Government stands by changes to domestic violence hotline

THE Federal Government is standing by its decision to limit access to experienced trauma counsellors for callers to the national domestic violence and sexual assault telephone support service.

Callers to 1800 Respect will soon be assessed by a triage service before being directed to trauma counsellors, state-based support services or an information-based website.

Currently, the people answering the phones have a four-year tertiary degree and at least three years of trauma counselling experience.

Under the mooted changes, those answering the phones will need only a three-year tertiary degree and just two years of experience in the field.

The first responders will make the call on whether or not a victim gets immediate help or is directed to already over-stretched local services.

The changes have drawn widespread criticism from frontline workers worried the multi-layer approach will lead to people in crisis hanging up or not receiving the right support.

In Australia, one in six women is physically abused by their current or former partner and one in four women suffers emotional abuse, according to Australia's National Research Organisation for Women's Safety.

Last year, at least 79 women were killed as a result of domestic violence and already this year more than 30 women have lost their lives to the epidemic.

Calls to support services have skyrocketed, thanks in part to former Australian of the Year Rosie Batty's dedication to ending domestic violence.

Social Services Minister Christian Porter said moving the Medibank Health Solutions-run service to a triage structure meant more calls would be answered.

Mr Porter said average waiting times would drop from 17 minutes to 40 seconds.

"About 30% of the calls were going unanswered," he told The Project on Wednesday evening.

"Everyone will get initially (through) to a very experienced counsellor.

"For those people in need of trauma counselling, they will be … transferred immediately to a specialist trauma counsellor."

The Department of Social Services contracted KPMG to review the helpline's business model.

The respected corporate advisory service suggested the Federal Government provide more funding for the service.

It also suggested two triage options - the first run by less qualified social workers and the other by trauma specialists.

However, KPMG said the social worker option - the one chosen by Medibank Health Solutions as the way forward - could cause a risk to callers requiring specialist trauma support, because a multi-tier system would bounce them from one support worker to another.

"The assessment by KPMG, which was about changing the organisational structure of the phone line, essentially was an assessment that money just can't fix this problem - you have to have some basic level of triage," Mr Porter said.

Changes are expected to roll out from July 1.

In 2014-15, just 2628 of the 30,000 calls to 1800 Respect required no trauma counselling.

"The KPMG report recommended that this really was the only model that can do away with the call abandonment rate," Mr Porter said.

"What KPMG said is that if you use the highly specialised trauma counsellors to answer all calls, you would still end up with a 25% call abandonment rate.

"And I just don't think that's acceptable.

"So we've had to try and innovate, as well as spend more money, which we've done."

*For 24-hour support phone Queensland's DVConnect on 1800 811 811 or MensLine on 1800 600 636, NSW's Domestic Violence Line on 1800 656 463 or the national hotline 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732). 

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