Words by Prudence Clark
Photos by Simone Gorman-Clark
Each edition we get to know a woman who is working tirelessly at the coal face of women’s issues, often at great personal expense. This month’s On the Frontline champion is Simone Patterson, owner of the Sanctuary Refuge.
We all know the statistics. We’ve all read the heart-shuddering news articles. We all know that women continue to die at the hands of their partners. We all know the children also suffer abuse by the people they call their fathers. We all feel helpless. We all know how offenders keep repeating their heinous actions and avoid jail, yet still, despite all of this, very little has changed and horrific stories of violence, abuse and murder continue to dominate Australian media. In 2020, 55 women were violently killed in Australia and this year, we are yet again on track for one woman a week to die as a result of domestic violence.
Simone Patterson is a woman who has had enough. After reading yet another news story about three women killed by their partners, all within a short spate of each other on the Gold Coast six years ago, Simone decided to establish Sanctuary Refuge, in attempt to incite change and offer support to women, children and animals suffering domestic violence.
“It was while I was marching with a bunch of angry and scared women at a rally for Alison Baden Clay, when I realised I had to do something, because it felt like nothing was being done about all this violence towards women,” Simone said.
“I went home to my husband at the time and said, we have to go into debt and get a loan as I want to open a place women can seek shelter, a place they can bring their whole family, including their pets, and know they were safe,” she said.
And from there, Sanctuary Refuge was born. Despite receiving no government funding to date and relying solely on donations and philanthropic funding, the refuge continues to offer safety, comfort, nutrition and counselling for women and children to help repair the trauma associated with domestic violence. Unlike most other refuges, Sanctuary also accepts pets and boys over the age of 12.
Simone’s determination for change stems back to her childhood, which, as she puts it, was also violent and dysfunctional.
“My father was a police officer, but was also a violent alcoholic, and once put an axe through the front door. My brother was a drug addict and about 20 years ago, attacked me with a speargun. He’s now in jail for beating his child - I haven’t spoken to him for 22 years.
“I was however, fortunate enough to have incredibly caring grandparents, who took me under their wing, but my experiences as a child have definitely shaped my passion for this cause today,” Simone said.
Running a refuge is a full-time job that requires incredible mental and physical strength, as well as a tough exterior, in order to cope with the incredibly stressful and at times, dangerous, situations at Sanctuary. Yet, despite the harrowing and heart-wrenching stories Simone hears on a daily basis, she continues to be a pillar to these desperate and vulnerable women.
“I have worked in the field for 33 years and thought I’d seen and heard it all, but since opening Sanctuary, I feel like I’ve witnessed an entirely new level of hurt, betrayal and sheer brutality. More often than not, we’re dealing with cases where the domestic violence is so bad, the women are running for their lives and have to go into hiding forever. These are situations where they can never return to their extended families. Ever.
“These women are literally running for their lives, there is nowhere else for them to go by the time they ring me. Recently, I had a woman arrive at Sanctuary and hand me a garden hose, saying I had just saved her and her dog from gassing themselves, as she felt she had absolutely nowhere to go.
“Another woman was going to hang herself as she believed she was a bad mother because, due to family violence, she had ended up homeless with her two children and had been too scared to go to her own family as she didn’t want to endanger them,” Simone said.
“Despite the pressure and the sadness I deal with, it’s these cases that keep me going, because I think if they can give up absolutely everything and remain so strong and positive, then I too can do the same. It’s the women that give me power to keep putting one foot in front of the other, on even the most challenging days at Sanctuary.
“I have nothing but love and compassion for the strong women who manage to leave their partners- remember when they do this, it is the most dangerous time for them and the risk of murder almost doubles. As we all saw with the Hannah Clark murder suicide, children are often used as pawns, but also, animals are commonly tortured or beaten as well, which is why our doors are open to pets as well,” she said.
Earlier this year, Simone was awarded an OAM, which has only made her more impassioned to fight for change regarding the current laws around domestic violence and raise awareness of the effects domestic violence wreaks on young children.
“I am trying to advocate for the laws to be changed, because we have a justice system that is so weak. More often than not, it either gives the perpetrators early release from jail, or lets them off because they’ve had a, “hard, sad childhood”. That shouldn’t be an excuse. No one stops for a minute to think about the effects all this domestic violence has on young children as well.
“If I could, I would get every judge in Australia to come and see the sadness and misery in the children’s eyes at the refuge, it is disgusting what those kids have to go through at the hands of men that supposedly love them,” she said.
When Simone isn’t saving lives or petitioning for change, she practices judo three times a week with ex-SAS Commandoes from Iraq and Afghanistan, reinforcing her physical ability to take on confrontations, if needed, at the refuge.
“With my background in judo and working in the prison services, I feel well-prepared for the danger that at times presents itself. I feel an incredible responsibility for the women under my care, so yeah, I’ll do anything to protect them,” Simone said.
“Having the entire project of the refuge on my shoulders is at times, indescribably stressful, yet here at Sanctuary, we have created a kind of family network with the truly amazing volunteers and of course, the women and children.
“I guess if I was to cite my biggest achievement, it would be the lives we save every day. Although we’ve rescued hundreds of women to date and spared them from harm, I believe the refuge would still be a success even if we’d just saved one life. That’s one less woman to add to the domestic violence statistics and to me, that makes all the difference,” she said.