Domestic violence concerns grow as coronavirus restrictions are eased

By Caitlin Sloan, UOW Journalism Student

The introduction of the COVID-19 social restrictions in March ignited feasible concerns that a spike in domestic and family violence would follow lockdown rules that enforced stay-at-home orders for all non-essential activities.

With restrictions beginning to lift, new data shows that whilst domestic violence figures remained relatively stable amid the implementation of isolation measures (according to the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research), a rise in cases may be yet to come.

Statistics published last week by Women’s Safety NSW have revealed that in a survey of 43 frontline workers, 41.9 per cent reported an increase in client numbers as COVID-19 restrictions began to ease.

Of those surveyed, 47.9 per cent reported an increase in high-risk cases since the easing of social restrictions and 39 per cent said women are continuing to find difficulty safely accessing services during this period.

Women’s Safety NSW Chief Executive Officer Hayley Foster said the results of the report validate the prediction that domestic violence cases will surge as more women seek assistance amidst the relaxing of social restrictions and many Australians return to their work environments and re-engage in social activities.

“These are some pretty sobering results,” Ms Foster said in a Women’s Safety NSW media release on June 18.

“Not only are we seeing more higher-risk cases, but we’re being made aware that many victims of violence and abuse don’t know where to go for help.”

With the national unemployment rate peaking at 7.1 per cent in mid-May according to data by Australian Bureau of Statistics and many others bound to working from home, women in volatile situations have found themselves unable to escape the constant surveillance of abusive partners.

The Women’s Safety NSW report indicated that the survey participants who did not observe an increase in client numbers hold the concern that many women may have been unable to make contact with support services and may remain in isolation with an abuser.

“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,” CEO of Sutherland Shire Family Services Ashleigh Daines said.

“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.”

In 2016, the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ Personal Safety Survey found that unemployment, financial stress, self-reported poor or fair health status, and a low level of life satisfaction were among key sociodemographic variables that were associated with women’s experience of partner violence.

Of all females who were subject to a physical assault by a male partner or male stranger, 62 per cent sought advice after the most recent incident, with the most common source of support being a friend or family member.

Ashleigh Daines says some clients have reported that abusers have used the coronavirus pandemic to find new ways to manipulate and control their partner’s behaviour.

“COVID-19 has been used as a tool to use power and control over women and children during this time and we are beginning to hear more and more of the strategies that have been used against the families we support,” Ms Daines said.

“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 e.g. 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.”

In 2019, the Sutherland Shire recorded one of the most prominent spikes of domestic violence related assaults in New South Wales with the Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOSCAR) revealing a near 49 per cent jump between January 2017 and December 2019.

New South Wales Attorney General and Minister for the Prevention of Domestic Violence Mark Speakman told reporters in March that it was unclear whether the increase in assaults reported to police was as a result of a rise in occurrences or proactive police work.

“These stats could represent increased incidents, they could represent increased reporting [and] increased policing,” Mr Speakman said.

“One statistic that might give an indication is domestic violence occasioning grievous bodily harm; that’s much harder to disguise than the other forms of domestic violence… and the rate of domestic violence occasioning grievous bodily harm has been stable over two years and falling over five years.”

CEO of Sutherland Shire Family Services Ashleigh Daines says the reasons behind the spike are difficult to understand given the complexity of domestic violence and the stigma that surrounds asking for help.

“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,” Ms Daines said.

“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.”

Among the major concerns identified by respondents in the Women’s Safety NSW survey was the rise in inconsistent police reports (59.5 per cent) and access to ongoing crisis accommodation for women and children (54.8 per cent).

An additional $21.6m was committed to domestic violence services in May by the New South Wales and federal governments with frontline services and women’s refuges to receive most of the sum.

Men’s behavioural programs, duress alarms for victims of domestic and family violence who have returned home from crisis housing and awareness campaigns are also set to benefit from the funding boost.