The Victorian family violence sector was built by a movement of women, many of whom had lived experience of family violence and gender inequality. These women worked tirelessly over many decades for services, policies, and laws to meet the needs of victim survivors and elevate the status of women.
Family Safety Victoria (FSV) acknowledges that this strategy has been created from the foundations of a collective of voices who have shifted perspectives, raised awareness and built a responsive service system over time. FSV pays respect to Aboriginal communities who have paved the way for lived experience expertise to be recognised through elevating self-determining approaches.
In 1974, Victoria’s first women’s refuge was established following the advocacy of victim survivors. In subsequent decades as more refuges, local outreach and state-wide services were established, individual organisations evolved from collectives of victim survivor advocates to the diverse service system that we know today. From 2007 – 2014, a variety of initiatives were established to support victim survivors to share their stories with the media to raise awareness of family violence. This includes Safe Steps’ survivor advocate program (commenced in 2007), Women’s Health East ‘Speaking Out Program’ (commenced 2011) and the Loddon Campaspe Media Advocacy Project (commenced 2014). In addition, in 2012, Y-Change commenced to support young people to affect social change. These initiatives demonstrated how an organisation like government could work directly with lived experience.
In 2015, the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence called for submissions, receiving many from people with lived experience of family violence and experience of the legal and community-based service system: these contributions helped to shape the 227 recommendations of the Royal Commission. The powerful perspectives from victim survivors, and strength of earlier community-led programs, made a strong case for the Royal Commission’s recommendation 201, that the Victorian Government and agencies that respond to family violence identify and develop safe and constructive ways to ensure that the voices of victims are heard and inform policy development and service delivery.
Following the Royal Commission, in 2016, the Victorian Government established the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council to ensure that the voices of victim survivors inform policy development and service delivery. The Council is comprised of 15 people from a range of diverse communities. The Council was created to provide a formal mechanism for victim survivors to advise the government on family violence reform. VSAC was founded as an innovative way to put the lived experience of family violence at the heart of the government reforms, with the aim of driving positive change for the family violence system.
The inaugural members concluded their terms in 2019 and a second Council commenced in 2020.
Also in 2016, WEAVERS was launched to ‘weave’ lived experience into research and training at the University of Melbourne.
In 2020, Safe and Equal and the WEAVERS group at the University of Melbourne released the Family Violence Experts by Experience Framework to enhance the ability of specialist family violence services to provide opportunities for survivor advocates to influence policy development, service planning and practice.
As part of the first phase, government and people with lived experience worked together on a range of initiatives:
- People with lived experience have consistently provided advice to Ministers and decision makers across multiple government portfolios to build awareness of their challenges in navigating the family violence and other social services systems
- Government and people with lived experience developed a Client Partnership strategy for The Orange Door, including processes to collect client voice data and options for providing feedback in languages other than English.
- Government engaged with Aboriginal communities across Victoria to develop a holistic healng framework, Nargneit Birrang
- FSV engaged with Aboriginal communities to develop a Concept Model for the Aboriginal Access Points, a model that provides service choice for Aboriginal families to access family violence services within The Orange Door network
- Government held multiple co-design workshops with victim survivors to set a vision for Victoria’s family violence system
- VSAC contributed to the development of foundational strategies including Ending Family Violence: Victoria’s Plan for Change, as well as strategies for inclusion and equity, gender equality and primary prevention
- ‘Voices of Hope’, was developed which outlined victim survivors’ hopes for the family violence system in future
- Department of Families, Fairness and Housing developed a Client Voice Framework to assist individuals at every level of a community service to critically assess their current practice in relation to seeking, hearing and responding to the client voice.
Understanding the value of lived experience expertise
Given the innovative nature of this Council, the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council (VSAC) model has undergone two reviews to understand the impact on FSV’s workforce, tangible outcomes on reform, and how to strengthen the work for the next phase. Both reviews utilised participatory interviewing methods to understand this impact. Participatory interviews were also undertaken with government staff who had worked closely with members of the Council.
Government employees spoke about the changes they had experienced because of working closely with VSAC. The interviews demonstrated how members helped government to design improved policies and services to meet the needs of people with experience of the system. Their advice not only impacted the immediate policy issue but was often carried through a persons’ career to ensure a client-centred way of designing policy.
“Once you’ve had the conversations with members, and you get to know them a bit, you almost carry them with you in the work – you can think ‘What would she say?’ ‘What would they say?’ They continue to be an internal test and voice and I find that valuable beyond the conversation itself.”
“When you’re thinking about the experience of victim survivors – when you have a person to put to the experience, you see the connected system. Engaging with VSAC helps clarify why we have to think of the system as a whole.”
"One member talked about their diverse community and how it could drive prevention activity, which I thought was fascinating and she was reflecting on her own experiences, and I noticed that’s something not included in the plan.”
The interviews demonstrated that engagement with VSAC had created cultural change, and an increased willingness to share power in decision making. By engaging with VSAC, government staff changed their attitudes to engaging with stakeholders overall.
"Since engaging with VSAC, the issue of family violence, and reports of harm, it resonates with me now. That’s become more front of mind for me."
"The engagement with VSAC really changed the way I work with stakeholders in general and how I engage victim survivors and the way I listen."
Government staff spoke of how they viewed VSAC members as professionals who demonstrate the value of lived experience expertise when engaging on reform issues. They talked about the strength of the partnership with VSAC and how VSAC was now seen as a ‘critical stakeholder’ within government.
“I had to mature my thinking on how the system can work with victim survivors and how we can hold ourselves accountable to that.”
Engagement with VSAC members assisted in maintaining connection to their organisations’ purpose for many government staff. It also helped to shift perspectives.
“Every time I’ve had a conversation with a VSAC member I always walk away feeling more passionate about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. When they put forward priorities, they aren’t saying it from an academic sense, they’re talking about it from their life experience, so that can only be a humbling and deeply moving thing. It’s been a highlight of my job this year.”
 Theobald, J., Murray, S. and Smart, J., (2016) From the Margins to the Mainstream: The Domestic Violence Services Movement in Victoria, Australia, 1974-2016
 Lamb K, Hegarty K, Amanda, Cina, Fiona, and the University of Melbourne WEAVERs lived experience group, Parker R. (2020) The Family Violence Experts by Experience Framework: Domestic Violence Victoria. Melbourne, Australia. https://safeandequal.org.au/resources/family-violence-experts-by-experience-framework/