With families having to stay at home to help ‘flatten the curve’ of COVID-19 infection, it has led to a spike in reports of domestic violence. We asked some experts for strategies and advice for families at risk.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has swept the world, the measures needed to stop its spread have in turn sparked an increase in another threat to people’s safety – domestic violence.
With isolation restrictions in place, women and children already enduring domestic violence are now often confined to their homes with their abusers. The national helpline 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) is already reporting a significant increase in the number of calls for help.
Even before the pandemic, the statistics were grim. One in four women in Australia has experienced physical or sexual violence from a current or former intimate partner since the age of 15, according to Our Watch, a national organisation focusing on the prevention of violence against women and their children. The organisation also reports that almost 10 women a day are hospitalised for assault injuries caused by a spouse or domestic partner and tragically, on average one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.
Talie Star understands the trauma and fear being experienced by women in these situations. Having survived a childhood marked by abuse – emotional, physical and sexual – she was convinced that her marriage to a man who was generally regarded as thoughtful and kind would finally be her shot at happiness. It was not.
“It wasn’t until the day I got married that I saw the shift in him,” recalls Ms Star. “There was a sense of ownership that came over him and it got progressively worse over time.”
The abuse was emotional and psychological. He explained the physical abuse as “accidents”. “It seemed he was always ready to explode,” she says. “I was always apprehensive about when that might happen.”
Ms Star finally made the decision to leave. “I could not live like that anymore,” she says. “I had to be worth more.”
She is now a voice for Domestic Violence NSW (DVNSW).
“I would like to say to women out there that though they may feel powerless in these situations, they have a lot of power,” says Ms Star. “They know the signs to watch for. They need to tap into their resilience. Women in these situations are very resourceful.”
The Australian Government has committed $150m to support Australians experiencing domestic, family and sexual violence due to the fallout from COVID-19. It is also planning to roll out a new public campaign to support those experiencing domestic violence and ensure they know where to seek help.
One of the measures being considered is the use of safe words in pharmacies and doctors’ surgeries that can raise an alarm. This has proved effective in France, where the government has set up centres in grocery stores – one of the few places victims are allowed to visit – with secret passwords so they can seek help.
Melonie Sheehan, program manager for the national helpline 1800 RESPECT, reports a significant increase in the number of calls for help. Ms Sheehan says each caller receives a tailored safety plan that includes safe words to raise the alarm.
“The caller’s safety is our number one priority,” she says. “We arrange for a special word for the caller to use if they need police to attend their home.”
If the perpetrator of violence is in the room at the time of a call to 1800 RESPECT, it is sometimes advisable to pretend you are talking to someone else. “We are always proactive in assessing risk,” says Ms Sheehan.
Renata Field, a spokeswoman for Domestic Violence NSW, says frontline workers are very concerned about women at risk. Additional temporary accommodation has been made available to women and their families fleeing violent situations in NSW.
“Refuge accommodation has to change because having up to five families sharing one accommodation is not safe during COVID-19,” says Ms Field. “Refuges and services are changing to provide these supports in a safe manner.”
Research has shown that during times of natural disasters, the increase in family violence can range from 30-98%. The latter occurred during Hurricane Katrina in the US in 2005.
Ada Conroy, a senior member of the Northern Integrated Family Violence Services in Melbourne, says that while there has been a greater demand on domestic violence services in her region, the capacity to help has been temporarily hampered by the fact that many of the frontline workers are operating from home. This limits access to their colleagues and other agencies they often collaborate with on cases.
“We are, however, working at all levels of the service system across the nation to ensure the impact on victims and their families is minimal,” says Ms Conroy.
The Domestic Violence Resource Centre Victoria has an online resource page to help those struggling with domestic violence during COVID-19. Here are some of their tips.