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TWO community health nurses have joined the multi-agency team helping central Victorian victims of sexual assault on their journey towards healing and justice.

Bendigo Community Health Services nurses Julie Sleeman and Liz Morley are based at the Multidisciplinary Centre in Bridge Street, offering free and confidential support, advice and education to clients and non-offending family members who have experienced sexual assault.

The pair work alongside staff from the Loddon Campaspe Centre Against Sexual Assault, Victoria Police Sexual Offences and Child Abuse Investigation Team, and Department of Human Services Child Protection Investigation Unit.

Six Multidisciplinary Centres operate across Victoria and, as part of a recent initiative, all now have community health nurses practising within them.

BCHS employed Julie and Liz in February and they have been working closely with clients of the local centre’s partner agencies since. By the end of May they’d received 10 referrals – a much higher rate than the state-wide average for Victoria’s MDCs.

“Ours is an evolving role,” explains Julie. “We offer health assessments, provide health information and advice, and link clients into mainstream health services.

“It could be as simple as helping the client find a GP who can meet their needs, or identifying what their health needs actually are. But we have to start by creating rapport and trust – you can’t do anything until you have established that.”

Liz says sexual assault victims require sensitive and respectful care.

“People who have suffered sexual assault are known to have poorer health outcomes than the rest of the community,” she says. “These people have been let down, especially those whose abuse occurred a long time ago.

“So our wide-ranging role has been put in place to support them to improve their general health and wellbeing, in whatever capacity we can.”

The community health nurses help clients reach their health and wellbeing goals and can refer them on to other local health and community services for further support.

They can accompany clients to external appointments when asked, to help put them at ease, act as an advocate, or simply to offer support.

Julie and Liz also provide education to community organisations and health providers about the specific needs of sexual assault victims, given the trauma they have experienced.

“My experience is that it can be two steps forward, one step backward,” says Julie.

“It is about the clients leading the way, and they always have the choice to withdraw. If they do, they can re-engage with the nurses later if they wish. We are dealing with people who are not always predictable, because their trauma can make them think, feel and react differently.

“They can have very low self-esteem and sense of self-worth; we need to tread slowly and be patient.”

Both Julie and Liz bring vast experience to their new roles.

Bendigo-born Julie has been nursing for 40 years, including in the fields of drug and alcohol rehabilitation, schools, maternity and special baby care, and community care.

Most recently, she was a local community nurse with MS Australia for eight years.

Liz has 36 years’ experience. She most recently worked at Bendigo Health in acute health, telehealth in the Loddon Mallee region, nursing project management and education.

She has also worked at Castlemaine, Inglewood, Rochester and Dunolly hospitals.

The women are proud to be part of a broad-based approach to supporting sexual assault victims, and say being under the same roof as the other agencies makes their job easier.

“We are fortunate to have come into a culturally accepting workplace and been able to convey our purpose to the other staff here,” says Julie. “Being co-located at the MDC has helped them get to know us, so they trust us with their clients.”

Referrals for appointments to see a community health nurse at Bendigo’s MDC can be taken from the agencies within the centre, or MDC clients can self-refer.

The nurses are available Monday to Friday, 9am to 3.30pm, but are flexible to accommodate the needs of clients.

For more information, phone the Multidisciplinary Centre on 5444 6701.