EP20: Domestic violence affects all cultures and societies…but are we doing the best for survivors?   

With over 30 years’ experience caring for survivors of domestic and family violence, Arina Aoina challenges the concept of what a refuge is, and can be, and is committed to increasing the overall wellbeing and safety of individuals, families, and communities. Arina also has a unique approach to inter-agency relationships to address hidden biases and get the best outcomes.


Manisha: Domestic and family violence is a serious issue facing all cultures and societies. But are we helping people in the best way? Today’s guest has been working in the field for over 30 years, helping communities, women, children, and young people find support, shelter and outreach. She challenges the concept of what a refuge is, and what it can be. Welcome to With Not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design. My name is Manisha Amin, speaking to you from the lands of the Gadigal people here in Sydney, Australia.

And my fabulous guest today is Arina Aoina. She’s a leader in campaigning against domestic violence, the CEO of Newman Women’s Centre, which started off as Gosnells refuge, and is also now known as Starick, providing an integrated service for women and children. Arina is committed to increasing the overall wellbeing and safety of individuals, families and communities, both Indigenous communities, as well as those that are non-Indigenous. Welcome Arina.

Arina: Thank you, Manisha.

Manisha: Look, it’s fabulous to speak to you today. And you’ve done so much work over an extended period of time. When you first started working in family and domestic violence back in the 1980s, my understanding is that the approach was very different to the sort of service delivery that we see now.

Arina: Back in the ’80s, this is where refuges were struggling, and basically just provided crisis accommodation and advocacy, in terms of helping women to secure housing, or through Family Court, all those advocacy type roles. That was what they did back in the ’80s. And it was a really strong movement in those days, and you had a lot of – and I can say this – back in the day, I was a bright eyed, bushy tailed, what do you call it, a socialist feminist. Who came from a strong Christian background, so it didn’t quite mix in those days.

And it’s where I actually grew and started to understand the political nature of family domestic violence, sexism, race, institutional racism, all those things. But I was only 22 then – oh, 23, sorry, going onto 24. And it was – I came from a solid background, a safe background, and a background where you had a father and a mother. Although things weren’t the best at home, because they were trying to merge into a – well, I’m going to just say this; an alien culture, living in New Zealand, coming from Samoa. And being told as a child, “Leave those white ideas at school. And when you come home, you’re Samoan.”

So that influenced me also, when I was, when I started this, in that I had to leave behind a lot of my attitude and ways of doing things, and look at –because we had, I really pushed for a strong representation of women from different cultures, Indigenous women, because they’re the women I could see that were the most disadvantaged in terms of the prejudice around trying to find housing, and just being a client of the shelter when their kids went to school. And their kids would be identified as ‘those kids from the refuge,’ or because they were poor, or because of what was happening in their home.

So this really made me realise that our whole sector was basically having to put up with a lot of the prejudice around women and children, poverty, food insecurity, all those sorts of things. Employment for women. We had it in a nutshell, and experienced in the shelter. So at that time, for me, the focus was really listening to what women needed to move forward. What skills workers needed, to be able to be the best support for families that came through. But not just the women themselves.

Because in those days, it was the women; get the woman sorted, children will come after. Whereas my attitude was, get the family as a whole sorted in terms of the children, give them a voice, understand what they’re going through. And in those days, they were called child workers; child workers were in the back, women’s shelter workers were in the front, because the women, the refuge workers were doing the important work. And those children’s workers were just looking after, childminding the children that were coming through. Whereas I saw it as they were equally important. And further down the track later on, when we had more money available, I actually turned it around, where the child workers were getting more money than the refugee workers, through their pay packet.

Because that’s the only way you can bring in some major changes, and shift the whole culture around the importance of children, making sure they had their voice. Because we know in the era of family domestic violence, it’s the children that end up looking after each other, and after the younger children. And especially if they come from a culturally linguistically diverse background, where English isn’t spoken in the home. It tends to be the children that have to advocate and speak on behalf of the mother. So all those sorts of things, they were all the challenges way back in the ’80s.

And so it was difficult for me as well, as coming as a Polynesian young woman, because people would come to the door and assume that I was the cleaner, or one of the workers. So they’d say, “Can I speak to the manager, please?” And I go, “Yes?” And they’re going “No, no, I mean, someone in charge,” and I go, “Yes?” It was all those sorts of things back in the ’80s that we had to challenge. Also because shelter workers, refuge workers, were the poor cousins. The poor cousins in the welfare sector.

Manisha: You were in your very early 20s, and you moved all the way out to the Pilbara. For those people who are not in Australia, it’s quite a remote area of Australia. So as a young woman, as a Samoan, how was it, and why did you make this choice?

Arina: Oh, OK. I have to say, I have to say that I also married young. So I married a white, South African Jew, who was a really strong advocate for – and he was heavily involved with the ANC.

Manisha: Right.

Arina: So yeah, and so we were both – so even that was a challenge, because his parents –

Manisha: Yes.

Arina: – were English stock. And his parents were lovely. But they had to remind him that if we had children, they weren’t going to be white.

Manisha: Oh, bless.

Arina: It was, yeah, so I think with those cultural challenges, even in our relationship, but because we were really – we fought for what we called – we fought for the underdogs, what was not fair. So, yeah, I started my journey in the welfare sector in Port Hedland as a young woman, before I came to Perth, and started up Starick Services.

Manisha: And so you actually started up the women’s shelter. It’s quite an entrepreneurial thing to do really, way back then. How did you decide to do that?

Arina: There was a group of dedicated women, politicians and council staff got together, and got funding, it was only a small amount of funding, to get the shelter together. So they actually got it built, a purpose built, five bedroom, brand new shelter. And, yeah, employed me to just – with this empty house, to get it going. Get the staff, just get it up and running in Gosnells.

Manisha: And whereabouts is Gosnells?

Arina: South east metro of Perth.

Manisha: Right. And so what was that like? I’m really interested in this notion of walking into worlds that you talk about, Arina, and moving from your islander culture to New Zealand, and then again to Australia. What do you think some of the strengths are that were brought out because of that?

Arina: I think, essentially, and I guess, because having to walk in two worlds, constantly reminded by my father every time I came home from school, because I’d come home with these bright ideas. My father would constantly be telling me, “Remember who you are. Remember that you’re Samoan.” Constantly looking at our mind and our heart, in terms of the psychological, emotional, spiritual, physical stuff around the whole thing of being a Polynesian, and being a Polynesian. And because also my parents were strong Christians. So basically the Protestant work ethic; God, family, and your work.

Manisha:  Absolutely.

Arina: So yeah, that sort of – you know. And then becoming, back in the day, a strong socialist feminist. And also, when I married Mark, who was an atheist, so right around, it was all around. It was just really interesting, all those different lenses on what I thought about things. But the most important thing was that people that I respected and understood were people, were all the different cultures that we worked with in our organisation.

A lot of agencies thought we were either an Indigenous organisation, or that we were culturally and linguistically diverse. Those were our two tag groups. But we weren’t, we were mainstream. But we focused on those two, on Indigenous women, and CALD women, because that’s where we could see where it was lacking. That’s where we could see there was a lot of issues.

Manisha: And so what were some of the initiatives that you started that were really different to some of the things that were done at that time?

Arina: We had an outreach worker. Outreach, no one did outreach. But I knew it was important that if you want to stop that whole door revolving, where they could get so much support, and everything, and access, lots of stuff while they were in the shelter. But when they left, they don’t have the support structures there. There’s no staff there. They can attend some programs. But they tended to, yeah, they were just left isolated. So I knew it was really important if you want to continue that growth, you want to continue providing that support for her, the family, to make it out in the community, then you needed, they needed to be locked in. Provide some outreach services, until they felt strong about themselves, and they felt that they could move forward.

Manisha: That’s really interesting, some of those things that you’ve done, in terms of really focusing on CALD and Aboriginal women, and obviously, their families. I know that domestic violence is a really complex issue. One of the things I’m really interested in is, what is the mindset often, of people who are not involved in the sector, and what are some of the things that – or the myths around how women and children want to be treated, particularly from these communities, that are different to what we might think?

Arina: Again, no one wants to talk about this, but we need to. It’s about that whole institutional racism, that prejudice that’s around Indigenous, and CALD peoples. And like I experience it quite a bit. So I have a daughter who’s fair, blue eyes, fair skinned. And so when I had to go and rent a new place, I had to make sure she was in her school uniform. And then I also had to make sure my car was parked out in front, my work vehicle that was really flash, do you know what I mean?


Arina: I do things – go in there and make sure that I was articulate and straight to the point, to just get a rental. So if it was hard for me, can you just imagine what it was like for women in shelter? Women who experienced domestic violence. Women who don’t feel confident. Women who are suffering, and trying to make it out on their own? Particularly if they have not been able to stand on their own two feet.

Manisha:    How have government agencies and other organisations responded to your approaches?

Arina:  I think that there’s much more awareness. I think that now – because it was really interesting. Because I could see the field changing. I could see that if the shelter movement didn’t make some changes, look at how they delivered their services, look at also what work was being done. And I know there was this real push for making sure that people were qualified to do their job, I could see that others were going to come in and take over the movement, hence why we changed our name from the Women’s Refuge Group of WA, to the Women’s Council of Domestic Violence Services and Support. So there could be other agencies that were doing work with men, doing work with families as a whole, counselling, DV counselling services, DV support services all these different services that started up.

Because you would see, like in the 2000, late ’90s, 2000 up, the government started investing much, much more money into the domestic violence sector. And that’s when you saw the bigger welfare agencies starting going in and putting a bid in there for their money, to deliver these DV services. And there’s some great stuff that’s around now. The Domestic Violence Court in Perth, which I had the privilege of being part of when it first, they were developing it. And now it’s been going for a long time. We have DV legal services.

It is way more understanding, collaboration, and services like the Women’s Shelter Movement. They are working closely together, doing more research, doing a lot of policy work, working closely with government. So it’s just great to see where we’re at today on a state, national and global level, to way back in the ’80s, where we were fighting all the time, and trying to be have a bigger voice in in the welfare sector.

Manisha: But another thing that you’re also involved in was around prevention, with the Armadale Domestic Violence Intervention Project.

Arina: I really, really was committed to the work around that. Because it was something new, it was something different in the country. I was really lucky enough to go over and do a few study tours in Duluth, Minnesota, when I think Dr Ellen Pence came out. And it was referred to back then as the Duluth model. And people know. It’s really well known in the sector and around the world, about the power and control wheels we refer it to.

Manisha: So sorry, I’m going to interrupt you for a second there. What is the Duluth model?

Arina: It was about, it’s behaviours, around family, domestic violence. It’s another model of working with women. But one of the things they introduced was the – and also we did in Australia through the Armadale Domestic Violence Intervention Project, was we did an audit, a safety and accountability audit. So those who are involved in ADVIP, which was the police, the hospital, what’s now known as the Department for Communities, the shelter, and Relationships Australia, we basically broke into teams. And then we went into each other’s, on site, to each other’s different workplaces. And then looked at how did the policies, work practices, how we did things in our organisations, did they support women?

Or did it block, make it more difficult for women, when they were wanting to, like, for instance, get a violent restraining order, wanted to get support with their children, through all the different systems. Did those systems make the pathway for when once women entered into having to go to different departments to support services, did it enhance their journey? Or did it block it, make it harder, and re-victimise the woman who was experiencing DV?

And then we found out that also, some of the ways the police write up their reports, it’s the biases in their reports, when those reports go, that they could write it a bit differently, that was more supportive. And you could see that it was their own belief system. You could see it highlighted in the reports.

Manisha: Working with different agencies like that is fascinating. And absolutely, you get a lot of diverse opinions and see things you might not have seen. What are the difficulties of working in that way, or some of the issues that –

Arina: I can tell you that even today, it’s still an issue, like we’re finding it here in Newman. And that is \ that whole thing around you can’t share information. Those with statutory powers, like Department for Communities, police, can’t share information around clients with the not-for-profit sector, like ourselves, the shelter. And we might have a lot of information that will help the case and the family in question. But because we don’t have statutory powers, we’re not a government organisation, therefore, we don’t get privy to that inflammation. So that’s still an ongoing battle. It’s been a battle for the last 30 years.

With ADVIP, we were so lucky, because we shared a lot of information. We had MOUs. Everyone was so supportive, and singing from the same page. Our patron for the Armadale Domestic Violence Intervention Project, we had two patrons. One was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And the other one, who did a lot of her own work, her husband was the Governor General for Western Australia. So that was very helpful when we wanted to look at challenging the legislation, and around confidentiality and things like that.

So we know that it can be done. But that’s what we find so difficult. And also we still have to build those relationships with other agencies that, yeah, we’re not going to take over your turf. We’re not going to take over your funding. We’re all in here together. We’re all about wanting to share information. What’s the best outcome, not only for the family, but for the community as a whole?

Manisha: It’s really interesting thinking about the complex system that is domestic violence, and all the things you have to do in that area. I’m also really interested in those one-on-one conversations and relationships that you’ve had, that have really informed your practice as well. Can you tell me a little bit about some of the conversations that you’ve had, or stories that you’ve had that have really changed the way you’ve worked?

Arina: Building relationships is absolutely vital in the work we do with clients. And we forget sometimes that it’s equally important with our stakeholders, and the people who we work with. And it’s ongoing. Because one of the things about living here in Newman, is that the population is transient. So you’ve just started doing some inroads, and really strong relationships, and then they’re gone within a year or two. And you have to start again, you start again, you start again.

And that gets – and if you don’t have stuff that’s documented, you don’t have agreements that the next person is going to honour. And that’s totally dependent on the people up the top, whether they’re going to support it or not. And it’s totally dependent on what’s the favourite new thing at the moment? Because I’ve been around long enough to see a lot of different changes. They’re, what should I say, same person, different dresses. That’s all I’m going to put it down to. To suit the occasion, what’s the flavour of the month? It’s really unfortunate, but it’s true. Being around in the DV moment to see which ones become the shining stars. Oh, we’re going to really invest in this one, because they’re doing really well. And it will be there for like five years, three years. And then, oh, no, what’s the next shiny toy?

And keep on reinventing the wheel, but it’s the same thing. I don’t know how else to describe it, But I’m just going to say that it’s theme and variations. The theme is family and domestic violence. How government, how the not-for-profit sector, how the for-profit sector views that, is what impacts on, at the end, the people who we’re working with.

So it’s really interesting here, because I worked in Kimberleys for seven years, most of my working time has been in the metropolitan area. But living in a desert town, where we have a strong Indigenous community who are still practicing their cultural beliefs in everyday life. Who are in surrounding communities, who are experiencing just poverty, housing issues, food insecurity, just lots of stuff like that.

Then we’ve got all these big mining companies here. Then we’ve got our not-for-profit sector. We’ve got businesses trying to survive here. And then you’ve got all the social issues around – and you would have heard about, especially in the Pilbara and the Kimberleys, young juveniles stealing cars, all those sorts of things. You’re trying to work together, but you’ve got these big influences all around.

And what I’ve learned is that everyone has to take responsibility. The mining company, they have to take responsibility, in ensuring – and they have made attempts to do that, in building and strengthen our community. So how do you do that? How do you do that? And it’s about open, honest, frank communication. Having commitment that these families count, these women and families who are experiencing family and domestic violence need our support, and need us working well together. I don’t think people value that, They don’t value the importance of relationship building. They don’t value that working together, working openly, sharing your resources. And also that being open to constructive criticism.

Manisha: This is really hard work. And trying to get people together in a complex issue like this, especially when domestic violence is often hidden violence, can be quite tricky. How do you do this as a social worker and a player in that community?

Arina: I think it’s important for us, and it’s like anything, people watch you, if you’re walking the talk. What you’re saying has to match your actions. It truly does.

Manisha: Can you give me an example of what that looks like? Like, what does it look like when someone is matching their actions, and when they’re not matching their actions?

Arina: I’ve only been in Newman for – I’m coming into my third year. I’m really invested in this community. So I will participate. Like I sit on, I’m the Chair for EPIS, which is an aged care service. I also am the President for the Newman Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Treasurer of the Rugby League Club.

Manisha: So you really build yourself into the community, and bake yourself into lots of different conversations.

Arina: Yeah, absolutely. Because you can’t – you have to understand where the other people are coming. And you can’t just work in isolation. Yes, we’re in the area of family domestic violence. But it happens in businesses. It impacts on education. It impacts on the legal system, the police. Everyone, everyone is involved. domestic violence, family violence isn’t an isolated thing. It connects to everyday living. Therefore, you then have to build your services around that. Create awareness campaigns, do more proactive – we do a lot of campaigns, like we lead the International Women’s Day, we do the 16 days of activism. But we also do a lot of things with other agencies, like at the moment, all the workers, it’s quiet in office here, because all the staff are at the park, doing cupcakes and doing activities with the kids.

Yeah, we also run the Madu night patrol. This is what we do, we provide services, picking up kids on the street, and giving them a meal and taking them home. And that service we provide from 9:00pm to 11:00pm, and on Saturdays, 11:00pm to 4:00am. So it’s about your service. You’ve got to get involved in the community. You’ve got to get involved in building relationships everywhere. Because every opportunity, who you’re in contact with, you can raise their awareness around family and domestic violence, so that it’s not seen as a shame thing. It’s not seen as, oh, I don’t want anyone to know, it’s not hidden. It’s not like, oh, only those sorts of people experience that. But it’s about it happens in society, yes. And it’s something that we all have to take responsibility, we all have to work towards in terms of trying to build a safer community.

Manisha: What would you say to companies who are really conscious that they will have people in their organisations who have experienced domestic and family violence at some point or another? Who may actually be the people who have survived. But they also could be the perpetrators in some cases as well. What can they do to actually make the world safer for everyone?

Arina: So I think have an activity that shows your support, that they are against family domestic violence, but will support those families in need. It’s about changing some of the policies in their workplace that reflect, that are positive about those experiencing family domestic violence, there’s some support for women and men. And it would be also our responsibility to make sure that – to provide that support for those businesses that don’t know what to do.

For example, we had an after hours’ business event, and we had some government bodies there, saying that, we’ve got some money available, put a submission in. When it came to questions and answers, quite a few of the businesses said, “We don’t know how to do that. How do we – we haven’t got the time to do that.” So to me, that was an easy thing. Because I just said to them, look, most of the not-for-profit sector know how to do that really, really well. And I know this is a small town, you know people from the not-for-profit sector. So ask them to support and help, and they will.

And that’s what I go back to, that whole thing around, which people don’t realise incredible value, it’s about building those relationships. Solid, strong relationships. Because through there, you can influence, bring about change.

Manisha: You work in a sector where when we think about your staff and yourself, you’re constantly facing extreme conversations and extreme situations. What are some of the things that you do to support your own team and yourself in staying mentally healthy?

Arina: You’re absolutely right. This is really traumatic. We do a lot of team training. Training for me is so important. Because that’s where you learn what your limits are. Because we tend to, as women, just keep on going. Oh, this needs to be done; we keep on taking things on. So that health and wellbeing is so important, because we do forget that. I forget that. I’m going on holiday at the end of the month or three weeks. I’ll be going to Samoa and New Zealand. So that’s going to be my health and wellbeing.

But you’re absolutely right, the burnout rate is horrendous. The impact it has on women’s health is horrible. So I think it’s the responsibility not only of the worker themselves to know what their limits are, but it’s the responsibility of organisations, agencies, to put in place within policy, and also in the culture, that your safety, health and wellbeing is really important to us.

Manisha: Thank you so much Arina. And it’s lovely hearing you talk about it’s a strengths-based approach. And the promise not only of these individual young people, children and women, but also the promise of the sector when we all work together.

Arina: Absolutely.

Manisha: And take that abundance methodology – sorry, and have that abundance model that you are such a strong advocate of. It’s been fantastic having you on the podcast, hearing your story and your views as well. And it’s actually a real gift to have you in our community during the work that you do as well.f

Arina: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Manisha: Oh, look, it’s an absolute pleasure. And thank you, our listeners, for listening and being here with us today on With Not For. If you’d like to know more about how you can make your world more inclusive, contact us on www.cfid.org.au, or see our show notes. Until next time, this is Manisha Amin for the Centre for Inclusive Design.