‘Let down’: Uncertainty over land promised for women’s trauma recovery centre

Illawarra Mercury – Kate McIlwain

Women’s health advocate Sally Stevenson says she feels “let down” by the NSW Government amid a rising domestic violence health crisis, and is concerned negotiations regarding the land for a world-first trauma recovery centre have stalled.

Ms Stevenson said she felt there was “very real risk” the government would not come through with its previous commitment to provide a space for the centre at the old Port Kembla Hospital site, in Warrawong.

But health department sources said it had done everything possible to commit to working with the centre while the necessary master planning was underway for the hospital site.

The old site is in the process of being decommissioned and will eventually house the new Warrawong Community Health Centre, being funded as part of the Shellharbour Hospital redevelopment.

Ms Stevenson, the Illawarra Women’s Health Centre Executive Director, said her uncertainty stemmed from discussions with health staff and a letter from outgoing Health Minister Brad Hazzard in December.

She wrote to Mr Hazzard to request a confirmation of boundaries, conditions and a timeline for their building – which is planned to be a fit-for-purpose centre of excellence to help women and children escaping domestic violence – but said his reply made it unclear whether the site would definitely be available.

Instead, the letter said the health department was committed to working to ensure that the trauma recovery centre was “considered” within the new plans for the old hospital site, she said, but couldn’t give any specifics until after master planning had taken place.

This is a health crisis that cannot wait.- Sally Stevenson

“We now not only don’t have certainty of the details, but also no certainty of the commitment altogether,” Ms Stevenson said.

“We are worried that the offer of Warrawong land will now disappear.”

She said the ambiguities contradicted Mr Hazzard’s statements made during Budget Estimates in September.

“We took the NSW Government at face value when they informally invited us to an inspection at the Port Kembla hospital site where they verbally offered us that location for the centre,” she said.

“The area shown to us was at the north-east corner of the Port Kembla hospital site and, given the size and location, we agreed it would be suitable.

“Based on the confidence the NSW Government gave us that this was a genuine offer, we ended negotiations on another site in Shellharbour.

“We acted in good faith and have been let down.”

Ms Stevenson said any delay in providing a physical space would leave women and children in the Illawarra with a dire lack of services, and also leaves $25 million in federal operational funding sitting unused while the region struggles.

She said government data showed domestic violence crime rates in suburbs like Cringila, Warilla, Oak Flats and Bellambi was sitting at two to five times above the state average.

“The rates of domestic, family and sexual violence in the Illawarra remain persistently high and the impact of that continues to have devastating effects on women, their children and our community,” she said.

“Local services cannot meet demand. We are really feeling it at the moment and we feel like it’s just ramping up out there – there’s a level of desperation that’s creeping in.

“Our wait list is consistently high with more than 70 women experiencing at least a six to nine month wait for support.

“This not only prolongs the harm done and the health impacts of trauma but exacerbates it.”

Last year, the federal government agreed to supply $25 million to be used for five year’s worth of operational funding for the centre. Ms Stevenson said this remained locked up while the centre was without a physical space.

Despite hopes that the NSW Government would follow suit and allocate these funds, there was no money forthcoming in the last state budget.

As a temporary fix, Ms Stevenson is now asking for $2 million, which would be split to refurbish the old Warilla Library and engage consultants to work on the design of a permanent centre.

“Funding the refurbishment of Warilla Library will allow us to meet the overwhelming demand sooner rather than later,” Ms Stevenson said.

“This is a health crisis that cannot wait.”

Ms Stevenson has also called on all political parties to commit to advancing the development of the Women’s Trauma Recovery Centre before the state election in March.

The commitment should include providing the land along with funds for the Warilla Library refurbishment as an interim solution and a mandate to build the permanent centre, she said.

At the time of publication, the health district and the ministers office had not responded to a request for comment.