The road to what is now the West Street Centre started in 1986 when two local Illawarra activist social workers pursued funds from Department of Communities and Justice (previously referred to as DOCS or FACS) to fund an education service. It was a community awareness and education program about what was then talked about as incest, and with it Wollongong Women Against Incest (WWAI) was born. The service was initially located in the Wollongong Women’s Centre but, in 1996, a fundraising event was organised and $11,000 was raised. This enabled the service to purchase a property and move into its new premises at West Street later that year.
The government of the time was responding to a significant wave of social change brought about by the women’s movement. Suddenly sexual assault, child sexual assault, and incest (what we now talk about as intra-familial child sexual abuse) were being discussed by women and society in a way that had not happened previously. Women were demanding change in relation to gender-based violence and there was significant activism in the 1970s and 1980s to bring about this change. One of the things that came out of this movement were new free government-funded services for women and children to address the effects of childhood sexual abuse (CSA).
The women who provided the community education and awareness raising found that there was nowhere for women and children to go to deal with the effects of childhood sexual abuse, so WWAI evolved into a community counselling service in the early 1990s called Women’s Incest Survivor House (WISH).
The benefits of purchasing a property in 1996 for the West Street Centre were enormous as it created security and stability for the service. With the move the service was renamed The Wollongong West Street Centre.
The influence of narrative approaches to therapy was apparent in this era, which consolidated the feminist roots of the organisation with an analysis of interpersonal and institutional power and the development of community as an important response to the secrecy and shame dynamic of CSA. In 2005, the West Street Centre held its inaugural community day and over three years the community days identified a new model of care for the centre based upon a peer support framework. At the request of service users, the West Street Centre Community was formed as service users saw the benefits of a peer-led community catch-up group for women experiencing the isolating effects of childhood sexual abuse.
In 2006, celebrating its twentieth anniversary, the service received a grant and built a group room on the property. The garden was later planted around the group room for therapeutic purposes, which has been of great benefit to the West Street Centre community.
As WSC approached its thirtieth anniversary celebrations there was a funding crisis. DCJ was reviewing funding formulas for CASAC (child and adolescent sexual assault counsellors), the peak body for non-government sexual assault counsellors state-wide. There was a possibility that WSC could lose its primary funding source for services targeting women survivors of CSA. An intense period of lobbying government with media campaigns and petitions ensued and eventually a compromise was reached, with WSC receiving Early Intervention Placement Prevention (EIPP) funds to expand programs to children, young people, and their families. The main implication of this funding change meant that the service could no longer offer individual counselling services to women without dependent children. However, WSC maintained its commitment to adult survivors of child sexual abuse by continuing to resource the drop-in groups with volunteer facilitators.
In 2016, the service celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with an art exhibition and began a period of consolidation and expansion with the new family-based early intervention direction.