COVID-19 Digital Forum #4 (July) Community Sector

COVID-19 Digital Forum #4 (July)

On July 2nd 2020, VCOSS and the Department of Health and Human Services convened the fourth COVID-19 Digital Forum to guide the community sector’s ongoing response to the coronavirus pandemic.

You can view the past forums here.

Our panelists were:

  • Ben Rimmer (DHHS Associate Secretary, Deputy Secretary Housing)
  • Tammy Dinh (COVID-19 Public Health Incident Management Team)
  • Natalia Aulia
  • Professor John Catford (Public Health Specialist Adviser, COVID-19 Pandemic Response)
  • Eleri Butler (CEO, Family Safety Victoria)
  • Sherri Bruinhout (Director, DHHS Housing Pathways and Outcomes)


Emma King:    Good afternoon. My name is Emma King. I’m the CEO of the Victorian Council of Social Service. And I’m really pleased to welcome you to this afternoon’s VCOSS DHHS’ COVID-19 seminar.

I would like to recognise the traditional owners of the land that I’m on today and the traditional owners of the land across Victoria.

Since our last webinars just a month ago, the situation has changed significantly. We’ve had more confirmed cases and we now have a number of suburbs that are in lockdown. We know that this is really tough for so many in our community, in particular, for those people who are high risk, and for those who are unable or find it difficult to isolate. And for those who are facing further heats to their income.

Community sector organisations are again vital. They’re vital for the support that they provide and the connection that they provide for people in our community. So it is very timely that we have with us today, Tammy Dinh and Natalia Aulia from the Public Health team to talk through what this means for the community sector organisations and the people who use our services.

So I might throw it over to whichever of you would like to start, but perhaps just to begin with, can you talk to us about what the current advice is and what you would like people to know? I’ll hand it over to either of you, Tammy or Natalia whichever you would like to start.

Tammy Dinh:     Hi, thanks for having us here this afternoon. So we appreciate it’s a very difficult time for everyone. And the current public health advice in particular to community services is that those residing in restricted postcodes, the community facilities and services can still operate. If you’re hosting it for a public support service, like a food bank or hosting essential support group, and community halls can open for weddings for five to 10 people respectively in line with the new restrictions. However, all the other community facilities must remain closed, and these include so the libraries, the toy centers, the youth centers, and community halls where it’s not used for any other purpose.

So for the community service stuff, when you’re working from where you can, we encourage working from home video conferencing where possible, and we understand that some services are face-to-face. So in these situations, if you’re continuing to operate, just remember the safeguards that we’ve previously advised to you in terms of maintaining good hygiene, physical distancing of at least 1.5 meters from others. And following the density equation when you’re operating in enclosed spaces of no more than 20 people, or the four square meter rule.

Emma King:    Thanks very much, Natalia. I think and also what advice would you give to community sector organizations that have people traveling in and out of the hotspot? So that’s obviously a really, we know we’ve seen a number of changes, they’re just over the last couple of days, and with the changes coming to effect midnight, last night, do you have advice specifically for people who’ve got staff traveling in and out of the hotspots?

Tammy Dinh:     Yeah, so if you could, in your restricted postcode, when you’re outside a postcode is actually only permitted for one or four reasons. So those are just as a reminder for food, study and work, for shopping for food and supplies, for care and caregiving and exercise. And if you can work from home, you should work from home.

So where possible, the community service organisations should really encourage staff to limit traveling in and out of the hotspots.

If you do need to travel through these restricted postcodes you can, but just plan your trip so that you don’t need to stop in those areas unless it is for one of those four reasons. So see if you can make some amendments to logistical plans that you make so that you can avoid where possible those restricted postcodes.

And so entering into a restricted postcode sort of maintaining all of those safeguards and protocols and screening staff and clients that you currently have to continue to do so to monitor symptoms. And what I mentioned before about hygiene, safe physical distancing from others, and making sure you use the good cough etiquette as well.

Emma King:    Thank you for that. And in terms of community service… staff and community service organisations that are working within hotspots, does the Department of Health, DHHS recommend that they should be wearing mask?

Tammy Dinh:     So at this point in time, we haven’t pushed a formal recommendation for any staff or the general public to wear masks. However, if individuals choose to do so, then they can. I know what we’re saying is that if organisations can support that as best as possible and that will be okay. But it’s really key to remember that masks is just one line of defence against, and as results were showing, it’s more of a protective mechanism for when you’re unwell so that you don’t cough on others, but when you’re in the healthy community, we’re not seeing much of the sort of evidence of that protective, and we’re starting to save more now as more evidence comes through. So what we wanna encourage you, if you are wearing masks that you also make sure that you don’t forget those other things like good hand hygiene and maintaining physical distancing. So wearing a mask does not automatically allow you to stand closer to somebody else. There’s just a few things that you need to be really careful about when you’re wearing a mask. And all of those are the things that we’ve encouraged so far in this COVID period remained just as important.

Emma King:    Thanks, Tammy. And I guess just to extend that conversation, and I’m not sure whether yourself or Natalia wants to answer, but in terms of things, I know there’s lots of mixed communications more broadly across the community about what does that mean if you’re taking public transport, what does it mean if you’re going into the supermarket, for example, is it the same advice that you’ve just given there, if you’re just going out to do your shopping, or is it sort of particular advice? I know we’re seeing more and more people who are wearing masks at the moment. So any kind of general advice that you have on that front as well?

Tammy Dinh:     Yeah, so the masks debate is always in serious consideration. Particularly when we’re seeing more cases in Victoria. So we’re not saying that we will not make a recommendation to not wear last on an ongoing period. It is a sort of a constantly changing situation we’re facing here. So that might be something that we will definitely communicate. So in terms of public transport and shopping at this point in time, if you choose to wear mask, you can do so, but you don’t need to. But when you’re out in the supermarket, when you’re on public transport, where possible to maintain that 1.5 meter distance from somebody, yeah.

Emma King:    Thank you. In terms of, one of the answers I’ve heard from a number of different member organisations of ours comes to issues around tasting. So it’s around, if someone takes a test and they’re waiting for results, we know that they should isolate while they’re waiting. Can you talk to us a bit about what happens with immediate family members? So if you’re waiting on a test that your household, you’re well at the time, if you’re an immediate family member there’s someone who’s had a test, but you haven’t, can I go to work or can I go to school for example, what advice is the health office giving around these?

Tammy Dinh:     Natalia do you wanna?

Natalia Aulia:     Yeah, so people that have been in contact with a suspected case of COVID-19, they don’t need to isolate or seek testing unless they’re directed to by the department’s case and contact team. I guess so that means for family members, immediate family members in the same household, you can go to work and you can go to school. But I guess these people doesn’t mean that they’re out of the woods. They should continue to monitor for symptoms even if mild and seek testing if they’re concerned.

But on the other hand, if people who have symptoms again, even if they’re mild, they should stay at home. If unwell and await test results.

But there may be other situations where I guess as part of the the testing blitz that people that’s happening throughout our suburbs at the moment that if they don’t have symptoms, they don’t have to stay at home until they get their results. So there’s I guess, a few different scenarios, which this all can apply.

Emma King:    And I know we’ve had questions from employers as well about saying, look, if we’ve got a staff member who’s gone and they’ve been tested, whether they’ve been symptomatic or asymptomatic, what does that mean in terms of, for themselves and for their immediate family members as well? In particular, we’ve had questions around saying, well, my employee has been tested, they don’t have symptoms, but they’re in for example, a hotspot so they’ve decided to get tested. They know that they don’t come to work until I get the results back. So the same advice still applies in terms of family members, et cetera, as well in that scenario?

Natalia Aulia:     Yeah, I’d say so. And I think for employers I think it’s always a good thing to remember around our communication to other employees and around if there was a suspected case or hopefully not a confirmed case but if there’s not then, yeah, encourage that ongoing communication with employees and employees.

Emma King:    So just to be really clear, ’cause this is one we’ve had lots of questions about, so if you’ve got a family member who’s tested, they’re waiting for the results as an immediate family member, you’re not required to stay at home. You can go to work, et cetera, but of course, if you can work from home, that’s what you would do, et cetera as well, but you are actually able to go to work so that’s probably a conversation they need to have within the workplace. If your employer then would prefer that you stay home until you get your test results, is that correct? Thank you again.

Tammy Dinh:     And if your are in a restricted postcode. If you can work from home, you should be working from home. And if you have any symptoms, however mild, stay home.

Emma King:    Thank you. In terms of I guess another set of advice we’ve received from employers is they want some clarification around, would you advise separating staff who’ve operated in hotspots from those that haven’t entered those particular postcodes or priority postcodes or hotspots?

Natalia Aulia:     Yes, I guess it depends on the organisation, and if the business model allows it to me, that sounds like a completely sensible idea to separate you two with your employees who have been in hotspots and employees that have not. So yeah, the idea for examples, you can have team A and then team B. But we completely understand that that may not entirely be possible for all organisations.

Emma King:    Thank you. And just one last question for the two of you for Tammy and Natalia. In terms of, has any particular consideration being given to people with disability in our community? And I guess I’m thinking about any material that can be distributed, that’s particularly sensitive to people who may have disabilities in relation to testing in regard to COVID or to COVID more generally as well. And I guess, any general information or advice that you have.

Tammy Dinh:     Yeah, yes, we’re definitely… there is a strong sort of interest in our public health team regarding this and the public health team we touch base prior to this meeting are really keen full community services to reach out to us and kind of give us a little bit of a pointers and in helping with messaging. We understand at the moment there isn’t that much out there. But we are definitely opening up this opportunity and would appreciate it any support from you, from the community services group to help us kind of streamline our messaging.

I’ve got a key contact, who would be happy to talk to anyone so please feel free to reach out with us but most about usual comms channels is through our website, which we understand has some disability issues as well.

Emma King:    Thank you for that. And if you’re able to share that key contact with us, we’ll put that up on VCOSS website and look at making sure that we share it through our channels and also making sure that we keep that live as well. Cause I know there’s a number of organisations that work with people who have disability for whom this has been a really key question as well.

So can I just say a big thank you Tammy and Natalia for stepping in today. We really appreciate it and as you would appreciate as well, there are so many people who’ve got every question, every decision they make is based on that health information first and foremost, and then the decisions are made from that point.

Can I also just say a huge, thank you. I know that you are working day and night for the benefit of Victoria. We appreciate it enormously and really appreciate the time that you’ve been able to give to us today. But the questions you’ve answered have been really some of the key ones that VCOSS has been receiving in terms of the lead into today. And it is amazing when you think back just a month ago, again, how much things have continued to change since that time. So a huge thank you for joining us today. It’s very much appreciated, thank you.

Natalia Aulia:     Thank you.

Tammy Dinh:     Thanks for having us.

Emma King:    My absolute pleasure. Thank you very much.

It’s now my absolute pleasure to introduce Ben Rimmer. Ben is the Deputy Secretary and Director of Housing at DHHS and I believe also the current Associate Deputy Secretary for DHHS. Thank you very much for being here, Ben and for joining us today. So perhaps if I can just kick off with some questions as well for you Ben.

Reaching cold communities with appropriate health information can be the security, so how is the government managing this challenge and what can community organisations do to help?

Ben Rimmer:     Thanks, Emma and great question. First, can I just start perhaps on behalf of DHHS and my colleagues acknowledging the traditional owners of the country that people are meeting on all across Victoria and acknowledging elders past, present, and future.

And also just say how fantastic it is that Emma, you and VCOSS and your colleagues have been running these forums, which I think incredibly valuable in helping share information in the community.

So look, the issues of engaging well with CALD communities have been incredibly important to us right from the start of this process, but in particular, in the last few weeks as we’ve seen a really different kind of pattern of transmission of COVID emerge.

So obviously some of the basic things that have been done include translation of the advice and restrictions. We’re now translating routinely into 53 languages. There’s specific advertising campaigns focusing on different cultural communities that are in testing at the moment. And we imagine will be scheduled to continue until the end of August, radio advertising in 22 different languages, that kind of stuff.

I don’t know, people may have seen the door-to-door work that’s going on now includes QR codes and things to really make it as simple as possible for people to engage in languages of their choice and to make that easy. Perhaps more importantly, even than that, is we’ve done a lot of work recently through the Victorian Multicultural Commission to reach out to specific organisations, community organisations, faith based organisations, a lot of work in particular with the Islamic Council of Victoria around the cultural advisors program and all of that is incredibly important in helping reach community members in ways that are meaningful to them. So there’s videos in language being produced through that partnership.

And look more than anything, we know that people are wanting information from sources that they trust, for some of that, that means from government. For some of us that means from community organisations from more informal networks. So we just need to work all of that as we work through this.

Emma King:    Thanks Ben. I know organisations, like Ethnic Communities Council of Victoria, for example, plays such a pivotal role, and are very keen to assist at the moment as well in making sure we can get the best possible information out to all of our communities.

Secondly, many Aboriginal people, including elders and people with existing chronic disease, are obviously at very high risk if they were to contract COVID-19. Can you talk a bit about what’s being done to engage at risk Aboriginal communities, their peak bodies and ACCOs, that’s Aboriginal community controlled organisations, in a way that’s culturally safe and appropriate?

Ben Rimmer:     Yeah, it’s such a great question because right from the start of these epidemic, I think all of us have been very committed collectively to making sure that we do whatever we can to prevent the transmission of COVID within Aboriginal communities. And I think we’re all aware of this huge significance around the role of elders and the vulnerability of elders to disease and how important it is that we do whatever we can to prevent that taking place.

I really wanna reinforce everything that we’re doing in this area starts from the department’s total commitment to Aboriginal self-determination. And we won’t always live up to that objective. But that is an absolute commitment to lead from a position of self determination. So as a result, we’ve worked very closely with ACCOs through the whole process. I think in combination with VACCHO, there were two digital forums that particularly targeted ACCOs, one in March, one in June. I wasn’t part of these, but I’m told almost 200 people attended those really trying to help spread the message, a bit like today’s session, but spread the message in a way that’s particularly tailored with internal Aboriginal strategy and Aboriginal health teams really tailored to meeting the needs of ACCOs. There’s been newsletters and all kinds of other things that we’re doing on that front. So there’s a lot of work with ACCOs.

There’s also a lot of work in making sure that our own activities are tailored to the best possible extent for communities. There’s a specific kind of set of information on our website for Aboriginal community, information about COVID-19.

And look, we’ve really been conscious of the fact that people get their information in all kinds of different ways. Some of us kind of watch the nightly news, some of us look at website, some of us get information in different ways from different people with different levels of trust associated with that. And we really need to work with all of those different, we need to try as many different techniques and approaches as we can to try and make sure that we’re getting through the right messages in the right way to the right groups.

Emma King:    Yeah, absolutely thank you. It is definitely not a one-size-fits-all and appreciate the fact that that’s well and truly recognised. And I think also acknowledging that we’ve really watched the government and all of the staff who really continuously say, well, how do we keep learning? Particularly as the pandemic continues in ways that we wouldn’t have anticipated at the beginning as well.

In terms of, I guess, jumping to the, sort of the federal space, but also things that are going to have a really big impact on us is we’re getting really close to some of the Commonwealth emergency financial supports ending or up for review. I know we’ll know on the 23rd of July from the Federal Government within mini budget what might be likely to happen in terms of things like the JobKeeper allowance and the current increase to JobSeeker allowance, and the possibility of those being removed.

I guess just keen to ask, I’m not sure if you can answer the question Ben, I’m possibly putting you into a difficult position here, but keen to just to explore what the Victorian Government can do to really cushion the potential impact here?

Ben Rimmer:     Sure, great question. I mean, look, the truth is there is a lot of uncertainty about these things. Right now as we speak, I don’t think… first of all, the environment is changing rapidly in particular in Victoria. Secondly not all of these decisions have yet been taken.

And there is at the moment a really significant challenge associated with the end of September, but I think everyone is very aware of that and very focused on that.

What I can say from the Victorian Government perspective is there is a huge amount of time and effort going in at the moment to working out how best to invest in, to support, to plan for that period that goes through September, right out into 2021. And I know the Victorian Government are completely committed to making sure that that process works in a way that’s smooth, that encourages economic and social recovery for the Victorian community, right through that period.

So there’s a whole range of things that are going into that. I mean, just a recent example of that is the one-off $1,500 worker support payment that was announced. I can’t even remember how long ago it was announced. It feels like weeks, but I think it’s probably last Thursday or something. Which really came from a very real recognition that for some people in the community, people who are perhaps more marginal in the workforce, we were beginning to see some real barriers to getting tested and to isolating that emerged from that. So I think that shows just how responsive and quick the Victorian Government policy processes are at the moment in terms of adjusting to things as they emerge.

We’ll have to work out what to do with the rent-relief grants. There’s a whole range of other things that have gone in the last little while that we’ll need to work out how to manage through the rest of 2020.

Emma King:    Thanks Ben, and you’re right. In terms of looking at what’s being done in very short spaces of time and some of the announcements that were perhaps only last week that feel like, they are about a year ago in many respects.

And just one sort of final point from me, then I’d like to throw out to sort of any general comments you wanna make. But really I’m mindful, I guess, very much the initial sort of conversation that we had around migrant communities and being really mindful that I guess it’s looking at the information we’re getting out there, but the fact that a number of migrants come from countries that have experienced war, and the impact of seeing military personnel on our streets and being involved in the COVID response situation, and I guess just triggering kind of particularly traumatic events of people and really just came to sort of get any comments from you around what the department has underway or what government has underway to sort of manage and to mitigate this to whatever extent possible as well?

Ben Rimmer:     Yeah, great question. Look, I mean, the bottom line is we’re very aware of this issue and I can tell you from firsthand experience that had seats really factoring into the discussions and decisions that are taking place about how best to respond.

I think we’re doing an okay job on this front at the moment. If you look at if people might have some experience with some of the people doing door knocking, the community engagement teams that are engaging in some of the hotspots suburbs, many of those people are being recruited locally. They’re wearing jackets, but they’re not coming in Khakis and camouflaged. And they’re really coming, our aspiration is that they come into communities from a perspective of community support and engagement and connection to services, connection to language, connection to information.

But that said there will be more police around in hotspot suburbs. There are now defence force personnel on the ground in Victoria in some places. And that will have an impact for some people. And I think with our partners in the sector, we just need to be very mindful of that. And really mindful of the different ways that people in our community are experiencing the same crisis. It’s kind of one crisis, but a million different experiences, if that makes sense.

Emma King:    Oh, it makes perfect sense. And I think you’re right in terms of looking at recruiting people from local communities, so that when there are people potentially knocking on your door, they’re people let you know and trust and as you say, people want sort of their information from different people. And it’s really important to be able to do that as well.

Ben I know you had some sort of general information that you wanted to share with the people who are tuning in today as well. So perhaps if I leave it open to you for a few minutes as well on that front.

Ben Rimmer:     Sure, look, I won’t take long Emma, I guess I just wanted to say first and foremost, thank you to the the community sector as a whole for the enormous work and effort that’s going in to your work at the moment. It has been an incredibly difficult few months. It’s been an incredibly difficult few weeks for Victoria and the thing that is really holding us together through that period is the collaboration and engagement across government, across government and other sectors, across government and the broader community within the community sector. And it’s really just been so impressive to see how people have adjusted to different working arrangements have adjusted their own working arrangements, their own working models, their own business models and responded to the needs of the community because that’s really, what’s motivating all of us.

I do wanna particularly set up to the DHHS team who’ve… I mean, we heard from Natalia and Tammy before, but the response within government has really been quite astounding. I guess you know, years gone by, there’s kind of this debate about the quality and character of the public service and those kinds of things. And I mean, anyone who has seen the inside of the response to this emergency would just be astonished by the professionalism, the dedication, the care that’s happening in the public health team, but much more broadly across the whole organisation.

I know many people in this virtual room know Agiri very well, and he’s been called away this week, really focusing purely on the community engagement challenge. There are many people who’ve been engaged in different ways across that response.

I know some of you will be concerned and anxious about, we all are right, about the developments in the last week, the degree of community transmission in the community at the moment. And from a very practical service delivery perspective, we’re not seeing change in service delivery arrangements, right now. If staff live in restricted areas, they’re able to attend work outside of those areas if they can’t work from home. And community services staff are able to move into these areas to deliver services if it’s necessary to do that in a face-to-face way. So there isn’t that immediate change in service delivery arrangements in the restricted suburbs, but obviously having said that it’s incredibly important that we all use common sense. We remain vigilant. The recent guidance for COVID planning in the sector that I presume is available on the website, Emma is incredibly important for organisations to understand and engage with for the benefit of staff, clients, community members.

I think it is worth saying this part of the response is quite different in character from perhaps a March/April version of it. We are seeing more community transmission. We’re seeing community transmission in communities that are vulnerable, that are perhaps a bit more marginal economically, that are a bit more marginal in terms of language and access to information. So therefore, I think probably we’re gonna see more engagement by VCOSS members with the reality of COVID in their organisations and their client groups, some of that we’re already starting to see. So that guidance I think is incredibly important.

But look before I think John is gonna talk a bit more about some of these matters, which will be excellent, ’cause he knows, in one sentence, he can describe more than my entire knowledge on these topics. But the important thing I think, and the thing that I know Emma, you and VCOSS are working for is to make sure that we keep that connection going, that we keep the partnership going, that we keep communications going, that we work together to get through this crisis.

Emma King:    Yeah, very much so. Thank you, Ben. And if I can just reiterate your thanks as well to the DHHS team, it’s very much one of the things that’s become really prominent during this crisis has been how much of a partnership it’s been. And I think also the ability to, for us to be able to raise any issues that arise really quickly with the team and then work towards what a solution might be. We’ve just really appreciated the responsiveness, and I think the degree of partnership that’s taken place and without question the level of care, and I guess that one source of truth that’s provided as you say, through the Chief Health Office and and the public health team and the ability to make decisions from there, and we acknowledge… I know that it’s… I don’t think it’s overused in the sense of what we’re seeing at the moment that this is an unprecedented time. We are all navigating through as best we can and trying to identify how do we do that best and most collectively, and being able to have these webinars each month and each time we have them, I’m continually astounded at how much has changed in the last month, it feels like each time it was a year ago. So really significant thank you to you, and to your team as well, very much appreciated Ben, and thanks for being here today as well. Very much appreciated.

It’s now my pleasure, and Ben you referred before to John Catford who’s also with us today. John is playing a really key role in helping organisations returning to face-to-face service delivery, to assess risks, and to make sure that organisations are COVID safe. John, I know you have a wealth of knowledge in this space. And I guess at the moment, I’ve sort of got one key question for you that keeps coming in from our member organisations as well, and that is organisations have started preparing for a return to, a sort of staggered return to work now for the last little while. And particularly over the next few months, should organisations be preparing for a longer work from home period when they can?

John Catford:     Well, hello everybody. Thank you very much, Emma. I think Tammy, Natalia and Ben have already actually stolen a lot of my thunder because I think their overview was absolutely on the mark. And there’s rather little can add, I think, but let’s pick up this issue about some forward planning.

I mean, my advice for you is that yes, you should start forward planning. I mean, things are likely to get better, and I’m afraid on occasions they may get worse, but I think we need to be looking optimistically forward and planning how we get out of this terrible crisis. I mean, it will happen sooner or later, and we might as well start now.

I think the advice that Ben referred to, which was issued on the 2nd of June for community services in terms of the planning framework or architecture is very sound and I know a number of organisations are already using it. And I think that’s a starting place. I think appendix four in that document is also very good about listing a whole range of tips and issues and things to think about as you begin your planning exercise.

So Emma, very briefly, yes, I think it’s good to start planning. And of course, most people are not living in these action areas at the moment, and the current restrictions are continuing. And of course we were hoping that they would be eased a bit further. I’m sure that will happen some point, in which case it’s much better to be ready to actually seize the moment.

And what’s so interesting about this whole pandemic is how quickly things change one way or the other. I mean, we were moving very fast to easing a few weeks ago. Okay, we’ve had to pull back now, but it’ll accelerate again. So I think is a good idea to start thinking, look before you leap sort of scenarios.

Emma King:    Thanks, John. And did you wanna talk a little bit about, I know you’ve been doing a powerhouse of work within the department, but around resources to help organisations return to work and the sorts of things organisations should consider. Now, I noticed some of that information is up online on the DHHS website, but could you talk a bit about the particular role that your playing and the assistance that you’re giving to the department and to organisations when they’re looking at their return to work policies and anything else that you think is relevant as well?

John Catford:     Well, I think probably the best role I can be is a bit of a devil’s advocate and take a helicopter view and look at plans and proposals and just sort of think through it, and is there something missing or is there a blind spot and that’s not a way of criticism. And in fact, when I do that, I find very few, but I think it’s good for someone sort of quote “objective independent” to have a look at these things.

And I think the guidance that I referred to, Ben referred to takes you step-by-step through this. I mean, clearly it’s very important to do a transmission risk assessment. I know this sounds a bit technical, but it’s interesting there’s organisations that have done it find it very useful. And it definitely demonstrates where potential opportunities are to think a bit more creatively and differently. For instance, I’m just working on some documents from the courts at the moment about restarting juries, and the there’s some very creative thinking going on there about how to manage that. And I’m sure that will far up fairly soon, obviously not in the action areas. So I’m more than happy to have a look at plans and proposals if people are interested and would find that helpful.

But I think we need to probably just think about how are we going to manage service delivery in these action areas and particularly staff who may live in those action areas that are coming to work in our services. Some of the others have already touched on this, but I think obviously we need to think about a good risk mitigation process without discriminating or victimising people because they just happen to live in a particular postcode. And I think we need to be careful that we are all in this together. Okay, some have got a heavy burden at the moment, but there’s not the good guys and the bad guys. And I think certainly in the work setting, we need to be very accommodating and understanding of people who we may work with, who actually reside in those areas.

Emma King:    Thanks, John. And just going back to your earlier comment, also, are you happy for organisations to come to you directly with their sort of return to work plans, or how would you like organisations to navigate that knowing that this is… I know the department is thrilled to have you there and the particular expertise that you bring as well. So what would be the best way for people to navigate that?

John Catford:    Well, I think that the best thing is to work through your liaison person, contact person within the department. And you could ask if I might have look at it and then I mean there has to be some sort of prioritising and queuing and all this. I’m pretty flat out, but certainly I’d be more than happy and particularly over tricky issues. I think a lot of it is quite common sense a call. And I think frankly there is huge talent and understanding and wisdom in this sector. But it’s possibly areas where there’s a tricky balancing act to make between a benefit to a client and a potential increase risk to staff or even volunteers. And that’s often hard and when I find it’s quite useful just to talk it through with people and usually they will come up with the solution rather than me. So I don’t know if that’s helpful, but I think just work through your normal management communication systems and some of that may well end up on my desk.

Emma King:    Thank you very much, John. And thank you for joining us today as well. I know, particularly as we’ve spoken about throughout the forum today, looking at the fact that the situation is changing very quickly, inevitably it will continue to do so for at least a little while. And I think the expertise that you bring and the assistance you’ve given is very much appreciated. So thank you very much for being with us today as well. Have a lovely day.

John Catford:    Thank you.

Emma King:    Thank you. We’re now going to welcome, just waiting for her to popup on my screen. After the last seminar we received lots of questions around housing and homelessness services and responses that people who were sleeping rough in Victoria. So to answer these questions, we are now joined by Sherri Bruinhout. Welcome Sherri, it’s lovely to see you. Sherry is the Director of Housing Pathways in the Department of Health and Human Services. She’s also worked in the community services sector as well. So understand things really well, both from the community sector point of view, as well as from the DHHS point of view.

Sherri, did you have sort of any introductory comments that you wanted to make before we get into comments as well?

Sherri Bruinhout:     Yeah, sure. I thought it might be worth just bringing everybody up to speed with some of the work that has been happening through the Homelessness Service System in response to COVID. So if that’s okay with you, Emma.

Emma King:    That’s good thank you.

Sherri Bruinhout:     And I do know you had my boss on earlier who acknowledged country so thank you for that.

So back in very early in March, the Homelessness Service System became aware that in order to keep people safe from COVID-19, we were gonna have to really ramp up our ability to offer accommodation to people so that they can follow the stay at home directives of public health.

So about mid-March, there was a $6 million allocation to the Housing Establishment Fund. We know it as HEF, and HEF is an existing program that’s used to purchase accommodation for people experiencing homelessness. So essentially the HEF allocation was doubled in March for the rest of the financial year to help agencies to purchase hotel accommodations so that people could shelter at home and obey those orders.

What we found was very quickly that the need for that service was demonstrated. There was a further $1.7 million announcement in May and a $9.8 million announcement in June. So as a result, there have been many thousands of people who have benefited from the Homelessness Service System and the ability to be able to respond to their situation of homelessness by being able to purchase hotel accommodation.

I’d like to give a really big shout out to the Homelessness Peak Body Council of the homeless persons who’s been really instrumental in helping the sector to respond in that way. VCOSS obviously, Emma you and your team have been amazing. The services who have really pivoted in a very different direction to support that has been terrific as well. So I really just wanna give a shout out there.

Some of the other things that have been happening in the homelessness portfolio, if that’s okay, Emma, I’ll just give a couple more updates. The COVID isolation and recovery facilities. So we do understand that people experiencing homelessness may be at or at risk of homelessness might be at increased risk of exposure to COVID-19 because of living situations, like overcrowding, like rough sleeping.

So government announced $8.8 million to establish four COVID isolation recovery facilities, which are in partnership with St Vincent’s Hospital and homelessness services, dedicated facilities for people who have tested positive to COVID or are awaiting testing for COVID to be able to receive the healthcare that they require within a homelessness setting as well.

Now I can report back to the group that what a great reflection on the Homelessness Service System that the 75 bed capacity that we do have in the CIRFs, the COVID isolation recovery facilities, has not been required, which is great to plan for the worst, but great that we haven’t been able to… haven’t needed to use all of those beds.

So those agencies with St Vincent’s have been really terrific in being able to repurpose those facilities to be able to give a health and homelessness response to people who require it. So that’s been a really great example of seeing where we’re very COVID-ready, but able to really pivot very quickly to provide for people’s needs as well.

And I would also just like to give you an update on in some of the service coordination work that’s happened in the Homelessness Service System as well. So in response to many people staying in hotels, obviously we need to do things a little differently in the Homelessness Service System. So we’ve established HEART, which is the homelessness emergency accommodation response team. So huge shout out there to the homelessness networkers, and the LASNs, the local area service networks who have just really done a lot of heavy lifting in coming together to be able to plan and coordinate responses to people in emergency accommodation, and really lean in there and work together to meet their needs.

So those HEARTs have been running for about a month or so now, they meet very frequently. They’re very client-focused and being able to provide those wraparound supports to people staying in hotels to make sure that they’re safe and that their needs are being met.

So where to from here? Would we like to keep people in hotels so that they can lay down roots and grow old there? No, it’s certainly not a permanent housing response. So we’re working with the sector on a fairly large data project where we’re seeking information on the clients who are staying in hotels because we know that there’s no one-size-fits-all response to homelessness. So being able to really understand who is currently utilising that emergency accommodation response will us to plan the exit strategy so that we can make sure that people are cared for, and exit into an appropriate housing and/or support response when it’s safe for them to leave the hotels.

So there’s a lot of work underway at the moment. I guess, Emma some of the things that we’re hearing from the sector. The sector are raising with us concerns about JobSeeker and JobKeeper and the fact that that’s helped people to afford housing and what will happen at the end of that. And I think Ben and you, Emma have spoken about that earlier today.

We’re hearing from the house service system as well that demand is really fluctuating and it’s very difficult for agencies to predict what the demand might look like. So for example, in some local areas, we’re having a spike on Homelessness Service System in one week and then very quiet the following week. So really difficult for agencies to be able to predict where the demand is going.

Emma King:   Just on that Sherri as well, have you seen an increase, and I know our members have sort of firsthand experience with this as well, but just curious from the departmental point of view, number of people either, has it been an increase in the number of people who are experiencing homelessness for the first time?

Sherri Bruinhout:     Yeah, so Emma homelessness services system as you know, but for other people who may not know, we have a national data system, and that data comes to us between four to six weeks after the end of the month. So it’s difficult for us to see that tracking in real time, but certainly we’ve got these great relationships with our service system and they’re absolutely telling us that they’re seeing new clients coming into the Homelessness Service System who haven’t been accessing homelessness services before who are experiencing financial difficulties in lieu of the issues that we’ve got with employment throughout the state.

The Homelessness Service System is quite amazing at being able to pull a rabbit out of the hat, but be able to support people who are at risk of homelessness. Our data shows us, in non-COVID times at any rate, that most people that come to a Homelessness Service System who are at risk of homelessness don’t then become homeless. So the service system is very good and has some great programs to support people who are at risk of homelessness. So we’re keeping a very close eye on that.

For example, one of those programs is the private rental assistance program. So we have given additional resources to homelessness services so that they can make those responses. So we’re keeping a very close eye on what that might look like and particularly interested in working with our data analytics colleagues here at DHHS to be thinking about what the trajectory or predictions might be in terms of the call on the Homelessness Service System to prevent homelessness for people into the future.

Emma King:   It’s going to be really important. Isn’t it? I know we’re seeing anecdotally from members are telling us, look, they’re seeing about a 25 to 30% increase of new people coming through their doors, who probably never thought they would need assistance in terms of things like emergency relief and homelessness, et cetera, and keeping in mind at the moment we’ve got that increase in the JobSeeker payment and the JobKeeper payments as well, I guess it’s, as you say, looking at the data that’s coming through now, as it does, and then what will continue from that point as well.

Really interesting ’cause you mentioned earlier about the hotels and the outreach programs, which I think have been successful. And I think one of the interesting things out of COVID is we’re seeing some programs running that we were probably always told were never really possible. And just wouldn’t mind going a little bit deeper in terms of whatever you’re able to say at the moment, knowing that you might not be at liberty to comment on this in sort of great depth, but really interested in how successful you think those programs have been.

And I know you mentioned earlier about the data you’re collecting from organisations around, I guess there’s a question here about what happens at the end? Because we all know we can’t just turn the tap off and have everyone who’s currently being housed in a hotel, et cetera, suddenly exiting into homelessness. So if you wouldn’t mind talking about that into sort of more detail, if to start with how successful you think the program has been, but perhaps what you envisage in terms of next steps? If you’re at liberty, to be able to talk about that, thank you.

Sherri Bruinhout:     Yeah, sure. Thanks Emma asking all the easy questions today. Good on you. No, no, look the hotels, the primary aim of the hotels were to keep individuals safe through COVID and to keep the community safe. And have they been successful? Absolutely, we are not saying the numbers of COVID infections through the homeless people population that might have been predicted at one point early on. So incredibly successful at being able to keep individuals and the community safe. What a great opportunity.

So we now have so many rough sleepers who have intermittent contact with the Homelessness Service System, or indeed very little contact with our wider community service system in the past have now moved into hotels are accepting support, are engaging with our support workers. And the support workers are very, very skilled at being able to build that trusting relationship. So the opportunity now to build on that and to be able to really wrap services around people who could really benefit from that work.

So we are very keen to be working with the sector on an exit strategy for hotels, certainly. There’s been the Housing Minister has met with the Homelessness Service System on a couple of occasions and has been very encouraged by the opportunity that’s before us. I guess what’s really important, and I would I guess I’m speaking directly to any Homelessness Service System staff who are on this call, by this Friday, we’re wanting the data to come back on people staying in hotels. That data will be incredibly useful to us to be able to plan an exit strategy from hotels.

The Homelessness Service System is very aware that if you get the right response, the right support and the right housing type, to the right person at the right time, you can absolutely change their life.

The Homelessness Service System also knows that if we give an undercooked response or the wrong response, or an ill targeted response to people, it doesn’t get the outcome that we’re looking for.

So for us to plan a really successful exit strategy, we’re really gonna need to know what the characteristics are and what the needs are of people staying in hotels so that we can plan that appropriately.

And I would say that there are people staying in hotels across the state. They are singles, they are families, they’re young, they’re older, there’s a whole range of people there, and we’d really like the sector’s help to plan an exit strategy that makes things for the people who need it.

Emma King:   Thanks Sherri. And I’ll put this as a bit of a shout out as well, but I know one of the priorities we’re pushing really hard for at the moment is around looking at some of the priorities coming out of the pandemic, noting of course, that this is in many ways what’s been described as a peak recession in terms of looking at the particular impact on women and on young people. But we also see this phenomenal opportunity in terms of social housing.

We know, and I’m not sure if you’re able to comment on it freely or not Sherri, but we just know that this is a really amazing opportunity for us to create jobs at the same time as building homes for people. So it’s a bit of a no brainer when we look at what has been able to be achieved out of the hotels program and all of the other work that you talked about, knowing that first and foremost, we need people to be able to have a house, somewhere safe to live. It’s impossible during a time of a pandemic let alone regularly to say, well, how do you stay home and stay safe if you don’t have a home in the very first place.

And I think the work that you’ve undertaken around hotels, et cetera, has really shown what is possible, and I think it’s interesting out of a pandemic where a number of things that were deemed impossible prior we’re now seeing happen. So we wanna make the most of that opportunity.

Just one last question for you, as well is in terms of a number of our members are saying people are challenged, having sort of some challenges in terms of being able to socially distance, particularly if they are in overcrowded accommodation. So places like rooming houses, et cetera, as well. Interested to know what you might’ve been working on in that front, or alternatively what you think some of the solutions might be looking forward as well.

Sherri Bruinhout:     Yeah, sure. So look, absolutely it is difficult to socially isolate when you’re living in… when the amenity of where you’re living doesn’t allow for that to happen easily.

What I would say is that there’s been an absolute truckload of work that’s been done by CHIA Vic, the peak agency for community housing, and big shout out to the work that they’ve been doing. They’ve issued some guidance on best practice for rooming houses and being able to support rooming house providers with very practical, common sense strategies that they can employ to keep residents safe.

Also that said there’s been a number of, the way that we’ve changed service delivery in homelessness services that were perhaps using shared facilities that we’ve had to make some pretty big changes to the way that we’re delivering those services.

That said there have been a small number of people who have lived in congregate facilities who have tested positive to COVID. The way that they have been managed and the way that those people have been supported without any subsequent transmission through those facilities has really proven how well the sector has responded to that need and how well and how sensibly they’re managing keeping everyone safe who were in their care. So I really wanted to acknowledge the work that they’re doing because yes it is big risk when people are living in congregate facilities. But the writing’s on the wall that the sector have just been absolutely amazing in the way that they’ve dealt with that and really contained that risk.

Emma King:   Thanks, Sherri. And if I can also acknowledge the phenomenal work that you and your team have done in terms of working on the housing front. I know the way that you have worked in partnership with the sector is very much appreciated by all certainly is by myself and the team at VCOSS, and all of the organisations that you’ve given a shout out to along the way. And I think your personal knowledge of having worked in this sector, as well as in government at the moment, it really does enable you to have that the perspective that perhaps not everyone is able to bring. So I just really want to acknowledge that too, and a very sincere thank you. And thank you for being here with us today as well. I know, as I said, out of the last forum, we had lots of questions around housing and homelessness and it’s fantastic that you were able to be with us today. So a huge thank you, Sherri, and have a lovely rest of your afternoon.

Sherri Bruinhout:    Good on you and thank you.

Emma King:   Thanks so much.

And it’s now my absolute pleasure, the final update from the day is from the new-ish, I think, CEO of Family Safety Victoria, hopefully, Eleri Butler from Family Safety Victoria. Eleri hopefully in some ways as a newer CEO, you’ve got to take that, I think for as long as you can in terms of how long you can use that for. It is really lovely to have you with us for the first time.

And again, at the last webinar that we held, we had lots of questions coming out in relation to family violence and looking at trends, I think in disasters that have happened overseas and in Victoria traditionally, and how that might have played out or might be playing out for us at the moment as well. We know that an emergency like COVID-19 can mean very particular risks for women and children in particular who are being isolated often with quite violent perpetrators.

So perhaps again, before I get into questions, Eleri again, perhaps can throw to you for any sort of overall other comments that you would like to make. And I know you bring a very rich background in terms of the work you’ve done previously, which inevitably will be helping the whole state of Victoria at the moment. So I’ll just open up with any sort of general comments you wanna make before we get into questions. Thank you.

Eleri Butler:     Thanks so much. Thanks very much for the invitation and the lovely welcome. And yeah, I’m gonna use new for as long as I can. I’ve been here for about three months in post. When I joined just before, well, just as, we shut down, went into lockdown and started working from home. So it would be lovely to hopefully sometime in the future, meet people properly face-to-face in the real world. But thanks very much for the invitation.

I too would like to start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land from which we are meeting today and pay my respects to the elders past, present, and emerging, and to all the Aboriginal elders of communities that may be listening in.

And also to acknowledge the victim survivors who may be listening in today. And we keep very much at the forefront of our minds, all those who are experiencing family violence and sexual assault today and every day including remembering those who’ve lost their lives tragically as a result of family violence, for whom we undertake this work.

Yeah, so I just wanted to start by giving a brief introduction. I’m assuming most people listening know about Family Safety Victoria being an administrative office of government. It was our third birthday yesterday, in fact, 1st of July. So we’ve been leading the delivery of key recommendations from the Royal Commission into family violence which includes ensuring that people with lived experience are central to on guide the reform. And we collaborate really closely with the sector and with peak bodies across the state and your own organisation as you know to deliver an improved, coordinated community response to family violence and sexual assault, which involves a whole system approach. And our aim is to very much make sure that survivors, victim survivors access support earlier and making sure that perpetrators are also held accountable and change their behaviour. So working towards that prevention.

I wanted to just give a quick overview as an introduction really to give a bit of an outline as to what we know from services in Victoria. And a bit about what we’ve been doing in response before going into some of the questions.

And as previous speakers have said, these are really unprecedented times. And I think it’s worth acknowledging that we’re already responding to a global pandemic of violence against women and girls. It was classified a global pandemic in 2013 by the World Health Organization. And that’s now combined with the more recent global pandemic of COVID-19, and that really creates devastating intersecting impacts and consequences for women and children in particular. And we also know tragically along with the COVID-related deaths that we’ve seen, not only in Australia, but globally, we’re also seeing a rise in many countries of fatal male violence against women. Since January in Australia, 27 women have been killed which we know thanks to the harrowing work undertaken by the Counting Dead Women researchers. And that includes in Victoria five women who’ve lost their lives in Victoria as a result of family violence. And three of those were women killed in May alone. So, it’s a really big concern and countless thousands more women, children and men live daily with the experience of violence and abuse or the legacies of violence and abuse, whilst many of the perpetrators of this abuse remain unchallenged, unaccountable or invisible in many cases.

And we’re dealing already with escalating levels of family violence in this state. Recent crime statistics show that the number of incidents recorded by Victoria police, for example, that was the highest on record in the 12 months to 31st of March, 2020, and police incidents L17 data also indicates a steady increase in reported incidents in the last eight weeks. So that criminal justice data is showing an increase.

We’re also hearing from universal services from health and other services that they’re identifying far more family violence. At the moment, they’re recording increased severity of violence. They’re having more disclosures compared to pre-COVID times. Safe Steps, the statewide helpline and specialist provider of support, they’re telling us that they’re doing more comprehensive risk assessments with people who face elevated risks from perpetrators and who require immediate protection.

Safe Steps and other organisations are also telling us they’re getting higher calls from third parties. So from family or friends or neighbours and so on, and that they’re also getting more calls around elder abuse where, for example, adult male children are being violent in the home with their parents.

We’re also seeing an increase in concern about young people using violence, whether that’s physical or sexual abuse in the home or amongst family members, particularly during the lockdown period.

And in relation to perpetrator services and perpetrator interventions, the Men’s Referral Service experienced an initial increase in calls particularly from men who were concerned about their behaviour for the first time. So who are reaching out for help to change their behaviour.

And we’re also hearing, as I know my other colleagues are across government from Aboriginal services that demand has increased both for immediate crisis support and also for ongoing community support. And we’re working with the Dutch, our partnership forum to support family violence, ACCO services in their business continuity. And we’re also focusing on in improving their industry plans at the moment, and to integrate those into the wider work we’re doing around workforce and industry development.

And even though we are working remotely and adhering to the social, physical distancing, the Orange Door sites continue to operate with no disruption to service, which is a fantastic achievement. And in the last week of June, there were 1098 referrals for support and those referrals week-on-week are steadily increasing.

And as some of your colleagues and some of those listening and will knows the immediate response from the Victorian Government has been quite significant. We provided $40.2 million in funding to ensure those at risk or who are experiencing family violence and sexual assault in the community have access to support they need. That funding includes $20 million targeted at the provision of short term accommodation with accompanying support for victims survivors who need a place of safety or who don’t feel safe to isolate at home. And this also includes funding for accommodation where it’s needed for perpetrators. So victim survivors can stay safe in their own homes if that’s what’s needed.

And the funding also includes $20.2 million to help family violence and sexual assault services meet the increase in demand at this time. We’re expecting continued increase for demand during the Coronavirus pandemic.

And just a couple of other things we’re working on very quickly, we’re also working with peak bodies, and I wanna give a shout out to all our peak bodies who are working with us so collaboratively under really challenging times. We’re working with them to support the sector with regular briefings, live stream briefings and forums and workshops and so on. We’ve developed sector guidance to support agencies and adapted a multi-agency risk management practice notes to outline the heightened risk and the additional risks and needs of survivors at this time. And also to raise awareness of additional considerations for managing the risk posed by perpetrators. And that guidance is accompanied by some videos, online videos that are available on our website. So that that’s received really positive feedback from the sector which has been great. And we’ve also published information online for funded agencies to support business continuity and service delivery. And we’re partnering with services to develop practical information and resources to be shared at, in effect, what is the new front line: pharmacies, supermarkets, doctors surgeries, the places where families are able to go at the moment, to make sure that there’s information available to signpost people to support. So those are just some of the things-

Emma King:   I think that’s a really interesting example. I think that that’s actually something perhaps new that’s come out of the pandemic as well, but interesting and perhaps talking about that a little further, and it’s probably I’m interested in, and I think you’ve covered a lot of the issues as well about, but just to dig a little deeper in terms of, I guess, what some of the particular, I guess, the weaknesses that have come out of the pandemic. And I think some of the things that are challenges have come to mind are things like, when we had homeschooling, et cetera happened, and people being, when they’re locked down in their homes, literally, the fact that it’s harder to get away from perpetrator harder to seek assistance, but then looking at some of the initiatives that are in place, such as having support in supermarkets and pharmacies and other things, interested in considering any further around maybe some sort of the strengths in a family violence system that can really help people who might be experiencing difficulty at the moment as well.

Eleri Butler:     Yeah, well, I think in my experience and I’ve worked in for 30 years or so with services in particularly in the UK, in Europe, around family violence and sexual assault. No other sector that I’ve worked with knows better that we need to continually evolve and meet community needs during a pandemic ’cause they’re already dealing with that global pandemic of violence and abuse. So, they’ve responded really, really well and very flexibly.

I think one of the things I wanted to flag is that the feedback that we’ve been getting is also endorsed by some of the research that’s come out from Monash University, and we’ve surveyed… they’ve surveyed frontline family violence practitioners through April and May this year and found particularly that the pandemic has led to an increase in not only frequency and severity of violence against women. But 59% of respondents reported an increase in frequency, 50% reported an increase in severity, but particularly they reported an increase in the complexity of needs that was reported by 86% of frontline practitioners. And 42% of respondents reported an increase in first time reporting by women. So I think that’s just, as you said, that’s really, really significant.

We also know that survivors are saying to us that for many who’ve experienced coercive controlling behaviour, their lives in lock down aren’t much different to the deprivation of liberty they were experiencing as part of the coercive control by perpetrators beforehand. And that’s I think is really a challenge because what COVID has undoubtedly exacerbated abuse and control by perpetrators. It’s increased monitoring and threats to expose women and children to the virus or with withhold access to healthcare. So we have to be really innovative and adjust our services to make sure that survivors and families can access the help and support they need.

In relation to the strengths and weaknesses. I mean, I think we’re pretty familiar generally with the strengths and weaknesses in the system from the Royal Commission evidence, from recent VAGO reports and the Independent Monitor reports. So I mean, some of my observations have been services have done really well, I think to highlight how flexible they can be. Many services weren’t fully accessible to those unable to walk through the front door. So, many services have had to shift very quickly to deliver web chat and online responses, which has been great. And the uptake on those has been really significant.

It’s also highlighted for me that how much of our narrative across systems has been on somebody leaving the abuser. When in reality we know that’s really dangerous to do. And we also know that for many survivors, they don’t actually want to leave or don’t wanna leave their family members or leave the abuser. So I think we need we’ve needed to focus much more on not only providing refuge and crisis accommodation, but doing safety planning and support for women within the family, in the relationship and in their own homes. And I think that’s something we need to do more of as well as making sure that perpetrators are more visible and that we have a greater focus on removing perpetrators where necessary to stop their abuse.

And I want to particularly acknowledge the fantastic work going on in a ACO Family Violence Services in our communities, delivering a whole family approach which can teach us a lot in relation to delivering holistic support services in our communities. The other thing I’ve noticed as an issue, I think, which I think we need to address is, it’s very easy for sexual violence and abuse, and their services that respond to sexual violence abuse to fall off the radar at this time, the narrative nationally and globally is around family violence, domestic violence, because we’re focused very much on lockdown in our own homes, rightly so. But I think we also need to think about what the current climate means for people being sexually abused, sexually exploited. For example, if they’re homeless, as we just talked about, or if landlords may be demanding sex for rent for example, or somebody is being sexually abused by community members or through the sex industry, as well as in families because survivors don’t experience those forms of abuse in silos. And I think we really need to make sure we’ve got a holistic response to those issues. And the complexity, I think of family violence has really shown a light on the critical role of our community networks, our community services, and the vital role in particular of schools, health services, pharmacies, as I said, employers as well, and doctors in providing access to help and support.

And the final thing that I just wanted to flag is it’s also, I think, exposing data gaps in our system. The fact that we don’t know how COVID is specifically impacting on migrant or multicultural or diverse communities, I think highlights our data and recording systems need improvement across services and across systems. We should be recording sexuality, ethnicity, disability, sex, gender identity, et cetera, across the board. And I think we just need to have much, much richer and more meaningful data across our service systems. So that’s one of the observations I’ve had.

Emma King:   Thanks Eleri. And I think that’s a really… it’s such an important observation, isn’t it? In terms of issues that already existed and then seeing, I think a real highlight, highlights probably the wrong word, but a real focus on how does it just that we already had a pandemic in terms of issues around family violence, how does it play out during a health pandemic? What are some of the issues that are emphasised, but also at the same time, what lessons do we need to learn, which I think we already knew to be candid around knowing that we need more data, but also what are some of the other things that we can do that actually might make it easy for people to report or to seek assistance, et cetera, that we see during a pandemic.

And we know as well when there’s other crises overseas that I think some of the trend of what we’ve seen here was replicated around the initial, perhaps under-reporting because women and children were not able to get out and report. And then what we’re seeing now around the additional reporting, which you’ve spoken about, but what’s to come. And I think there’s real lessons to learn from what we’ve seen in times of crises before. But I suspect unfortunately that there’s probably considerably more reporting to come as restrictions, et cetera, are loosened and society might shift into the next stage as well. So interested in sort of any kind of key observations you have on that front as well in closing.

Eleri Butler:     I think that’s a really good point and I think we really expecting unprecedented demand as we ease out of lockdown. I don’t know if that’s happening in different areas at the moment.

I think there are some changes that we’ve seen that we should really continue. We can’t go back to how it was, the systems weren’t working, which is part of the reform work that we’re doing anyway. I think it’s really been incredible to see how the sectors have mobilised and changed and adapted so that everybody who needs the support and how it gets it. I think that’s really been very, very powerful as an observation.

I think the use of digital forums and engagement is something we should consider doing not only for our work and for meetings, but actually to make sure services are more accessible, but also thinking about digital exclusion and how services, survivors and families in different communities actually don’t have access to digital technology. So that’s an additional barrier, so that’s something we need to focus and overcome.

I’d like us to be able to maintain also how we’ve quickly responded to changing needs in our communities as rapidly as we have done. I’ve been amazed at how quickly some of the bureaucracy is just falling away, which has been great, alongside we ensure we focus on how community services can be more sustainable in the future.

We are evaluating some of these new ways of working with working with DHHS colleagues at the moment. So we’re looking for example at doing a rapid review of how the adjustments in perpetrator interventions are working well at the moment and what needs to be continued there. And also how the online services and web chat functions can happen and be continued.

But I think really for me, the COVID-19 pandemic has only really highlighted significantly the importance of the reform work in strengthening our responses and in connecting services and make maximising safe disclosure points in local communities. And some of the reform work that we’ve been progressing and prioritising up to now we are continuing or be it in adjusted ways.

So I can give you some examples. So work is continuing with MARAM, for example, to develop new perpetrator tools and resources, both for workforces around the mental health service system, alcohol and drug services, homelessness services, and so on, but also for family violence specialist services, and those who work with perpetrators at the moment.

We’re also working with sector colleagues to strengthen community based outreach to support our case management support system and therapeutic interventions.

And the roll out of the Orange Door is continuing. We’re due to open the Orange Door in Central Highlands and Northern later this year. So that’s all on track.

So there’s a lot of work going on behind the scenes as well as progressing the VAGO recommendations we’ve recently had. I also just want to give a shout out to my colleagues. I mean, they’d be working incredibly hard on a range of the business as usual reforms underpinning all of this work. But the industry workforce workers is really critical. That’s one of the challenges that the sector is saying to us that they need additional support on.

We recently launched a family violence jobs hub in the last month. And there’s been an awareness campaign around that, and more than 9,700 potential employers and job seekers have visited that jobs hub since it launched last month, which I think is phenomenal, as part of an attraction and recruitment campaign that we’re undertaking. And there’s also online campaigns, I think it’s called ‘So, what do you do?’ which is an online campaign, which people should look at, there’s been 70,000 views of the promotional campaign materials and animations to check that out. And I think it’s really important that people need to understand the range of roles and the types of roles in the family violence and sexual abuse community sector so that we can make sure that the industry workforce planning is as robust as possible.

And I think returning to a norm that we previously had is no longer acceptable. As I said, it’s not an option. And I think as well as learning from what we’ve been doing in the last few months to maximise our efforts to deliver the reform, I think it’s really important to not forget that we know what needs to happen to prevent family violence and sexual assault. We’ve known for several years that we can do something about it, not only about responding in a crisis, but responding much earlier on making sure there’s early health and support available, but also focusing on primary prevention.

And that needs to also continue to be our priority because we know that family violence and rape and sexual assault, harassment, forced marriage, stalking, female genital mutilation, all forms of violence and abuse that we’re needing to address in our families and in our communities, none of them are inevitable. They’re all entirely preventable with the necessary political will and resources. And that’s what we really need to prioritise on, in going forward to make sure that we prioritise prevention as well as the emergency response.

Emma King:   Thank you. I think that’s a really sound note to end on about that prioritising prevention as well as the response. And I think it’s something that we’ve all been working very hard towards and need to just continue to do so.

Eleri, if I can just say a huge thank you for joining with us today, and a huge also shout out to the organisations that you mentioned earlier as well. I know, for example, Safe Steps is doing a phenomenal job in terms of that 24/7 response, et cetera, as well. But it’s fantastic having you in the role, very much looking forward to continuing to work with you, as you say, pandemic and beyond, the world is not gonna go back to what it was prior. And for us, it’s about taking what are some of the positive things that have come out of a pretty horrendous situation to say, well, actually, what can we take that’s actually gonna change people’s lives for the better in the long run.

So thank you very much for joining with us today. Very much appreciate it.

Eleri Butler:     Thank you Emma.

Emma King:   And we’re continuing to work with you as well.

Eleri Butler:     Thank you.

Emma King:   Thank you.

It’s now my absolute pleasure in closing to thank all of the presenters who are with us today to share their expertise and their information. I would also like to say a huge shout out to the VCOSS team who not only make these webinars possible but are working day and night and doing everything possible to work with our colleagues in the community sector, our colleagues in the department and in government. I would like to absolutely acknowledge the staff throughout government and government departments. And in this instance, as well, particularly the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s been great work in partnership, as I mentioned earlier, where we can acknowledge issues as they arise and look to see how do we address those and the partnership that’s developed over that time is very much appreciated.

Agiri Alisandratos wasn’t able to join us today because of the critical work he’s undertaking during the pandemic and the community response. I would like to give an absolute shout out to Agiri and also to Amity Durham, who does a huge amount of work with us in particular as well. As well as to our colleagues more broadly in government as well.

I’d particularly like to give a big shout out to the community sector organisations who, again, work night and day with wanting to ensure that vulnerable Victorians are at the forefront of their thinking and at the forefront of every single thing that we all do.

So my sincere thanks to everyone. I wish you a very happy afternoon and look forward to joining with you at a future webinar in another month’s time. Thank you very much.