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Women's Legal Service NSW senior solicitor Carolyn Jones shares her passion for grassroots advocacy.

Nine women are sitting in a circle on the third floor of a white terrace house in Victoria St, Potts Point. The walls are covered with paintings and posters containing inspiring quotations about life choices and developing the power to change. Solicitor Carolyn Jones is listening intently as the women share stories of neglect, abuse, drug use and poor parenting.

Each woman has had one or more children removed and various run-ins with the law and the courts, either over their own abuse as a child or young adult, or related to risk factors for their children. If these women were to grade the court system and Family and Community Services, they would give both systems a giant “F” for “fail”.

The meeting is taking place at Lou’s Place, a daytime refuge for women in crisis just around the corner from the Coke sign in Kings Cross. She is dishing out advice in the legal assistance session of a seven-week program called Always Mum. Mostly, though, Jones listens without showing any shock or judgment as alarming stories of being burned with cigarettes, bashings by former and current partners, rape, neglect and drug use are revealed.

Lou’s Place General Manager Nicole Yade set up the Always Mum program to re-establish or improve family relationships for women who had children in out-of-home care. She thought it might be a one-off, but the demand is so high that Always Mum will be a regular offering at the refuge.

“I don’t really have a typical day, which is partly why I love the job,” says Jones, 47. “A couple of times a week I work on the Women’s Legal Service advice lines and then do the urgent responses to what people contact us about. Other times I am in prisons meeting clients, then there is the law reform work, writing letters to politicians and submissions.

“I live in [Sydney’s] inner west with my partner who works in juvenile justice. I do a lot of walking to deal with the stories I come across. The content can be really sad, but I see a lot of hope in the work, too.

“I work with some amazing colleagues and some amazing clients, and their bravery and their resilience is really motivating.”

“I grew up in Gunnedah, the oldest of two sisters. I was always into social justice, mostly due to my parents who were completely committed to voluntary work. My dad grew up in a boys’ home in Sydney. His mother died and his father wasn’t around. It was very sad because his three sisters were kept together and dad was alone. That kind of experience stays with you. For dad, it made him very committed to helping others in need. He also taught us from a very young age about the things to be grateful for.

It rubbed off on us all and, after school at Gunnedah High, I moved to Sydney to study social work at UNSW. I ended up working around Inverell in country NSW, working with young people who were in out-of-home care. I was providing counselling and therapeutic services to help them reconnect with family.

When I was 30, I went back to study law at UNSW. Social work is all about advocacy but I wanted more tools. I saw some terrible lawyers working with the kids who were crossover kids – they were in care and in crime and the lawyers didn’t really care, so I thought, ‘I want more skills to be able to talk to lawyers on their level’. Social work and law have so much overlap.

After my law degree, I worked as an associate at the Family Court, then a judge encouraged me to go into family law. But I always knew I wanted to work at Women’s Legal. They had trained me about counsellors and subpoenas and I have been there for just over 10 years now, as a lawyer.

We need a Women’s Legal Service because, statistically, when we look at the levels of violence and gender disparity across so many areas there’s no way we are in a place where we can say we don’t need specialist services for women. Maybe one day, but not now.

At Women’s Legal Service, the women we see are very clear that they want choice and need a service that is going to be gendered and domestic violence-informed and trauma-informed.

Most women end up in the criminal justice system because of their experiences of violence both as children and adults. That’s not very well recognised. There are people in government and non-government who get that, but it’s not popular.

We offer a safe place for women to be honest. You have to build trust where they are going to hear what you are saying and where they feel able to tell you the truth.

Next year will be 10 years since three community legal centres, including the Women’s Legal Service NSW, started the Legal Education and Advice in Prison Project (LEAP). LEAP offers free civil and family law services to women in correctional centres, including Silverwater, Dillwynia, Emu Plains and Mary Wade.

The work involves supporting women through their experience of violence, including helping them get victim support and helping them deal with apprehended violence orders that are in place. The other aspect of LEAP is contact with children. A lot of the women we see don’t know where their children are or what arrangements are in place for them. We are guided by four Aboriginal women who work in our service and offer advice on the culturally appropriate way to work with clients. Almost 40 per cent of women in custody are Aboriginal.

At Women’s Legal Service NSW, most of our clients have been raped and physically assaulted, often since childhood. I can count on one hand the number of women in custody who haven’t been sexually abused as a child. Cognitive impairment is also a big issue that I don’t think is well understood in the criminal justice system.

Many of the women we see have had their children early and have had lots of children – and lots of children removed. They have multiple physical and psychological conditions which are often undiagnosed and untreated. Often they have been or are homeless. But they are also brave and they are funny and protective.

The work is so satisfying when you see good things happen to them, often against the odds. We see a lot of violence, mostly that women don’t tell anyone about, often because they are dealing with male police, male lawyers, male psychs, and male judges.

At Women’s Legal Service, the women we see are very clear that they want choice and need a service that is going to be gendered and domestic violence-informed and trauma-informed.

Senior Solicitor, Women’s Legal Service NSW

Often we are the first people they tell that they have been raped. It is a relevant fact and it doesn’t come out. I think this is a significant problem; we have a system that doesn’t allow women to talk about their sexual violence histories.

We know women who are charged with in-custody assaults against officers. Often this is in response to something that has been a trigger for them about a situation where they have been detained in a certain way or touched in a certain way.

Strip-searching can mirror a woman’s violent experiences and can be a trigger. Probably the most important thing we need is a detailed analysis of why women offend; what is their pathway to prison. Hopefully this would lead to the abolition of short sentences and a focus on healing and safety.”

Photography: Jason McCormack