1800 RESPECT, risking women’s lives for ideology and “women’s issues” in the news.

At the end of May this year, Jenna Price reported on the Turnbull government’s changes to 1800 RESPECT. She also published an opinion piece in Daily Life about the damage those changes will make to an essential crisis service.

After reading her report I did some further digging, and found out more about what the government was doing to 1800 RESPECT, details about privacy, funding, and subpoenaing call recordings to use against victims in sexual assault and domestic violence cases in court. Then I wrote it up, got quotes from Medibank, the Department of Social Services, and experts in domestic violence.

There wasn’t a news editor in the country I could get to publish it.

The responses varied.

“Jenna Price has already published that story.”

Jenna broke it, and did a fantastic job explaining the changes and the effects, but no one can cover everything in one article, and I had a information she didn’t. The government was deliberately choosing to spend more money on privatising 1800RESPECT than they asked for to fully resource the service. And the privacy and subpoena aspects weren’t in her article. It hadn’t already been published.

News editors are happy to run with multiple articles on topics they think are important, and that was where I first started to realise the problem. This, to their mind, might have been a story, but it wasn’t an important one.

“It’s too long.”

Yes, it probably is. Fair call. But I’ve been an editor, taking a good story and cutting it down to reasonable, readable length is kinda part of the job.

“We’ve already commissioned an op-ed on this”

Uh-huh. You’re supposed to be a news editor. This is not an opinion story, this is news about the government putting women’s lives in danger to push a privatisation ideology. And this happened just before an election. It’s news. Do your job.

“We only take freelancers when we think we’ll get over 100k views”

And there it is right there. The closest I was going to get to anyone telling me the real reason they weren’t interested in publishing this as a news story. Because in their mind, it’s not news, it’s “a women’s issue” and no one will be interested. So take it off to the opinion pages where you belong. News stories are about Important Things, and this isn’t important.

The connection between this, the defunding of the Safe Schools program, community legal services and women’s refuges seems to establish a pattern of an ideological rather than effectiveness basis for funding essential, life-saving services. This, in an election campaign, is a story.

I could probably have sold the article to an opinion page, I probably still could now. I chose to publish it here because it’s not opinion.

To be clear, I’m not deriding op-ed. I write a lot of it and it has a strong place in informing and raising public debate. The women who have been writing op-ed about “women’s issues” have been working thanklessly for years to change the way we think about men’s violence against women, and they’ve done a magnificent job. Steve Price’s solipsistic sexism against Van Badham, Eddie McGuire’s puerile jokes about Caroline Wilson, Sam Newman and Mark Latham’s spiteful attacks on women in media were all recognised as abhorrent behaviour, in ways that would never have happened even ten years ago. And this was, in large part, due to the women who write op-ed.

But the subconscious bias that puts “women’s issues” on the opinion pages and “real issues” on the news pages hasn’t changed. And it’s probably no coincidence that news editors are mostly men.

So, because no one else would publish it, here’s the article I wrote about 1800RESPECT

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1800 RESPECT is the national crisis hotline for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Australian Press Council guidelines cite it as the number to provide at the bottom of any article about sexual or domestic violence, and it appears on almost all government publications related to such issues. This prominence, combined with recent increased public awareness of domestic violence issues, has led to a huge spike in calls over the last few years, more than the service can currently deal with.

Earlier this year, 1800 RESPECT asked the government for an additional $2.1 million from the government to provide resources to meet rapidly increasing demand. Instead, the Turnbull government has decided to spend $5 million ($2.9 million more than 1800 RESPECT need) to contract Medibank Health solutions to provide a triage service.

This new service, announced by the Department of Social Services (DSS), is not only predicted to dilute services to women in crisis, but it also poses serious, potentially life threatening, risk to privacy of data collected by the newly contracted provider, and significant safety risks to counsellors working on the hotlines.

Recording trauma calls — subpoenas & hang ups

In addition to managing several government contracts for health services, MHS also collects data about service users and frequently records calls “for quality and training purposes”.

In a statement to me the Department of Social Services (DSS) said:

“The details of the first responder triage service are still being negotiated. Should the service require the recording of any calls, this would only ever occur in situations where the caller has provided consent.”

DSS could not confirm whether other identifying details would be asked for during the triage process.

So, in all likelihood, the first contact a trauma victim has with the new 1800 RESPECT triage service will be an auto recording telling them the call might be recorded, followed up by a triage operator asking for their postcode and Aboriginal status, then attempting to determine whether their trauma is significant enough to pass them on to the actual 1800 RESPECT counsellors.

Carmel O’Brien is a counselling psychologist and National Convener of the APS Women and Psychology Interest Group. She has been counselling victims of family violence for more than twenty years, and is about to publish a book on family violence.

“I’ve spoken to many, many women who have had to tell their story to dozens of people, the more people they tell their story to, the more humiliated and disempowered they feel. What they are looking for is a service where people will understand what they’re going through. Often they ring because they are at the end of their tether, often it’s taken years for them to summon the courage to seek help. If they ring and sense any kind of judgment, or sense of hurry, they’re highly unlikely to continue with any disclosure.
“For women in crisis, any identifying information requested will be frightening, if someone said they were recording the call it’s highly likely they would just hang up.”

This is dangerous enough, but the unintended outcomes could be even worse.

1800 RESPECT routinely receives subpoenas in what is known as fishing expeditions by defence lawyers, and, as a matter of policy, fights them in court. To date, they have a 100 percent success rate in having such subpoenas quashed.

When asked specifically about this issue, MHS refused to comment. DSS provided the following statement:

“The details of the first responder triage service are still being negotiated. The Department will require the provider to respect privacy and confidentiality of callers, however this has to be done consistently with obligations to respond to lawfully issued subpoenas. Where sensitivities surround material for a subpoena, the court will be notified to take appropriate steps to ensure the privacy, safety and well-being of the individual.”

Where callers do allow their call to be recorded, the recording would be stored for seven years, and if it were subpoenaed, it could be played in court in front of their abuser. Callers to crisis services frequently disclose feelings of self-blame in relation to their abuse, which could, under these circumstances, be used as evidence against them in rape and domestic violence cases.

RDVSA is a not for profit organisation, at this stage it is impossible to know whether a profit driven corporation like MHS would be willing to spend the money to fight subpoenas. While it’s difficult to provide specific details, lawyers I consulted said each contest could easily run to thousands of dollars.

Privacy & data management

In addition to the concerns about voluntary sharing of highly sensitive personal information, MHS has a history with serious breaches of privacy. Last year a MHS subcontractor sent Australian Defence Force medical records and personal details to China. This followed a number of concerns raised by the Australian Medical Association about MHS’s management of the $1.3 billion contract to provide health care for defence force personnel over four years. AMA President Dr Steve Hambleton said MHS had showed “a lack of understanding” of the complexity of health care, a concern echoed by domestic violence experts in relation to the proposed changes to 1800 RESPECT.

And this is not the first time MHS has been embroiled in problematic services for women under a Liberal government. In 2008, under then health Minister Tony Abbott, MHS (operating at the time as McKessons) was contracted to provide a pregnancy advice line for women dealing with unplanned pregnancy. The hotline, which was run in conjunction with Centacare (a catholic health care service) and the Caroline Chisolm Institute, was a spectacular failure amid concerns Abbott was using government funding for a service that did not include any pro-choice groups.

Health and Safety

Another worry, both for service provision and data safety is recent jobs advertised by MHS for telephone counsellors to “provide telephone and online triage, counselling and support services (incl. crisis, trauma, anxiety and depression services and support for survivors of sexual assault and family or domestic violence) as well as addiction relapse services”. The ad specifies that the successful applicant will be required to “(set) up a home base that meets our health and safety requirements, access to ADSL 2 broadband and a copper wire telephone line”.

Not only does this raise more concerns about data security — if trauma counsellors are taking calls at home, who else in their homes could overhear calls or have access to counselling notes — it also has serious workplace safety issues. Vicarious trauma is a well-known risk for front line staff working with people in crisis.

Zoe Krupka has been a practicing psychotherapist for more than 15 years, she is a clinical supervisor, worked on suicide hotlines for eighteen months and supervised counsellors at Mensline and Lifeline for three years. She told me:

“There’s not a lot of research about what works with vicarious trauma, what is clear is that staff and peer support is key. That’s not just supervision, that’s having someone to debrief with after a difficult call. People who suffer the most from burnout tend to work in lone outposts, and of course, your own home is a lone outpost.
“Vicarious trauma is actual trauma, so the physical space in which you experience your trauma becomes a space that is not safe anymore.
“The other thing about vicarious trauma is that it is best dealt with and mediated organisationally. People are not good at self-care. You need face to face contact, even physical contact sometimes, and you need to build enough trust to be able to cry or swear in front of people”.

Unnecessary triage

In 2015, 1800 RESPECT responded to nearly 60,000 contacts, a further 28,000 went unanswered.

In a statement to me, the Department of Social Services said:

“Since its establishment in 2010, call volumes of 1800 RESPECT have grown from an average of 1,000 calls per month to over 6,000 calls in peak periods. This has led to call times increasing, with some callers waiting hours for their call to be answered. This is unacceptable.
“In addition, trauma specialists who answer the calls under the current model may be answering administrative website questions and dealing with victims who may not need immediate trauma counselling service.”

In fact, less than 2 percent of contacts to 1800 RESPECT in 2015 were calling for non-counselling related matters (administration, information, media, student assignments). These calls are quickly managed and referred on. The remaining 98 percent of calls were from trauma survivors and supporters, and were answered directly by trained trauma workers, who provide genuine counselling and expert advice on services available to victims.

Privacy

RDVSA’s privacy policy is unequivocal about its policy on data sharing:

“Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia does not use or disclose sensitive personal information, such as race, religion, or political affiliations, without your explicit consent”.

The MHS privacy policy specifies that “By using our products and services you consent to Medibank Health Solutions companies in Australia and New Zealand sharing your personal (including health and other sensitive) information with one another and with other Medibank Group Companies.” It also outlines other people and groups it will share information with, which includes employers, financial institutions, technology providers, educational institutions and “other parties to whom we are authorised or required by law to disclose information”. This last item would include defence lawyers in sexual assault or family violence matters who subpoena caller details, counselling notes, or call recordings.

DSS said in a statement to me:

“Privacy of callers is of paramount importance. Privacy provisions will not be reduced under the new model. The service provider will only be permitted to disclose personal information to a third party with the consent of the individual, to prevent harm or as required to do so by law” (emphasis added).

Alternative policy

Teri Butler, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Child Safety and Prevention of Family Violence, has confirmed Labor’s commitment to fully funding 1800 RESPECT through RDVSA

“The Turnbull government announced an additional $5 million for 1800 RESPECT in September. But it seems that not one cent of that money made its way to the frontline provider — Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia. Labor’s policy is different: we’ll ensure the money goes to the frontline service provider, to hire qualified counsellors who are trauma specialists.
Labor doesn’t support the introduction of the Turnbull government’s new “triaging” arrangement. Therefore, we don’t support the collection of data by MHS.”

The Greens have also strongly condemned the government’s changes to 1800 RESPECT, calling for full government funding for national and state-based crisis lines.

If the Turnbull government was as serious as it claims to be about addressing domestic violence, why is it diluting such a vital service with a clear and growing demand? Why is it willing to spend extra money on privatising this service than is needed to fully resource it? These are questions that should be asked and answered during the upcoming election campagin.