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How this water utility joined the fight against family violence

With COVID-19 restrictions forcing people to remain at home, many countries have reported a corresponding increase in the number of family violence victims seeking assistance, including in Australia. How can water utilities respond to this issue and help keep their customers and staff safe?

In 2016, the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence commissioners released their findings and made a number of recommendations specific to essential services, including water and energy businesses.  

In response, the Essential Services Commission in Victoria, amended its customer service codes to require water businesses to provide assistance to customers and staff experiencing family violence. 

Melbourne utility Yarra Valley Water (YVW) worked with the regulator to create its own guidelines and programs to support customers and staff, which YVW Community Inclusion Project Manager Sameera Abdeen will discuss in a presentation on Day 1 of Ozwater’20 Online tomorrow.

When it comes to a customer’s water account, Abdeen said family violence could manifest in a number of ways, including an ex-partner attempting to gain information about someone’s whereabouts through a utility. She has also seen financial abuse – for example, an abuser placing a water account under a victim’s name and refusing to pay the bill, causing stress and long-term financial issues.

“As an essential service, we play a role in the lives of every single one of our customers, including holding personal information about our customers, which is paramount to their safety,” Abdeen wrote in her Ozwater’20 paper.

“With the joint nature of many accounts, it is also possible for debt to be weaponised against victim survivors. We therefore have a responsibility not only to do no further harm, but to have a positive impact on the lives of our customers where we can, especially those experiencing such vulnerability.”

A key aspect of this has been working with the utility’s IT team to minimise access to customer information across the organisation by adding a ‘safety flag’ to an account.

“It locks all customer details on an account to everyone in the business aside from our WaterCare support team, who case manage all customers experiencing family violence,” Abdeen said.

“A reduction in access to the details on the account minimises the risk of disclosing information that could pose a risk to the victim survivor’s safety. The fewer employees that have access to the details on the account, the less likely it is to inadvertently occur.”

This case management is a core principle of YVW’s four-step approach to family violence, which also includes engagement with community organisations, engagement with the voices of lived experience, and organisational engagement. 

Guiding principles

The utility has also developed three sets of guidelines to determine how it manages family violence. Developed in consultation with appropriate stakeholders, these set out: how interactions with customers should play out and what support is available; what YVW can do to support staff experiencing family violence; and how managers can support staff dealing with family violence. 

“The documents are designed to be practical and useful and are promoted throughout the organisation, as well as shared with other utilities that are working towards implementing their own family violence programs,” Abdeen said.

Training has also been key to the utility’s family violence program. This includes sessions aimed at managers, customer-facing staff and a general awareness session for all employees.

“When training the whole of business, we worked with [community organisation] Uniting Kildonan to develop and facilitate these sessions over a number of months,” Abdeen said. 

“We worked with this community partner as they are informed by the work of their frontline practitioners, and by working with them we are investing back into the work that they do in supporting our customers.”

Positive steps

As a result of these initiatives, Abdeen said the understanding of family violence had increased across the organisation. Not only were more safety flags applied to customer’s accounts, but more YVW staff accessed the utility’s Employee Assistance Program and family violence leave. 

“These two measurements indicate that this work is successful for both our customers and our staff,” she said.

“We are also regularly asked to work with other service providers to discuss our journey in this space and work with them on implementation, and feature in our regulator’s guiding documents as examples of better practice.”

Every new YVW staff member receives family violence assistance training, and Abdeen said the organisation would conduct refresher training every two years across the business. 

“All organisations are a microcosm of their community. The statistics of those impacted by family violence apply in businesses too, and before starting the conversation, an organisation must be prepared to support its staff who disclose that they are impacted by family violence,” she said.

“With the support of senior leadership, the cultural shift is being achieved through ongoing internal programs to engage all staff, providing a safer space for those impacted by family violence to seek support. 

“As we have embedded and are now maintaining our response to family violence for both customers and staff, we are now exploring our role in the prevention space.” 

To find out more, tune in to Sameera Abdeen's presentation on Day 1 of Ozwater'20 Online (Tuesday, 2 June). View the full program here.