I spent a day inside a family violence refuge. What I heard from women was chilling.

This story discusses extreme family violence and mental health issues and might be triggering for some readers.

When Renee* comes rolling through the doors of the Safe Steps Family Violence refuge, she is frenetic. 

Her movements are quick. Sharp. And her words are too. 

In tow are her four children - aged 16, 14, 12 and 9 - negotiating overflowing bags of groceries. 

"Oh my God the traffic was insane and the bus went through roadworks on the way back from the shopping centre and can you believe they’re doing roadworks on a main road on a Friday afternoon seriously who would ever think that's a good idea," she exhales.

Her nails are a blur of hot pink gel, a contrast to the black of her activewear. She looks to be nearing the end of her 30s - although she leans in later with a slight smile to tell me she is in fact, in her late-40s.

We find a shady space to sit together in the courtyard. 

Her oversized sunglasses remain on. 

Spotting the red flags of domestic violence. Article continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

Renee has been at the refuge for two days - and away from her home for a week.

It began on a Sunday. 

Her ex-husband Christopher* called her incessantly throughout the day. 

"He’s like that," she tells. Even though she left him 18 months earlier. 

"I didn’t answer his calls though. I don’t need to. Sometimes I just need a break from the constant abuse."

Renee pulled her car up into her driveway, following an afternoon at the swimming pool with her children.

Christopher was waiting for her in his car at the end of the street - "which is not unusual".

"We got out of the car, all happy, with groceries, and he drove into my driveway like a maniac. He got out of the car, and started charging for me."

Renee recalls the "snap" she saw in his eye. She went to grab her youngest child, but Christopher pushed her against the wall and she fell back, dropping the box of groceries she was holding. 

"He began to kick the box, and I thought he’s going to f***ing kill me. He’s actually going to kill me."

It wasn’t the first time that Christopher had been violent - "but the physical violence is probably the least of it," Renee adds. 

She says throughout their relationship it had been a constant barrage of verbal, mental, emotional, financial, and sexual abuse too.


"If I didn’t have sex with him, he would abuse me or the kids, and withhold money from us," the words fly from her mouth before coming to an abrupt halt. 

"And just a few months ago, he broke into my house and attacked and raped me."


Renee finally managed to free herself from Christopher, and ran to her car, as her groceries lay strewn across her front yard. She drove straight to the police station. 

He followed her, bursting into the station screaming and demanding to know why she was there. 

"Even the police were shocked," says Renee. 

"That was my breaking point. I literally had a nervous breakdown and sobbed for about three-and-a-half hours."

The authorities were familiar with Christopher’s abuse. He had twice formally breached intervention orders, and would regularly find ways to break doors and locks to get into her home, psychologically taunting her. He sent others to stalk her too.

Renee set mini-traps around her house to test if someone had been in there while she was out. There was a perpetually smearing of her nose print on the windows.

"He was just constantly there. I couldn’t do anything. The control just didn’t stop."

Adding complexity to their situation, Renee and Christopher shared a business together. And a bank account. 


She reflects on her career; how she developed one of the largest overseas not-for-profit organisations and established it in Australia. 

And how she transformed her ex-husband’s business into a multi-million dollar machine. 

But her expressions of pride are promptly halted; obscured by acute self-judgement. 

"I've had to come through the shame and the guilt, because I don't think people understand… It’s hard for anyone to understand unless you’re in it."

"I was just doing everything I could to exist. Waking up in the mornings was sometimes… the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do in my life. It would take all my energy just to get up."

If Renee didn’t do what Christopher wanted, he would withhold money from her, and kick her out on the street with the kids. 

Three times, she and their children were evicted from rental homes for falling behind monthly payments.

There were nights spent on naked floorboards, and days spent foraging free furniture from Facebook Marketplace.

"There were times where I’d have to go and ask friends for food, and when the school would help me with providing food," she pauses, a quiver entering her voice, usurping her resolve.

"Sorry, I’m going to try not to cry!" Renee affirms, thumping her hand on the playground table before us, as if to stuff her tears back into the bottle from which they threaten to escape. 


"Unfortunately, when you’re in a relationship with a narcissist, they completely decimate and control you.

"I wasn’t able to do anything, see anyone. He alienated me from everyone, and made me feel like I was crazy. It’s the cycle of love bombing, and then abuse.

"I conditioned myself not to resist, and was just doing everything I could to survive, and to keep the children safe, hoping it would get better. But it just kept getting worse and worse and worse."

Inside the refuge: A candid conversation.

It’s a modern space - clean and untainted. Two tidy bedrooms. A small lounge room, kitchen, bathroom and courtyard. 

A safe place for those to rest their head, and breathe; free from the relentless gaze of their tormenters. 

There’s a small round table placed in the kitchen, and there we sit: Safe Steps CEO Chelsea Tobin, Residential Services Manager Nicole Abdilla and Director of Policy, Strategy and Communications, Tanya Corrie. 

Image: Rebecca Davis.


The private unit is just one of just eight at the Safe Steps supported accommodation refuge in Melbourne, also known as Virginia's Place. 

Despite being the statewide family violence organisation, this one facility - together with a singular house at another location which can accommodate one family - is Safe Steps' only refuge.

Eight units and one house for the whole of Melbourne - and Victoria. 

Yet, each day, over 150 women (and their children) seek support, in desperate need of family violence crisis accommodation at Safe Steps or any of the 31 other independent refuges across the state. 

The limited places do not even come close to meeting the demand.

Instead, the women are sent to motels. 

Motels, where they are given a key, a room, and some food vouchers.


And once they close the door behind them… Silence.

No face-to-face support. No protection. Displaced in a random suburb with only their thoughts.

Conversely, the refuge is an intensive model, allowing women to rest, reset and rebuild.

A unit at the refuge. A young mother and her baby expected later that afternoon. Image: Rebecca Davis.


"We are the first people they’ve seen face-to-face, and they just want to tell you everything. They are desperate for support for their children who are often very affected by the family violence," shares Nicole. 

While staying at the supported accommodation, women and their children have access to counselling, employment pathways, Centrelink or immigration services, and legal aid. 

The around-the-clock support team provide emotional support, a shoulder to cry on over a cup of tea, can swoop in to give mum a break from the kids if she needs a moment, and assist her in mending the mother-child bond.

"Mum is so busy acting protectively, and the guilt with what they’ve experienced," adds Nicole.

Inside the refuge's communal pantry. Image: Rebecca Davis.


None of these services are available in the motels, because their locations cannot be disclosed. Rather, the women are taxied off site for meetings, in parks or police stations - "which is often re-traumatising".

Often there are security breaches at the motels too, where unbeknownst to the victim survivor, she is being electronically tracked by her abusive partner. 

The team have seen all sorts of tracking devices - in cars, phones, clothing, a teddy bear, and even embedded in the handle of a stroller.

"I believe the record was 16 tracking devices on one person," tells Chelsea. 

They regularly see children who've been manipulated by their fathers; "children who think mum is not the protective factor and they will do anything to get back to dad, even though he is the one perpetrating violence," tells Nicole. 

Recently, they had a young child who had been keeping in contact with their violent father. He had hidden his phone number in an article of the child's clothing, so anytime they had access to a phone, they could disclose their whereabouts to him. 


"So, it’s really important to have those conversations with children about safety, and who the safe people are in their lives. And sometimes children can’t identify who those people are."

Nicole entered the family violence sector six years ago, inspired by the need she saw to give a voice to children.

"It was a rude awakening. Only when I came into the service did I realise there was no support for children at all. We’re getting better at that, but as a sector, there is still a long way to go."

Chelsea says that too often in family violence, the child is treated as a witness, rather than a victim. 

She then shares her own experiences of fostering a child with disability - as a result of family violence. 

"She's absolutely a victim - she’s lived her whole life as a victim of family violence."

Tanya adds, "Often it’s treated that, 'if mum is okay, then she will be okay to protect the kids'."

Because of the dire shortage of supported accommodation facilities, those women who reach the refuge have lived some of the most extreme cases of family violence, or have nowhere left to turn. Their backgrounds and ages vary. There is no "typical" profile.

More than 150 beds are needed - every night. But there aren't nearly enough available. Image: Rebecca Davis.


Anthea* left the refuge earlier this week. Victoria Police had referred her to them after she was admitted into hospital.

Her partner had held a gun to her head and pulled the trigger. Thankfully, it wasn’t loaded - but she didn’t know that at the time. 

He then committed some of the most horrific acts against her before attempting to kill her beloved dog. 

Miraculously, Anthea's dog survived, but required life-saving surgery. He was then reunited with her at the refuge. 


Nicole recalls a phone call from the police, thanking her team for their work in accommodating Anthea and her dog, "because if not, they didn’t think that she would be here anymore, that she would’ve suicided".

"It takes a toll," says Nicole. There’s a lot of burnout of support workers in the sector - though not necessarily because of the work itself. 

"It’s a systemic fight. The bureaucracy. The red tape. Educating organisations and services. It’s consistent, and it’s exhausting."

One of Chelsea’s greatest frustrations is the fact there are many unused purpose-built facilities - like, former aged care homes - that could be easily adopted into refuges. 

She explains that since the Royal Commission into Family Violence in 2014, demand has doubled from attention and awareness. 60 per cent of calls to Safe Steps are now from self-referring women.

"There's a big role of trust with the community. The government has put money into this which is terrific - but it’s not working as a system yet. You just can’t leave the women in the motels. It’s the worst thing."

Just last Saturday night, 26 women called Safe Steps after hours in need of emergency accommodation. 

Aside from the lack of support at the motels, there are other patrons there too. Safe Steps needs to ensure that they are not males from the homelessness sector or newly released male prisoners.


"Our laws are so far behind, it’s ridiculous," adds Nicole.

"Our Magistrates have been in their ivory tower for way too long…. Offenders often get a slap on the wrist or three to six months for really horrific family violence assaults."

"And we pick up the pieces on the other end here."

Inside the call centre.

"Are you currently safe?"

It’s the first question women hear when they call Safe Steps.

Inside the Safe Steps call centre. Image: Rebecca Davis.


In the past year, Safe Steps received 68,661 calls - from victim survivors, police, hospitals and schools - all reporting cases of family violence. 

That’s in addition to the 106,096 outbound calls from Safe Steps to manage victim survivor risk. 

The call centre is tucked away in an unassuming building, close to Melbourne’s city centre. 

When I visit, there are women - younger and older of varying backgrounds - quietly tapping away at their keyboards, speaking into their headsets in a hushed tone. 

Angela Cook is the Intake and Assessment Manager at Safe Steps - Victoria’s only 24/7 domestic abuse centre - and her team are recovering from what has just been an exceptionally busy few days. 

It was the AFL Grand Final, and a long weekend.

"It’s not uncommon on these types of weekends for there to be a lot of drinking, and then the perpetrators return home to their partners in an abusive state," she explains.

In the 30 years that Angela has worked in the sector, she has heard a lot. 

Sometimes she receives calls from men masquerading as the victim.

"We’ve supported high-profile victim survivors, which can be tricky. It can also be difficult when perpetrators work in the system."


She says those men - who have worked in the department or the police force - have called in their official capacity to obtain information, "but we’ve got systems in place so that we don’t share them".

Then there are the lesser-spoken aspects of family violence, like elder abuse - often adult children who perpetrate physical, emotional or financial abuse of their parents. 

There has also been a rapid increase in technological abuse, with women being tracked, bugged and secretly filmed by cameras in the home.

Image: Rebecca Davis.


Angela shares the unique challenges faced by women of culturally and linguistically diverse communities. 

"People think honour killings happen just overseas. No."

"We’ve had quite a few burns victims too. They’ve ended up in ICU after being set alight with petrol."

Angela's team have worked with other authorities at intercepting forced marriage - in one case, they prevented a father at the airport from taking his daughter overseas to wed against her will. 

On the flip side, they also helped a young Indonesian girl flee her abusive marriage, and get her back to her home country. 

"That case really stayed with me."

As did another tragic case earlier this year. 

With no refuge accommodation available, a young woman was sent to a motel. 

There she took her own life. 

Yet staggeringly, suicides as a result of domestic violence are not captured in the statistics. And thus, the true cost of domestic violence - and its ripple effect - is not documented. 

"The justice system needs an overhaul," adds Angela. 

"Throughout COVID, courts offered bail rather than remand for many perpetrators, therefore sending them back into the home. Also, the threshold for proof is too difficult - it’s so much harder to prove abuse in the home, as opposed to if it occurred in the street."


Angela also calls for more education around coercive control.

"Quite often people think family violence is just physical, but it’s the emotional and psychological control that has an enormous impact."

'I'm done being scared all the time.'

Renee is finally getting some more sleep throughout the night now. 

For years, she has been running on adrenaline and hyper-vigilance; and even after last Sunday’s episode, she had to change crisis accommodation motels twice before reaching the refuge. 

Because Christopher had discovered her location and breached the IVO again. 

"Since I’ve been here, I feel so much better - mentally and emotionally. I’ve been productive by being able to sit down with someone and talk things through - from lawyers to doctors to schools and safety plans."

"If I’d stayed in the motel, I wouldn’t have gotten as far on my own."

And now, Renee is on a path toward healing. There is hope again, with her sights firmly set towards creating a new, happy life for herself and her boys. On her terms.

"I’m done being scared all the time. I’m not going to do it anymore," she says firmly.


"And I know now, I don’t need to be afraid. I’ve got the support here, assisting me with measures and just helping me feel better about me."

"I’m not running anymore. I’m taking back control, and I’m empowering myself."

* Not their real names.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

You can also call Safe Steps 24/7 Family Violence Response Line on 1800 015 188 or visit www.safesteps.org.au for further information.

If you are a migrant or refugee woman and are experiencing family violence and need support, call inTouch on 1800 755 988 between Monday to Friday 9:30am- 4:30pm.

The Men’s Referral Service is also available on 1300 766 491 or via online chat at www.ntv.org.au. 

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 for support or beyondblue at 1300 22 4636.

Keen to read more from Rebecca Davis? You can find her articles here, or follow her on Instagram, @rebeccadavis___

Feature Image: Getty.