Not yet 40 years old, Canberra woman Joan Anderson has lived through a lot.
Joan has fled two violent domestic relationships, raised three children in-and-out of women’s refuges, served time for cocaine importation, fought drug and alcohol addiction, and had a six-month hospitalisation for mental illness, resulting in her children’s temporarily rehoming.
Her experiences — unimaginable to most — have transformed her into a compassionate and focused business owner who hires other women.
But a decade ago, Joan felt trapped in a “helpless” existence.
Having served a 19-month jail sentence, she desperately wanted to turn her life around, but said she was “released to a refuge and given nothing but a $10 Coles voucher”.
She said feelings of hunger and loneliness took hold and, being at her lowest, she reconnected with old friends and mingled with the wrong kinds of people.
“When I first met him, I had met him because my ex had assaulted me, and I had visible injuries of assault,” Joan said.
“He mentioned, ‘Men should never hit women’ … so I had a lot of faith in him. But after I got pregnant, it got a lot worse.
“He told me I couldn’t go anywhere, and no matter where I went, he would find me, and that when he did, he would kill me. I believed that. I was too scared to leave.”
Three states, no money, no car, two kids, and pregnant
The pregnant mother tried to get help, but said domestic violence services were initially dismissive.
“They would say, ‘You need to get an AVO [apprehended violence order]’, and I’d say, ‘Well, I already have one. It’s just a piece of paper and he walks straight through it.’ And they’d say, ‘Maybe you don’t understand how an AVO works.'”
Joan eventually got out of the relationship with the help of child protection services and local police.
“There had been a serious assault when I was five months’ pregnant,” she said.
“That prompted CYPS [community services] to say, ‘Look, let’s get you in the refuge today; we’ll pick up your kids from school.’
“We had to move between three states, and I didn’t have any money … I had no car and I was pregnant with my youngest.
“I can’t overstate the difference in our life now, for making that decision and going.
‘Confidence, interaction and community engagement’
Once settled in Canberra, Joan started the business Women Get It Done to give independence to other women experiencing family violence and significant barriers to employment.
The service offers gardening and maintenance work to people in Canberra with the labour carried out by female employees in need.
Women Get It Done also collects donated furniture and whitegoods to give to domestic violence survivors entering refuges and public housing.
Joan said she did not want other women to have the experiences she did, of trying to rebuild with nothing.
Instead she said the most fulfilling element of her business had been witnessing vulnerable women gain “confidence, interaction and community engagement” through employment.
Safer Families Levy has raised $21 million for Canberra hub
Joan’s contribution has been meaningful on a smaller scale, but other measures, including the ACT Government’s $30 Safer Families Levy, have been broader.
Ever since Marcus Rappel murdered his ex-partner, Tara Costigan, as she fled with her newborn, Canberra’s levy has raised $21 million for the Family Safety Hub.
That money helped launch ACT Policing’s family violence coordination unit, employing specialised officer Senior Constable Brendan Thurgar.
Since 2016, the unit has helped almost 2,000 people to obtain apprehended violence orders (AVOs) and link up with support services, such as the Domestic Violence Crisis Service, and Migrant and Refugee Settlement Services (MARSS), Senior Constable Thurgar said.
Family Violence Evidence in Chief reforms also came into effect after Ms Costigan’s murder, allowing ACT Policing to unlock a powerful tool to use in court.
It has meant officers can conduct “contemporaneous” video or audio interviews with victims at the scene.
The court “gets to see the emotion of the victim, any injuries on the victim, the environment the incident occurred in, rather than a black-and-white piece of paper,” Senior Constable Thurgar said.
Acting Superintendent of Judicial and Family Violence Operations Susan Smith said the unit had led ACT Policing to recognise that not all family violence situations benefitted from, or even required, a police response.
She said the unit often enlisted third-party counselling services, behavioural management courses and perpetrator programs:
Prevention of Domestic and Family Violence Minister Yvette Berry said the levy had also formed the Health Justice Partnership, meaning 297 women had been assisted by Legal Aid and the Women’s Legal Centre over the past year.
The partnership links women in need with legal advice when they use the public health system.
Ms Berry said the top legal issues for these women were domestic and family violence, parenting and child support, contact orders, and property and housing.
“On average, each client had around four legal issues, showing the complexity of their circumstances when they saw the lawyer,” Ms Berry said.
She said the partnership had demonstrated prevention and early intervention rather than “just an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approach”.
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