With a rise in family violence due to the coronavirus crisis set to strain an already overstretched social support system, some abusers are reportedly using COVID-19 as a psychological weapon.
Google is reporting the highest magnitude of searches for domestic violence help that they have seen in the past five years, with an increase of 75 per cent. Some services are already seeing an increase in demand as vulnerable women and children in self-isolation are facing the prospect of being forced to stay inside with an abusive partner.
With social isolation restrictions in place across Australia, federal and state governments have announced funding packages to support people experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence due to the fallout from the pandemic.
Federal Government funding of $150 million will include counselling support for families affected by, or at risk of experiencing, domestic and family violence, including the 1800RESPECT national call service, Mensline Australia and the Trafficked People Program. A public communication campaign will support those experiencing domestic violence and ensure those affected know where they can seek help.
The Victorian Government will invest $20 million in short-term accommodation for family violence victim survivors who do not feel safe isolating or recovering from coronavirus at home. An extra $20.2 million will help family violence services meet the expected increase in demand and provide critical help for victim-survivors. This includes nearly $10.4 million to help more women and children get access to safe accommodation and related support and $5.1 million for more flexible support packages across the state.
Acting CEO of Domestic Violence Victoria, Alison Macdonald, said keeping adults and children safe from the harm of family violence during the COVID-19 pandemic required the coordinated effort of many different agencies. “With the coming months of increased isolation and economic hardship, and as our health and human service systems respond to the unfolding public health crisis, we anticipate there will be significant increased risk for victim survivors of family violence and unique challenges to the specialist family violence services providing crisis support during this time,” she said.
The Good Samaritan Inn in Melbourne is a crisis accommodation service for women and children who have experienced family violence. The Inn’s Executive Director, Felicity Rorke, welcomed the funding packages.
Established in 1996, the Inn provides supported accommodation for more than 300 women and children escaping family violence and homelessness each year. The service receives funding from the Victorian Government and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Guests are provided with a supportive, safe and clean place to stay, where they can attend to their immediate needs, prior to moving on to longer-term or transitional accommodation including refuges, which offer up to 12 weeks supported accommodation, or to return home with safety measures in place.
Felicity said the service was always in high demand with women and families staying an average of 14 days before being able to move to safe and appropriate medium to longer term accommodation. “During the current crisis many women’s refuges which offer communal living, are reducing their capacity to ensure that they are able to enforce the physical distancing expectations,” she said.
‘Crisis refuges’ such as the Good Samaritan Inn, provide the often-needed step between the first contact a person has with the service system. This is often a phone call to the telephone crisis service or a visit by the police and a follow-up phone call by a local Family Violence Outreach Service, or The Orange Door in some Victorian areas.
The other immediate alternative is likely to be a motel room where isolation, cramped and sometimes unclean and unsafe conditions with minimal or no face-to-face support is how many women describe this experience. In the new COVID-19 environment the only face-to-face support a woman is likely to get is in a refuge.
Felicity said there were a number of reasons why women seek a safe place to stay but in the main it is because they are in fear of being hurt or killed by their current or former partner. “Family and domestic violence includes a range of behaviours perpetrated by one family member to another,” she said. “It is most likely a male family member against a partner or former partner or his children. It can also involve other family members such as adult or adolescent children perpetrating violence against their parent or parents, siblings against each other, carers against those they are caring for and people in share households. This violence occurs across all socio-economic, cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds.”
The behaviours include fear and intimidation by an abusive partner, physical violence and threats of physical violence, controlling how much contact someone has with family and friends, controlling access to mobile phone and other digital communication methods and controlling access to finances.
“Although we know that unemployment, financial hardship, excessive use of alcohol or drugs, increased anxiety and stress, and lack of access to family and friends are not causes of family and domestic violence, they are all likely factors that could exacerbate an already tense environment where controlling and abusive behaviours are present,” Felicity said.
“The 24/7 crisis telephone service in Victoria, safe steps, reports that there has been a reduction in the number of women contacting them requesting support for high-risk situations. They are very concerned that this is due to women having less access to privacy and to a safe phone or internet connection because their partner is home due to the coronavirus. The perpetrator may have lost their job, or their hours are reduced and or they are now working from home.
“During school holidays women are less likely to seek contact due to children being at home and having less time and opportunity to visit or talk to a domestic violence or family support practitioner. With the extension to school closures, these opportunities for women to contact services are again reduced.
“With only very minimal face-to-face support available and significantly reduced contact with family and friends, healthcare and medical services it is likely that women are feeling more isolated and are more at risk than ever before.”
Actions that will help to address family or domestic violence include:
- Restoring government funding where it has been cut or reduced, such as the Safe Phone service.
- Increasing dedicated crisis accommodation as women will often prefer to remain at home instead of uprooting the family into an inadequate motel.
- Specialised police services to deal with an increase in family violence.
- An ongoing national awareness campaign, in particular focusing on family and friends to be aware of and check in on anyone they think may be at risk from a partner.
If you or someone you know is impacted by family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au
Women from migrant and refugee communities can contact inTouch, the Multicultural Centre Against Family Violence, call 1800 755 988 or visit intouch.org.au
If you would like to support the ministries of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan you are welcome to make a donation via the Good Samaritan Foundation. Donations over $2 are tax deductible in Australia.