Lawyer John Herron and 2021 Victorian of the Year Donna Stolzenberg want to see victim support services overhauled in Victoria.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

RIDDELLS Creek resident and Gisborne lawyer John Herron is campaigning for an overhaul of the system that provides support to victims of crime and their families in Victoria.

After Mr Herron’s 25-year-old daughter Courtney Herron was murdered in Melbourne’s Royal Park in 2019, he said the mental health and legal support offered to his family was inadequate, leaving them in the dark.

After his daughter’s death, neither Mr Herron and his family were provided counselling or mental health support.

When they reached out for help, they were read the numbers of 24/7 hotlines; no one directed them to support services, and the few services only existed in Melbourne or a smattering of regional towns, which were chronically underfunded and understaffed.

Additionally, they had to keep up to date with the investigation and prosecution themselves, which was only made possible due to Mr Herron’s knowledge of the justice system.

“Other families of victims who don’t have legal knowledge, they’re surprised first, then confusion, depression, anger, bitterness et cetera,” he said.

“It generates more trauma for people. You’re traumatised by the death, and then you’re traumatised more by the dysfunctional system.

“And one of the things is that you’re told that support will be there, and then you find out it’s not, and then if you raise an issue you’re vilified.”

Mr Herron said initially he received calls from the Kyneton branch of Anglicare, a harm-prevention organisation whose state-funded Victim Assistance Program manages victim support throughout regional Victoria. The program is designed to assist victims and families to recover from the effects of violent crime.

But when the Kyneton worker assigned to the Herron’s case took leave, they were ‘thrown into a void’. The only other contact they received ‘now and again’ was from another Anglicare worker based in Mildura.

“[They] called me in June last year and said, ‘oh sorry not much going on, we’re closing the case,’ and I went, well hang on it’s still going … The final hearing for the killer is next week,” Mr Herron said.

“The system works on band-aids.

“[Victims] don’t get anyone rocking up and telling them ‘this is what’s available to you, I’ll organise it and I’ll do this.’ Coordination is the key and there’s just no coordination.”

The lack of support is endemic in Australia for both the victims and their families according to Donna Stolzenberg, the founder of the National Homeless Collective and the Victorian recipient of Australian of the Year 2021 for her grassroots, frontline work with victims of crime and disadvantage.

Ms Stolzenberg is now one of several in the field supporting Mr Herron’s push for change, speaking to MPs and providing feedback to the Department of Justice.

“The support that’s available out there is token,” she said.

“Each person that has gone through horrific events has either had to go private and pay a lot of money or just be left behind.”

The National Homeless Collective began in 2014 as a hand-out charity providing sleeping bags, sanitary items and other basic goods to people with nowhere to sleep, but quickly transformed into a nationwide organisation providing goods and services that victims – usually of gendered or family violence – needed immediately in a bespoke, individualised way.

“Our eyes have been opened [to] how dysfunctional the system is out there and in fact it’s not a system it’s a whole bunch of organisations scrambling to do their best and there’s no cohesion, there’s no coordination, it’s just a mess,” Ms Stolzenberg said.

One of the most glaring issues she has seen is the blanket approach to mental health support.

Through Medicare people can claim 20 mental health sessions each year, which must be referred by a doctor for up to six sessions at a time.

But Ms Stolzenberg said the one-size-fits-all number was ineffective because people’s needs varied dramatically.

“Some people might only need a few, some people might need 100 in a year, it depends on what they’re going through and that person’s coping mechanisms, their ability to implement any suggestions that the counsellors are making, plus their living circumstances [and] is the problem still there,” she said.

Ms Stolzenberg said she worked with a client who lived with trauma for more than 20 years before she felt ready to seek help, but when she needed it the most, she was only entitled to one 40-minute session per fortnight.

Similarly, in cases like Mr Herron’s, Ms Stolzenberg said it was unlikely that when parents learnt their child had died, their first thought was to book a counselling session.

“We treat people like categories, and we have to start treating them like individuals, but the system is set up for a category. If you are this age you get this support, if you live in this area you get this support, if you have children you get that support, and it doesn’t work,” she said.

The Herrons have found some support through a network of families of deceased children, which Mr Herron set up with some organisational help from Member for Northern Victoria Tania Maxwell.

“We’ve got a group of six or eight families of murdered people and we all talk to each other, that’s our counselling,” he said.

“So what’s on offer in our area is nothing. There’s no support network. As I said, there’s someone calling you from Mildura occasionally.”

Ms Stolzenberg said the support outside inner-city Melbourne was minimal, but victims of violence were increasingly moving further out of the city due to its towering rent prices.

“If I find out one of my clients is living in one of these outlying areas I’m just like, oh no, because we won’t be able to get anyone out to you, it’s going to be really hard to get them the actual support that they need,” she said.

“There’s just simply not enough support. The other issue is that it is the most vulnerable people in society who need this support and we expect them to navigate this ridiculous system that we as workers and charities find impossible to navigate ourselves.”

Ms Stolzenberg and Mr Herron suggested there were no short-term solutions to the issues and that only an overhaul of the system would make a real difference.

Ms Stolzenberg said support needed to be federally funded and managed, with more funding for workers to manage fewer clients each, and a plug-in system that showed exactly which support services people had received and wer receiving, and coordinated victims with relevant organisations.

For more information about the National Homeless Collective, people can visit www.nhcollective.org.au.