I want your job: Q&A with Susan Smith, Coordinator of Sydney Women’s Court Advocacy Service
Susan Smith is the coordinator of Sydney Women’s Court Advocacy Service (SWCAS), which assists women and children who come to court to seek the protection of an apprehended domestic violence order. Susan spoke to Survive Law about her work…
Why did you study law?
I guess it was something I’ve always been interested in and then it wasn’t until I did gender studies as well as part of my arts degree and my law degree that I became interested in this area of law.
Did you have any idea what you wanted to do when you started your law degree?
When I started studying law? No, not necessarily, I probably always thought it would be good to be working in a community legal centre or something similar. As I was doing gender studies the more it shaped up to be the area of law that I’d like to be working in.
Why is domestic violence such a complex issue?
Domestic violence is not straightforward. You’ll often have women who have been in relationships for 20 and 30 years and there’s been DV, there’s still reasons why those women would want to stay in the relationship but they might come to us and say I want the violence to stop but I want to stay in the relationship.
There’ll be other women who have had a short relationship with somebody, the relationship is over and they want to leave the relationship but the other person might not want that to happen. They’re either persisting or trying to persist with the contact with the woman.
It’s a matter of understanding that there are lots of different situations that the women that we see are in. One of the things that we do is to try and tailor a DV order around what the woman’s safety needs are. What it is that she wants, not what police think that she might need, what she needs both to be safe but to suit the way that she’s living as well.
The other thing that we do is to refer women. We look at their social and welfare needs as well and we might refer women to services like counselling, or we might need to refer them into a refuge if they can’t go home to live, or if it’s unsafe for them to go home to live.
Can you describe a typical day? Or is there no typical day?
There’s probably no typical day. Four days a week we’re at court, so that’s pretty full on. Women coming into the room, having to quickly find out what she needs, so you’re working really quickly on those days and liaising with police and liaising with the prosecutors, advocating on her behalf, getting on the phone, making referrals for her, that’s pretty typical.
On other days, we’ll be contacting women prior to them coming to court and explaining procedurally what may happen, and see if there’s anything urgent that needs to happen for her. Other days after court we might be calling her and just see how things are, how she is today after court, whether she was able to speak to any of the referrals that was made. So it’s a lot of client contact.
What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work?
Our service probably sees maybe close enough to 30 women a week. I always feel that the women we’ve had contact with, that we’ve somehow advanced their journey or whatever you might like to call it, as in, ‘hopefully we’ve advocated well for her and she’s done well coming out to court’ or ‘she’s understood more about what was happening.’
It’s not an easy area to work in and sometimes people just don’t like it, and some people think they’d like to work in the area and then find they don’t like it. For me there’s always those rewards because you do know that there’s always somebody who, probably never wants to see you again because they haven’t seen you in the happiest of circumstances but you always feel like, ‘that’s gone really well, or ‘we’ve got what we needed.’ It’s not very often when you feel like that’s been a terrible outcome. Generally I would have to say, you can feel pleased with the outcomes.
What’s the most challenging thing about your work?
I think one of the most challenging aspects is when you might meet a woman who has certain needs and we’re not able to actually get everything we need in place for her.
So say there’s a woman that needs today, to move into a refuge. And we can’t get her into a refuge. That’s really frustrating and one of our biggest challenges is not being able to get all those things happening on the ground for her.
What advice would you give to aspiring students who want to work in this area?
I think getting a taste volunteering in a community legal centre if they’re interested in similar roles.
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