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A big change is coming to the 1800RESPECT helpline. For women like Simone O'Brien, it's devastating.

Content warning: This post deals with domestic violence and sexual assault, and may be triggering for some readers.

In September 2012, Simone O’Brien had a “gut feeling” she needed to leave her relationship.

From the exterior, she and her partner Glenn Cable were happy, but mounting lies, missing money, and an unshakable sense that something wasn’t right led the mother-of-three to try to break things off.

Within half an hour of calling Cable at 6.06pm on September 25 to tell him their relationship was over, O’Brien was in an ambulance — called by her teenage daughter — with an arm broken in two places and her face so badly smashed, she is now permanently blind in one eye.

Cable, who has since received a life sentence for attempted murder, had “snapped” and come to her house armed with a baseball bat.

Four years later, O’Brien is still recovering, but it was a conversation with a friend that made her first realise she was in trouble.

Simone O'Brien. Source: Supplied

O'Brien is among the one in four Australian women who will be victims of domestic violence or sexual assault in their lifetime. And more of them than ever before are reaching out for help -- before it is too late.

In 2010, the Federal Government created the 1800RESPECT hotline, a national counselling service for women and men affected by family and sexual violence.

It's always been contracted to Medibank Health Solutions (MHS) -- privatised since November 2014 -- but calls are answered by a team of highly specialised counsellors from Rape and Domestic Violence Australia (RDVSA).

Between 2011 and 2016, the number of calls and emails to 1800RESPECT nearly tripled, thanks in part to a long overdue, growing national focus on ending violence against women.

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Last year, they handled just short of 60,000 cases.

Sarah Ferguson and Andrew, a former abuser, talk about Domestic Violence in Australia:

There is no question more victims speaking up is a good thing but, from 2015 to 2016, wait times for the hotline reached over 10 minutes for some callers, while as many as two-thirds -- more than 40,000 people -- hung up without ever speaking to someone.

Hence, a spate of reforms were made to combat ballooning demands for the service, with some success.

Wait times are down to 45 seconds and 92 per cent of victims are now getting through, a result that the Minister for Social Services Christian Porter described as "fantastic" on March 8.

But many claim this newfound efficiency, which was achieved by having calls fielded by a triage call centre, has come at a cost.

Government figures show only a quarter of people are being forwarded on to RDVSA's specialist counsellors and the Australian Services Union (ASU) claims victims of violence have had "horrific" experiences because of it, while the workers themselves are suffering vicarious trauma.

In 2016, 1800RESPECT answered 60,000 calls. Source: iStock

"The McDonald's drive-thru approach to counselling victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, is dangerous and must be shut down," Natalie Lang, the Secretary of the ASU's NSW & ACT branch, told Mamamia.

“The specialist counsellors of RDVSA have repeatedly stated the danger in forcing victims of domestic violence and sexual assault to retell their stories but instead of listening to these internationally recognised experts, their work is put out to tender.”

Porter has repeatedly denied victims are required to repeat their stories and called the ASU's campaign "disgusting and misleading".

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He insists the triage first responders are adequately trained (staff must have a tertiary qualification and some non-specific counselling experience) to identify if and when the RDVSA is needed, and explain the situation at that time.

"To suggest, as [ASU has done], that the reforms to the Medibank Health Solutions 1800 RESPECT hotline, which has improved the service on every available measure was allowing a company to profiteer from rape, is outrageous," the Minister said in a statement on Tuesday (which Mamamia was directed to when we reached out to his office comment).

The claims of so-called "profiteering" began on February 13, 2017, when the MHS put 1800RESPECT up for tender. Some fear it is akin to selling off the service to the highest bidder, with little thought for victims.

Simone O'Brien never called the hotline -- she didn't have time -- but she knows just how crucial talking is for women in desperate situations like her own. And, for her, the thought of a private company profiting from victims of violence is despicable.

"No way, not a private company, definitely not," she told Mamamia.

"If they’re going to make money from something that we need for the females or males in our nation who need help for domestic violence, it’s terrible. Utterly disgusting."

The ASU say they are drawing "a line in the sand" and have launched the No Profit From Rape campaign, calling on the government to provide sufficient, sustainable funding to RDVSA to employ specialist staff and purchase sufficient equipment to answer all calls to its service.

Previously, they estimated the cost at $2 million; the MHS call centre cost $3.5 million of federal money to set up, they say.

From Labor, MP Linda Burney says she is "sick of the Turnbull Government talking a big on women’s issues while they cut and privatise services."

1800RESPECT provides telephone and on-line counselling by specialist sexual assault and domestic violence counsellors,...

Posted by Linda Burney on Monday, 6 March 2017

“When you talk about a service as sensitive as 1800RESPECT you need to think carefully about whether the organisation running it should be considering profit as a motive," she told Mamamia.

“Victims of rape and domestic violence don’t just need call centre running at a profit, they need specialist counselling services – that should be obvious.”

And yet, Porter continues to argue there is "no evidence" that MHS would not choose a contractor or group to do the actual counselling who weren't "absolutely world’s best practice in terms of their qualifications and experience."

The fate of RDVSA will be known on March 24, but if they lose the tender, in June this crucial service may be forced to close its doors for good.

More than 5,500 people have signed the petition, which can be found here.

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