Has Sutherland Shire Family Services seen a notable change in client caseload since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak?

The number of our referrals across Sutherland Shire Family Services’ various support programs have been fairly consistent with pre Covid-19 numbers, however within the Family Worker Program we have seen an increase in the complexity of cases eg clients have reported concerns around children not being returned in accordance with family law orders where the virus has been used as an excuse to keep children safe. We have additionally had some women express (during our intake interview process) that they could not contact our services earlier due to the lockdown restrictions. Over the last few weeks we have seen a slight increase in our referral numbers, and delayed reports being made for incidents occurring in previous months.

Additionally, within our Southern Sydney Womens Domestic Violence Court Advocacy Service we have again seen fairly consistent number of referrals (in line with our average monthly trends and expected seasonality). Within the WDVCAS program we have identified a significant number of cases where women have had to delay reporting incidents of domestic violence until lockdown measures have released. Similar to the SSFS Family Worker program, the WDVCAS program has noticed an increase in complexity of cases within our referrals with an increased number of women being referred where they are considered to have a more serious level of threat to their (and their children’s) safety and wellbeing. In response to these higher of levels of threat, the WDVCAS team coordinates for an interagency review of what supports and interventions could provide increased safety for women and families.

Overall whist we haven’t seen referral numbers dramatically increase, the ones we are receiving are quite serious and complex. We are hearing that people haven’t been able to contact us due to being at home, and therefore we are anticipating an increase in numbers over the coming months,  once restrictions have loosened a little further. 

A number of helplines and support services have reported an increase in the use of their online services and phone lines during this crisis compared to previous years as victims are finding difficulty safely accessing assistance inside and outside of the home. Has Sutherland Shire Family Services had to alter usual services in order to help victims who may be living with, and always be around, an abusive partner?

During the Covid-19 restrictions we were also seeing greater requests for support from existing clients (whom we had a relationship with prior to Covid-19), be it requests for increased contact with workers, or general support requests. In some cases, the frequency of support being requested from our currently supported clients has doubled. SSFS remained open for clients to access our workers throughout the Covid-19 restrictions however, we successfully were able to provide support remotely when the restrictions were at their peak including; providing increased telephone support, digitally aided face to face support, and all our supportive playgroups, parenting groups, homework groups and domestic violence support groups continued using creative digital platforms with increased safety measures to deliver programs. We also spent time liaising and advocateing for clients with increased technology use. As the restrictions eased, high priority clients were first to be approached to return to face to face support, where it was safe to do so. 

What were the major concerns for victim safety during the crisis and will victims face an ongoing struggle in terms of leaving abusive environments now that the restrictions are beginning to ease?

 Some of the increased risk factors we saw were:

  • Increased risk of serious harm being in the same household/ confined spaces for greater lengths of time
  • Reduced income due to job loss impacting on plans to leave the relationship
  • Not being able to visit family and friends or usual support services for help
  • Ongoing need for partner communication in the absence of resolved family law matters (which had been suspended due to Covid-19)
  • ADVOs matters being heard after a longer delay
  • Added fear of coronavirus when considering seeking support or in considering leaving abusive environments.

Some of our clients also noted the following observations during this time:

  • All family members using few devices ie home schooling etc, not able to safely store contact details for services etc
  • Children are not being returned from contact with abusing parent claiming fear that they will catch corona virus.
  • Forcing the mother to go to gatherings against her will in lockdown ie health risk

COVID 19 has been used a tool to use power and control over women and children during this time and we are being to hear more and more of the strategies that have been used against the families we support.

In terms of ongoing struggles now Covid-19 restrictions are easing, many of the issues continue to be at play with increase working from home arrangements for many professions, and continued general anxiety around health and wellbeing being prevalent. While pathways to report are starting to open back up, people are feeling destabilised from the situation, affecting their confidence in leaving the situation.

Acting Superintendent Steve Patton of the Sutherland Shire Police Command told The Leader that the large spike in domestic violence related assaults in Sutherland can be put down to proactive police work and swift action being taken against offenders. Does your organisation agree with these sentiments or could the spike actually indicate an increase in violent assaults?

The Sutherland Shire has a proactive network of government and non-government that work closely together in responding to families experiencing domestic violence. As the NSW Recorded Crime Statistics - December 2019 BOSCA report states “Acting Executive Director of BOCSAR, Jackie Fitzgerald, said it was unclear whether the significant increase in recorded DV assault incidents is due to an increase in reporting or an increase in offending”. Because of the covert nature of domestic violence, the general lack of reporting and significant shame victims feel in coming forward and asking for support, it is very difficult to assess. We work very closely with our local police, who direct many referrals to our service, and who work hard to support victims in our community. We also know anecdotally that Covid-19 has put unprecedented pressures on families, particularly those where domestic violence is also present, and the ramifications of these circumstances won’t be fully known for months to come.