Stay home. Protect our health services. Save lives.
This is the public health message used by many governments around the world during the COVID-19 crisis in an effort to stop the spread, flatten the curve, and to prevent a wave of critically ill patients overwhelming the health care system.
But compliance with government restrictions is, perhaps, easier said than done for many Australian women, men, and children experiencing family violence. For these members of the community, staying at home has come at the cost of personal safety.
In a matter of weeks following the implementation of government social distancing restrictions in March this year, Google reported a 75% increase in searches for family violence help. This is the highest number of searches in the past five years.
Similarly, Women’s Safety NSW reported an increase in clients, the complexity of client needs, escalation in violence, and violence specifically related to COVID-19. Western Australia Police reported an increase of 5% in family violence callouts since mid-March. These trends match an increase in reported incidents around the world – most significantly in China where family violence tripled during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Lower reported incidents concealing a bigger issue
Not all states and territories have experienced a spike in domestic violence reports since March this year. South Australia, for example, has not seen a significant increase, and Queensland has actually seen a decrease in both family violence order breaches, and applications for protection orders. Queensland Police Commissioner Katarina Carroll says, however, that she is concerned by this trend as lower reported figures may not necessarily be reflective of an overall decrease in domestic violence incidents. COVID-19 has meant that victims of domestic abuse are at home more and likely not to be in a position to take out a protection order or to report a potential breach.
Chrissy Leontios, Principal Lawyer at CLEON Legal based in Queensland, says her firm has not seen an increase in women reaching out, but that:
“This should not mean that COVID-19 is not causing higher rates of domestic violence or that legal assistance is not in higher demand.”
The United Nations has urged all governments to “make the prevention and redress of violence against women a key part of their national response plans for COVID-19.” The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, made a number of recommendations on how governments can do this, including by increasing investment in online services, making sure the courts continue to prosecute abusers, setting up emergency warning systems in pharmacies and grocery stores, and to declare shelters as essential services.
Extra funding for domestic violence services
“This funding is certainly welcome, but the government needs to acknowledge that resources were extremely over-stretched before COVID-19, and this funding will only scratch the surface in filling the gaps, says Ms Leontios”
The risk factors for those isolating with controlling partners go beyond just being made to stay home. The consequences of staying at home can exacerbate an already volatile situation says Ms Leontios:
“Recent research from the Foundation of Alcohol Research and Education shows 70 percent of Australians are drinking more alcohol than normal during COVID-19. While we know that alcohol consumption is not a direct cause or excuse for domestic violence, evidence suggests that alcohol consumption increases the occurrence and severity of domestic violence.”
Family violence is not limited to physical violence and includes financial abuse and deprivation of liberty. Since many Australians now face unemployment, Ms Leontios warns “there is an increased capacity for financial control if a person has lost their own income and has to rely on a perpetrator for an allowance to survive.”
Help is still accessible for victims of domestic abuse
Every state and territory permits leaving the house for an emergency, including instances of family violence. Family violence centres and legal services are now operating virtually, allowing victims of domestic abuse to continue to obtain help. Virtual representation through duty lawyers is also available.
“We want victims to know that COVID-19 does not stop them from getting Protection Orders … we want victims to be aware that help is still available, says Ms Leontios.”
Where to get help
If you suspect that someone you know is experiencing family violence, there are a number of ways you can help. The Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria sets out a number of things you can do to help someone at risk.
- Checking in regularly via phone, text or social media
- Agreeing on a safe word, sign or signal that the person experiencing family violence can use to alert you that they need help
- Calling the police
- Keeping copies of important documents for the person experiencing family violence, and/or storing an ‘escape’ bag for them.
Ms Leontios says that we all have a role to play:
“The most important message here is to take notice and take action. We need to challenge the old notion and debunk it that ‘what happens in the home is private’ – this is wrong. Domestic violence is everybody’s business.”
- If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. A live chat option is also available.
- Download ‘Daisy,’ an app that connects you with domestic violence services in your local area.
- Visit CLEON Legal, phone (07) 4725 3462 or 0409 741 025 or email firstname.lastname@example.org