.”

“The first time where I went ‘something was wrong here’ was four or five months into the relationship,” she says.

“He just woke up, freaked out and smashed my phone, and then he put me on a phone plan under his name … but that was sort of another control. He put a bug on my phone, so he received every text message I got, every phone call he could listen in to.

“He’d know all my passwords, for Facebook, email, my bank account. He’d take my cards whenever I got paid so I’d have no access to money.”

Claire has an air of distraction as she recounts her story.

“Before I met Jack, I thought ‘why do people stay, like just walk out’,” she says. “But you can’t just walk out – he had me in such a controlled environment that there was no way of leaving with two babies.”

Claire’s daughter Georgia comes out onto the balcony, thirsty for her mother’s attention, pulling at her jeans and feigning injury.


“I’d left nine or 10 times and gone back and forward to him. When I left this time mum and dad said, ‘No, we can’t have you back, it’s just got to stop.’

“At the time I couldn’t believe it. Now I look at it and it’s the best thing that they could have ever done for me.

“It just changed everything, it broke the cycle… I probably would have just kept going back and forward, hoping for the best, hoping he would change.”

The apartment next door to Claire’s is almost exactly the same, down to the pictures hung on the wall, motivational words printed on canvas.

Bridget knows these rooms well: she used to work here, supporting the children of women escaping violence.

She’s seen hundreds of women pass through, from all walks of life, united by fear and a desperate desire to escape abusive relationships.

But now it is different for Bridget. This time she is one of the women escaping a violent partner, with her own child in tow.

“It’s a bit crazy thinking why am I back here at my workplace. I never, ever thought that I would be in this position. Why am I here, Why me?”

Bridget is frank and friendly; she has a warm and easy manner, and launches quickly into her story almost as though she is speaking of someone else’s experience.

“We were together for four years and then in the last eight weeks of our relationship he started heavily drinking … His behaviour just started changing.

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“As soon as I left that’s when it started. It wasn’t during our relationship, it was after.

“I ended up catching up with him one day and he turns around to me and goes, don’t ever threaten to take my kid off me, because I will kill you’. He said, ‘I was plotting to kill you’. He looked me dead in the eyes, he said, ‘I had it all planned out, I had it mapped out on how I was going to kill you’.

“I ended up going back to dad’s house and his dad called my dad and said: ‘If Steve rocks up to the house, call the police because I don’t know what my kid’s capable of. He’s saying that he’s coming to get Bridget, she needs to go.'”

Bridget’s tone has shifted from upbeat to one of disbelief, as if she’s hearing her own words for the first time, looking in on her own story from outside.

In the refuge

A young tradesman walks through the apartment complex, the only male in the whole grounds of the refuge. He’s testing fire alarms and as he walks from room to room he leaves a piercing cacophony in his wake. Not a single woman emerges from her apartment despite the ruckus.

Carrie Colonna is a senior support worker at Chisolm and has worked in the sector for more than 20 years.

“When women come in here they’re very scared, and they can remain that way for at least the first week I’d say. That can be a very fearful time, physically fearful, looking over your shoulder,” she says.

“We’ll take her up into the unit. I will talk about all the security features as we are going up, the security system, the duress alarm. I think that helps create a little bit of immediate safety here.”


For many women once the initial fear has subsided, one of the hardest things can be accepting the reality of their situation.

Compounding the trauma of the abuse is the end of their relationship.

“When I first came here I was in the room a lot and then I would just break down and cry, and be like why me, why is this happening. This is unfair,” Bridget says.

“When I started making friends, that was a huge pick-me-up. I could do what I wanted without being questioned about it, that was the biggest thing.”

“When you’re here by yourself, it’s very lonely. I used to have a partner sitting next to me, now I have nothing. I’ve had my really bad nights where I’ve had my anxiety attacks. I just felt really lonely, I’d be on the phone to my mum crying.”

Carrie says while most women initially keep to themselves, they gradually open up to each other and these connections are vital.

“We have the coffee mornings and get-togethers and that goes really well,” she says.

“We find the biggest thing out of that is women talking to each other and finding they’re not alone, that happened to them too, it almost translates to, ‘oh, it’s not my fault’.”

For Claire, her time here has given a chance to recover, to look beyond just wanting the abuse to stop.

“The first week everyone is so happy to get out of it and then after about a week you get depressed and it hits you, you start feeling alone and what am I doing here, I’m in a refuge, it’s quite degrading.

“When I started making friends, that was a huge pick-me-up.


“I could do what I wanted without being questioned about it, that was the biggest thing – not being questioned about every little step I took, then I started enjoying myself again.

“After about two months, I was starting to look forward to life again.”

After the refuge

Sally is looking at six houses today. She and her support worker Lee-Anne Waldon pile into the refuge’s white van, which has five child seats in the back.

Sally is on a very tight budget; she works two days a week and has taken one of her two working days off to inspect properties; she has a young child and explains her childcare subsidy is about to run out.

Because she part-owns the house she shared with her abusive former partner, she is ineligible for any government housing. The property has not been settled and her ex-partner refuses to leave or compensate her.

Sally starts to tell her story but is so fearful of discovery she asks for none of the details to be published. She starts to relax and talk about her circumstances and then every few minutes she stiffens. Checking herself, she asks again that none of it be told, lest someone recognise her.

Very much alone, she has forgone all her former friends and acquaintances; everyone in her former life is a link to him. She can’t trust anyone.

Read more: Women victims blamed as ’50 per cent contributors’ to violence against them.

As they park outside a block of flats, Lee-Anne starts talking budgets with Sally, doing the maths. It’s not clear just how she is going to afford even the most basic kind of accommodation.


For someone who is a qualified professional and owns her own home, she must wonder how she has managed to find herself in such dire circumstances. Even so, Sally is matter-of-fact, even jovial at times. She’s made a clean break and is getting on with the job of making her new life, even if it’s a less-than-comfortable one.

The second property we look at has paint peeling from the walls and the stove is covered in grime. Sally opens cupboards and pulls back curtains, her face is pinched but nevertheless she tells Lee-Anne she wants to fill in an application.

Lee-Anne explains that moving from the shelter into housing is a critical part of a woman’s recovery process.

“I always say to them at the beginning, I’m not there to live in that house, you need to be comfortable with what you’re deciding. It’s not right if you don’t feel comfortable, [so] say no.

“We’ve got to be realistic here, otherwise you’re just going to fail and we don’t want that – you want to be in the best situation.”

Back at the refuge, Claire is days away from the end of her three-month stay but remains visibly shaken by years of abuse. Coming out the other side of it, she seems confounded and almost indignant that it happened to her.

But she will also leave the refuge with fresh resolve, determined that she and her two girls will have a new life.

Read more: One young mother says it’s time to reform domestic violence law.

“Now it’s like I’ve accomplished something: I left him, it’s the biggest boost.”


And it’s not just her; Claire describes the changes she has seen in her daughters over the three months as well as a moment of clarity when her daughter exclaimed to her: “Mum, you’re happy now, we’re happy now, we don’t need dad.”

The way women turn their lives around never ceases to amaze senior support worker Carrie Colonna, even after 20 years working in the sector.

“I’m just amazed by their resilience and how women get through some of these situations,” she says.

“Every woman I sit down and have a conversation with tells me her story. I’m just continually blown away by what she’s put up with and the strength that it’s taken to get out of that situation.

“To watch the woman grow and fly away is amazing.”

The names of women staying in the Chisolm refuge and their children have been changed.

If you’re in an abusive situation or know someone who is, call 1800 RESPECT. If it’s an emergency, call triple-0. You can also call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or contact the Safe Futures Foundation.

This article was originally published by ABC News

 © 2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. Read the ABC Disclaimer here


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